My parents chastised my brothers and me because we grew too quickly. The lifespan of a shoe was a fixed length that they could not reduce to suit the size of our feet. Our clothes, always second hand, fitted us poorly and we often went hungry, so it makes sense that memories of food are the strongest of my childhood. We ate damper smothered with butter and Vegemite. We had pancake breakfasts and the cold leftovers for lunch. Sometimes we ate two-minute noodles three times a day for weeks at a time, or else we ate nothing.
In the springtime, we filled industrial paint buckets with peaches from the garden and competed to see who could eat the most, sweet, sticky juice spilling down our faces. We grew apricots and rhubarb, which my mother turned into compote, cordials and jams, and a small number of strawberries that we always devoured as soon as we picked them. Consuming so much fruit must’ve given us the shits but all I remember is feeling full.
My mother was one of the last students to start her HSC in Victoria, but she did not complete her secondary education. She’d hoped to become a teacher but was homeless at thirteen instead. Towards her early 20s, she devoted herself to the idea of motherhood. My father was an able-bodied seaman in the Royal Australian Navy, the second-to-last rank. The two of them met in a bar. Eventually, he obtained a discharge and took up a series of blue-collar jobs that illustrated the story of my family’s circumstances: a cashier, a dishwasher, a labourer at the sawmill and, after their divorce, a miner somewhere in Western Australia.
We subsisted off my mother’s disability pension when he dodged child support, but her modest allowance could never hope to cover the costs of the mortgage, her medical bills and three ravenous children. She would often say that our legs must be hollow to fit all the food we ate, sometimes with a laugh and others with a scowl. She lived with chronic pain so intense she was often bedridden for hours or even days. I skipped school to care for her, to keep her company and bring her painkillers; opioids if she was lucky, unsafe doses of paracetamol when she was not. I made my brothers’ lunches and helped them with their homework. I was, as a social worker explained to me, ‘parentified’—obliged to play guardian to my siblings and often to my mother.
I took a job at the supermarket deli. No-one ever ordered the vegetable ingredients of a typical antipasto, only the pale-looking sandwich meats in abundance. I sliced kilos of honey ham and practised lines for the title role in Hamlet, a play I understood to be about a sullen teen who inherits misfortune. I helped pay my mother’s bills or, as she tells it, we came to an arrangement where I paid a flexible amount of board. While I skewered chicken carcasses for roasting, metal pikes scraping the cavity of their ribcages, I wondered which was true. Had I, desperate for recognition, exaggerated my contribution? Or had my mother papered over the indignity of accepting money from her child?
I still don’t know.
• • •
When I did go to school, I bussed to the next town over, which was known only for its rate of methamphetamine use. In history we studied military recruitment tactics in World War I and I’d periodically see ADF recruiters in the senior’s room, smart in their uniforms and all smiles, a slick PowerPoint promising adventure and friendship and security to rows of 17-year-olds on cracked plastic chairs.
I wore an army surplus parka, exploiting the machismo aesthetic like a khaki-green armour. I toyed with the idea of running away to enlist. I envisaged myself somewhere where nobody knew me and I had no responsibilities. Not fighting, of course, but seated at a desk with a pile of paperwork. It seemed like a good deal, really—accommodation, food, good employment history and a pay cheque. My father and grandfathers had all been military men, so it made a kind of narrative sense.
Still, I sensed that this was fantasy. I had no aptitude for physical labour and aspired to study something romantic, something like photography. At the time, I was fond of double-exposed portraits. For one photo, I took my shirt off and set the timer, shaking my head side to side to produce a spectral effect. The aged yellow paint on the wall added a jaundiced tone to it, and I was proud to have created something. Or at least I was until I found Duane Michals’ 1972 portrait of Andy Warhol, which utilises much the same effect. I despaired at my lack of innovation but was at a loss about what I should do instead.
My drama teacher suggested that I should study writing, pointing out that I’d drafted our class plays several years in a row. Nobody asked me to adapt Shakespeare and Sophocles for teenagers in the mid-2000s; at some point I simply scribbled in the margins of a script. Later, I wrote and acted in a Brechtian melodrama about the damage of adolescence, which my drama teacher directed. ‘I don’t believe you,’ she would challenge from the stalls. I was frustrated because I was crude, wooden. I don’t believe you! I didn’t believe me either.
• • •
I left home at 16, a Navy duffel bag stuffed with some clothes slung over my shoulder. My mother and I argued night and day. We were swept up in the undertow of years of family violence from her marriage, and I was frustrated by our poverty for which, on some level, I blamed her. She would, after I confessed my interest in boys to her, tell neighbours of her disappointment in me as if I wasn’t there. In homemaking, she had found the power that she had been denied everywhere else in her life, and it was, as she liked to remind me, her way or the highway.
