Innocentsby Cathy Coote
“[A] titillating odyssey of arrant manipulation.” –Daphne Uviller, Time Out New York
“Compelling stuff, sexy and disturbingly frank. [Cathy Coote] explodes the myth of youthful innocence: those who use sexual power to manipulate relationships are never entirely innocent. . . . A brilliant debut.” (Meg Stewart, The Bulletin)
Written when Cathy Coote was nineteen, Innocents is a taut, wickedly clever descent into the anatomy of an obsession, the debut of a precociously assured and provocative young literary voice. Forcing someone vulnerable and na’ve into a sexual relationship to satisfy a twisted desire is perverted, even evil. But when the perpetrator is a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl, is she culpable? And if the victim is her thirty-four-year-old teacher, shouldn’t he have known better? When the nameless young narrator of Innocents decides to seduce her teacher, she immediately realizes that the power of her sexuality is greater than she ever imagined. She leaves the aunt and uncle who are her guardians and moves in with her teacher; together, they quickly embark on a journey into their darkest desires. Unforgettable, disturbing, and morally complex, Innocents permanently unsettles our notions of innocence, experience, and power, and suggests that we all are culpable.
“Vivid. . . . Cathy Coote is a natural, wryly dissecting the workings of human desire. She damns and absolves her characters in the space of a minute. Her touch is a ruthless finger in a wound. She will leave you wondering about the mortality of lust, love or whatever you want to call it.” –Erika Krouse, The New York Times Book Review
“Innocents is really Lolita turned upside down. . . . Coote has nothing against cranking the titillation level up to high and leaving it there. . . . What’s fascinating here, though, is how well Innocents . . . portrays adult, innocence-ending consequences. . . . Is Coote suggesting, God forbid, that the grown-up is the innocent in this lopsided pas de deux?” –Mark Rozzo, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Riveting. Coote somehow manages to make dementia and derangement almost understandable, exposing the dark side of lust and the power games that accompany it. At once discomfiting and totally engrossing, Innocents is a dark form of a guilty pleasure.
” –Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Entertainment Weekly
“[A] titillating odyssey of arrant manipulation.” –Daphne Uviller, Time Out New York
“[Innocents] is open to different interpretations; one could see it as a siple indictment of the duplicitous ways of women, but it oculd equally be read as a feminist condemnation of the social construction of female sexuality and the warped identities available for women.” –Christian Perring, Metapsychology
“Coote turns Nabokov on his head in this tale of an Aussie Lolita. . . . Tar-black comedy and psychosexual gamesmanship–both make for an enthralling and ultimately sobering debut”. [She] deserves acclaim not just for the narrator’s remarkably compelling voice but for so ruthlessly limning her deepening psychosis.” –Kirkus Reviews
“The rejection of sentimentality and the carefully calibrated knowingness make this more than just another Nabokov knockoff, and mark Coote as a young writer to watch.” –Publishers Weekly
“Written as a letter to a lover by a sixteen-year-old Catholic schoolgirl, the tale recounts the realization of female sexual power and its potency on the male of the species. . . . A clever page turner.” –Susan Taylor, Central Western Daily (Orange, New South Wales)
“Cathy Coote has delivered a novel of outstanding emotional complexity.” –Bronwyn Simpson, Manly Daily (Manly, New South Wales)
“Innocents is undeniably the work of a precocious talent . . . [building] to a powerful (and unexpectedly credible) climax.” –Chris Boyd, The Big Issue (Melbourne, Victoria)
All of this is my fault.
I know you think you’re to blame for what happened. You’re wrong, my love. I’ve been guilty all along.
I hardly know where to start.
Start at the very beginning.
The very beginning seems so long ago, though. I’m hardly interested in it.
I suppose, at the very beginning, you must have seen my Legs.
That isn’t fair. I’m not for one second suggesting that my legs were what you were after.
There were legs everywhere. It was a girls’ school. It was PE day. There were hundreds of us. We were, all of us, in netball skirts. They were horrible, scanty, red-pleated things, obviously designed by a pervert. They showed your bum when you bent over, so you had to wear little shorts underneath. The little shorts were called ‘scungies’. They were off-red, and looked the way the name sounded. We also had semi-transparent V-necked white shirts. Red trim pointed like an arrow at our bellies. I had a red hair-ribbon in my hair.
