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Archive for the ‘Novel Excerpts’ Category

This is a piece of total nonsense I wrote one afternoon, without much thought or planning. I wanted to write something, but could think of nothing on which to work, so I began to write the first thing that came into my head, just to pump out some words and hear the hammering of the keys. I took two of my best and oldest friends as characters, and off I went.

I read recently, in an interview with Mike Skinner aka. The Streets, that he suffers withdrawal symptoms if he doesn’t create something regularly. I guess this was a product of a similar sensation, the attempt to break a certain literary constipation. So, here it is, Escape from Nowhere!

Chapter 1

Inside

 

Simon was tunnelling, burrowing. He had his head down and his tail up, but the concrete wasn’t shifting before his nails. He clenched his teeth against the sensation; it was unsettling as chalk on the blackboard, knives on a plate.

“It’s no good, Si,” said Benny. “You need tools for that sort of thing.”

Chez sat shaking his head. Simon came out from under the bed.

“It’s a solid wall,” he said. “I thought it might, you know, be otherwise.”

“I guess this place is real after all,” said Benny.

“I told you so,” said Chez.

“You sure did,” said Simon. “Still, real or not, we’re getting out of here come hell or high water. Not unless someone opens the door.”

It had been a very long day for the three men, who had unexpectedly found themselves in prison. It wasn’t as though they had been arrested, nor had they been charged with a crime. Indeed, they hadn’t even seen their captors and had no recollection of being transported here. One minute the three old friends were living their lives independently, and next, they quite literally found themselves inside a prison.

“It must be a dream. I mean, it must be,” said Chez.

“But how then?” said Simon. “Is it my dream or yours? Because, I’m telling you, it’s real. The wall, for example.”

“What else could it be? I should just try to shut you guys out and wake up,” said Chez, who had displayed so far, the greatest equilibrium. “It can’t be real, so it must be my dream and you guys are just very, very real in it. I’ll wake up soon. I must. This can’t happen.”

“I agree,” said Benny. “But it is happening. I’ve pinched myself like ten times, it hurts. I head-butted the wall – that hurt too. It’s been too long now not to be a dream. Even when I’ve been duped by a dream in the past, it’s never been as good a job as this.”

“Well, I kinda like it,” said Simon. “Sure, we don’t know what the hell’s going on, but someone must have captured us somehow – drugs, tranqs, aliens, fuck knows, and brought us here. Because here we are and, well, magic isn’t real. It’s pretty bloody interesting that someone would think the three of us were important in some way.”

“But why? Who?”

“It’s a mystery,” said Benny. “And a proper one at that!”

Benny stood up and began to walk around the room. They had been here almost an hour now and in that time had inspected the place thoroughly. There was a heavy metal door locked so tight it didn’t shift at all when jostled and a not ungenerous window, heavily barred. There were three single beds and a wall-mounted oil heater under the window. The heater was on and the room was comfortably warm.

“If this was Dungeons and Dragons,” said Chez, “I’d check the lock for traps.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

The Dream of the Novella

 

I had a dream last night,” said Benny. “You had written a novella, Simon, and it got published.”

“Really? That’s awesome.”

“Yeah, well it was alright for some. I was gutted. Totally jealous. I’ve been writing for years and none of my novels ever get published and you just blew in and whipped one up and next thing you’re published.”

“Must be a natural,” said Simon.

“The man can spin a great yarn,” said Chez. “We all know that.”

“I know, I know,” said Benny. “But this was an affront! Naturally I pretended I was stoked for you. It wasn’t like I was being a prick about it, but it just got me so riled up. I was actually there, in the dream, holding this thing in my hands. I could smell it, feel it, I could even read it. It was about a hundred and twenty pages, it weighed nothing, the cover green, not very flattering, but it was real alright. I flipped it over and read the back. There were four endorsements. I couldn’t make out who the reviewers were, but I read all the reviews. The one I remember said something like ‘Tracey has delivered a most entertaining pot pourri of ideas and invective. A colourful stream of curses the likes of which we’ve not seen since Burroughs.”

“Colourful curses!” laughed Simon. “I like that. What the hell was it about?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. But I had a feel for the mood of it. It felt like Tom Waits. It felt like working class New York. It felt like all that, but with a hint of Ruskin. It was, in places, full of high-falutin language that thought it was keeping it simple. It was all tied up like a double bow, when a single bow would have sufficed. It had a sort of swashbuckling style, and then a certain raw frankness, with hookers and coffee and fried potato breakfasts. It also had these sections that looked like they wanted to be in italics but weren’t. There was one called “Definitions”, only it just had the one definition, which was for the word “Quest”. It went on to say how quests were like, were like…”

“Like what?” said Chez.

“I can’t actually remember.”

“But what it was, when I held it and read it and thought about it and could feel it, I mean the shape, the parameters, it was as though my dream were sending me the blueprint for a novella. That if I woke up, but kept my eyes closed and started writing, I could have hammered it out and then bang – instant novella.”

“That’s pretty classic, really,” said Simon. “Because actually, I wrote a novella.”

“No bullshit?” said Benny.

“None whatsoever. It was called Buckley’s Second Chance.”

“Who’s Buckley?” asked Chez.

“Buckley, you know, of Buckley’s chance fame?”

“Oh,” said Benny. “You mean, as in, you’ve got Buckley’s?”

“Exactly.”

“That’s classic,” said Chez. “So you gave him a second chance?”

“Sort of,” said Simon. “But then, why not?”

“I don’t know. Tell us.”

Benny and Chez sat forward. Simon leaned in close.

“Well, you know how people will say ‘you’ve got Buckley’s, right? But think about it – sometimes those chances must come off. It’s as slim as all hell, but someone’s gotta come good against the odds. So if they can do it, why can’t Buckley?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Hang on,” said Chez. “Who was this Buckley guy anyway?”

“I’ll tell you this much,” said Simon, “he was a real ugly son of a bitch. He looked like one of the orang-utan-descended dudes in Planet of the Apes. He had a total bell-end head, a full penis-job, and he was on the run for all money.”

“I’ve got my notebook here,” said Simon, producing a spiral-bound pad from under his pillow. “Now, according to some bloke called George Russell, Buckley was ‘a tall, ungainly man…and altogether his looks were not in his favour; he had a shaggy head of black hair, a low forehead with overhanging eyebrows nearly concealing his small eyes, a short snub nose, a face very much marked by smallpox, and was just such a man as one would suppose fit to commit burglary or murder.”

“Huh! Talk about profiling. But he did, right? He was an escaped convict wasn’t he?”

“He had a pretty interesting pedigree,” said Simon. “The dude was an apprentice brick-layer who fought under the Duke of York against Napoleon in Holland, in like 1799. He got busted a few years later for stealing cloth in London and they sentenced him to transportation. Once he’d done a bit of time in Australia, he broke out with five other convicts. They stole a boat and rowed around towards Melbourne. The five other guys decided to head north east, but Buckley decided to punch on.”

“And, what, he died or something afterwards?”

“No no. Apparently he learned a few tricks off some local aborigine families and fended for himself – eating wild berries, fish, ants, you name it. Eventually he hooked up with the local Watourong tribe and, get this, he was mistaken for the spirit of a long dead chief and they adopted him. He lived with them for the next thirty-two years as a spirit, doing a bit of theft and rustling, that sort of thing.”

“Hang on,” said Benny. “I thought he was supposed to have died or something. That’s why ‘you’ve got Buckley’s’ means, you’ve got no chance whatsoever.”

“It’s true,” said Simon. “That’s the gist. But I mean, this guy actually returned from the wilderness. He went back to civilisation and got a full pardon!”

“So really, the expression is bullshit,” said Chez. “Or does it just mean his survival was a fluke.”

“Good point, Mr Chesterman, it’s a very slim chance, you see. But then, on top of that, there’s a lot of questions over the origin of the expression anyway. Some blokes reckon it has nothing to do with this William Buckley after all.”

“Sacrilege! So what’s his second chance all about? The return to civilisation?”

“Ah, well,” said Simon. “Listen up…”

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Ashes and Diamonds

This is the half-finished (now rounded off and polished) first chapter of a science fiction novel I began sketching some years ago, entitled “Hotel Paradiso.” It was inspired by a number of long and involved conversations with friends and colleagues at Cambridge about how much awareness of the past the human species might retain were it to survive for millions, even billions of years. I doubt, for example, that in the year 5,793,657,349 they will be focussing on Germany between the wars in history faculties around the galaxy…

The heavy black ship drifted through the barren dark. Across the vast silence of limitless death its engines burned a lost roar. Ranged along its bulky hull, tiny windows shone like torches pointed across an immense cavern. Their power was rapidly swallowed by the emptiness; their minuscule warmth, much less even than that of the engines, made no impact on the one Kelvin expanse of eternity.

The ship knew where it was going, for its occupants – a bipedal, carbon-based form not entirely unlike ourselves – had instructed it to move into orbit around an ancient planet. The planet had long since ceased to receive any warmth from its dead sun, which, were it shining still, would have illumined a red soil, here and there fused by great heat into fields of glass.

Deep inside the hull, in the ship’s museum, warm orange light illuminated an extensive archive. Beneath a frescoed ceiling, painted with scenes of ancient forests, of suns and stars, of a world out-of-doors, of ruddy, bipedal beings playing, swimming, surfing, or sitting cast in thought, were rows of computer banks, storage shelves, display cases, brackets, niches and cabinets, stretched through the ship for almost two kilometres. This was the heart of the University of the Empyrean, one of thousands in the sprawling, skulking civilisation of Homo Superior.

Even now, as the ship moved into orbit around the heavy, sullen orb, negotiating with the gravity of the crushed white dwarf, a lecture was taking place. It was given in a language of which we cannot hope to have an understanding, so many were the years through which it had evolved, so many were the contexts, so many were the worlds, indeed, galaxies that it had traversed, that the vocabulary, grammar and tones bore little relation to the dialects to which it traced its origins, billions of years before, on a planet lost in mythology. The basic sense of it is given here.

“Naturally,” said the lecturer, “any study of a period as ancient as this one is heavily dominated by conflicting methodologies. It is why, as ancient historians, we emphasise the development, above all, of the faculty of interpretation. Our evidence is so limited, so much has been lost which could have illuminated our understanding of the very early origins of homo superior, and indeed, our evolution from the Homo Sapiens and Homo Sapientissimus…”

The amplified voice was crisply resonant in the gallery of students and fellows. They sat attentively, looking not so much for revelations as confirmations of their common purpose.

“With only several hundred Earth texts surviving, and mostly in later translations from the publishing houses of Mars and Europa, you know as well as I do what a paucity of evidence we have for constructing the chronology of human social evolution on Mars. With five hundred million years of habitation, commencing with the first mission in the year thirteen billion, seven hundred and three million, four hundred and eight thousand and fifty-three, little was preserved from the earliest period of settlement.”

“However,” and here the lecturer, Professor Julian Rollmops, tapped his elongated middle finger against the air as though knocking on the door of an important point, “you will all be familiar with the ancient Homo Sapiens novel Moscow Gherkin on the Rocks, with its wealth of anecdotal evidence about the Hotel Paradiso, founded two hundred years after the initial Martian settlement. It paints a picture of a time that witnessed the first true flourishing of the economic potential of the Martian colony, which had, for so long previous, languished under the cost of overheads, the logistics of communication and transportation, the absence of sophisticated culture and cuisine and the consequent inability to attract colonists to the slow-growing, insular, claustrophobic frontier mining society. Though we cannot be certain that the incidental information is entirely accurate, we do have proof that the Hotel Paradiso did exist, for, owing to the popularity of the novel as much as the hotel itself, it was preserved as a cultural icon, a vast artefact, celebrated as the gateway to the golden age of Martian settlement.”

Professor Rollmops cleared his throat and adjusted his adrenaline level. He was excited and nervous, but over all, proud to be delivering what amounted to a pep talk preliminary to the exploration phase of a long-dreamed of project. It was well-trodden ground and his audience were all too familiar with the details. Once they were on the surface, however, or under it, for that matter, every so-called fact enumerated here would be open to conjecture.

“We know this,” continued Professor Rollmops, “because the hotel is inventoried in the famous document, Grand Marineris 793. If the accepted dating is correct, this originates in the twenty-seventh century of Earth years. The monograph, a pivotal examination of ‘gender blending’ amongst the wealthier colonists, displays a sophisticated use of academic reference, a most impressive awareness of several Earth dialects, and, judging by the scale of the bibliography, it gives tantalising hints about the culture of detailed research which existed. But I digress. What is significant for our purposes is that it pinpoints the exact location of the hotel and indicates that having been decommissioned, it was encased by surrounding developments and came to form a sort of subterranean museum, the structural integrity of which, according to Olympus 137, was still intact some two thousand years later. Whether we can hope to find anything after five billion years is anyone’s guess! But, ladies and gentlemen, fellow scholars, that is precisely why we are here.”

The room hummed with muffled murmurs of interest and one man began to clap, before thinking better of it.

“Sol was a main sequence star in the G2 spectral class. At the end of its lifecycle, in the shedding of its outer layers – still barely visible in the fading remnants of the planetary nebula – and subsequent loss of gravity, both Earth and Mars were pushed into more distant orbits and their atmospheres slowly but surely stripped. Exactly what, if anything, survived on or beneath the surface, is anyone’s guess. The loss of so many ships in the flight to the moons of Saturn and subsequent Titanic War has left us with only a piecemeal understanding of the final Martian evacuation. Fortunately, however, it is only twenty-three thousand years since the last ship is estimated to have departed from the dying system and I personally am hopeful that we shall find some astonishingly well-preserved archaeology. Our scans and models of gravitational dynamics indicate next to no asteroid bombardment, despite the planet’s acquisition of two new moons. Or, rather, two replacement moons, after the expulsion of Phobos and Deimos.”

Professor Rollmops leaned forward, placing both his elbows on the synthetic wood lectern, as though about to deliver an aside. Instinctively, the audience leaned forward, joining him in this greater intimacy.

“Indeed, I am very hopeful that, what is, for the moment, an almost non-existent chronology outside the framework of a vague mythology, will soon be transformed into a sophisticated understanding of the history and culture of this latest phase of outer Sol system settlements.”

