Innocentsby Cathy Coote
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 naive into a sexual relationship to satisfy a twisted desire is perverted, even evil. But when the perpetrator is a sixteen-year-old/i>
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 naive 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.
- Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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By CATHY COOTE
GROVE PRESSCopyright © 1999 Cathy Coote
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMy darling,
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 peopleshrank 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.'
It would be comforting to think that some of the blame for my perversity could be unloaded onto my aunt and uncle.
It is true that there was always a feeling in that house ... not of active resentment, so much as of being slightly put-upon, of having an extra chore to perform, one more thing to do, one more bill to pay. There were a lot of short sharp sighs, especially from my aunt.
Even the most saintly child if she was sensitive and intelligent-would have found it difficult to be happy in that household. The unhappiness, for me, all centres on small details: my uncle's pockmarked cheeks, his trouser-shorts, the faded orange-and-yellow linoleum on the kitchen floor. My aunt's big, cheap floral frocks drying inexorably on the clothesline.
But for anyone with any powers of reason to deny their own responsibility for their situation is just silly. For all I know, my own parents may have exuded just that air of workaday stodginess, and I'd still be what I am.
This remembering is so strange! It's like trying to think back over last night's dreams at five in the afternoon.
When I think of those days, I think of myself bobbing up and down in an ocean of mundanity, all soaked and sozzled with it. I think of my fat aunt hunched over a carton of ice-cream at the kitchen table. Such a commonplace, everyday gluttony. Such an understandable craving.
It will be hard to look at the pages ahead. I will cover each completed line as I write, so that I don't have to look back on them. Even scrawled in this exercise book, for no-one's eyes but yours, they will parade my shame.
First of all, darling, I have to make it clear that I am not what I was. I am no longer afflicted by the visions I'm about to describe.
I have you to thank for this. I owe you all my gratitude, and yet, naturally, I'm very reluctant to explain exactly why. How can I show you the hideous, clinical calculations whirring away beneath those lips that brushed your cheeks so lightly it made them itchy, whispered ticklishly in your ear, `Oh, I love you so much it's giving me a stomach ache!' and made you blush?
My love, you have exorcised fouler demons from me than you can possibly imagine.
Excerpted from Innocents by CATHY COOTE Copyright © 1999 by Cathy Coote
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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While Vladimir Nabokov took us into the mind of aging Humbert Humbert, Coote walks us through the mind of Lolita. The narrator, a six-teen year old school girl who is an outsider in her young world, has a somewhat disturbing infatuation with her ability to control her aging mate with sexual antics. She is very calculated and meticulous about every detail, right down to the clothes she wears and the characteristics she maintains. As in Nabokov's novel, the reader ends up pitying the older man. A dark and thrilling tale, not for those faint of heart.
I thought that this book was ridiculous and sick. From the narrator's point of view it seems horrible and controlling, but if you think of it from the guy's point of view it seems all well and fine. I mean, I don't think the narrator really did anything bad, I think the manipulation that she thought she was causing was all in her head. Seriously, if you think about it from his point of view or probably any guy's point of view, I think that most guys would probably be happy in this situation. Sick, but I think it's true. I think the narrator unconsciously played into almost every guy's fantasy, she gave him everything he could possibly want and did nothing to cause him pain or anything. <(ridiculous) I kind of liked the guy character because of his shyness, but I still think he took advantage of her as opposed to what the back of the book suggusted about her being at fault for what transpired between them, despite her thinking she was manipulating him. It seems to me that their "relationship" benefited him more than it did her.
It's a very unique book with an interesting perverted main character. I couldn't put it down. I loved every page of Innocents.
WOW!!!! thats a good adjective to use for this book! it was sooooo good. it's chilling and distrubing but at the same time entertaining and captivating. i never wanted to put it down. the plot of this story is so different from anything else i have ever read. i love how you get to be inside of the girl's mind and how she thinks. its so interesting how she's so obsessed with having the power over the teacher all the time and how he's obsessed with her even though he has her. the fact that it was also a story about a teacher and student relationship drew me to it more. i told my friend to red it too and she did and she loved it as well. this is the best twisted love/obsession story i have ever read!
This book is a amazing. Like the film, 'American Beauty', it allows the reader to get-in-the-know about what is in a person's mind when they take on the taboo/perverse. What is amazing is that these scenarios seem very normal -- only exaggerated for the sake of the story. I hope she (Coote) writes another book soon. She's a great storyteller.
I'm on my last two chapters as we speak and I thought i should just review it this instant since I've been unable to put it down for a few days now. Since I am a student and must work to pay my way through school, it's painful to sit and look at the book in my bag (at all times in case of a 'break') waiting to be read. Sleepless nights, unstudied exams, unfinished projects, neglected costumers...all because of this fantastic and disturbing yet tasteful novel. I've always been attracted to stories and such that have been surrounded by what is known as the 'Lolita Complex' but this story has taken all those and blown them away, making me forget most of them existed...of course except for the 'mother' of them all -Lolita herself.
This book was so dark, sharp, hott, & twisted, and can't ever seem to put it down. You get invited into the mind of a sexual controlling teenager who writes the truth to her lover in a letter. It is an absolute thrilling ride!
For a man who would have sex with an adolescent, there may be two "Lolitas". One a mere baby, unthreatening, trembling with uncertainty, innocent to the core that he would penetrate. The other artful and lustful, her mind a litany of saditic urges, who pulls him into her perverted sphere, so that out of the two of them, who is to say which is innocent? "Innocents" is a shrine to the second Lolita. It is a carefully crafted series of graphic images of sexual acts, which form part of a sixteen year old's revelations. In her mind, this Lolita is empowered by her own perversion, her manipulation, her self-perceived freakishness, and this Humber Humbert is her toy. What emerges is a stylishly presented account of obsession, with a cynically raw edge. The writing is audacious and imaginative. Succinct and punchy sentences convey the protagonist's black + white morality. Startling in its frankness, this is one confession that raises more questions than it resolves.
Dark, disturbing, weird and funny. If you¿ve ever been to Catholic school, you need to read this gripping, sexy story of seduction and power. Despite the graphically erotic writing, it has an intelligent message at its core, which is that the need to control can itself enslave - control freaks are prisoners of their nature even as they try to exert their influence over others.