White emptiness

Use the image above to write creatively about a character’s response to entering this unfamiliar setting for the first time.

Simmo sat on a hard bench near the staircase, which was a wide thing with a strip of red carpet going up the centre. It looked like something a Disney princess would come floating down in a dress big enough for in its own postcode. It did not look like a magistrates’ court where he would have an otherwise clean record ruined because his stupid cousin had picked him up in a car that turned out to be stolen.

He sat on the bench and thought about the following things:

  1. The whereabouts of his social worker. Gary had promised to be there with him to explain stuff and to warn him when he was getting that look on his face which his mother’s boyfriend called dumb insolence. Gary was not there and Simmo was beginning to panic.
  2. That the places where things were done to you always looked nicer than the places where you got to do good things. The dentist, the emergency department in the hospital, the offices of people whose job seemed to be to make behaviour plans and attendance contracts for you – they were always so nice. Calm, magnolia-coloured, full of people who had never gone to KFC or had a backyard full of broken shit, or who sat behind Petbarn when there were exams at school. You sat in front of these people in the space they had cleared for you – and only that space – and tried not to feel like a specimen. Even their pot plants looked more together than you felt.
  3. That this was a place where something would be done to him. He could tell. It was too nice, too calm, too tidy. Even the space hated him. Everything about the pale yellow walls and the white trim, the clear light through the decorated glass, the sweep of the stairs and the sweep of the people going up and down them – everything was the opposite to Simmon’s angular, Koori, awkward self. There was a circular gallery above the staircase where people up there could look down, like the ones who had come through the door were in a kind of bear-baiting arena. There was a white niche-thing in the wall. It looked completely pointless. A little white divot with a small table and an angry-looking eagle statue on it. It was just empty space, bounded by the building, there to give a visual breather between spaces where you got judged and told off.
  4. That you could fit his bedroom in the empty space of the stairwell six times and their whole house one-and-a-half times, if you didn’t count the sleepout in the backyard. Just empty space, good for nothing but staring into. It was white emptiness, he thought. How his History teacher had defined Terra nulius.

He sniggered.

One of the security guards saw him snigger and rolled his eyes. Simmo could feel a telling-off coming on. Maybe a second check of his pockets. He wished Gary would hurry up and appear. He began to wish he could cry, the way you did when you were little and everything got on top of you. Then someone picked you up and took you for a sleep. But he was too old for that now. Now you hung around places like this, waiting, wondering, feeling even space turn against you.

Assess how effectively you evoked your character’s response to this experience, making detailed reference to your use of a range of language devices and stylistic features.

On the one hand, I was happy with my description of what Simmo had thought. On the other, I wasn’t convinced by how he had apparently thought it.

I had initially thought that I would ‘show not tell’ and omit all verbs of thought or feeling and simply focus on the actions which issued from Simmo’s internal reaction to the setting. Then I recalled how many times I have been somewhere that I felt was threatening or hostile, and had done nothing – on the outside, it looked as though I was simply sitting there. We rarely respond physically to things, or at least not in a particularly interesting way. That meant I had to describe what he was thinking and feeling. However, my reading of some of the texts for this Module has shown that extended renditions of thoughts and feelings – such as we see in Linda Burney’s interminable First speech to the House of Representatives – is not only dull, but can be dull to the point where it alienates the reader because it suggests an abuse of the privilege of their attention. So I used numbers to show that his thoughts were separate (as they often are when you’re in a liminal space and have nothing particular to concentrate on), and that there weren’t very many of them.

Although I wasn’t happy with some of the elements of voice, which was the voice of a middle-aged white woman rather than an indigenous teenage boy, the basic tendency, to contrast things (like the initial simile of the Disney princess and the magistrates court), and the thumbnail description of places in terms of their generic elements (the calm, magnolia-coloured offices vs the backyard full of broken shit), and the memory of something a teacher had said to him, seemed authentic enough. The sudden use of the highly loaded term Terra nulius and its cultural connotations also felt both slightly clumsy and smug – we tend not to recognize the presence of such large issues in the moment-by-moment events until much later. Unfortunately, I, like Simmo had only 20 minutes to show the benefits of a lifetime of learning.

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