There were murmurs among the audience, and shuffles not of restlessness, but warm approval. As the keynote speaker, at this, the last lecture series before the archaeological exploration got underway, Professor Rollmops was tasked with reminding all of their mission and raising spirits appropriately. He was not so much here to inform and instruct, but to motivate; to celebrate.

“We have, of course,” Professor Rollmops continued, “the well-known reference from Phobos 652, regarding the final evacuations from the planet Earth, and the then very great mythological significance which it entailed. The parallels drawn between the long-remembered destruction of a place called Troy, and exile from an abundant garden, are a tantalising glimpse of, we can only assume, even more ancient Earth myths whose significance, again, we can only assume, had acquired a purely academic currency for the fleeing Homo Sapientissimus.”

Across the audience heads nodded sagaciously and Professor Rollmops was pleased to see them so poised for his coup de grace.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “How proud and, perhaps, surprised, our long dead ancestors would be to know that now we have returned from exile after so many troubled millennia!”

This comment brought spontaneous applause from several audience members, and once it was underway, the rest joined in. “Bravo!” they cried. “Hoorah!”

A few stood in their seats, and soon the entire crowd was on its feet, caught up in a wave of nostalgia and destiny to which only an intelligent species that has somehow survived and replicated itself successfully, never quite losing touch with its origins, over a time-span of five billion years, is privy.

Professor Rollmops, himself overwhelmed with the historical significance of the moment, found himself choking back tears.

“Yes, my esteemed colleagues,” he croaked. “We have come home at last!”

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Rain

This is a chapter from a novel I wrote between 1998 and 2004 entitled Et in Antipodes, Ego. It was intended to be something of a romantic epic, but lacked sufficient gism to make it readable. Too long and slow, the romantic elements were based, at times quite painstakingly, on personal experiences from the period prior to its conception. The story centred around Edward Cockfoster and his uncovering of a literary controversy whilst writing a PhD on the fictional Australian author, Bryce Chapman. His unexpected, serendipitous success with his research contrasted with the failure of his relationship with the Cambridge-bound Pandora.

Whilst containing some, if I may say so myself, quite beautiful moments, there was too much pedantic and pedestrian detail which could only be described as self-indulgent. With the first draft running to 140,000 words, it was terribly overwritten, yet at the time I was too precious to take the axe to it in the way that was necessary. In retrospect, it was good “marathon training”, but not something I intend to go back to, having moved so far away from its characters, themes and sentiment. This is the fourth-last chapter, wherein Edward finally sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

 

Rain

Edward met Felicity at her house at eight and they walked around the corner to the local church. He had worn his only suit for the occasion, a dark blue pinstripe over a pale mustard shirt. Felicity wore a ballooning white skirt, a pale blue blouse and dark blue cardigan; her long black hair hung flat to the top of her bottom.

It promised to be a difficult sitting when they saw the uncushioned benches. Felicity curtseyed to the alter and slipped by, the hem of her skirt brushing Edward’s shin; the cotton half catching then springing away from his trousers. He slid along the bench after her.

“This is nice,” said Edward, shrugging.

The service began soon afterwards and Edward stared ahead, thinking only of the girl beside him. Neither he nor she was Catholic, but as students of Latin, this had seemed a curious excursion. It was not long before Edward was overcome with drowsiness, induced by the soft fragrance of Felicity. The slow rhythms of the Latin washed over him, spoken by an Italian-accented speaker with a cadence and elision usually neglected by unimaginative readers. The words hummed in the solid wooden pews; a language come back from the dead.

Amidst the press of Italian families, Edward and Felicity moved hardly a muscle. Forced close together, the fabric covering their upper arms touched lightly. The contact filled Edward with such a sensual languor that he was afraid of moving and breaking the spell. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Felicity was transfixed, though he did not know by what.

When at last it was over they stood up quickly to leave. It was just after eleven and they emerged into a mist of light rain.

“Well…,” Edward trailed. “That was kind of interesting.”

“I was pretty disappointed actually. It wasn’t as medieval as I’d expected.”

“Vatican Two is to blame.”

They began to move off under the dripping trees in the direction of Norton Street.

“What’s the point of Catholicism without the incense, mystery and chanting?” said Edward. “They’ve lost their schtick.”

“I know. And, hello, guitars and cow bells? Whatever…”

“Say no more.”

They hurried through the rain to Bar Italia, a busy, informal café; worn tables, ice-cream counter, movie posters and a bohemian crowd. The clash  of plates and clink of spoons reverberated on the wet-footprinted tiles.

They ordered a fettucini melanzone and salata caprese to share. They drank tea and coffee and laughed about the service. When they had finished eating Felicity suggested going on a walk around the neighbourhood.

“It’s raining,” said Edward.

“But I want to get wet,” said Felicity.

She led him through the streets in her ballooning white skirt; small in stature and perfectly proportioned. All she lacked, thought Edward, was a wand trailing stardust. They came to a wide grassed pavement behind which lay railway tracks upon an embankment. Along the line of the fence an array of towering trees and flowering shrubs hung their branches to form bowers. In their romantic communal enthusiasm, the local residents had set up wooden benches, constructed from old wood, and painted with a fading assortment of blossoms.

They stood talking under an arched trellis until Edward decided to brave the wet bench. He wiped off the top slick and sat on the damp wood.

“You can sit in my lap, if you like,” he joked, putting his elbows up on the back of the bench.

“Alright,” she answered. “I should have known better than to wear white.”

“I’m sure the church-goers liked it. They love to fantasise about virgins.”

“Well don’t you get any ideas.”

She sat on his lap and he adjusted her weight until they were comfortable. Although he tried his hardest not to place his hands on her with obvious intent, the merest touch communicated more than he had intended to learn: the neat roundness of a thigh, the inward curve from hip to waist; hands where they might be in a more ardent encounter.

Felicity sat in Edward’s lap until his bottom went numb. They talked and talked and when she enthused about her favourite poets, Edward’s suffering increased tenfold. She too was a fan of the romantics, and after a time he could bear it no longer.

“I am dying to kiss you,” he said.

“What?” she said, genuinely surprised. “Oh no, you can’t say that, it isn’t fair.”

She twisted in his lap and looked at him.

“Why? I’m sorry,” he said. “But it’s the plain, simple truth.”

Edward leaned back to give her more room, relaxing his hold on her.

“But… This is such bad timing. I’ve just started seeing someone.”

“Oh? Really? I know. I mean, I didn’t know, but I should have known. That you must be, that is.”

He bit his lip.

“Someone like you would be, I guess. I wasn’t sure.”

She sat stiffly.

“You shouldn’t have said it.”

“That I wanted to kiss you?”

“Yes.” She turned her eyes away and moved further towards his knee. “It’s been a month now. It’s just turned the corner towards something more.”

Felicity stood up and so did Edward, she walked away a few feet and turned to look at him, smiling.

“I still want to kiss you,” Edward said. “Maybe it’s not too late.”

She looked at him pityingly, moving about on the spot.

“This is so unfair. It’s so confusing.”

She giggled nervously. She walked in a circle, looking up and then around, laughing when their eyes crossed.

“You know, I had a dream about you the other night,” she said. “You came to me in a Latin lecture and handed me an envelope. Inside there was a card with a heart in it, a simple heart cut out of paper and coloured in with red pencil. I hoped you were going to turn up after class, and then you didn’t, and I realised how much I wanted you to be around. That was Wednesday.”

“Well here I am!”

She laughed again and let her voice trail off in a frustrated whine, walking away again and turning to come back.

“It’s just such bad timing all this. No one should have to make this sort of decision.”

“So there is still a decision to be made then?”

“Oh, please, Edward, no, no. Don’t keep on about it.”

“I’m really sorry. Honestly, I should never have said anything. I wouldn’t have said a thing if I knew there was someone else. Something you said gave me hope. I thought you were just out of a relationship.”

“I was. I am. But then I met this other guy. He’s in third year. Undergrad.”

Never demean the opposition, thought Edward, just keep hoping.

“Studying?”

“Science.”

They were both standing, facing each other, twisting on their feet and half smiling.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know. I always pick the wrong time.”

“It’s hard to get the timing right. Things just happen when they do.”

“Are you in love?” he asked.

Felicity began to nod, then slowly stopped. Gradually her head began to shake.

“Not yet. But there’s nothing wrong. Everything is nice with us. Maybe I will be.”

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “It just seemed so right here. Normally I don’t have the courage.”

She looked up slowly from the wet ground with mischievous eyes.

“It is right, and I want you to kiss me, but…”

“Perhaps I should try anyway?” Edward’s heart was pounding beneath his breastbone. All about him water was dripping. He could hear and smell and taste the world so well.

“I guess you could try,” she said, faintly.

Edward advanced rapidly, afraid of a change of heart. He put his arm around her waist and drew her in, and she placed her hands, a little cautiously, upon his shoulders. He closed his eyes and she closed hers, and their mouths came together in an awkward, mistimed kiss. Their teeth clashed. He kissed her again and she responded, but their mouths seemed not quite to fit, and they broke away, both feeling disjointed.

“Mmm,” said Edward. “Your face is even more beautiful up close.”

She skipped away from him.

“I thought our first kiss would be better than that,” she said. “I imagined you kissing me the way Ewan McGregor kisses.”

“How so?” asked Edward, a little shocked at the critique.

“I’ll have to show you,” she said, and she came for him, taking his face in both her hands and tipping her own face to one side. He tipped his head the other way and their lips met and this time they got the kiss right, full mouth sucking full mouth, their lips softer, more pliant. Edward warmed from his brief shock and Felicity seemed more enthusiastic now.

Once the kissing had begun it acquired its own momentum, moving forwards to familiarity and then to a sort of immediate necessity. Edward picked her up in his arms and held her there, kissing her further. Her small body was almost weightless and so he held her for minutes until he felt sure something larger must come of this.

An hour later she led him into her back yard and snuck him through the window into her bedroom.

 

 ********

Edward reached Parramatta Road at a trot, his coat flapping. With his breast thrust out, sloughing the wind, he might have warbled like a proud robin. The rain came on in clinging beads; undecided drizzle that reminded him he wore his only suit. It had been put through the motions this night and dawn, blessed and baptised then hung from a bed-post.

He swept under the tired awnings and faded signs, slowing to pace down the pavement. In the light spread evenly by the bright grey sky, he saw and loved this dirty, great road. Bereft of cars and with its bitumen black and clean, the run-down shop-fronts and two-bit businesses pooled forgotten glories.

He smelled her in the humidity of his warming body; her scent rising from his shirt as he thrust his arm out for a taxi.

“Good morning,” he said, settling in; relishing the soft neatness of the door’s closure. The driver smiled at him, happy simply to drive. Edward rested his hands on his knees and sighed. In the taxi, all he could smell was her. He could not stop smiling, despite his exhaustion. A vision of her naked form hung behind his eyes. Had it really happened? Had they really lain together, right through to the wet sunrise? Tired in the chest, his limbs just a little numb, he flowed home unhindered through lights that stayed green.

How he longed for a hot cup of tea. How lovely then to shower and towel, and simply to be so alive at dawn.

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The following is the 2nd chapter of the first novel I wrote entitled Fools’ Gumboot and later, No Job Too Strange. I began writing it at the age of 21 when living in Calder Rd Darlington. The first draft took me from 1994 to 1996 and came out at a total of 260,000 words. It was monstrously incompetent and came to constitute a perfect lesson in exactly how not to write a novel. “Is he really on as much dope as you say he’s on?” Well, yes I was. The original premise in part rested on the, er, inspired idea of a “drug lord” as a sort of superhero in another plane of existence, where, powered by their respective substances, like elemental forces, they did their deeds for good or evil.  It soon morphed into a story about a private detective called Roland Columbus who found a means by which to travel to an alternative universe where the characters who populated our literature were made whole in one gigantic, ungodly mess. This other plane of existence lay across an expanse called “The Blue”, which was, of course, the very same “blue” that things come out of – unexpectedly. At its conception, the novel was titled Fools’ Gumboot. I shan’t elaborate.

The story was hopelessly bloated, badly written and hugely self-indulgent. So tangentially wayward was the plot that even I had trouble following it at times. Still, in its ultimately clumsy way, it held to an internal logic and made some degree of sense. The second half was far superior to the first, because it was written in a more consistent flurry of writing which took place between December 1995 and August 1996. I had quit smoking cones and was living in a sunlit, one-room flat, high up above Bronte beach with an incredible view of the coast from my balcony. Swimming every day in summer and, motivated by working seven days a week to save money for an overseas trip to make the most of my spare time, for the first time in my life I began to write in a determined and organised manner.

I finished the draft just before I left for Europe on August 19, 1996, and left it until I returned. It was thus in 1998 and 1999 that the second draft was completed, whilst I was living in a one-bedroom flat in Glebe and back at university doing honours in Australian Literature and Medieval History. The second draft was practically a second novel – I dismissed the bulk of the first draft and kept only selected elements as a story within another story. This reorganisation relocated the story to a fictional town in Queensland called Clayton, where the author of Fools’ Gumboot, Dirk, is taking a holiday and has his manuscript stolen. In his subsequent encounter with the police, and via the medium of the stoner thieves who end up reading his manuscript, the more promising and coherent elements of Fools’ Gumboot were revealed. The goings on in the town of Clayton became, in fact, the true narrative framework for the story. The novel also received a new title: No Job too Strange, and it was at this stage of the process, in 1998, that the below chapter was written. It’s not exactly all that great, especially in its rather tired colloquialisms, so I present it here more in the spirit of putting it on the record.

 

The Too-hard Basket

“Jeez it’s hot today, Trev,” said Bill.

“Sure is,” said Trev.

And it really was hot that Tuesday. Now, at midday, the sun reached its cruel zenith. Bill adjusted his corpulent body in the sagging brown swivel chair.  His red face glistened with perspiration, gathered in the gullies of his exhausted frowns. It ran down his temples and dripped from his nose and brows; dropping away into hot space.

“Sure is, Bill,” said Trev. “It’s a real hot day. Lucky we haven’t gotta go out, ‘cos I don’t know if I’d be up to even walkin’ down to the corner.”

“Too right.”

Trev plucked up the courage to reach for a cigarette. His arm hung across the air and flopped onto the fake-wood veneer desk where it inched towards the smokes. He took one out and lit it with genuine effort from a disposable lighter. He sank back into his reclining brown leather chair. The smoke curled off into the unpleasant air, writhing in the agony of the heat.

