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Checkers (extract)

by John Marsden

It’s so quiet. I don’t know what the time is, maybe two o’clock, three o’clock. I think I’ve been asleep for a couple of hours; I’m not sure.

Sister Llosa’s on tonight, with Hanna. Sister Llosa’s a big suntanned yak, and Hanna’s a shining white lizard who slips in and out of the rooms quickly and quietly. Most nights when they’re on together they murmur away at the desk. It’s like a lullaby. I don’t hear the words but I hear their soft voices playing music with each other, Sister Llosa deep and dark, Hanna light and laughing.

Right now they’re not at the desk, though. They might be in 109 with the new admission. He was yelling for hours when he first came in, but he’s quiet now, too. Everything’s quiet suddenly: there’s no snoring, no hiss and grind from the lift, none of the bathroom promenades: the shuffle-shuffle-creak-piddle-flush-creak-shuffle-shuffle. That’s the sound I hate most. I’d rather have screaming than that.

I’m glad I’ve got my own room now. I’ve always had my own bedroom, for as long as I remember. School camps are the only times I ever slept with anyone else.

‘Shared the room’ with anyone else, I mean. God, I hate how everything you say sounds like it has to do with sex. I do hate that.

Last year at school we were talking about Daniel Morrissey and I said ‘Daniel sucks,’ and Tanya said ‘Yeah, you’d know.’

That’s the kind of thing I mean.

It was the way everyone laughed at me, that’s what I’m really talking about. You get scared to say anything, through fear of the laughing. Laughter’s meant to be loving, wrapping itself around you like a hug, but when it’s aimed at me it seems cruel.

I was better off than some people, though. Simone, I don’t know how she stood it, being put down all the time, by everyone, even teachers. Trying to make a joke and listening to us, the cruel mockingbirds, as we told her what we thought of her joke. Trying to find a partner in Drama, waiting to be asked, and finally having to be put with some one by Ms Eddy, while the other person rolled her eyes and stood as far away as possible. Sitting on her own up the front of the bus when we went on excursions. I shivered when I watched Simone. I knew that could so easily have been me. What makes some people unpopular? Simone did every thing right. She lives in Ralston Avenue, in a huge house with two Mercs parked in the drive; she goes to Mt Silver in winter and Providence Bay in summer; her father runs Conway Carpets and a heap of other companies. They won the Oaks four years ago with Admiral Sam.

I mean, what else do you have to do? How many points does it take? How many points do you need?

That’s why I shivered when I looked at Simone. I’d counted my own points enough times. For years I’d looked at my friends and wondered. Sally, Zoe, Jana, Shon, Kym, before she moved back to America. What was it that they liked in me? If I’d made a mistake, would that have been it? If I’d had a different name, a different family, if I’d lived in Lennon or Everett West and wore clothes from Reward, would I have stopped being their friend and instead become a guest on Oprah? ‘Teen With No Friends’... ‘The Teen Everyone Hates’... ‘From Teen Queen to Freak Queen’.

Life seems so fragile. You walk down the centre of the highway, with the big trucks rushing past. They make the air shake. They blow you off your line. You stick out your arms, to get your balance. A truck hits one arm and spins you around. You stagger and fall, holding your arm and crying. Another truck rushes at you. There’s no escape. Your body’s just bones and flesh, that’s all. There are too many things beating at you, blowing at you, hurting you and leaving bruises.

It’s a miracle anyone survives to be a teenager. It’s a miracle any teenager survives to be an adult.

There is noise out in the corridor again now. Lots of footsteps, people being busy, hushed voices. I can see shadows going backwards and forwards, passing quickly under the door. You can tell the staff footsteps from the patients’. The staff sound like they’re going somewhere.

I imagine they’re admitting another new patient. You get them in the middle of the night sometimes. That’s when Esther came in, and Emine.

I wish I could sleep. I want to sleep; but the more I want to, the less I can. I never used to have problems with sleeping. So many new things have happened lately: this is just one more. It makes me wonder who’s now inhabiting my body: what is this confusion of feelings and thoughts that I keep inside. It’s not only the things outside that threaten my balance. The feelings storm through me, up and down and all around, crashing into each other and falling back, reeling and rubbing their noses. I contain them all but I often wonder what would happen if they broke out. The Luna Park of my mind would spill onto the streets. Whole cities would be overrun. Crazy desperate figures would chase each other across the landscape. It’s important that I keep them inside, but it’s all I can do to hold them there. They want to erupt. I’m saving the world by stopping them.

In the Dayroom yesterday Oliver said to me, ‘Maybe something good’ll come out of our being here.’

‘What?’ I said.

He thought for a long time then said, ‘Maybe we’ll learn more about ourselves. Find parts of ourselves we never knew we had.’

‘But I didn’t want to find any new parts,’ I whined. ‘I was happy the way I was.’

I wasn’t, of course. But I hardly knew it: that’s the difference. Anyway, it’s one of the games we play in here, pretending we were huge social successes in our past lives. Esther’s about the only one who doesn’t play that game, and Emine sometimes.

The noises in the corridor are getting quieter, duller. It seems darker now, and colder. I feel that I know every minute of the days and nights in here. I like that, in some ways. There have been times here, many of them, when all I’ve wanted was to get Out, go home; other times when I want to stay in here forever. At this moment I want to stay forever. I feel safe here. They know me. I don’t think they’ll hurt me. I like the little things, the safe little things that never change: the queue at the nurses’ station for medication, the games of table tennis in the Dayroom, the changes of shifts, even the corny way Dr Singh comes in each morning and says, ‘And how is Miss Warner today?’

I think he likes having me as his patient. Whenever either of us mentions my father, Dr Singh swells a little and looks important. I’m used to that, so I notice it easily.

Another reason I don’t want to leave at the moment is the painting on the wall in this room. It’s dumb to like it, because it looks nothing like Checkers. But I pretend it does and I lie here liking it. The dog in the painting is about half the size of Checkers and reddish-brown instead of black and white, and he’s lying on a rug in front of a fire, which Checkers never did, because although we had a fireplace we never had a fire.

In this dark room, if I look at the painting and look away quickly, I can make it seem like it might be Checkers.