I was, as always, amazed at my ability to blend in with the masses of us. I kept assuming that eventually, inevitably, I’d be standing in a crowded place and suddenly everyone would start shifting uncomfortably and turning their heads at the smell of other. A ring of empty space would start to form around me as the people shrank away, and I’d be left standing on my own, irrefutably alien.
I dreaded that moment. My whole life was geared around avoiding it.
The recess before I met you passed like any other.
I met my friends for lunch behind the library.
I sat cross-legged on the grass, nibbling at my thin vegemite sandwiches. Before me, a row of girls perched on the rickety wooden bench. Those few stragglers like me-who arrived too late to get a spot on the bench had to sit on the ground.
I would have preferred to sit in the shade. I hated to feel the sun on my skin. I was frightened of that pitiless, slow sense of burning, the creeping pinkness on the back of my neck. I never said so, of course.
Rachel always sat in the hottest spot she could find. “S good for my tan.’
Tans were important. Tanned skin was normal.
The others made fun of Gothic Anita, the witch of Year Ten, with her talcum-powdered face.
‘Looks like a witch!’
‘Looks like Dracula! Stupid cow.’
So I squared my shoulders, and sat as I always did with the rest of the group. I laughed along with them, through my nose, contemptuously, abandoning my skin to the full light of the sun. It seemed like a small price to pay.
My skin meant very little to me, in those days.
‘Fuck, she’s a loser!’ said Rachel in disgust.
‘I reckon,’ agreed Sally, opening her Mars bar.
King and Queen condemning a leper, they nodded towards Anita, who stood down by the fence that marked the boundary of the oval, sharing a surreptitious cigarette with a passing civilian.
We all agreed that yes, Anita was a loser.
Sally went on, `Look at that crusty she’s with!’
Anita’s friend on the outside sported a nose-ring, and wore a grubby poncho.
`She’s foul.’ I agreed, my voice one of six or seven chorusing confirmation.
I knew it was wrong to condemn a fellow freak like this. But I didn’t feel guilty. I had to protect myself.
`D’you know what she did at camp? Last year?’ Rachel asked Sally. Her question was interactive. It was meant to be overheard.
`Oh-‘ Eyebrows communicated silently. `… d’you mean … with Kelly?’
Rachel nodded significantly.
`What?’ asked Laura, sitting on the grass next to me.
There was a conspiratorial silence.
`What? What did they do?’
`They’re lesbians,’ revealed Kara, leaning in eagerly from the end of the bench.
Slightly ruffled at this usurpation, Sally asked, `But d’you know what she did?’
My sandwich finished, I chewed my nails. I had a vague flash of a daydream, in which some power grew in me, so that I was able to dismiss their nastiness with polished indifference: able to turn my eyes blue like icy lasers on them, cutting through their babble with one diamond-edged remark.
Instead, I found myself sniggering along, slightly louder than the rest, to call attention to my surrender and maximise its worth.
`Yeah,’ said Kara. `She got into Kelly’s bunk and started to finger her, and Kelly didn’t mind. She liked it!’
`Yu-u-uck!’ I said, over three syllables.
`I know,’ Rachel said, popping a stick of chewing gum into her mouth. Rachel never ate at recess. She said everyone knew you put on more weight in the morning.
`And Mrs Lamonde finds them and she goes, “What are youse doing?” and Anita goes, “Kelly’s scared of the dark.”‘ Kara really knew her stuff.
Anita, in the middle distance, threw her cigarette over the fence onto the path. She and her visitor laughed.
`Fuckwits!’ said Rachel, examining her cuticles.
(This isn’t much like your one-in-six-billion girl, is it, darling? You thought I was perfectly, instinctively original.
Once, in the car, you pulled over just to tell me, `I never know what you’re going to say next!’ You were so excited! You stroked my cheek with your thumb, speechless with love and admiration.