“I’m bushed already mate, I’m really bushed.” The deep whine of his voice trailed off. He grunted, clearing his throat. “But we got a job to do Bill, we’ve got this case to think about.”

Bill shrugged with sincerity. “Sure do mate. I’ve bin thinkin’ about it all morning and I haven’t got anywhere. Let’s go over the facts again.”

“Alright mate.”

They both paused a while. They were not men accustomed to pouncing.

“Now, let’s see,” said Bill. “It happened in Doug’s cafe, two days ago. A guy walks in who Doug claims was a short, swarthy lookin’ bloke, with dark hair. He could see a bit poppin’ out the bottom of his balawhatsicallit. This swarthy bloke was wearing a blue denim jacket and black jeans, and he had a ring on his right hand with Adolph Hitler on it and the bloke had somethin’ tattooed on his knuckles. There were some letters, though he didn’t see what they were.”

“Not the epistles to the apostles I don’t reckon,” threw in Trev.

“Aye? What’s that, Trev?”

“Nothin’, mate,” said Trev.

“I’ll take ya word for it. Anyhow, this bloke pulls out a gun and says, ‘look ‘ere pal, turn it over, the loot I mean,’ and a’ course Doug’s no slouch when anybody orders anything. You know how quick he can whip up a mixed grill. I mean, sure, this time he doesn’t exactly want to pull out all stops, but he gets on with the show and the guy chucks him like an airport bag.”

“Did Doug see the airline or anything like that?”

“Nah.” Bill paused to catch his breath and his eyes widened in obese appreciation. “But that’s real thinkin’ that is, see if he’s like a registered jetsetter. He only said it was ‘like’ an airport bag, so’s it might a’ been something else altogether, only like an airport bag.”

“Ah, heck.”

“Yeah, we mighta been onto somethin’ with real evidence like that.” Bill reached down and undid one of the buttons on his dark brown shirt. The moist hairs on his chest popped out in a grizzled plume. Trev sucked back on his dismal, hot cigarette.

“Anyway, mate. Two’s a crowd, the bloke says, and next thing you know e’s off with the lot, and poor old Doug’s wondering what’s ‘appened to his morning’s takings.”

“Far out, Brussel sprout.”

Trev shifted his bulk and ran his spare hand through his tropical hair.

“So what can we do with that?” he asked.

Bill stared long and hard at the ceiling. The orange and yellow lampshade dangled flypaper over his head. A large blowfly that had become attached seemed to give up the fight and stare back down at Bill. The brilliant green of the eyes held the lure of sighing bottles, of longaway refreshment, hunted into misery by the savage, unforgiving heat. Trev’s gaze wandered into the axis of his companion’s hypnosis.

Bill soon broke the spell.

“It’s a tough one Trev, a real tough one.”

“Phew, you can say that again. Where on earth do you start with a thing like this?”

“You write it all down mate, you write it all down. Then you sit and think about it, and you talk to people.”

“Well, yeah, that’s what a case is all about. But this time around. I mean, this case, Bill. What can we do?”

“Let’s think. We spoke to Doug, right. Hang on.”

He reached forward with immense effort. His body heaved and droplets plunged from his fringe. On top of the desk was a two-tiered wire tray, an in-tray and, well, another one altogether. Reaching into the top tray, he levered his fingers under the single manila folder that lay there, removing it to his lap with a deep exhalation.

“Here we are.” He opened it up and pulled out a sheet of paper. “Here’s what Doug said. Blah, blah, blah, bloke comes into the shop. Yep, blah blah, give us ya money, yep, and then he goes on, two’s a crowd, and whooshka ‘e was off.”

“What else we got in there, Bill?”

“Well, that’s all we got, mate. Shivers, I been thinkin’ about it for days, but I just don’t see how we can get the bloke. E’s probably left town by now, for sure. Gone up the coast, you know.”

“Yeah, I reckon you’re right. If I remember rightly, Doug said he asked a few people, but nobody saw anyone with a balaclavala or Mr Hitler, or any black jeans or anything. It was lunch time and there was just nothin’ happening. If he’d walked in and there was plenty of people we might have had something to go on, but what can we do?”

Bill took a deep, serious breath. He raised an eyebrow in resignation and puffed his cheeks like a bullfrog. His brow knitted and his eyes roved from his right hand to his left. He looked closely at Trev, sunk deep in the hot trance of his chair.

“I guess this one’s for the too hard basket, mate,” Bill said, and plopped the file into the full tray beneath the in-tray, on the top of the brown desk.

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This is a short science fiction piece I wrote for my own amusement. I was exploring the possibility of expanding it into a novel, but can’t quite see the point as I’m not especially interested in genre fiction, more so in genuine speculative fiction. Still, I do rather like the character of Val Gism and reserve the right to resurrect him in future, pardon the alliteration…

 

Intrepid & Weathered

I set out for my regular run. It was a regime to which I stuck like clockwork. The buzzer went, I pulled on my shorts, warmed up with stretches and weights, took a few painkillers and left the house. I wasn’t about to be put off by the forecast of heavy thunderstorms. If anything, I thought it was sexy.

The horizon, jabbed by a thousand spheres and rectangles, shone with the silver light of storms. It was a bruised light, hiding a hairline fracture. Beside the glass-bricked canal, neon streaks from the underground transits urged me onwards. I worked up nicely, hot and loose, flushed with the soft-jarring pulse of rhythm. It was as I turned under the soaring ribbon road that the lightning began. One great snap, sharp and fizzling, then a hard rush of rain collapsing about me.

I ran on, thrilled and electric. Any prompting from elemental extremities always put me in a positive frame. On Alzaris I’d once run through a hailstorm that turned into a driving snow-shower, and with thighs tingling and cheeks aflame with sting, I’d come home sure I was a hero. This run was nothing on that one. There was no wind, and the rain fell straight and true. The air was warm and fecund – a good old summer drenching. I was bouncing from foot to foot, leaping high with each step, straight back and ears pinned, and that was exactly the way I looked when they caught me.

************

“Doctor Val Gism?” asked the Subcommander, with the emphasis on the Gism.

“Yes, that’s right,” I answered. “Just like it says on the card.”

“Did you find the towels satisfactory?”

“Yes, very fluffy. Still, I’m damp right through.”

“Do you not find the climate in here to your liking?”

“No, no, I guess it’s fine. I just don’t want to hang around here all night.”

“That would be counter-productive,” he said, smiling.

I still wasn’t sure what I was doing here. No one had said a word to me since they stuffed me in the transit. I figured it must be a case of mistaken identity, or something to do with tax – no one really understood how to fill in those forms. The man sitting opposite wasn’t exactly effusive. He’d only smiled at me once, and then in a way that suggested he would later retract it with interest. He had one of those chiseled faces; not unpleasant, but always tensed; the way my mother used to pout for photos, only, he wasn’t pouting. If anyone was going to pucker up in here, it was probably me.

“It appears, Doctor Gism, that you have an alarm clock which is set to go off at exactly 1800 every day and that at this time you depart to go running. Is that correct?”

“Yes, it is correct.”

“We know it is correct. We also have footage of you leaving the house for said run.”

“Is there a problem with running? A new law?”

“No, the legislation covering physical exercise remains much as it was. Our concern is otherwise.” He leaned forward with his hands remaining firmly flat on the cold desk. “It would appear that you left the house before the rain had started.”

“Are we not supposed to run in the rain?”

“That is not the problem, though for the sake of your health you are advised to refrain from doing so. This case is more specific. Let me put it this way. There would be no problem if you had gone running in the rain, once it had started.”

“I don’t get it. Can you please just tell me what’s going on?”

The man sat back and smiled again. The more he smiled, the more I feared him.

“His Divine Grace is recruiting. His orders were to arrest anyone seen running happily through the inclemency. He seeks those who are intrepid, weathered and doughty.”

“Ah, well,” I said, puffing up my chest, “that’d be me.”

“Not quite, I’m afraid, Doctor Gism,” said the Subcommander. Since he hadn’t bothered to introduce himself, I did not know his name.

“We know for a fact that you left the house before the rain had started. Not after.”

“So you said, but what’s the problem?”

“The problem is, Doctor Gism, that His Holiness is only interested in those who left after the rain had started.”

“Well, now, come on. I mean, okay, why’s that?”

“His Holiness does not need to explain the specifics of his orders. I imagine, all the same, that to set out when it is raining shows greater strength of character.”

“Yes, but I knew it was going to rain, didn’t I? That didn’t bother me in the slightest.”

“It is not I who sets the conditions, Doctor Gism.”

“Fair enough, but the fact remains that I knew it was going to rain. You think I’m afraid of a little rain? Or even a lot of it? You think I’m scared of the lightning?”

I leaned forward to send the words right into his eyes.

“I went running with full knowledge of an impending thunderstorm, wearing just a tank top and running shorts to boot. Does that not show me to be cut from a tougher cloth?”

“You cannot make a sow’s ear from a silk purse, Doctor Gism, and his Divine Grace needs sows’ ears to hear the murmurings of his enemies.”

“Well I’m no silk purse, let me tell you!”

“It is not you who are the judge of that, Doctor Gism. His Divine Grace allows no room for flexibility. Do you think you know better than The Emerald Majesty?”

“Of course not. Can’t you see how I wish to offer my service?”

“His Divine Grace accepts no offerings of service. Nothing unsolicited will be tolerated. He has called you in and you have been found wanting. It is pointless seeking redress through us. You will be returned to your domicile now and you will never mention this to anyone again, if you value your life.”

“Listen, pal,” I began, but then I thought better of it. The last thing I wanted was to prolong this inconvenient encounter, despite these slurs against my manhood.

“Yes?” asked the Subcommander. The lines in his face were deep and dark. I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly had weathered him.

“Nothing,” I replied. “Just take me home.”

 

***********

Two men stepped in and grabbed my upper arms. They lifted me out of my chair and set me on my feet. I’d put all thoughts of resistance from my mind and, despite the roughness of their handling, did not protest. Once I was upright their grip slackened and I was frog marched into the pale corridor. The blue light and plate glass lent the place a deceptive chic – it was more like a club, or a gallery; reminiscent of the famous Rigel Transmat. I stepped along nice and quiet with the hired meat. How did they get the job? Swimming through lava? I didn’t feel conversational enough to find out.

My thoughts turned inward. Despite what I’d said to the Subcommander, I had no interest whatsoever in working for The Emerald Majesty. It could only spell trouble; a career of fawning service, of life-threatening investigations and infiltrations, of the very worst sorts of obligations. Everyone with half a brain knew he was a lunatic. A distant, whimsical, officious, megalomaniac; he had modeled himself on the furthest extremes of ancient earth opulence; a surrealist re-interpretation of east-Asian high cultural oddity. Like so many despots, he had made himself so uniquely peculiar that his position and occupation of it were considered inviolable. Who else would have the patience or dedication to such outré and mindnumbing ritual? His was a cautionary tale for the rational, though no one who valued their life dared speak against him. If they’d offered me the job, I would have had no choice but to accept, and once I was in, there was no out. It would have been years before I was trusted enough to have a chance at escape. Having come to his notice at all was frightening enough. I could only hope they’d forget about me nice and quick. I was already considering my options for moving off-world.

They walked me down to the transit and shoved me in the back. I knew they were taking orders from the way they nodded every so often. They were wired right up and their gestures transmitted – one of the rare expressions you ever saw with these silent goons. Not that you saw them that often. People were pretty law-abiding in this place. Anything to avoid encounters like the one I was having.

Outside the rain was still coming down; I watched it skip and stream on the tinted Diamond Synthex till we lifted and hit speed. Outside became a whirr of grey and white and neon lights. The engine hum was warming in the seamlessly sealed enclosure. Soon I felt the tilt of deceleration and the towers of Cheong-kung Bridge came into view; overlord of my habitat. We dropped down quiet on the yelling street, right outside my domicile.

The doors unbonded, sighed, unzipped, and outside in the pouring rain stood my grey-clad captors. They let me come to them this time, but as soon as I was on the street they took me by the upper arms and walked me to my door. It opened to my nod they let go of me, making sure I went inside. The long, rainy-season day was closing down now, close to midnight; the buzz and rush of traffic not diminished by the hour.

I turned behind to scan outside and look into the face of the men. They gave away nothing in their silent ushering, though I thought I caught a hint of a nod. Then they came towards me, walking robotically steady. I backed into my home and they came in after me. In a moment they stood inside the door. It closed behind and then I saw them reaching for their guns. They were so quick that I had no time to be afraid, let alone to duck or dive. They caught me halfway through a motion, slammed their blasts across my side and back and sent me sprawling. I skidded right along the tiles and smack into the wall. Then I heard another blast and that was the end of that.

And that’s how they killed me the first time; right there in my own home. I guess they wanted someone else to clean up all the mess.

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The following is another chapter from volume 1 of my autobiography entitled Sex With a Sunburnt Penis. Written on the crest of a wave of binge-drinking, it was a process of autobiography as therapy conducted between July and November of 1997. The title, Sex With a Sunburnt Penis (hereafter SWASP) is a metaphor highlighting the consequences of mounting pleasure upon pleasure. It posited that, in a country as wealthy as Australia, those born without any significant disadvantage are so well placed in life that it is really up to them to screw it up. I did so, royally, on many occasions, but regret is a wasted, pointless, indulgent emotion unless it fuels change and action. We must get back up on the bicycle so to speak, or otherwise, seek Rough Solace, a character who appears in the story as a personification of the frank good advice we can give ourselves if any wisdom dwells within. SWASP was initially intended as a one-off, but a couple of years after having written it, I envisaged a trilogy to complete the picture. Volume 2, still in the pipeline and sketched to some degree, bears the working title Loitering with Scholastic Intent. My good friend Chris recommended the title A Blow Job too Far for volume 3, though, whilst it sounds magnificent, I’m not entirely sure it will turn out to be appropriate.

The following passage, entitled Entropy, contains in its entirety my first attempt at writing a short film script. It is hopelessly inept, incongruous and contradictory, but we were very happy with it at the time and that’s good enough for me.  Too many cones indeed, and apologies for the formatting. WordPress does not seem to accommodate pre-formatted screenplays when cutting and pasting, unless I am missing something. Enjoy it, ja!

