When I was six, my best friend, for a time, was Nathan James (not to be confused with Nathan James Thomas). Our sole common interest was the Police Academy franchise. This unidimensional model of acquaintanceship was to reappear often in my life, over several workplaces, as I bonded with coworkers over nothing more than our shared interest in the Monte Carlo biscuits in the kitchen, or having the same ringtone. When I was six, Police Academy sustained my friendship with Nathan James for a surprising amount of time, until, I think, we both realised that girls and boys aren’t supposed to be best friends. He focused on the handball crowd after that, and me, the fairies and pressed flowers set.
When I was six, my grandfather died. My father’s father, the Greek Cypriot one, the only relative to bring a bit of ethnic colour to my family. I have one memory of him, and that’s of him sitting in his chair, a leather Lazy Boy, in his Penrith home, doling out one- and two-dollar notes to his grandchildren, the very picture of a New Australian patriarch. The morning after he died, when I was six, my mother came in to tell me and Toby in our bunk-beds. I felt very strongly that I was supposed to be sad and cry, and tried to muster up a tear. At school, I told my friend (a more appropriately female replacement for Nathan James) that my grandfather had died, and she was shocked I had been sent to school that day. This hadn’t struck me as a problem, but she seemed to know all about what was the done thing in these circumstances. This was the first of many times that I felt my family didn’t seem to do things properly.
When I was six, I had two teachers. The first, Mrs Bruce, left after only one term. Once, during a thunderstorm, she shouted at all the children to get away from the windows, saying her friend had been struck by lightning that way, and was now in a wheelchair. I reported this back to my mother, who seemed very sceptical. “I don’t think that can happen”, she said, a confusing contradiction of one voice of authority by another. I don’t think it can, either, but every time there was an afternoon storm in Hanoi, I’d take a step back from our metal window frames.
When I was six, my second teacher was the mother of a girl in my year, and who would remain in my year until we finished high school together. We were never close friends, although I remember a brief, particular interest in her after she returned from a year in the Cook Islands with her family, which was exotic. Her mother was a lovely teacher though, especially after Mrs Bruce, and I continue to hold a fondness for her. My own mother recently told me some awful news about her, and her daughter, which is why I don’t want to mention their names. My teacher, from when I was six, was babysitting her toddler granddaughter, the child of my classmate, at her home in the Mountains, when the little girl swallowed, or choked on, some kind of insect, and died. It is the most biblically grim thing to happen to a family. In my mother’s email on the subject she noted, “You see, there’s no such thing as a groundless fear, anything can happen”.
When I was six, my mother was more involved in my school life than she was for the rest of my entire educational history combined. I suppose this was because at that time she was adapting to not having to care fulltime for at least one child for the first time in sixteen years. She came into my classroom once a week for “remedial reading” with the kids who hadn’t been taught to read at home, and who lived in the housing commission on Cascade Street. Many, many years later, when she was working at her friend Adelaide’s antique shop in Wentworth Falls (Adelaide’s Antiques), a couple of these very same remedial reading boys, now remedial reading teenagers, came into the shop, greeted her as “Mrs Carvan”, then nicked her purse from the back room.
When I was six, my mother also accompanied the class on an excursion to Featherdale Wildlife Farm. The highlight of the excursion was meeting Fatso the wombat from A Country Practice, the apparent excitement of which I couldn’t share with my classmates since I was still yet to watch a single minute of commercial television, our TV being permanently tuned to the ABC. Yet again, our family didn’t seem to be doing things properly. But when I was six, I still patted that celebrity wombat just like everyone else, as it was held aloft by a handler in his pen, and was shocked by that bristly, prickly hair.