On Friday 6 November I uploaded my last essay for my University degree, the essay was about poetry, and I thought of this story written in 2013.. I did a version of it for a competition entry but with thousands of good writers and a wonderful story as the winner, Rhydian didn’t get out there. Here he is. I am posting two stories this week, and my next blog post will be November 23rd.
It was late evening in April, and Rhydian had taken the underpass under the Torrens Bridge, on his way to the Flinders University Library to borrow a book. He had borrowed from the library a couple of days before but he needed the book for an essay due in 24 hours. An essay with an extension on it. He groaned. He had been working long hours at the art shop. He had relieved himself in the shadows of the bridge, and then his arm was gripped from behind and he found himself face down on the gravel. He could not get the breath to yell “fire”, as his sister Kim had told him was wise when attacked. His left arm flailed in front of him. He had not finished zipping his fly before being thrown off balance.
Now with the smell of damp gravel an inch from his face, he heard a loud whisper, “Nina, he’s tapping out ,I think. He’s tapping out.” Memories assailed him from his brief experiences of Aikido class when he was ten. His artistically gifted mother had been desperate to please his Canadian regional hockey champion father. It seemed a good idea to encourage Rhydian in a masculine hobby. The blood was rushing to his head from physical force now, making blushing at the memory of the ten weeks of Aikido humiliation superfluous. A familiar voice said,”You have been accosted because we’re sick to death of you guys pissin’ in the tunnel. It stinks! So quit it! ” She let him go. He kept his face to the ground, as she was backing away from him. He lifted his head a little and peeked. The light from outside the tunnel shone on her face. Nina. It was Nina Martello. She was only his major crush for the past twelve months.
Two mornings later, Rhydian was sitting on the bank of the Torrens River. The sun was low in the sky as the water parted before the ladies’ rowing team skiff. Nina bellowed the order: “ hold it down”. The change of direction brought them between the willows and they held still at the university pier. Rhydian watched Nina, as the team stowed the boat. A gentle breeze moved over the water, stirring the weeping willows, and the stray ringlets that brushed her forehead. She reached above her head in a stretch, and her curves were outlined by light reflected off the water. The strong lines of her thighs covered in tight black, and the curves of her bust outlined by a red t-shirt appeared on his sketchpad. Her full mouth, definite brow and high flat cheekbones appeared in charcoal too. She laughed from her throat, the sound ending on a husky note, and a sigh. He watched her bold strides towards her bicycle. She removed the combination lock and chain. She tugged at the tie in her dark hair until it contained only a third of her abundant hair. She shoved on her helmet, and adjusted the strap with one dexterous hand. The mountain bike was pushed up the rise to the road, and stepping across it she pedalled away.
He shuffled further into the shelter of the willows as the men’s rowing team appeared. The coxswain bellowed as he left the boat, “Blast those gym junkie first year girls! That Nina Martello stirs them up. They beat us!” Nina, and the ladies team, was the subject of more conversation. The Bow seat rower said Nina had knocked him back last time he had invited her out. ”They’re our university’s rowing team too”, said the second rower “should we think of them as opposition, coach?”
“ Anyone who shows that you’re losing your edge, or that Sydney U might be making better time, is a problem. You should beat the ladies times all the time, and cut them by at least 20 percent.” The team groaned, and the head coach lifted his hand.” Now No.2, how are you doing…” Rhydian smiled to himself. Nina must have given the rowing team captain short shift . Maybe, just maybe jocks weren’t her type. He had heard her talking in the library about how much she enjoyed rowing, but he’d seen her reading books on Renaissance literature, too. A well-rounded girl in every way. Nina, he thought.
A month later, Rhydian had not worked up the courage to ask Nina on a date. In fact, he hadn’t spoken to her. His sister had taken him out twice to buy new shirts and trousers. She had even talked him into wearing contact lenses to university. The girls at the art shop had given him advice on asking a girl out. Aware of his awkwardness, they told him to avoid trying to speak before he had rehearsed the line in his head. “ Whatever you do,” Sally said,” don’t stand there with your mouth open. Remember you nearly didn’t get the job here because of that. It is not a good look.”
Now, he crouched between the library stacks, pretending to search for a quarto art book. He looked between the shelves at Nina, writing in her notebook. The corner of Nina’s bottom lip was pinned between her teeth, and her head was tilted to one side. Her raven hair, loose this time, half hid her face and brushed the cover of a volume of John Donne’s poems. He smiled. He had seen her in the lecture theatre, but they were in different tutorials.
Just as well, I wouldn’t be able to answer the tutor. Perhaps she’s writing her essay on Donne, he thought. Could she be as interested in poetry as I am?
Rhydian thought back to that morning with his sister, Kim. She had given him an approving inspection at breakfast. “Your hair looks cool Rhid, and that shirt matches your eyes. You know my friends have always said you’re cute.” Later, when they arrived outside the university, she said.” Tonight, I want to hear that you spoke to that girl you’re keen on. Give it a go.” If only she could see me now, he thought, spying, not talking.