Entropy

I met Tyrone Books early in 1992 at my friend Mike’s place. As Tyrone had a certain suave, philosophical nonchalance about him and a much-coveted girlfriend, it was my plan to appear formidably impressive during our initial encounter. He found me with a bong in one hand, a glass of wine in the other and about three litres of cardboard Claret already in my stomach. When, after a good hour’s conversation about the influence of jazz and classical on certain Scandinavian metal bands, I looked down to find my No-Names bolognaise floating in a sea of wine on Mike’s polished-cork kitchen floor, I thought I had blown it. It so happened, however, that this was a defining moment of a different kind. For, as he was to confess many years later, what impressed Tyrone most of all was my insistence on continuing the conversation between apologies, cleaning, and further evacuations into the kitchen sink.

While the Barcelona Olympics were on, my old friend Gustav and I were given the opportunity to house-sit in a bungalow in Newtown. It seemed short-sighted to waste the opportunity of living in such a marvellous house by going to lectures, so instead I spent every last penny on weed, speed and acid and holed up for the games. During the second week of events I invited Books to visit one evening. We smoked hashish on hot knives, fashioned a bong out of a pen and shampoo bottle, then hosed the back yard and sat listening to it drip for a good hour.

“Gustav and I listen to the garden every night,” I explained. “The sound of the dripping is hypnotic, I highly recommend that you get right into it.”

“It’s pretty good, man,” said Books. I could tell that he was impressed.

Our conversation stretched well into the wee hours and Books finally departed as I began my shift at the Olympics. The following night he got in touch and came around for more of the same. By the end of the week we were best friends.

Books, who had just moved into Arundel Street in Glebe, soon found himself in the difficult situation of having to find new housemates. Within three weeks of moving into the house, through no fault of his own, all the other tenants moved out. He was fortunate in finding three replacements with extraordinary speed, one of whom was an enthusiastic wannabe film maker and communications student by the name of Saul Godly. Keen to get away from home and hang out with my new friend, I began to use Books’ house as an outpost at which to base myself after a long day dodging lectures. Soon Tyrone, Saul and I were as thick as thieves, and it was only natural that such a blessed triumvirate should be granted ambitious revelations.

One evening the three of us dropped acid and walked from Paddington to Glebe on an all-night epic. During that journey we declaimed, with great affectation, our dreams and visions for the future.

“I’m going to make it rich as a psychologist,” said Books, “then spend my money making movies. I’m going to be a director and an inventor, but most of all, I’m going to be a scientist and computer expert like Avon in Blake’s 7, or Davros in the Genesis of the Daleks.”

“I’m going to make films too,” said Saul. “But I don’t just want to be behind the camera, I want to be in front of it as well. Plus, I’m gonna write the damned things. I’m going to be an artiste, an auteur, an actor!”

“And I’m going to be a writer!” I shouted, beating my fist into the copy of Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, which I happened to be carrying. “I’m gunna write novels like a demon – novels, films, plays, short stories, poems – the lot. I’m going to be a writer!”

After some lines of speed at Arundel street, we spent the morning photographing each other in front of the railway viaduct at Glebe Point. It was a day to remember, and we wanted to preserve that glow of determined youth for eternity. Saul and I went further and made a pact. Within a year we were to produce a major work. He would write a film script, and I would write a book – either a novel or collection of short stories. At last I felt I had found a definite direction in which to steer myself.

Four months later, I hadn’t written a thing. I had, at least, begun to teach myself to touch type, but in a world without e-mail or the internet, and too lazy even to write my essays, let alone type them, it was difficult to motivate myself to stay in front of a keyboard. University was sliding away from me again. My absenteeism in first semester had ruled out any chance of passing in Fine Arts and Linguistics and now, having moved deep into second semester, I faced the prospect of failing the lot. Hanging thus by a thread, I could not justify such slackness unless I began to produce extra-curricular results. If I was going to be a writer, I had better start soon.

It was, therefore, without a moment’s hesitation that I accepted my first commission. As Saul was nearing the end of his first year, the deadline for his short film project was approaching. He had already signed Books up to the task but they had, as yet, failed to come up with any script ideas. So it was that Saul asked me, “the writer”, if I would be willing to help him out.

“For fucking sure, Saul,” I said. “That’d be untold!”

This was it. This was the chance. We were going to make a film!

It was a great excuse to get drunk and stoned, take some speed and drop a trip, and we did so by way of a script moot. The following morning found us drawing and painting on the walls of Tyrone’s bedroom and it was when I asked Tyrone what he was going to say to his landlord that the story finally took shape. It would be about an artist, played by Saul, painting his walls in praise of the sun and not caring for the concerns of the Proprietor, whom he considered an obstacle to art. The painter would live with a writer, (myself) and both of these characters would be plagued by the naggings of Books, the Joker.

“The story is about the tension between chaos, anarchy, vandalism,” said Books, “and order, society and structure. The proprietor is Society incarnate and his interest is to keep the walls white, for this is tradition. The proprietor wants to maintain conservative values, while the painter and writer want to express their subversive ideas in their pictures and writing. It’s about the problem of being forced to be a part of the society into which you are born.”

“Like wanting to be a hermit,” said Saul, “but needing to work to live.”

“Exactly,” said Books, “or sort of, at least. Now, the position we wish to support in the play is that the expression of individuality and the freedom of that expression is good and should not be hindered by conservatism, but that one needs to respect society and its component structures.”

“Okay,” I said, impressed by the perspicacity of Books’ reasoning. “So what is the Joker’s role?”

“Ah,” said Books, “the Joker symbolises anarchy – he is diametrically opposed to the proprietor, yet he cannot escape from the room – society – and he has no power over him. Why? Because he is not real but ethereal; not a person, but a concept – an energy, something which can be activated and used, as both the Writer and Painter do in their art. In the end the Painter uses the Joker’s energy to kill the Proprietor. The painter, you see, is the simple idealist – he is all passion, and refuses to be a sheep, helplessly passing his time in the grasslands away.”

“Nice quote.”

“I thought you’d like it. So the story ends with the death of the Proprietor and the walls painted – the Painter triumphant, but a murderer. The Joker is free, and so, in a sense is the Writer – yet the writer now wonders whether or not he will miss the Proprietor, with whom he occasionally liked to converse, being more able to walk the median strip of life. The final scene ought to take place in a field, outside of the room. For with the Proprietor dead, society is gone, and society was, after all, the room. In effect, this film is about the end of society.”

“Bravo.”

Over the next two weeks I struggled with pen and paper, having next to no knowledge of how to write a screenplay. My only experience on this front was a script written in my first year of high school as an English project called A hand for the Chopper, which was shot in exactly forty-three minutes one Thursday lunch break. My father had written film scripts and done a lot of writing for television, but rather than consulting him, I figured I could just wing it. I was sure of myself. I had talent, didn’t I? All my University friends and Newtown acquaintances thought of me as an ideas man, a creative conversationalist, someone with the gift of the gab. All I had to do was put a little of that into the project and we’d be right as rain.

Inspiration struck one Tuesday night with nothing much to do. I got stoned and went up to the Courthouse Hotel with an exercise book in which to begin my scribbling. I was soon on a roll. I poured schooners down my neck and stabbed away at the paper, hoping girls would notice me being so obviously bohemian. The few girls present ignored me completely, so I just kept writing and writing, unwilling to abandon hope. After about two hours, I put down my pen, smoked my twentieth cigarette and felt proud. I had written a masterpiece. This, I knew, would one day be remembered as the moment that Benjamin David Philip Cornford first thrust himself onto the scene as a writer.

FADE IN:

INT. TERRACE BEDROOM WITH BALCONY
Sun streams through open French doors onto a white stretch of wall. Standing, studying the wall is the PAINTER. A WRITER sits at his desk, writing with a pencil. PAINTER approaches wall and runs hands over it, scratches his chin, steps back, kneels, frames scene between joined hands.

PAINTER

I can see it all in my wall. Should my hands confess in paint the sights they wish to shape? Such bland boundaries, faded but never kissed by the light. Reduced by a sun intolerant of their lack of welcome. I must impress with colour that yellow god and look back so he knows I admire his daily ablutions.

We close to the WRITER, who leers up from his work. Music softly sounds his theme intuitive.

PAINTER

An eye. Am eye to watch the sun and not squint, but occasionally wink in friendly approval. What colours should I use?

PAINTER begins to sharpen his pencil with a knife and begins to draw on wall.

PAINTER
This is my wall, I’ll do as I will. As I must. For it is my wall.

Enter JOKER, grinning, from the doorway. WRITER watches him but says nothing as JOKER sneaks up from behind and takes the knife from the PAINTER. PAINTER backs away, disarmed, frightened, apprehensive.

JOKER
In praise of a fool you would commit this sin? For surely the sun is a fool. Your talent is a lie, your art a falsity. Dear painter, bathe yourself in guilty blood for the works you have made incite the punishment of the lawful. Does the sun care for your work? Is he not truly beautiful? Your work is a mockery of his golden pain, your guilt and your pain are as one with his, his sins are far greater. So burn in the heart you feel is true, end this childish game. Look painter, but not to the sun.

PAINTER
But, but you see (plaintive) I must paint. I must, I, I…

JOKER
So many I’s in so short a space makes for a rather egotistical young fool. The sun’s eyes bleed, he cannot see past his face. He grumbles that fools like you live and revel in his painful light.

JOKER approaches WRITER who instantly takes the knife from his hand and begins to clean his nails. The JOKER smiles at the WRITER’s wit.

JOKER
Aha!, you play well, writer, and yet do you write well? Is not the painter a fool, is not the painter going to pay for his indulgence? But you know of his kind, free with his art, licensed to vandalise and insult.

WRITER
Is his art a sin? Do you label and lay claim to his heart? What price do you place on his defence? If his belief is true, you won’t stay his hand. His work is good, it is no stain.

JOKER
And yet you write words by the thousand – his art is slow. His pictures tell a thousand words, but is this evidence of a quick mind or that of a simpleton challenged to form sentences in description of his own ridiculous plight!

WRITER
My work is long

JOKER
You work well, while he lays his foundations.

WRITER
Slash his wrist and he’ll paint till the blood runs free. I’d write his epitaph, but fill it full of praise.

JOKER
And I’d paint his headstone in praise of the sun. Cajole and provoke, but I wouldn’t take his life. See how he frustrates at his wall.

WRITER
He frustrates for he is like the sun trapped within his youthful form. His blazing light runs rivulets through his limbs, coursing through his torso, abdomen, head. Yet he cannot burn now to let it all out at once in a flash. Can one convict him of a sin when he has no choice?

JOKER
Yet in time his spirit will change. Better he realise now than when red-faced and fifty. He’ll live for twenty years and die for fifty more, die now or become now what no illusions can prevent him from being.

Cut to the PAINTER whose thoughts we hear as voice-over while he paints.

PAINTER
How will he know? How should he find my work? Soon I’ll be away and leave my work behind. Yet it will then be elsewhere. Cannot he see that it beautifies the room? Why does my very conscience nag me so? Why should I not do what is right to be done? I’ll paint, damn it. That eye will have sight and that fool’s attempt to subvert my goal – damn him, he won’t sway me.

JOKER moves back over to PAINTER and prods him with his finger.

JOKER
Ahh, I see it’s the sort of stain that spreads. And what will you do when he sees it? Shall you apologise, try to explain? The writer asks what price your defence. I’d place the price high for the work would be hard, and of course, unfulfilling, for how can you expect a pardon? Don’t you know you cannot win? Yet, I tire of this provocation.

PAINTER
Then obstruct me no more!

JOKER
Why should I indulge myself, your mind is so full of obstacles. Look at the writer, he pauses, thinks, his hand is smooth. Stop-start it is with that dirty brush – you have no style, no flow, you silly orang-utan. I see only one fully evolved individual in this room – he reads what is written and writes what is not.

PAINTER
Confound it! I cannot concentrate.

JOKER
You never concentrate, have you tried? You stare but your drive is anger – are your emotions so malformed? You’re worried and aware of the consequences of your desecration. Have some regard. Play not games with life, when your soul is unfit for competition!

PAINTER
But it bothers me not what is in the mind of the Proprietor. How painful can his punishment be? As painful as a life without freedom? Should he stand in my way I’ll sweep him aside as in a brush stroke and paint him with blood. Better than to burn slowly to death. Now leave me, I must work!

JOKER
I haven’t quite finished. Ignore me and I expect I’ll go away, but oh, you’ll listen now that slaying is on your mind. Do you think I don’t want the both of you dead? Your youthful fire extinguished, to hear the sun laugh to win in your game and to laugh at the sins on that fool’s wall?

PAINTER
Leave me!

JOKER
I shall.

JOKER steps back and stands by himself. We close in on the WRITER who sits and thinks.

WRITER
(Voice over)
I wonder how great his anger will be, how furious that landlord. Now the Painter’s veins run with anger. Is the need so great that no compromise is reached? Should not one live in cohesion with others. It is the painter’s will that the world will bend to his ways. He does not wish to rule, but to run free – push through every blockade – ignore all orders to halt or slow. It shall be his undoing. We shall soon see what the sun thinks.

The WRITER continues to write. The JOKER comes over to the WRITER’s table and picks up the knife. He crosses to the PAINTER and hands the knife to him.

JOKER
I believe you need this to sharpen your pencils, or perhaps your will. See if I care where you stick it!

PAINTER
I’ll stick you with it if you aren’t careful! Why this constant harassment? Can’t you see I want to be left alone? I’m too busy to have time for your trouble-making. Now leave me!

There is a knock at the door. Close up of PAINTER. The JOKER smiles as he opens the door to admit the PROPRIETOR.

I never made it any further. My hand was spent, my lungs were heavy, my eyes were reeling drunk. Yet, I was terrifically excited. Coming close to finishing anything was an achievement in itself. I took myself off home and passed out in a stupor. The next morning I gave the beer-stained, dog-eared script to Saul on my way to university, before lying on the grass of campus to rest my weary, hung-over mind. The shoot was to take place the following night in the colon of the University of Technology. I would need to gather my strength. Things were moving forward apace!

When I arrived at UTS the next evening, Tyrone and Saul were overrun with excitement.

“Cornford, this is classic,” said Tyrone.