You’ve no idea, have you?-how much I’d have given, just to be able to slide down into the barely conscious state in which the flocks of schoolgirls existed. They were like a swarm of bees. They all changed direction at the faintest whiff of pheromone. I’m convinced that most of them had no individual consciousness at all. When you’re genuinely enthusiastic about netball, you don’t need a sense of yourself as a distinct entity. A sort of share in the group consciousness, like a cable extension, is quite enough for all the thinking you ever need to do.)
We sat in an acrid, disapproving semicircle, all arms folded.
`She’s got a pet rat!’
`It lives in her room!’
`Probably sleeps in her bed!’
`She’s a freak!’ declared Sally.
She was quite right. Anita was a freak. She made herself into a freak. She wouldn’t have been like us if you’d paid her. She marked herself a freak carefully, thoroughly. She wore a size eighteen uniform on a size fourteen body. Her dumpy form always looked wrong in the school tartan, even after the teachers had confiscated her bracelets and rows of earrings, and made her tie her mottled, bottle-black hair back in a neat ponytail. Her unstitched hemline always wavered far below her knees, trailing threads. Splotches of red paint from an Art class clustered over one hip. `She’s had her rags today!’ ran the joke, every, every, every day, long after the stains had faded to a distinctly non-menstrual pink colour.
`What’s she doing now?’ Rachel asked, with weary disgust.
Elbows straight, Anita gripped the top of the fence, bending forwards. Her head and torso were outside school property. Her boots scrabbled for purchase in the wire mesh below.
`Her legs are fat,’ complained Amy.
`Is she fucken … leaving?’
`Dob her in!’
`Yeah, tell on her!’
But she wasn’t leaving; she was breathing. Her face thrust close to her friend’s, she hissed a guttural `Haaaaaaah!’
The crusty woman shook her head, still laughing, and waved her hand before her nose.
`Her breath prob’ly stinks,’ decided Rachel, with easy hypocrisy. She smoked Marlboros behind the bus shelter every morning before school, instead of having breakfast.
`Smells like Kelly’s underwear!’ suggested Kara, giggling.
Laura squealed: `Oh, you’re foul!’
`That’s disgusting,’ ruled Sally.
`I know!’ I said.
Then the bell went, and we straggled up the hill for English.
Walking through the corridors, I followed the loud voices and the laughter of the others. I was one little fish in an enormous shoal, changing direction effortlessly at the slightest twitch of the leader’s tail. I blended in perfectly, as usual. No-one suspected a thing.
I can’t remember if I even knew we were getting a new teacher. Everyone said Mrs Bohringer had run off with Mr Russell who was head of Maths and they’d both been fired. I’d heard that Lucy Hinds’ sister Kerry had seen them kissing in the supplies room. It was a scandal. I giggled along with it. But I don’t think I seriously believed it was true.
Anyway, I wasn’t expecting to see you standing, hands clasped gently in front of you, behind the teacher’s desk.
In we all trooped and sat down.
You had chalked your name on the board in huge white letters. I think you stammered slightly when you introduced yourself. You wore a tweed suit that was too big for you, in the most expensive and well-tailored way imaginable. I’ve always liked your taste in clothes, darling. There’s a faint sort of mad-professor quality that goes with your bedraggled hair. I don’t think you mean to look like that; it’s just an accident of your wardrobe and distraction. I suppose that’s what’s so charming.
I didn’t pay you the slightest attention.
I just sat at my desk, up the back by the window, reading a book, through the whole lesson. You didn’t tell me to stop. I assumed you hadn’t seen me.
The book was If This Is a Man, by Primo Levi.
I know you’ve read it, though we’ve never discussed it. It’s on the bookshelf in the study. It’s hardcover and some of the passages are underlined in passionate biro, presumably by you. I’m sure it’s the sort of book you’d love, come to think of it. I’m sure it’s one of your special ones.
It’s about the Holocaust. It’s about concentration camps and the fetid depths of man’s inhumanity to man. I often used to read books like that.
I read them because I needed to confront myself, head-on, with what I was. Poor Primo, trapped without hope of escape in the very lowest circle of hell, keeps popping up with remembered scraps of poetry and resolutions to shave every day, no matter what, to preserve his human dignity. As you read, of course, you’re completely on his side, cursing the Germans, cursing their cruelty. You can’t understand where it comes from, all that violence, that will to subjugate.