Embarrassment motivated him to browse several rows. His hand brushed over the tooled leather spine of a large volume entitled: Poets of the 16th and 17th Centuries. He loved the feel of a print book. The edges of the pages were gold, and as he opened the aged paper, he glanced down . Running his thumb along the lower edge of the page he gently turned the pages. His eyes fell on the words of a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt: The long love that in my thought doth harbour. The poet described his Love as something that showed itself by blushes in his face, but reason and reverence grew angry at Love causing it to run back to his heart, and hide and no more show itself. It ended with the poet saying that he would hide his love until he died, and die loving well. Rhydian felt both kinship for, and disrespect for Thomas Wyatt. As he cringed behind the metal frame of the bookshelf he knew he wanted to do more than die, with passion locked in his heart. He was replacing the book on the shelf when he heard a voice behind him. “Excuse me”, a breathy voice spoke behind him. He turned and a red stain started up his neck as his eyes alighted on Nina. Her eyes swept over him and returned to his face, which was becoming redder by the second. She smiled and he stared. I don’t think she saw who I was under the bridge. He let out his breath. She returned his gaze and he clamped his lips together. Don’t look like a fish, he thought. He cleared his throat and smiled as she spoke. “Do you study Donne too?”
“This semester, yeah”. He spoke as he jammed one hand into the back pocket of his jeans. She nodded and her hair bounced on her shoulders. “Are you American?” Normally, he hated on people who mistook his Canadian accent for American, but she looked so sweet in this light. “ No, Canada. I’ve lived in Australia for a few years.” She smiled again and the space between the shelves seemed too small to him. “I’m Nina”. She stretched out her hand. He grasped her fingers, surprised at how long they were. Her hands, slenderer than he thought. He knew they were expressive, as he had watched her enliven her conversation with their sweeping gestures. “I’m Rhydian”. He felt his face relax but his mouth stayed closed. Phew. “That’s unusual, cool”. She spoke in a rush.
“My mother is Welsh. She chose it.” She indicated his backpack, “Are you staying to study? I figure you must be doing Renaissance Literature too.”
“Yes, I’ve seen you in the lectures”.
She smiled. “ My sister is picking me up in about twenty minutes,” he said, “I’m just borrowing”. He waved his book at her. He noted she seemed shorter, at close quarters. Until this moment, she seemed larger than life. “ O.K. well, if you’re in the library tomorrow why don’t you come and say hi.”
“ Yeah, I might do that”. He walked away. Could I have sounded less enthusiastic? he thought. Lame. As he descended the library steps, it occurred to him that he would be able to tell Kim that he spoke to the girl.
Kim dropped him at work. He was early but he didn’t fancy a ride back into the city on his bike. He could not afford a car, and he couldn’t save for one yet as he wouldn’t give up sharing with Kim, and buying art materials. He waved at Sally in the front of the store, indicating he was heading out the back. He settled at the table in the staff room, and retrieved his sketch book. He opened to a sketch of Nina and continued shading with a charcoal pencil. He loved life drawing, but Nina would not be a good model. She would want to move long before he finished drawing. She was full of energy. I’ve learned enough at my classes to capture her well, he thought. He thought of the prints of Ruben, and Titian he had in his bedroom. I’d love to paint beautiful life figures like that. The female body was wonderful, and curvaceous figures enjoyable to draw. He would love to paint Nina on her bicycle. Yes, on her bicycle. Her hair blowing behind her, he mused to himself.
He became absorbed, unaware that Evie, a friend and work mate, had entered from the lane. She leaned against the rear doorway jamb, balancing her coffee cup on the opposite arm, and watched him. Her eyes followed the curve of his cheek to the open neck of his shirt, revealing the lean, muscled shoulder of the arm that brushed the edge of the sketchpad. His bronze-coloured fringe was swept to one side. His forehead crumpled in concentration, as his eyes followed his sketching hand.
At least his tongue isn’t sticking out the corner of his mouth. She smiled to herself. He had a childlike earnestness, yet when they talked he seemed more mature than her other male friends. He’s special.
Evie spoke from behind him, ”Who’s that?” He was startled and turned to see her. He flipped the page over. “Just some life studies I’m doing”. He ran his hand through his fringe and cleared his throat.
“Since when do you draw life models riding bicycles, in your class?”
“Ok, so I’m finding some subjects of my own. There’s no law against that.”
“No, but who is it? Come on. We’re buddies aren’t we?”
Evie stayed in the outside lane doorway, smiling and coaxing. “ Come on. It’s not that girl all the others say you’re keen on”.
‘” Maybe”, he said. “Are you working the late shift?”
“No, I’ve got Roller Derby.”
“Oh, how’s that going?’