“It’s a gem,” said Saul, “just what I was after.”

“It’s so incongruous,” continued Tyrone, “and there’s a lot of it we can’t even read, let alone fathom, but there are some great lines in here. We’ve decided to call it Entropy.”

Saul had enlisted the assistance of two stunning women whom I failed utterly to impress, but who did an admirable, if unsubtle job of making me look older and uglier. Since there was no time for rehearsals, the Painter and Joker had prepared a series of idiot boards, leaving frequent gaps where my handwriting proved impenetrable. I enlightened them where possible and we got stuck straight into the shoot. It was finished in about four hours, with only one or two takes for most scenes. The studio was hot and bright, the girls lounged about languidly. I could see they had no confidence in me – I was far too overexcited to appear at all cool. My make-up ran in the heat, and my powdered brow glistened in dabs and clumps.

When it was all over we felt triumphant. I returned home buzzing with a sense of achievement I’d not felt in years. At last my life seemed to have obtained some momentum. If only I could sustain it! I lay in bed, closed my eyes, and remembered the English essay I’d forgotten to write.

Saul and Tyrone took care of finishing and editing the film. The Proprietor, ably played by their other housemate, Jen-Ming, wound up with a knife in his back on the grass of Glebe Point and with him died society. A week later, Saul submitted his work and a screening of the class’s films soon followed.

On the night of the screening Tyrone and Saul sat on the steps in the tiny cinema to play guitar and bass for the soundtrack. I lay back in my chair like a lord, ready to sip away at glory, enjoying the other projects. When Entropy finally began to roll my heart was thrust into my throat. Here we were on the big screen – all ladies present please take note!

Unfortunately, despite the quality of Tyrone and Saul’s light, funky riffing, nothing could disguise the sheer incongruity of the script, nor the abundant continuity errors. The Joker’s coat was on and off like a strobe in a melange of leering close-ups, and the words that had made so much sense to me whilst drunk and stoned at the Courthouse now seemed confusing and contradictory. To begin with the audience had no idea what to make of it, but after a couple of minutes, they decided it was a comedy and laughed along with the more amusing facial expressions. Ours was one of the last films shown, and when it was over, another rolled straight on in. Entropy passed by like a ship in the night in a thick fog on the sullen expanse of a dark, moonless ocean, and with it went all hope of having anything to be proud of. Two weeks later I passed the point of no return and my second first year at university became an unmitigated failure. I was close to passing one subject, but when I turned up for my English exam, I discovered I had gotten the date wrong. I shrugged, turned away and went to get stoned again.

Nineteen ninety-two was a complete and utter flop.

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This short story was a third and final chapter in the life of Oliver, a semi-autobiographical character whose misfortunes I greatly enjoyed charting in a variety of circumstances. Indecisive, snobbish and self-important, Oliver also has the more positive qualities of being intelligent and romantic, if in an all-too autistic fashion. The story needs to be fleshed out more and is more of a sketch than anything else. It is also dependent, to some degree, on being united with its predecessors. I have, however, other plans for the fate of this character, thus making this installment redundant.

 

The Benefits of a Broad Education

Oliver’s thoughts were on Wordsworth as he sat in the box office, for he had just finished reading Lyrical Ballads. The poems had left him with a feeling both beautiful and sad, and he was pleased in the late afternoon that business was quiet. It was a perfect prelude to the busy evening to come, when customers would arrive in droves to collect their tickets for the night’s performance.

At around seven two young couples, whom Oliver guessed to be just out of school, approached the counter. While taking an order from one of the girls, he could not help overhearing the loud and slightly inebriated conversation of the other three.

“So what’s Greg doing at university?” asked the other girl.

“He’s doing history,” said one of the young men.

“Like, why?” said the girl, with such astonishment that Oliver felt a stab in the breast.

“Hell knows,” said the young man. “He’s always been into that sort of stuff.”

“Yeah, but like why?” said the girl. “What’s the point of doing history? What’s he supposed to do with that?”

“I don’t know,” replied the young man. “It’s like Arts full stop, what’s that going to get you? It’s a total waste of time.”

Oliver kept his cool. He was sorely tempted to speak in defence of the arts, yet was tired now and did not feel sufficiently articulate. In fact he was sorely tempted to bash them all over the head and drag them off somewhere to be quietly gassed. So often in his life he had come across people with the same attitude and he had wanted to murder every single one of them. They were clearly beyond redemption as human beings, if indeed, they were human to begin with. His ire was rising and his neck was reddening, but he caught himself just in time. No, no, he cautioned internally, heart pumping fast, he was being unfair. They were ignorant and naïve, they had been brainwashed by materialism and acquisitiveness. It was re-education that they required, not extermination.

Following on from this caveat to himself, and in spite of the burning hostility in his breast, Oliver’s thoughts took on a more charitable aspect. He longed to tell them of the benefits, both to the individual and society, of a broad and specific education in the arts. Yet, as such words hovered, not so much on the tip of his tongue as at the back of his throat, it struck him that were he to mention having a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge, and add to that the observation that he found the study of history both fulfilling and worthwhile, they would have immediately pointed out to him that he was working in the box office of a theatre. Perhaps they had a point after all.

When the young customers had departed and the strange mix of rage and shame had settled down in him, Oliver was left soul searching. What was he doing with his life? What was his story? He wasn’t by any means useless; indeed, he regarded himself as rather versatile, having majored in Literature as well. But still, what was his story? What was he doing? If there was one thing the study of literature had taught him, it was that from start to finish a story must demonstrate a process of transformation in the main character; bringing them to a new understanding of themselves or their circumstances. There had to be a trajectory of sorts – the character arc – for surely that is the nature of a story; to start one place and finish somewhere else.

Yet what, Oliver asked himself, was his own character arc? He had been through many emotional ups and downs and seen significant changes to his circumstances, yet had he changed at all or was he more than ever himself? If the latter, could that be considered change? He had resigned himself to a fate of diminishing returns, yet was that progress or change of emphasis? He had to grab at things faster and faster, his relationships grew shorter and shorter and he had less time for making amends when things were not working. Yet was that change or acceleration?

Oliver had always been a man of phases and, in reflection, it seemed to him that for the last few years he had merely switched between old and understood phases with varying degrees of intensity; work, play, obsession, mission, lust and asexuality. His life was not an arc, but a dial. It was a turntable. Nothing really changed him, but the disc kept spinning. It wasn’t a lack of experience, but rather a consequence of having experience. Indeed, Oliver felt so saturated by experience that he did not see how anything could change him without being extremely traumatic.

What was to be done? What might shake him from his torpor?

Oliver sat at his desk, furiously tapping his leg up and down. He felt a great, energetic, vigorous disappointment. Soon, however, the stream of customers had him on his feet again; twirling, stretching, fetching their tickets from the bench upon which they were arranged. He smiled and exuded good cheer, yet behind the helpful eyes his displeasure was paramount.

How angry that girl’s comments had made him! If she and her friends lacked the foresight to see just what one might do with a mind geared for lateral thinking, for query and inquisition, then it was time someone got up and showed them.

***************

In Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth he makes the point that ten to fifteen years from now there will be no more snows of Kilimanjaro. How is it possible that things could have come to such a pass? Will nature one day be merely a subject for nostalgia?

William Wordsworth had just an inkling of what we were doing. He knew the way things were going when he walked through the smog and stink of industrial London. He’d seen the hellish fires across France as well, seen the towers of smoke and plume. It was clear to him that industry had entered a phase of expansion and intensification that was liable to be ongoing and, if left unchecked, potentially devastating.

In itself, industry on a large scale was nothing new. The Romans had built factories too; huge industrial workshops for beating out thousands upon thousands of swords and shields; great mints for smelting metals and clinking out coins; foundries, tanners, whole hillsides of waterwheels for the mass production of flour. Yet, the scale of Roman industry was hampered by the comparatively primitive nature of their mining and exploration. Most don’t realise that the curious pocks hacked into the masonry of ancient buildings were caused by thieves seeking scrap; the lead-coated braces of iron that secured the stone blocks. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, and tin, though plentiful in China, was extremely rare in the west. By the sixth century, the classical world had run significantly short of metal.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, new sources of raw materials sprang up like mushrooms after imperial rain and Wordsworth found himself choking. He saw what monstrous tumours were growing in the hearts of the towns and called upon his contemporaries to return to the earth. He saw just how greatly the conditions and consequences of industry were degrading the human condition and he exhorted people to fill their lives with natural beauty.

His poems, therefore, as much as they were a genuinely heartfelt celebration of the wonders of nature, were a reaction against the industrial revolution. For many years his contemporaries laughed him off as childish and unrealistic; coy and “namby pamby”. His poetry was roundly dismissed as so much dreamy claptrap, just as, until very recently, the greens were so often dismissed as a bunch of unrealistic lunatics.

Yet, whilst Wordsworth rebelled against the destruction of the human soul and the turning of people into termites; while he recoiled from the blight of the towns and the smog and the slurry, unlike the green movement he could never have imagined that whole natural vistas could actually turn to deserts; that once snow-capped mountains, whose thaws fed vital rivers, might be snow-capped no more and the rivers vanish. Nature was surely too great, too powerful, to be affected this way. Could mankind truly create a wasteland? For Wordsworth the more obvious and immediate concern was the wasteland of the soul. We might have divorced ourselves from nature, but surely we could not destroy it altogether.

“Oh, Nature,” thought Oliver, channelling Wordsworth as he sat out the end of his shift staring at the cover of Lyrical Ballads with its watercolour of the Lakes District, “how often have our spirits turned from thee!”

_____________________________________________________________

 

It was to prove a fateful evening for Oliver. As they were about to close the doors of the box office, a tall, tanned, middle-aged man walked in, wishing to purchase tickets for a concert the following week. While Oliver took care of the transaction, the customer stood examining the large, colour photograph of the interior of the venue, displayed beside the counter.

“So, for a standing show,” asked the man, “all the seating comes out downstairs, is that correct?”

“Spot on,” said Oliver, looking up from his monitor.

“And the only seating for this show is on the balcony?”

“That’s right.”

“So, how does it work? Do you mean that every time you have a standing show, someone has to take all of those seats out and put them back in the next day?”

“Pretty much. They often go from standing to seating and back again on consecutive nights. It can go on like that for weeks, until we get a longer running show.”

“My god,” said the man, “that’s gotta be a hell of a job, to have to do that every day.”

“Yeah,” said Oliver. “Strange, but I never really thought of it like that.”

He leaned back in his chair.

“It’s a hell of a job,” the man said again.

“It does seem like a hell of a job,” said Oliver, “but then, the world is full of awful jobs, isn’t it? I mean, some people cut the heads off fish for a living, others shovel manure, some have to patrol war zones; in the scale of things, it’s not so bad.”

“I suppose not. Though that all depends on how much you get paid for it.”

“Not a lot, I imagine,” said Oliver. “And anyway, that’s not necessarily any consolation. I think it was Aristotle who said that all paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.”

“Well, you wouldn’t catch me doing it.”

“No,” said Oliver, “I guess not.”

____________________________________________________________

 

Cycling through the streets of Cambridge on the way home that evening, Oliver pondered the spiritual penury of his circumstances. He was a nobody who was doing nothing to save a dying world; a nobody whose education ought to cut him out for greater things; a person whose wisdom should find a more practical application. He saw himself as a wasted resource, an untapped vein, and if it wasn’t his wisdom or education they needed, then hell, surely someone, somewhere, working for a good cause must need a spare pair of hands?

Oliver was a man who had played a lot of role-playing games in his thirty-two years on the planet and, almost invariably, he played a bard or minstrel character. The ultimate jack of all trades and master of none, bards were the show-ponies of the adventuring world; all lyrics and no action, they added more colour than punch. It was no great leap of the imagination for Oliver to see the parallel between himself and his avatars, and though this occasionally made him feel effete and useless, he did at times remind himself of the true greatness of bards: not only did they significantly boost morale, they were famed for their knowledge of lore and could try their hand at anything.

Perhaps, he wondered, it was really his context that was at fault. For the last two years he had been unable to find any work in his field, and outside of it, nothing that was morally, ethically, or intellectually stimulating. This had, admittedly, a good deal to do with his over-qualification, his lack of practical experience, and a certain unwillingness to compromise by committing himself to anything distastefully serious. Yet he found himself increasingly blaming not merely the particular city in which he dwelt, but the entire country.

Perhaps, he reasoned, in some troubled land, the absence of properly qualified people might allow for their substitution with intelligent, lateral thinkers. Must he now go in search of such a land? Must he join a team of adventurers who were off on some vital quest to save a people, a nation, or indeed, the entire planet? The planet was dying, people were dying. He had heard and ignored the call of the trumpet all his life and now the trumpet was blowing louder than ever! Yes, thought Oliver, pushing his way through the cool, thin evening, balancing the ideas and emotions that had assailed him that day, it was time to take up the reins of adventure.

He stopped a moment to chide himself. Was it right to make vital decisions such as this whilst examining his life through the prism of fantasy role-playing? Wasn’t he the first person to criticise misguided, foolhardy, romantic adventurism? Had he not just recently argued that the real reason Tony Blair went to war in Iraq was because his favourite novel is Ivanhoe?

“The imperial romance,” said Oliver aloud, “the fairytale of the damsel in distress. Huh! But these people run the world. Well, the hell with them,” he muttered, wheeling his bike across the footbridge over the lock, “if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. Why can’t I have a crack at rescuing the world as well?”

His voice went unheard; lost in the winds that swept the empty dark of Jesus Green.

___________________________________________________________

 

When the ice-shelf gave way, Oliver knew instantly that it was all over. Curiosity had caught him out, trying to take a photograph he should never have attempted. Still, how was he to know when his luck would run out?

Tumbling head-first into the crevasse, he emitted a piercing cry. This time, his voice did not go unheard, though his colleagues from the Scott Polar Research Institute were in no position to help him. They had told him not to go, told him that it was risky, and still he went, though he was not a reckless person; not normally anyway. Perhaps, given time, he might have become one. The mission would have to end now, and soon his colleagues would all leave Greenland. Had he survived the fall, he might have wondered at how, in the end, he had come only to hamper the efforts of the true. So much for volunteering to make a difference! So much for the dabblers of this world! How often fate can be cruel to them; how often it turns out that they are, after all, just in the way of everyone else.

