Loud, talkative and dream-filled, the not-quite-adult’s day only starts after school ends.
“You know we were in love once?” Emily asks me, sitting across from Jonah on a recent Friday afternoon in a Canberra shopping centre’s food court.
“It was a long time ago,” Jonah adds, without taking his eyes off Emily and her voluminous curly hair.
“Oh yes. This was like year eight. And everyone said we should get married and have children –”
“It’s definitely the curly hair,” Jonah says. “They couldn’t believe too people with curly hair would like each other.”
The two “best friends from way back” have run into each other and introduced me to a group from a high school louder and more social, and probably more promiscuous, than my own. All ready, though, I’d listened to their conversation and could see where Emily’s rhetorical question had come from; I just didn’t want to ask myself.
Emily had been telling Jonah about her next project. “I’m making this short film in the holidays – it’s going to be about a girl who joins a support group for being normal, and makes this friend, who becomes famous, and then they can’t contact her anymore (because the normal and the famous worlds are split); I’m still unsure about the ending,” she had said, hardly stopping to breathe.
Jonah took his time with his reply. “It could get quite philosophical,” he settled on, leaning across the Laminex table, conscious of his slinged, broken arm.
And before I know it, I hear that Emily has somehow ended up being asked to co-direct a show at a Canberra theatre. Jonah had his eyes open wider than normal. “And you’re what, 15?” he asked.
“Yes. And if it’s bad, not my fault – co-director.”
They both laugh.
Surrounded by discarded take-away containers and half-finished bottles of Coke are groups from most of the large high schools south of the Lake in Canberra. Watching their phones and talking about nothing, they cling like barnacles to greasy tables. School had ended two hours ago. They day is just starting.
Emily and Jonah introduce me to the group of about 15 from the large, public high school. They have commandeered a bench table where they can sit on both sides, marking their territory with iPhones and backpacks and jackets. The group’s conversation isn’t coherent.
One girl announces she is going to throw a big party sometime soon. The invite list is canvassed and previous parties are vaguely remembered.
“Did you get invited to that year 12’s 18th?” someone asks.
“Then what do you know about parties?”
Parties leads to drugs. “This is the boy,” Emily says, looking at Jonah, “who got high twice and didn’t think it was that good, or that weed was from heaven.”
“Oh, but it is,” another member of the group, sporting the beginnings of a thin, blond beard and dental braces, says. He can’t have been more than 17.
“I’ve tried it [weed] a few times,” Jonah goes on. “But I just don’t get that high –”
“What the fuck?”
“I know, it’s fucking disappointing.”
Jonah is the president of the student representative council and he says, “I’ve missed so many meetings – they keep sending me messages about it.” A one-time entrant in a stand-up comedy competition, he is switched-on, sporty (he says) and articulate. Recently, he has impressed himself with the improvements he has made in English. He gets out of one his recent essays to show me, but the group is still talking about parties.
“And you know Tinty, well, when didn’t know much about alcohol he had 14 shots of vodka and almost died,” someone is saying. Then they add, “But now he drinks a bottle of vodka at a time. Yeah, but his tolerance is high – he’s 80 kilos or something.”
“Oh, and he’s been suspended again,” Jonah tells Emily. They’re sitting opposite each other and rarely break from eye-contact while they talk. “We walk around the Lake, right? And Tinty can see the finish line on the other side, so he thinks, ‘I could just swim.’ He jumps in and it’s cold, right? And he’s freezing and half-way he takes his jeans off – and I thought, ‘What the fuck?’ – and he’s on the Governor-General’s lawn and the cops are saying, ‘You’ve just broken national fucking security laws’, and he’s got hypothermia –”
“Did the police really say that? National fucking security laws?”
“Yeah, national fucking security laws.”
It’s starting to get cold and dark now. One member of the group gets up to leave; he walks around to everyone to say good bye. After he has gone, Jonah explains to me that, “That’s Kev. He comes here and hangs around with whoever is here. He’s here all the time – cool bloke.” But Kev isn’t the only one on the move. “Look at him!” yells one of the athletic members of the group. “Yeah, he’s chasing this girl to Subway,” everyone turned around to look. “He’s always chasing girls for their numbers.” I wonder if he has heard of a phone book.
When he comes back and joins the other end of the table, Jonah asks Emily to rate him. “Oh well, but if he’s funny or if he has a good personality it could sway either way,” she says, trying not to commit to anything.
“It was like this kid,” she continues, “and he was trying to bang my cousin, and they were going to meet up – on my birthday – and you know, but I got so angry with him and we were yelling outside of that concrete part at school, and then Maddie-someone was swearing at him (she didn’t know what he had done wrong); and I was in love with him a bit, too.” Jonah, enthralled, says, “Oh no.” There’s no sarcasm in his voice.
There was no sarcasm in his voice either when he was adamant he didn’t have a bird fetish. “But he’s got this app,” Emily protested, “it shows feather colours, calls, mating habits. It’s a fetish.” Jonah admits he did work experience at Toronga Zoo – in the bird department. “But it’s not a fetish. It’s a fascination.”
Every Friday would be like this. The day only really starting at three in the afternoon, its opening council held in food courts, its agenda non-existent. It’s all sex, drugs and where you’re going to college next year. What does your package look like? What courses are you doing?
No one is trying to prove anything. There aren’t any points to be made. They crave attention, their eyes headings towards their phones if they can’t get it directly from the group. Attention doesn’t require truth, either. It’s embellished and fanciful; they all lap it up and can’t bear to leave.
“This is like two worlds colliding,” Emily says of me being there. I’m afraid I don’t have a world they’d notice they’ve collided with.
In some eyes at the table there is the possibility of violence, in others there is kindness; most are searching for something – a thrill late in the night or something they don’t quite realise yet.