“ Pretty good. We’ve won a couple of bouts lately. I’d love for you to come so you could draw a picture for the team’s Facebook page. It should be at least as interesting as drawing a girl on a bicycle.”
“Roller Derby is so fast though. I’d have to take photos and draw from those”.
She came over and sat in the chair opposite him.
“Rhydian, please come to a race. It’s fun and it would give you a feel for roller derby. Kim has photos, and could take more, but as an artist shouldn’t you get a feel for a subject? I’m more a naïve style painter , but even I like to do that.”
He stared at her. It was the most she’d ever said to him about sketching the Roller Derby. He felt complimented. She must be keen for the drawing. He wondered what it would be like to draw Evie on Roller Skates. It could be good practice for drawing Nina. Evie stood up to throw her coffee cup in the bin, and reached into the overhead cupboard for a biscuit. He studied her. “ If we ask Sally to give me Saturdays next month I could come along one Friday to Roller Derby.”
On the Friday of Evie’s Roller Derby, he inspected Kim’s previous photos of Eve and her friends, and made a few sketches of the girls in blocking maneuvers and Evie as the Head Jammer. He just outlined them in charcoal, to get his eye in.
When they got to the rink there was a crowd of about a hundred people. He and Kim took seats in the second row by the rink. The teams were introduced in the resonant thunder of Smart Mike’s voice: “Tonight’s competing teams are the Rolling Queens and the Adelaide Jammers. In their last bout the Queens won, but I’ve heard the Jammers are Jamming for victory.” The lights were bright, illuminating the matte scuffmarks on the floor. The introduction of the teams’ members produced a wave of sound from the small crowd that made the back of his neck tingle. The smell of fries with gravy, and damp clothing, surrounded him.
He leaned forward as the whistle blew and five girls from each team began to roll forward. Evie edged out of the pack swiftly and became the jammer for the Queens. The blockers of her team managed to slow down the Jammers’ girl for what seemed like three heartbeats. One of the Queens’ girls got sent to the penalty box, and when Evie passed the Jammers’ pack the second time, she was knocked down by an unrestrained blocker from the Jammers. There would be a tense silence, then a surge of sound when a Jammer broke away. The teams were evenly matched, and the bout became a blur of calls to Rhydian. The match ended with the Queens ahead by two points.
When the team did their victory lap, Evie’s eyes found Rhydian, and she waved. Evie’s pony tail clung to her neck with moisture, and there was a dark patch between her breasts. Her cheeks were flushed, and her arms curved out with a dancer’s poise. Her body below the waist was an engine, powering an elegant bust of her sporting pose. She circuited the rink three times; each circuit slower than the previous one, until she came to a stop. Her stopper left another scuff mark on the beleaguered floor. She smiled at Rhydian, and he averted his eyes to a spot beyond her. He had two images trapped in his brain that he was determined to sketch: Evie, when she first pushed away from the pack, leaning forward with her head down, like a blunt nosed rocket on pistons, with the blockers in the background, one with her arm forward as if shoving Evie down. The other was an image of two of the Queens’ blockers their arms raised in triumph because they had stymied the opposing Jammers’ four blockers. Yes, shouted their pose: we stopped that Jammer girl‘s lead.
He started when Kim grabbed his arm, and said, ”Come on, we’re going to have a drink with Evie and her friends. Kim ordered him a whisky and coke, and he sipped it at the corner of a large table where they were all seated . The music and conversation seemed to merge into each other, as he tired of the effort of distinguishing one from the other. Evie squeezed his arm as she got up to leave. “Thanks for coming, Rhydian”. He smiled into her eyes. They are pretty he thought. He had an image of two golden venetian glass bottles that decorated his mother’s art studio. He remembered his mother sitting with him by the window decorated with her glass collection. “ If you love beauty, beauty will find you”, she whispered. The desire to savour the vitality and beauty “deep in the bones of life”, as his mother had said filled him with a sense of exhilaration.
After they left the bar, Kim dropped off some of her friends, and Rhydian sat silently in the car’s back seat. He realized he loved women, loved the idea of being romantic. He wanted to get to know Nina and Evie. He could study with Nina, and discuss art with Evie. But dates required finesse, and implied expectations. He remembered the lost friendships of the past when you couldn’t just talk to the girls; suddenly you had to experiment with pairing off. Would he fall in love? The anticipation of the experience pleased him, but Nina and Evie seemed confident of what they wanted in life, while he was unsure. Maybe, Kim and I, could have a few people over to the apartment for drinks. He thought about inviting a few people from his art classes, and he could tell Evie and Nina to “bring a friend”. Kim could invite people too. They could gather on his home territory. He could still make pasta the way Mum taught him, and watch videos, share laughter. He looked up at their apartment window as Kim pulled into the carport. A v-shaped glow of light through the red curtains marked their space. Next Saturday would suit, he thought. He nodded to himself.