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Hashish

This is a chapter from Volume I of my autobiography entitled Sex with a Sunburnt Penis. The chapter was in fact removed from the second draft as part of a lengthy culling process and re-organisation of the material. Sex with a Suburnt Penis (hereafter, SWASP) was written between July and November of 1997 after a particularly bad break-up of a relationship that had lasted four and a half years. It goes without saying that I brought it all upon myself through repeated misdemeanours, but still was genuinely devastated when the shit hit the fan. It set me off on a particularly introspective  period of binge-drinking and autobiographical writing, inspired by Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Ernest Hemingway to name a few. My habit of diary-keeping – still have not missed a day since 1986 – made this process considerably easier as I had a wealth of material to mine, alongside my then more vivid recollections of the events.  Whilst not in evidence here, I still consider some of the the stronger passages of SWASP to be my most visceral and honest writing to date.

 

Hashish

One afternoon when I was sixteen years old, whilst helping my dad to paint the lounge-room, he asked me a question out of the blue.

“Mate, do you smoke marijuana?”

“Ummm, no,” I replied.

“Look,” he said, “I used to smoke it a bit myself, and I’m not against it. But I still think you’re a bit young to be getting into it.”

I nodded and said, without making eye contact, “Well, I haven’t tried it.”

“Well, look, mate,” said my dad, squaring up, “if you ever take anything, for whatever reason, and you get into any trouble, I want you to know that you can always call your dad. Just get straight on the phone and I’ll come and get you, wherever you are. Don’t be afraid of being in trouble – the first priority is to make sure you’re alright.”

He was looking at me so intently that I felt embarrassed. I was glad to have the roller in my hand.

“You’re my son,” he said, “and I don’t want you to do anything stupid, obviously. But we all make mistakes. Don’t be afraid of calling your dad if you need any help.”

“Umm, I won’t. Thanks.”

He turned back to the wall and smiled to himself.

“I tell you what,” he said, “smoking dope used to make me as hungry as buggery.”

The truth, of course, was that I had started smoking dope the year previous, though I never seemed to get properly stoned. I rather wondered what all the fuss was about, for none of my friends seemed to get stoned either. My closest friend, Jason, tried his best to prove otherwise one truant afternoon by hiding in the cupboard and pretending to be linen, but it didn’t exactly wash. I felt sure he was faking it, and so did everyone else, yet our doubts were mixed with the envious fear that he was actually stoned. It seemed churlish to challenge him so I just pretended I was stoned as well. We all did.

Such pretending certainly had its precedents, for, earlier that year, Jason and I had spent many hours practising with tea-leaves. One terribly immature evening we donned some paisley head-scarves, ordered a pizza and rolled up a savage, nine-skin, Earl Grey and Russian Caravan Tea joint. After a heavy dose of bergamot we upped the ante with a few lines of sherbet, put on The Tracks of my Tears and re-enacted the scene from Platoon in which Charlie Sheen smokes through a gun-barrel, albeit with Irish Breakfast and a plastic tube. It was a farcical charade of retro cool, but at fifteen we longed for a taste of counter culture so badly that even mere pretence had the tang of rebellion.

Well versed as I was on the subject of tea, when it came to marijuana I was entirely ignorant of the varieties and in all likelihood we were only smoking leaf. No wonder we never got stoned, but then, getting hold of any stuff, let alone good stuff, was a serious obstacle. In my third year of high school Jason and I had tried to buy our first “foil” from a classmate called Duke. A few days later in maths he handed our twenty dollars back. No luck. It was to become a familiar story and our hopes were regularly dashed in this fashion.

By the time we were sixteen, marijuana began to show up at parties. I puffed away on the rare and holy joints of empty leaf, but so little effect did it have beyond inducing an overexcited and ultimately frustrated musing on its workings, that I entrusted my evenings to the siege engines of tequila. Not having been properly stoned made it difficult to know what to recognise when it finally happened. Yet, when I did find out, the contrast was immediately apparent and set a benchmark I was unlikely ever to forget.

Like so many pivotal moments in life, fortune smiled from the unmapped realm of the random. One Friday night, a mere week after my father’s enquiry, I walked into the Paddington Green hotel to see if anyone was about. This pub was notorious for turning a blind eye to underage drinkers and was a favourite haunt of the more game amongst my high school peers. “Game” was a tag to which I keenly aspired.

In the front room I spotted two friends, James and Rowena, who were playing the card machines. They seemed happy to see me, so I bought a beer and pulled up a stool.

“I’m having shit luck,” said James. “Why don’t you have a crack?”

“Okey dokes, though I haven’t the faintest…”

They showed me what to do and I doubled up a few hands; a fifty-fifty choice between red or black cards. I can only assume that it was a brilliant spate of beginner’s luck, but within five minutes I had won them forty dollars. It was no piddling amount for a teenager back then.

“Fucking excellent,” said James. “What a champion. We should go and get smashed!”

Both he and Rowena were keen as mustard to get hammered and it was plain they knew how to make it happen. I was scared of their capability; James and Rowena were united in rebellion against school and convention and were known to indulge in harder things than booze and pot. Despite being curious and adventurous, I retained much childhood timidity.

“Maybe we could get some speed as well,” said James, confirming all of my worst fears.

“Oh, no,” I protested nervously, “I don’t want to get involved with anything like that.”

“Nah, well, don’t worry, man,” said James, “we wouldn’t want to do make you do anything you don’t want to do.”

I was pleased with how quickly they ruled it out. I felt completely reassured and my spirits rose again. They were going to look after me! I was excited by the prospect of heading into a world with a harder edge; nothing too dramatic, and hardly a patch on what was to come only a year later, yet it had all the gravity of anticipated significance.

Before long we were on the ever-reliable 380 bus to Bondi. The long bus swung and dipped its winding way to the Royal Hotel, where James said a quick score was certain. “We’ll get some hash, man. Have you ever smoked hash?”

“Nah,” I said, swallowing my resurrected uncertainty.

“It’s just like dope, man. It’s the same stuff. But different. Better.”

Rowena smiled. She was beautiful, Italian, wearing a little too much foundation.

“I love hash,” she said.

It sure seemed sexy now.

The pub terrified me. I’d never seen a place with so many rough blokes in it and there was none bigger and rougher than the bloke whom James approached and disappeared with into the toilets. I waited outside on the street with my nerves crippling my conversation. I liked Rowena, but she was so grown up for a girl her age that I felt like a child beside her. I stood dumb, expecting something awful to happen; that somehow we would all be the victims of violence. The real world could be frightening, exposing the thinness of my bravado. It was vast and I felt small. It struck me that out on the edge there was less room to run.

When James emerged a couple of minutes later I couldn’t wait to get moving. “It’s sweet, man,” he said, “I got a hell-good deal.”

The humid air was full of spring blossom and the sea. We hurried off into the night, all of us with an extra spring in our step.

“Have a look, man,” said James, offering me a stick of hash. I had no preconception of what hashish might look like and was surprised to find a slightly sticky, malleable brown lump in my hand. It was like the chocolate Spacefood bars I’d eaten in primary school and similarly moulded into a rectangle. I gave it a light squeeze and took a sniff. It was nutty, pungent and dusky. I smiled and handed it back to James.

Away from the main strip I was able to relax. Since being harassed by Nazi punks only a year before, I was wary of everyone and felt more at ease away from the main strip. In the side streets I could hide in the shadows, but Bondi Road swarmed with fired up, drunk young men and it was anyone’s guess as to who or what they might not like.

Before long we arrived at James’ house. It was a modern, red-brick semi which mirrored the one adjacent; set back from the road down a fragrant path.

“My mum’s home downstairs,” he said, “so we have to be real quiet.”

We tip-toed along a hall and into the front room; James held his finger to his lips. This was much more familiar territory; a game I knew only too well. I was adept at being stealthy and had a whisper so low it might be mistaken for the brush of silk.

We settled against bookshelves, sitting cross-legged. “I’ll be back,” said James, and snuck off into the hall. Rowena and I remained silent, smiling and raising eyebrows. I wondered what she saw in James. He might be cool and know a thing or two, but he was jug-eared and acned. It must have been his street cred, his dedication to the dark side that gave him the upper hand.

He returned just two minutes later with a bowl, a bong and a packet of biscuits.

“Are you mixing?” James asked, handing the bowl to Rowena to confirm this demarcation.

She took the hash from him and squeezed it into a ball. In the bowl was an unfolded, blackened paperclip. Using the paperclip as a prong, she stuck the round ball of hash on the spike, then placed it beside her. Without a word she removed a cigarette from the packet and began toasting it with the lighter; running flame up and down its length. The paper browned and blackened in spots and soon, satisfied, she put down the lighter and rubbed the cigarette between her fingers. The now drier and more brittle tobacco spilled out into the bowl. Next she took the paperclip in her fingers and held the lighter under the ball of hash. She turned this over and over in the flames, flicking it in and out and being careful not to set it alight. Sweet and heady smoke arose to mix with the toasted tobacco smell, and then, in a quick move, she pinched the hash from the end between thumb and forefinger, plunged it into the tobacco and began to work the mix with her fingers. In no time she had transformed the contents of the bowl into a dark, finely ground powder. I’d never seen anything like it and had watched the whole process in silent awe. Marijuana was marijuana, but this looked more like drugs. Perhaps it was really Rowena who had all the cred, and it was James who was along for the ride.

I still did not say a word; partly in honour of the request to remain silent, and partly out of a desire not to reveal my ignorance by asking naïve questions. James just sat smiling, saying nothing either. Rowena now packed this powder into the cone of the bong and handed it to me with a lighter.

“You go first,” she said, with a polite smile.

“Are you sure?” I whispered?

“Yeah, go on.”

I put the bong to my lips, put my thumb across the air hole and fired up the cone. The smoke tasted as rich as it smelled; it was a brown and heavy flavour, dusty and woody, and within seconds of tasting it I felt my head reeling. I leaned back against the bookshelf and didn’t move or say a word. I knew it was regarded as unmanly not to “punch” a cone, to finish it in one hit, but I took it slowly through several breaths. By the time I placed the bong on the floor and nodded silent thanks, I was well on my way to a new sensation.

James and Rowena smiled and turned their focus back to the business of packing and smoking their own cones. I sat silently, feeling myself accelerate and slow simultaneously. I guessed that this must be it, that I must be becoming stoned! Time slowed down further and my heart began pounding in my chest; the few words uttered by James and Rowena reverberated in my ears. The quiet, almost inaudible sounds of the room became echoes in what seemed a vast soundscape. I shuddered with the sounds; I shuddered in myself; I heard a sliding, throbbing noise and listened to the blood coursing through my veins. I pressed myself close against the bookshelf and watched the other two going through the motions of smoking. I had absolutely nothing to say. I was afraid of hearing my voice.

I felt both fearful and elated; and rose and dipped rapidly between the two. James and Rowena were smiling. “Excellent,” said James. “Excellent hash,” and I found myself laughing, having never heard anything so funny before in my life. It was the release I needed, but it was not enough. A moment later I felt the shelves against my spine and began to reason my way through this.

“Okay,” I thought, “this must be it. So, I’m stoned at last – tick – but what the hell do I do now? What happens next?” It was almost unbearable being forced to sit here so quietly, and then I realised that James was talking. He was talking to Rowena! Weren’t we supposed to be quiet? I couldn’t really understand what they were saying, for by the time he’d reached the end of a sentence, I’d forgotten how it started. I blinked and then closed my eyes, but things began to spin, so I opened them again and looked straight ahead. The packet of biscuits was being offered to me.

“Have one,” said James, “they’re fucking excellent.”

The biscuits were crisp and cheesy and I took two. I stuck one in my mouth and broke it in my teeth. It was dry and so was my mouth, yet in no time I chewed it into a salty, cheddary paste. They were superb biscuits! I felt the world had once again grounded itself. This was the key – sustenance! How could mankind live without food? I felt myself growing hysterically excited, tears welled in the corners of my eyes, my throat caught and thickened , but I said nothing. I was afraid of what might happen if I started to speak. What would come out? My words or someone else’s?

I ate the second biscuit. It was an historic moment. Here, still, after thousands of years, we were making things from wheat, as once they had in the fertile crescent. Where would we be without crops? Without agriculture? Where we would be without all these slow accumulations?

I was nodding to myself, nodding and chewing my way through that second biscuit. Damn the biscuit was good. I reached out and took another one. So this was what they called ‘the munchies.’ Now I could say I’d officially had the munchies, and yes, I was officially stoned!

James got up to leave the room again. Suddenly there were only two of us – how odd it all seemed. This room felt desultory. I hated overhead lights, yet, propped like some quarto volume leaned against the shelves – a book full of words and pictures – I felt small and inconspicuous. Safe enough to begin speaking.

I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I hadn’t prepared anything at all. Where should I start?

“I’m really stoned,” said Rowena.

“Yes, yes, me too!” I said, thrilled to have a contribution. So, it wasn’t just me, of course! We were both stoned. And what about James? He must be stoned as well. How was he faring out there, sneaking like a cat, like a hunching goblin, picking adventurers’ pockets, hiding the gems in his little chest…

I spoke on; unfocussed, confused inanities to Rowena. James returned and smiled at us. No toilet had flushed, no tap had run – where had he gone? I dived back into the crackers like a man possessed. I needed something to do; I needed to return to the Fertile Crescent. I ate three, four, five more biscuits; but still could not think of a way to start a conversation. I saw Rowena reaching for the bowl, saw her filling the cone. Was she mad? Was it time for another? How much time had gone by? Oh my god, what day was it? Where the hell was I? She was leaning forward with her almond eyes, her cunning smile, her lures and wiles all just for James. I took the proffered bong – it had come from a beautiful woman. Could I say no and still be a man? I smoked it, more quickly this time. By gosh my mouth was dry.

Time stretched out, accordion-like, and I tumbled backwards into the widening distance. It was slow in there, heart-pumpingly slow. I took a deep breath and fell further back into a new and juddering slowness, only this time I kept falling. I could feel the bookshelves against my back, but no longer did they anchor me to the world. I was turning over and over, in an ever-faster spin. I pushed myself more firmly against the shelves to discomfort myself back to reality. It didn’t change anything; I tumbled ever on into a ghastly image of an Icelandic maelstrom conjured from some children’s book.

