Summer Reading: Why I wrote Boy on a Wire

As part of our Summer Reading season we’ll be showcasing some great authors and books published by Fremantle Press. Kicking off the series is Jon Doust’s Boy on a Wire.

by JON DOUST

BOARDING school in the early 1960s left its mark.

The mark lingered because I kept telling certain stories over and over, mostly to myself, but often to others with similar experiences.

There were so many incidents, events, episodes, involving conflict, bullying, miscalculations, seared into my memory, that my nights were regularly sleepless for fear of recurring dreams reminding me of residual anger and hatred. Something had to be done.

Two things were. The first was returning as a comedian, addressing the entire school at an assembly and feeling residues wash away as boys in uniform laughed at my tales of hurt and horror.

The second was writing Boy on a Wire. But I had to wait for my mother to leave.

The only school tales I told her were funny, victimless, free of pain and suffering.

She never wanted her four boys to go away and she admitted, just before she died, that she cried for three weeks after we left her at the beginning of each term.

I could not tell her what I had been through, what I had seen others go through.

She battled depression all her life and three weeks before she died she turned to me and said: I was never much of a mother, was I?

She would never have forgiven herself for allowing her son to live in a place where he could not be nurtured, protected and where he had to fight to protect himself and others less resilient.

My father, I am quite sure, would have coped, even enjoyed, and it is a shame he passed before Boy on a Wire hit the shelves.

He loved a good a story and, late in life, told me some of his own that he had held close for nearly all his life.

Then came the time when I had to get the boarding school life out of my system forever, write down the tales, deal with them, reframe them, make something of them, offer relief to those who had been through much worse than me.

I survived relatively well because I had been a tough, witty little nut.

Yes, I had had to work though my first depression at age twelve and subsequent, occasional, brief collapses.

There were others, however, who had lived their entire boarding school lives stuck in pits of despair. Four things helped me‚ physical strength from years of woodchopping, a quick tongue, keeping a diary and a firm belief that Jesus existed and listened.

The first three stayed with me for years, long after school, but the last faded as injustice piled on injustice.

As I wrote the tales, I imagined I was building a collection of short stories.

Then something shifted in me, and on the page. I ran them all together, in a time-line, read them over and over, and filled in the gaps.

I still had little idea what they, or it, amounted to until Ray Coffey from Fremantle Press called and handed me to Georgia Richter, now publisher at the Press, then working as
an editor.

EXTRACT

I KNOW school life should be about learning.

Lardarse is one of those who lives the proper life, doing well in sport and class, but Lardarse is a boring fart and I live for something else: excitement, surfing, skateboard riding and the movies on Saturday nights.

Not every week, but most weeks, they are screened in the school hall, which is also the gymnasium.

None of the movies are new releases, but we don’t care because we never saw them before anyway, not in our towns. There’s no cinema in Genoralup, or TV, and if you want to be entertained you do it yourself, which might be why Rotarians kiss wives not their own and small boys light bushfires.

There’s a film on tonight, says Chef.

What is it?

Called Old Yeller, ‘bout a dog.

Arr, not like Lassie. That show’s a dud.

I’m not in the mood for dogs. We had one for a year or two but it brought fifteen chickens home from the neighbour’s chook pen so Dad took it up the back and shot its brains out.

I go along to the gym hall anyway because everyone else is going and you never know with movies, sometimes the one you expect to be the worst turns out to be the best.

Old Yeller is a dog that turns up on a farm and creates havoc. He eats things he shouldn’t and he chases things he shouldn’t.

He is a mad crazy lovable dog.

And the kid, the little kid, Arles, he reminds me of me when I was a little kid.

And the kid’s mum is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen and she is also strong, wise, and when she looks at a man she looks him in the eye and knows his weaknesses.

When Old Yeller gets mauled by a bear and a mob of pigs and nearly dies I can’t stop crying, and I swear I’ll kill the next pig or bear I see, the dirty, filthy, dog-mauling, communist bastards.

Then Old Yeller fights a wolf and that’s it, he gets rabies and dies and Arles’ brother, Travis, has to shoot the dog because his dad is away and he does it like a man but also like a boy because he can’t stop crying.

Then his dad comes home and he doesn’t run up to Arles and hug him or say hello, he just says, Ya mum told me about Old Yeller. Be a man. Forget it.

And right there I want to jump up and hit the dad and yell in his face: Life is a thing that goes on and it’s not outside of you, you dumb prick! But I can’t yell because I’m crying so hard and fighting like hell to stop in case someone sees me and someone does.

Look at Coco. He’s bawling his eyes out.

It’s Sack. I can’t believe he would say that. I wipe my tears. I hide my red face. My guts churn. When the movie ends I am the first outside, on the road that leads to the boarding house. It’s dark. I’m angry. When the others fill the road I look for Sack. I find him and grab him.

You want me to tell them about you, your crying, you want me to?

Let me go.

Sack, sad Sack, cry-baby Sack. You want me to? The poor baby from New Norcia. Hey, everyone, listen to this.

He breaks away and runs.

I watch Sack run. I’m still angry. Later, in the showers, when Hooper walks past me and flicks his towel, I punch him hard in the guts. He doubles over. He cries out: I didn’t touch you.

So what? You wanna have another go? Come on. Hoops doesn’t like the look in my eyes. He leaves me be. In the boarding house it doesn’t matter who hit you first, or if they miss-hit, you have to get them back. It’s kid against kid, dog against dog. We all have rabies. We all have pinks disease. We’re all foaming at the mouth. Tit for tat, the strong rule the weak, the weak cry.

Only those who can find the mean streak in them survive. I’m a survivor. Briggsy taught me that. If you’re weak, unspeakable things happen to you. The bastards won’t get me.

That night in bed, I ask myself: What the hell is the matter with you? Crying about a dog, in a movie, probably a crap movie? Crying for President Kennedy, that’s fine, because he was alive, a real person, a person who could have saved the world from a nuclear holocaust, or any other kind of holocaust, and crying for your brother who gets his head smashed in by a truck, that’s fine too, but a movie about an old dog who dies is not worth a cry.

And not even a real dog, well, a dog that is a real dog but doesn’t really die and only acts at dying because it’s in a movie and then it goes home to the farm, or off to make another movie and it probably has its own trailer to live in and people bring it food and water because it is a movie-star dog.

Sometimes there is no-one else inside my head and I have to talk to myself.

In the middle of the night I cry again, not for Old Yeller but about the crying. I think I’m going insane.

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