You droned on, my darling, about iambic pentameter. You made a few well-worn jokes. You called Shakespeare Bill. No-one laughed. My friends slumped, chins on elbows, lethargic hands scribbling away on pencil cases.
Did you see something in my face, even then? Did your eyes, skimming across that legion of indifferent faces, stop for a second and linger on mine?
I find it difficult to believe. In those days, I counted myself lucky to look so uninteresting.
When I considered my looks, which was rarely, I thought myself distressingly bland. Eyes just seemed to slide off my face. All my features were too even to excite the vision. In the bathroom, in the mornings, before I’d wiped all the sleep from my eyes, my face was a ghastly white blur which fizzled out in the ill-defined, pastel-yellow halo of my hair. My straining eyes could not even see themselves.
My body was small and neat, which was good for my purposes. A spy needs firstly to avoid looking like a spy. A successful traitor, even more than a loyal subject, must appear to conform. I was saved from obesity, crustiness, overtallness. I was therefore saved the accusing, conspiratorial glares that were thrown about regarding Anita, that girl with the infant dreadlocks, the broad shoulders, the nose-ring that teachers continually growled at her to take out.
As we all filed out at the end of class, you stood beside the door.
`Good book?’ you asked me as I passed.
I can’t remember what I answered. I think I ignored you.
I lived with my aunt and uncle in a drab brown house that backed onto the road reserve.
They were decent people. Decent enough, anyway, to take me in and care for me from the age of four, paying my school fees and driving me to endless games of netball. They were also decent enough not to have had any other children to rival me when the chocolate biscuits were being distributed.
My uncle was a thin man, with a thin moustache and thinning hair. He came from Queensland. He dressed like a Queensland primary-school headmaster. Striped short-sleeved shirt and ill-matching tie, Shorts-the formal sort, belted. Socks pulled right up and folded over just below the knees.
He never said much over dinner. He watched cricket. He smelt of stale sweat on Saturdays when he came in from mowing our lacklustre, sunbleached lawn.
He was a nice man. He gave me pocket money if I asked for it, and picked me up at 10 p.m. from school discos, asking dryly, `Did you pull?’
I always said, `No!’ as though the idea disgusted me, and he always replied, `Next time, love,’ as though he were commiserating me.
My aunt was flabby and pathetic, with a turkey-chin and small sunken eyes. She draped her big body in floral fat-lady dresses. She babbled insincere bitchings about the women she worked with. She ate and ate and ate. I often found chocolate wrappers in the bathtub. She was like a large passionless sponge.
I won’t say I never saw my aunt in tears, or that no emotion at all was ever expressed in that household. It’s just that it all came at inappropriate moments.
She could say, `Your Mummy’s gone to Heaven’ (stupid, banal phrase!-it makes my blood boil to think of her using it), `You’ll be coming to live with us now,’ but her tone was as workaday as the lino that covered our kitchen floor. Her delivery was all wrong.
On the other hand, one afternoon when my uncle came home from the shops with the wrong sort of biscuits-caramel Tim-Tams instead of normal ones-I saw the tears come coursing down her cheeks. I thought they’d never stop. Her dimpled chin shook and wobbled as earthquakes of emotion passed through her.
`It’s such a simple thing!’ she wept, her big face flushed a passionate red.
I stood in the kitchen doorway-I must have been about twelve-and watched her grieve like the Mother of Christ after the Crucifixion, her heavy head bowed down over the biscuits, her hands over her eyes.
My uncle, trying to apologise-and to hide his frustration at the embarrassing tides of emotion pouring out of his wife-also proved himself to have more than just the one bland, everyday face.
`I’m sorry,’ he said, silhouetted against the bright white window. He reached out a hand and laid it, in a futile gesture of comfort, on my aunt’s heaving shoulder. He held himself like a Hollywood actor at a moment of high crisis, speaking in short, significant sentences. `I’m really sorry.’
Copyright ” 1999 by Cathy Coote. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.