Oh god, I thought, and suddenly felt very sick indeed.

“James,” I said, breathing carefully, trying to right myself, “I don’t feel so good. I think I need some fresh air.”

“Okay man,” he said.

“Are you alright?” asked Rowena.

“I dunno,” I said. The saliva rushing into my cheeks was sobering; enough to give me speech, but not enough to stop the spinning.

I stood up, climbing hand over hand behind my back, shelf by shelf. James steadied my elbow and guided me through the door. I was listing and reeling, but I stayed my course and we made it to the entrance.

“Are you alright, man?” asked James.

“I’ll just be a bit,” I said and left him standing in the doorway.

I stumbled into the night and made straight for the nature strip, feeling sure I was going to puke. I lay on the grass and welcomed the cool of the springy blades, stretching my neck to place my cheeks on the cold concrete gutter. I had learned from several overzealous tequila nights that cold floors were my salvation. Ideally I’d be lying on bathroom tiles, but at least the air was fresh out here.

I held off the first wave of nausea and tried to haul myself in. I wanted to close my eyes and go to sleep, but could only avoid the spins by keeping them open and focussed on the streetlights. What was wrong, I wondered? Was it the cheese biscuits? The earlier beers? Or could hash do this all by itself? What would my father think of all this?

I slowly managed to get myself together. I felt confused and disoriented, but my stomach had stopped its lurching. I couldn’t stay out here forever and decided, after some time that I was well enough to go in.

I stood up, turned around and found myself in serious trouble. The two houses in front of me were identical, and like a butterfly print, their doors faced the same central path. I remembered that the door had been on my left when I came outside, and therefore, I reasoned, it must be the door on the left. I walked towards it and tried the handle, but it was locked. I was afraid that I had been locked out accidentally and reached for the buzzer. It was only then that I realised my mistake. I stepped back, walked over to the door on the right, found it unlocked, and went back inside the house.

I made it through to the room where James and Rowena were sitting, gave a little wave and welcomed their smiles, but the moment I caught a whiff of the hash my stomach vaulted. My head reeled and saliva rushed again to flood my gums. I wobbled, flushed with panic and turned straight back around to head for the pavement once more.

I took up my previous position. The grass was waxy and sharp and pressed through my loose black shirt. The concrete smelled of stale sun. I could scent the cool rubber of a car tyre and the metallic grease of the brakes. I desperately wanted some water, but had not had the good sense to ask for it. I was still an amateur at looking after myself, still working out all the cures. I stared at the lights, hiding in the shadows. At first I had been too anxious to be ashamed, but now I was beginning to feel conspicuous.

I pulled myself together, stood up and brushed myself down. I was dizzy and confused, but my stomach felt sound. I made for the doorway but once again faced a dilemma. Which door was it? The left or the right? I struggled to remember. All I knew was that I had gotten it wrong last time. I recalled my previous mistake and tried to work through it – I had started confident but came to the wrong conclusion. Only where had I started from last time? What was the basis of my previously flawed logic? I could not remember, but the door on the left looked attractive. It looked familiar. Had I not perhaps gone through it before?

I tried the handle on the screen door. It was locked again! I couldn’t think at all. What had happened last time? Had I rung the buzzer? Had I knocked on the window? I couldn’t remember a thing. Was this what it was like to be stoned? I pressed the buzzer. What the hell, I needed water; I needed to get inside. I waited only a few seconds before being struck by the terrifying realisation that this was the wrong door. Of course! The other door had been open all along. I ran across the path, tried the other door and was through into the hall in a flash.

I needed water, but wasn’t going to try finding the bathroom by myself, so I walked through to where James and Rowena were sitting. It looked and smelled as though they’d just had another cone; the air was thick with smoke, coiling around the glaring, ugly light. The reek was dreadful, overpowering, and before I could say a thing I felt myself reeling again. “Oh, god,” I said, “get me some water!” Then I turned straight back, ran this time through the front door, lunged towards the gutter and vomited into the concrete.

“Oh, god, oh god,” I moaned, as the full scale of my cheese-cracker consumption became gaudily apparent.

I rose with the heaving retches, otherwise lying flat as a lizard. I don’t imagine anyone likes to vomit, yet I had lived with a phobia of it since suffering a terrible bout of gastro-enteritis at the age of eleven. I was old enough to know I would shrug it off, however, and did not feel overly concerned, but rather, humiliated, ashamed, longing for home. My father’s words now came back to me clearly. His offer of assistance would be more than welcome now, yet my troubles did not seem to be on the scale his words had suggested. Still I imagined him helping me up, grabbing me under the armpits and lifting me to my feet. “We’ll get you home, don’t worry, son. You’ll be alright.”

My home grew great and necessary in my heart. What was wrong within me to make me seek these alternatives, these frontiers? Could I not be happy at home, clean and fed, loved and looked after? Of course it came with a swathe of attendant woes, but the core things, beyond all the bickering, brought a simple, profound happiness. I wished these truths could be always predominant. What a pleasure it would be to go home now and feel them in my body and soul; to feel the safety, comfort and love.

One evening when I was twelve years old, walking home with my father along Oxford Street, we passed by a scene that shocked me to the core. On the bus-stop bench sat two young men with a girl lying across their lap. The girl was, to all intents and purposes, unconscious and had vomit trickling from her mouth, right into the lap of one of the blokes, who seemed so out of it as not to care.

“Jesus,” said my father, “who bloody-well sold them the booze?”

I felt at the time a mix of fear and shame, but worst of all, it made me feel very, very ill owing to my morbid, indeed, at the time, pathological phobia of vomiting. I could not comprehend how people could put themselves into such situations. And yet, look at me now! Perhaps it wasn’t always so obvious where the limits lay.

I retched and retched until I could retch no more, praying that no one would walk past, wanting neither their scorn, their charity or their pity. I was especially fearful that some young child might walk past with their father or mother and that I would become the fearful blueprint of how not to behave. I cursed my fate. So, being stoned could make you sick as well? I suppose I wasn’t to know.

After fifteen minutes I stood up and steadied myself. I was disappointed that neither James nor Rowena had come to check on me; yet perhaps things were more discrete without a pavement congregation. I faced my foe one last time: the two identical doors. Surely I could not make the same mistake a third time, and yet I did, trying the handle repeatedly on their tight screen door. I stood a while shaking my head. How could I be so useless? How I longed to be home, showered and changed, warm in my bed with a good book and the dogs snoring at my feet. How I looked forward to the happy normality of Sunday, killing time with my brother.

I soon realised my mistake and crossed to the right side of the path. I turned the handle and walked on in, back with the low, roiling scents of oily hash. I marched straight through to see James and Rowena and told them I was leaving.

“Can you call me a taxi?” I asked, and they were more than obliging. Perhaps they had just forgotten about me out there; perhaps they had simply not cared. I couldn’t be sure, but I was pleased to be leaving.

“Can I use the bathroom, man?”

“Sure thing.”

Rowena showed me through with a curious, sorrowful smile. I wondered if their hearts were hardening in this life they led, or were they harder to begin with.

I washed my face and hands, rinsed out my mouth, drank a small amount of water. When I emerged from the bathroom, James and Rowena were waiting to see me off.

“Taxi’s coming,” said James, “it won’t be long now.”

We all walked outside.

Later that night as I sat up in bed, freshly showered, book on my lap, nursing a hot cup of tea, I made a silent promise that my father need never come fetch me. Despite his willingness, was it really necessary for him to know of my shame?

So it was, that on the hard nights to come, on the speed and acid, coke and ecstasy nights of the reeling future, I didn’t muck around, but instead went straight to hospital.

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This is a chapter from a novel I wrote between 1998 and 2004 entitled Et in Antipodes, Ego. It was intended to be something of a romantic epic, but lacked sufficient gism to make it readable. Too long and slow, the romantic elements were based, at times quite painstakingly, on personal experiences I had in the period prior to its conception. The story centred around Edward Cockfoster and his uncovering of a literary controversy whilst writing a PhD on the fictional Australian author, Bryce Chapman. His unexpected, serendipitous success with his research contrasted with the failure of his relationship with the Cambridge-bound Pandora.

Whilst containing some, if I may say so myself, quite beautiful moments, there was too much pedantic and pedestrian detail which could only be described as self-indulgent. With the first draft running to 140,000 words, it was terribly overwritten, yet at the time I was too precious to take the axe to it in the way that was necessary. In retrospect, it was good “marathon training”, but not something I intend to go back, having moved so far away from its characters, themes and sentiment. This passage comes from, well, somewhere in the middle.

 

The Reliability of Change

“So come on then, what’s the big surprise?”

Edward was standing in a bath full of hot water and bubbles. The soft pop and tickle on his shins was a welcome distraction from the mild scalding his feet had just received. They were at Pandora’s parents’ house, having taken the opportunity of their absence to indulge in a little luxury.

“I told you I would show you once we were in the bath,” said Pandora.

“Alright, alright.”

“Well, how is the water?”

“It’s a bit of a shock at first, but after that…”

He began to lower himself into the bath. Pandora removed her towel and poked a pointed foot in at the other end. “Ooh, it does feel hot,” she said. Edward emitted a high-pitched whine as his testicles touched the hot water. They tingled fiercely; a delicious sensation.

“Where is it hidden?” he asked, rubbing his delicacy.

Pandora stepped fully into the bath and stood over him, smirking. Her high, pointed breasts sporting long, erect nipples.

“On the chair. Under the towel.”

She placed her hands on her hips. “Do I look like an Amazon?” she asked; sounding English, like her mother.

“You need a tan,” he said, “and one less breast.”

“Oh goodness, I forgot about that.”

Your shoulders are a tad too round as well, was Edward’s unvoiced thought.

“So come on, how about this surprise?” he said. “We are both now in the bath after all.”

“I’m not fully in yet.”

Edward tutted. “Well… I’m going to have to lift up the towel.”

Pandora smiled.

“No, wait. Close your eyes.”

“Now we’re talking.”

Edward slid down in the bath so that his mouth was level with the foam. He closed his eyes to a world of red warmth. He heard Pandora lifting the towel, imagined her leaning and reaching. Then he felt a soft tap on the head; something light and thin.

“Come on.”

He reached out awkwardly and grabbed what she was holding.

“Da da!” said Pandora, as Edward opened his eyes. In his hands was a set of plastic farm animals, still in the cardboard-backed, clear plastic package.

“Fantastic!” said Edward. “You found the duck and geese set!”

Edward stared lovingly at the packet; steamed and wet from his hands.

“Can I open it?”

“Of course.”

He pulled free the plastic cover and released the animals: two ducks and a goose.

“These are quality ducks,” said Edward, admiring them.

Pandora nodded, then leaned over and reached for her dressing gown.

“And look,” she said, “I brought Otto and Merrylegs as well.” From the dressing gown pocket she produced a plastic sheep and border collie.

“Brilliant.” Edward lined the new animals up along the edge of the bath. Pandora placed Otto and Merrylegs next to them, then sat down in the water.

“So, what shall we call these fine ducks?” asked Edward.

“They must have names that match their aristocratic looks.”

They examined them closely for a moment.

“I think this one looks quite cheeky,” said Edward. “He might be a bit of a womaniser.”

“I think they’re both womanisers,” said Pandora. “This one’s awfully sure of himself.”

Pandora nestled further into the foam, pushing her legs past Edward’s hips. She studied the ducks a moment longer.

“Casanova,” she said. “Let’s call one of them Casanova.”

“Cool,” laughed Edward. “I was thinking of the name Rudolf.”

“Wonderful, duckest. Rudolf and Casanova it is.”

“Does it matter which one is which?”

“I don’t think so. They can be like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”

They lay back and played with the animals; walking them over foam hills and down to popping dales. When the bubbles vanished, they swam the small ducks through the cooling water, then ran more hot and paddled it around.

After their bath, Edward and Pandora cooked pasta for dinner, then settled down to eat in front of The Bridges of Madison County. Sitting behind an oil heater, legs covered by a picnic blanket, they marvelled at Meryl Streep’s accent. When the film was finished they sat on stools in the kitchen and ate ice-cream.

“It’s a very sad movie,” said Pandora. “Beautiful and sad.”

“Beautifully sad,” said Edward, his teeth aflame with cold.

“There was a lot of truth in that movie,” said Pandora. “That line about change being the only thing you can depend on in life, and not to be afraid of it. It really is true.”

“I suppose. For better or for worse, change happens.”

“And if it is for worse, then next time it might be for the best.”

Edward switched on the electric jug and stood with his eyes lowered. He did not look up when Pandora touched his shoulder.

“Duck,” she said, “are you alright?”

“Of course. I was just thinking about the movie.”

“It really was very good.”

She took two teacups from the cupboard.

“You look sad,” she said.

“I feel a bit sad,” said Edward. He looked at Rudolf and Casanova, sitting on the kitchen bench. “I don’t want things to change. I want things to stay the same.”

“Poor, sad duck.” She took his upper arm and turned him to face her. “Your little squirrel still loves you.”

Edward stuck out his lower lip.

“But you won’t always be my little squirrel, will you?”

“What do you mean?”

He rubbed his nose.

“I mean, if you do go to Cambridge. Everything will change and you’ll leave me for someone else.”

“Edward, that’s a horrible thing to say. What makes you think I’ll leave you?”

“I don’t know. You said that when you got overseas you’d have to think about everything again. Re-evaluate how you relate to everything.”

“Well, firstly there’s no when about it. And anyway, what sort of person do you think I am? How do you think that reflects on me?”

“I don’t mean it like that.”

“Don’t you think I’m telling you the truth when I tell you I love you?”

“That’s not what I mean. It’s just that you’ll be far away and you’ll meet other men and you’ll forget about me. Change. It’s inevitable – the one thing you can depend upon.”

“Edward, that’s a horrid thing to say, when you make it mean that.”

Pandora’s eyes went moist and her lip faltered.

“You’ll just as soon find another girlfriend,” she said, her voice quivering. “If anyone’s shown evidence of poor character in the past, it’s you, Edward.”

“No I won’t,” he said. “I don’t ever want another girlfriend.” He reached out toward her and she pushed his hand away.

“I’m sorry, Panda. I didn’t want to make you upset. It’s just I was thinking about what you said the other week – that you would have to think about everything again. I’ve been despairing about it ever since.”