I stepped off the porch and left behind the only life I knew, broken as it was. I entered what social services call ‘secondary homelessness’ for the first, but not the last, time in my life. I stayed with a friend in his flat, sharing a bed since there was no room for a second mattress and I had no money for one in any case. I couldn’t pay rent and he was kind enough not to ask. We took turns to cook simple meals with ingredients I bought with silver coins or otherwise stole. In the daylight hours, I read a hardcover of Great Expectations and, when it got dark, we watched the dreadful direct-to-Blu-Ray action movies that he loved. For the first time, I was aware that I might have changed the trajectory of my life.
• • •
History is an enormous rock pushed down a hill by nameless hands, attracting speed as it hurtles toward you. It might even have reached terminal velocity before you were born. Sometimes I feel like I can see events stretching decades into the past, involving people I have never met. My great grandfather who walked out on his family and his son, my grandfather, who enlisted as a teen to earn money for his mother and sister. My grandmother, who died of cancer when my mother was a child. Then, our poverty, my father’s violence and, like a footnote, my queerness.
Researchers call such circumstances ‘determinants’ since they are reliable indicators of how your life will turn out, symbols in a scientific forecast of the future. Like being born under an inauspicious star on a day filled with ill-omens, they decide your fate. There is always the possibility that you are the tragic hero doomed to struggle against your destiny, only to discover that you lost before you started. For what force is there to stop the boulder from crushing each new generation under its weight?
• • •
I itched to get out of the country. I attended a presentation for prospective Melbourne University students. I wore my best clothes, which included a collared shirt, slightly yellowed, and a cheap grey vest. I had a steel pocket watch which I theatrically flipped open at regular intervals, though I never needed to be anywhere at a specific time. The presentation was a professors-with-tweed-jackets daydream of the university life.
Afterwards, in the lobby, I ignored the complimentary hors d’oeuvres since I did not want to look common, though I was hungry and they looked delicious. I introduced myself to the university representative, a middle-aged woman with kempt auburn hair and expensive teeth. I asked questions that implied that I might apply, but that I had other options. I tried to be charming, which seemed to amuse her. Wasn’t I such a bright, sophisticated young man? This compliment washed over me like a sublime wave. Not because it flattered my ego, but because it hinted at the possibility that I might escape. The wave retreated like the tide and by the time I stepped into the desolate street, I knew I did not belong among those sandstone façades.
I received an ATAR of 62, which was on par for someone in my circumstances, but it felt like a personal failure all the same. I bristled with shame when anyone inquired how I’d scored, swallowing the impression that the fault lay exclusively with me. Even so, I achieved the highest grade in my school for VCE English, or so I was told. I skipped school that day.
I applied to several writing courses and received a Commonwealth Supported Place at my first preference. ‘Dear Mr Badge’ the email began, ‘Congratulations on your offer to study at Deakin University’. ‘I got in,’ I said. My boyfriend congratulated me in the perfunctory way you’d praise someone who has just purchased a new car. I wiped tears away with my sleeve, bereft of the words to describe what it meant to me.
• • •
I didn’t pay any attention to how much my degree cost. Anything more than a few hundred dollars was beyond my imagination, papery and unreal like Monopoly money. My parents owed money their whole lives, to banks, bars, mechanics, neighbours, tradies and utility companies, which fostered a kind of financial nihilism in me. The difference between a $4000 and $40,000 debt is academic if you can’t pay either.
I used a government scholarship to relocate to Melbourne, which included the purchase of a money order to secure a rental. My boyfriend handed me his half of the cash and I set off. The money smouldered in my pocket. I avoided all eye contact, paranoid that someone would jump me on the route 109 tram, and it would all be over. I walked past a courthouse as police idled outside, sure they would stop me and demand to know whose money it was and how I had stolen it, since it could not be mine. When a teller waved me forward at the post office, I set the money down and slid it across the counter, trying my best not to throw it and run.
I moved into my first apartment the night before the first day of semester. It was a new one-bedroom situation a few tram stops from campus, long and narrow, with floor-to-ceiling windows that faced east. There was room enough in the bedroom for a bed (no side tables) and the kitchen was in the entrance hallway. We crammed in a TV, a couch I bought online for $200 and a table I picked up in hard rubbish and used as a desk. On top of it, I piled my course books, which cost more than a grand for my first term—an extravagance I could only afford with student income support. For me, books had the aura of the sacred, and I refused to dog ear them or write in their margins.
I woke up surrounded by my clothes in black garbage bags and the Dickens hardback peeking from inside my navy duffel. I dressed in an argyle polo shirt since that’s what I thought students wore. My boyfriend had bought the shirt from an op-shop for a course of pub golf, but it was too small and he offered it to me. It fit me like it was tailored, but I sensed that it was still, somehow, someone else’s property. I felt like an extra in a movie as I walked to campus, outwardly real but harbouring a concealed reality.
I marvelled at the other students as I strolled down to the student centre on that first day. Inside, I posed in front of a baby-blue backdrop as a clerk took the photo for my student ID. I smiled, with dimples, euphoric that I’d made it. The small plastic card still lives in my desk drawer. I cringe at my naïveté when I look at it now, but feel proud, in a peculiar way.
• • •
Builders worked on the adjacent street outside my flat. I wrote my first essays, fiction and poetry to a percussive soundtrack of jackhammers and trucks. The apartment had no airflow and was feverish in the summer, so I slept naked on the couch with the doors and windows open. I listened to the tram driver ring the bell into the night, little praises for the accidents of fortune that had brought me to that moment. It didn’t occur to me at the time but during my studies I never wrote autobiography. My tutors insisted that I write what I knew, but starting a sentence with an ‘I’ felt dangerous. I hid behind the third person and other devices, fearful that a peer might learn some detail that proved I should not be there, point their finger and say ‘A-ha! I have you now!’
Other students signalled to me in unguarded ways that we had set sail from different ports. A girl in my poetry class complained about her mother badgering her when she forgot to pay her car rego. In the end, her mother paid it for her. She spoke in a way that implied I should feel sympathetic, but I could only think how marvellous it would be to have a parent with a few hundred to spare, or one who cared enough in the first place. I said nothing, replaying in my mind a day where my parents ordered me to beg passers-by for loose change. She’d done nothing wrong, but I resented her anyway.
At parties, students of prestigious (expensive) universities would demonstrate the curious talent of those who attend private high schools of informing people of the fact without anyone having asked. I did not feel jealous. They seemed taken aback by my lack of recognition, a result of ignorance at first but, eventually, a private game—I had no patience for their graceless displays of intergenerational wealth.
Scores of young people lived in Burwood and the nearby suburbs. I walked past an old-folk’s home each day on my way to campus. As an exercise in a writing class, the tutor instructed us to describe our home suburb. I thought about how I might narrate other places in which I’d lived, what they sounded like with my eyes closed and what kind of vegetation grew there. My account of Burwood came to me like a beam of light, immediate and lucid. Burwood was a suburb of students starting their lives and older people waiting to die. This is true of almost every neighbourhood, of course, but my classmates found it both accurate and darkly funny.
Each fortnight I’d spy an ambulance creeping out the gate in the fog of early morning, bonnet peeking down the driveway like a cautious mouse, sirens eerily speechless. It was a useful reminder of my impermanence, a challenge for me to grab hold of whatever I could lay my hands on. In hindsight, it seems significant that I reached for the people to explain the place. It was us, after all, who were growing tall like trees.
• • •
I majored in writing and minored in literature. By my second year I realised that I’d done every available philosophy subject, and so rearranged my degree into a double major. I graduated with distinction but in absentia, since I could not afford to pay for the ceremony. The Creative Arts faculty wanted me to do Honours in literature, and the Humanities faculty wanted me to do it in philosophy. I decided on the latter. I hesitated to apply for equity scholarships, fearful they would mark me as a pity case. Instead, I won a Scholarship for Excellence, graduating with a first-class dissertation the year after.
This time, I scrounged together enough money to pay for the ceremony. My new boyfriend and I trained out to the campus in Geelong, where the university held graduations. The formalities were extraordinarily tedious, so much so that my chosen sister fell asleep and began to snore, much to our amusement. The guest speaker was a military official whose name I’d never heard and cannot recall. He spoke politely and with great gusto but in a frequency that my ears interpreted as white noise.
I cherish the photos from that day. Me, resplendent in my academic robes, with my chosen family. There again is that naïve smile, absent in most other pictures of me. People often mistake study to be about job prospects and salaries, but this is a mistake. Education is, above all else, an exercise in self-worth.
I lectured for the first time when I was 25. When I told people what I did for work their reply was, without exception, to comment on how young I was. ‘Compare yourself to the greats,’ my tutors would say, and I recalled how Nietzsche gained a professorship at 24. It was in classical philology though, I reassured myself, and not philosophy. I treated my work with the utmost seriousness but found it absurd that someone who almost flunked high school should go on to become an educator. I had, quite accidentally, realised my mother’s dream of becoming a teacher.
My HELP debt stands at $42,806.99, which is $10,000 more than I have earned in the past year, and more than my parents ever made in any year of their lives. It will take me many years, even decades, to repay. Though, I would’ve taken on any debt to prove wrong everyone who thought me worthless. The students who come after me will be saddled with ever more impossible debts. Some will be deterred, but not all. Nothing can best the tenacity of those with a deep-seated will to seize the reins of their life. •
Joshua Badge is a queer writer and philosopher living on Wurundjeri land in Melbourne.