“Why do you have to bring that up now?”

“Why did you have to say that in the first place?”

“What you said was cruel.”

“So was what you said. You know how afraid I am of you going.”

She pushed back her hair and folded her arms.

“But you’re always pressuring me to reassure you. I have to be realistic. And anyway, I didn’t necessarily mean I’d have to think twice about you.”

“Well, what did you mean?”

“I don’t know, Edward, I don’t know. I don’t think you should have said what you did. You’re the one who’s going to find someone else if anyone is.”

“Well if I’m of such poor character, why don’t you leave me now? If that’s what you think, how do I know you won’t try to get in first?”

Pandora began to sob, shaking her head. The electric jug clicked and Edward inclined his head toward it, Pandora’s eyes followed his and they both stared at the steam pouring from the lip of the jug. Pandora tried to hold her position but had to unfold her arms to wipe her tears and rub her eyes.

“Why do you have to ruin everything, Edward? I don’t need all this extra pressure. It’s hard enough as it is, waiting and not knowing.”

Edward set his jaw. He felt as if he was falling and was uncertain how hard the ground might be.

“Well I’m in the same boat. Except whereas you stand to win, I only stand to lose.”

“Well that isn’t my fault! So stop taking it out on me.”

She stared at him with her red eyes wide and cheeks blotched with anger and Edward could not meet her gaze. He looked again at the jug and felt ashamed.

“But can’t you stop making me feel so insecure?” It was a measured half-whisper, keeping his eyes low.

“You started this. I’m not the one who should be making concessions.”

Edward moved towards the jug and poured the hot water into the two cups.

“Do you still want tea?” he asked. She stared at him and said nothing, so he turned around and tried to meet her gaze, but again he felt ashamed and cast his eyes to the floor.

“I’m sorry, Panda. I didn’t want to have a fight.”

“Well what did you expect?” she snapped. “You can’t just say things like that and expect me not to react. You should have said nothing at all.”

He nodded solemnly, easing himself into penance.

“I’m sorry. I don’t want to argue any more.”

“I never wanted to argue in the first place. You have to stop torturing me about this – and yourself. Even if I’m going I don’t start until October, and that’s six months away. How do you know whether or not things will change?”

Edward shrugged weakly and picked up the jug. He poured both cups in silence, then jiggled the tea bags. It was true, he didn’t know if she was going and worrying about it would change nothing. Then again, he thought, staring into the worn and holed yellow stove-mit hanging from a hook in front of him, for better or for worse, change was the one thing upon which he could depend and, from a starting point of rare happiness, things could only get worse.

**********

Edward slipped his arms through the dressing gown and pulled it across his chest. He was nearly out the bedroom door when Pandora mumbled: “Do you have to be such a big, noisy monster, Duck?”

“Sorry,” he breathed. “I have to go to the toilet.”

She said nothing more and he closed the door behind him. After going to the bathroom, he was taken with the idea of a cheese sandwich and walked on through to the kitchen.

Edward’s thoughts had kept him awake for some time and eventually he had found the effort to lie still too taxing to endure. He was heavily prone to insomnia. At home he would lie awake for hours, sweating tight little beads. After a time he would throw the sheets off and listen to his heartbeat, all the while trying to concentrate on breathing steadily and doing anything other than listening to his heartbeat. At night everything seemed so impossible, but when the morning came and everything was possible again, he would be too tired to address whatever had kept him awake. The inefficiency of it was maddening.

He took bread and butter from the fridge and began to search for cheese. A moment later he spotted a hunk of neatly-wrapped cheddar.

What had compelled him to ruin the evening with Pandora? He should have known what would come of raising the question of her departure again. Again, the inefficiency of it all was maddening. All he had hoped for was a night of lovemaking and a long, easy sleep. He and Pandora rarely spent the night together anymore, not that they had ever done so very often. The habit had formed at Pandora’s instigation, for she did not like to have her rest disturbed and tended to sleep an hour or so later than Edward, who hopped up shortly after dawn.

He took a plate from the cupboard and began to slice the cheese.

Their first ever night together had been an awkward squeeze in Edward’s bed and neither of them slept a wink. At five that morning a flatbed truck had huffed and clanked into the back lane and Vietnamese voices unloaded huge sacks of flour for the bakery next door. Fatigue was the talking point of the coming day and the following night they slept apart.

Edward buttered the bread and began arranging the cheese on his sandwich. In those first few late November days, now more than a year ago, all Edward had longed for was a holiday from work and good sense; for the chance to plunge into love. Having yearned for Pandora to the point of distraction for so many months beforehand and having found his feelings requited, he had rather hoped that the intensity of his passion would also be requited. Yet soon the exhaustion of the chase became matched by the exhaustion of the beginning and their love-life began in syncopation; halting progress and mounting failure. Such was Edward’s concern to get things right that he was unable for many weeks to rise to the occasion. Deeply disappointed by this and considerably embarrassed, despite his attempts to dismiss the paradigmatic anxieties of masculinity, the more he failed, the harder he was inclined to try. Every time he went home alone was a missed opportunity to prove his prowess or, at least, his basic competence, until, exhausted by desire and unable to convince Pandora that they should spend the night together more often, he was forced to admit that sex was a lesser priority and to agree that sleeping soundly made more sense than lying awake in discomfort. So it was that Edward went back to masturbating, and with the steam let out, everything began to go more smoothly.

He finished the preparation of his sandwich, cut it down the middle and, poured a glass of milk.

For all his agonising over their sex life, Edward was over the moon to be with Pandora in those first months. When she moved from her old room to a new and furnished flat in the same suburb, acquiring a double bed in the process, Edward was allowed to stay at weekends. By this time, however, he had become so used to parting at the end of the night, even after lovemaking, that he rarely did stay over. When he did, he rose early and left first thing to avoid being reprimanded for reading too loudly. The new discipline they came to encourage in each other had entrenched itself, and the anxieties of the beginning had passed sufficiently to smother the desperation for her to be there always. Needless to say, he preferred it when she was.

How long it now seemed since they had established these rhythms. How certain he was that change must come. Why this must happen, even when a flawless happiness had been so painstakingly established, was anyone’s guess.

Edward chose to eat in the lounge-room. Before him the dark windows swayed with liquidambar. Starlight flowed across the floor like the glimpse of a river through trees and ran to the low shelves alongside the hearth. Edward traced the paintbrush curves to a set of bold letters, stark against a dark spine on the shelves: The Atlas of the Viking World. He squinted at the title a while, then took this quarto volume and placed it in his lap.

Below the title he could just make out a photo of a grass-roofed bungalow, built of stone and sunk in soft dips of hill. From the grey chimney rose a long rope of smoke, barely visible against the grass and overcast sky. Inside he imagined a warm fire and a long table, a double cot and a smoky smell at dawn in the high places. It was coziness and isolation; a nest for lovers who needed nothing more than each other; where even through acres of grey, the sunlight fell, if muted. There everything was narrowed to simplicity; and there, across oceans of time and distance and under a roof of grass, Edward might know that they were together for good.

He chewed into his sandwich with a thick throat, wondering what on earth there was to eat in those empty hills.

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This is the first chapter of a novel I wrote in 2005 called Advance Australia, Farewell. A first-person narrative from the point of view of Harrison Borgnine, a 17-year old boy who is deeply traumatised by the death of his family in a terrorist incident in Sydney Harbour, it was set in a distopian Australia in the year 2030. The novel was inspired by my total and utter hatred of the conservative government of John Howard and all they stood for. It posited a callous future of collapsed social services, restricted individual freedom, draconian employment laws, selfishness, obesity, military adventurism, publicly muscular “Christianity”, overzealous nationalism, both legal and rhetorical, flag-worship, unaffordable medical services, environmental degradation and, ultimately, Australia’s ostracism by Europe and other right-thinking governments through the vehicle of trade and sports sanctions. The novel was not intended to be an accurate prediction of the future, but rather the worst-case scenario of a dangerous political ideology and bad policy. Most of all it was intended to be a tongue-in-cheek rollicking yarn, based very loosely on the 1608 picaresque Spanish novella The Swindler by Francisco de Queveda. It begins when Harrison flees from his school to join a group called the Sydney School of Mendicants, who specialise in fraudulent means of extracting charity. Ultimately, having rescued his friend Alfonse from one of Australia’s fortified schools for politically suspect children, completely fed up with Australia, he escapes on a boat as a refugee to New Zealand.

 

Advance Australia, Farewell

It’s the joy of forgetting, such a joy to forget

But we killed all our first born, we slashed and we burned

And we sold off the paddocks, and we raped and we gouged

On the wings of a six-pack will we ever learn?

– Midnight Oil, Who Can Stand in the Way

 

So here I was jigging school, having a cigarette with my zits stinging and my tie hanging out of my top pocket. It wasn’t even midday and there was plenty of time to kill. I was still cruising on the juicy rush of my legendary escape and was happy to sit it out for a bit. I didn’t have to be anywhere until about one-thirty, and when one-thirty came around, you betcha, I had somewhere to be alright.

Lorna Fishburn. Need I say more?

Now, obviously today was a special day, and apart from a certain forecast rendez-vous, it was also the day on which I’d decided to make a run for it. It was time to do what my champion brother used to call the hell U-bolt, and break out of school once and for all.

During recess, before the playground patrol started mopping up stragglers, I’d hidden myself under the demountables and disabled my tracking tag. It was piss easy to do, and everyone knew the trick. My bag was chock-a-block with all the stuff you need to survive – like clothes and a toothbrush – but I’d still found room for a few of my favourite Conan books. You can’t beat Conan when you need to gee up for the odd mission impossible and, sure enough, as I lay there with all the rubbish and spiders, I pulled out an old fave and got stuck into some quality reading.

Ten minutes later, I was itching to go. The playground looked clear and with Conan on my side, I was fully psyched. I put away my book, pushed my bag out and rolled from under the building like some army hero. I was up near the tennis courts and had a pretty good view across the yard, and couldn’t see a rat’s flap. I got my bag on, got into a champion crouch, hung on just a moment, then made my break.

Would you believe it, but just as I hit the palm tree, I heard this dude shouting at me, and next thing Blinky Bill’s on my heels. He’s the school caretaker, and though he’s a mere kumquat of a man, he came at me like a falling coconut. I fully stepped on the gas and went like crazy, and Blinky kept on coming. I was amazed to see him run like that because we all know he’s smashed beyond the realms of a goat by lunch-time. Admittedly, it was only recess, but he would’ve had a few already to be sure. I ran like the wind in your hair on a beachfront cliff, and looking over my shoulder, Blinky was doing the same. I was touched to see him put in such an effort on my behalf, especially when I knew I was leaving him for dead. His stumpy legs meant he ran like a right lump, and it wasn’t exactly a coat of varnish job in the end. I was out that gate like a gold medallist.

Now that’s all very well, me getting away, but more importantly I don’t reckon he saw my face and the camera on that gate is stuffed. They may well be into some hi-tech paranoid bullshit, but that school doesn’t exactly have electric fences and savage pit-bulls like some of the private ones. My dad reckoned back in his days it was much easier to jig school. These days you need a change of clothes and an all-round plan and a bit of a taste for skulking about in sewers, and that plan had better be a good one or else you’ll have a hell of a lot to answer for and wind up in the state barracks.

Fear not though, comrades, for let me assure you that on this stinking hot day of quality escapology I had a totally first-rate plan that was flawless in every regard. The fact of the matter was that no pisspanhandling spermivore was going to stop Harrison Borgnine from reaching the goal of his expedition. For, lo and be bold, I had a date with Lorna Fishburn.

You might have guessed already that she’d be a bit of a hottie – a truly Ghengis-looking girl with top quality legs and a brain-bending bosom to boot. The honest truth is she had loads of things going for her and not just the looks or the intravenous talk she could pull off, but she was gifted with all kinds of friends in low places. Make no mistake, Lorna knew a thing or two about skulking about in sewers.

But hang on there, son. Hold your horses, old boy, as my dad used to say. Shut up, Harrison, you little spew-bag, you don’t wanna spill the seed too early. Enough about Lorna for the moment – it’s no good wearing her out before she’s even on the scene. When she turns up she’s bound to do herself justice with her world-series looks and lurid qualities. It’d be a tragedy to soil the expectation.

So there I was sitting in the park and slowly roasting. I’m always getting sunburnt, like my mum used to tell me to be careful and put cream on and not sit around without a hat and sure enough I’d come home looking like Abraham Spastoonce, that guy who locked himself in a glass cage in the Himalayas and lost a testicle or something. Not like I lost a testicle, though. I mean, as if, but I was prone to looking like a lobster.

I tossed a few rocks at the carp in the water, but they weren’t doing squat. I half expected one of them to have a heart-attack because one time when I jigged with my best mate Alfonse, we got busted throwing rocks at the ducks by a couple of rangers. Not like Aragorn and his bunch, but those bullshit park cops who are just trumped-up gardeners. These guys came over and said, “I hope that’s bread you’re throwing. You better like show us the loaf, or you’ll be in hot water.” Actually, they weren’t too aggro about it, but they did get shirty and wanna see I.D. and naturally we were packing about getting busted. So I pulled out a bullshit bus-pass I’d nicked off a bloke who baled out of school called Donnie Candles, and when they wrote down Donnie I could have pissed myself laughing, except right then and there I was so scared I nearly shat myself. Alfonse didn’t have any fake I.D., only the stolen Cab-charge which said he was Jenny Fu. Then they said we were going to be deep in shit, and that tomorrow there’d probably be about eight dead ducks floating on the lake, with them being so prone to heart attacks if you give them a scare. I reckon they were full of shit though because when we got to school the next day, there was no hoop-la at all. So take note – those lazy bastards didn’t do their jobs properly. I should have taken their names and reported them for bloody negligence, even if they did me a favour. No wonder I wanted to smash the state.

The duck incident happened a while back, well before I got my stupid medal and even before Alfonse got done for terrorism. And what the hell, I was just a kid who liked throwing rocks at ducks and Alfonse was just a kid who liked having a few words here and there, and kids get up to plenty worse shit these days, like you wouldn’t believe. My dad reckoned, back in his day, it was just hooking up car batteries to troughs, letting off stink-bombs and the odd friendly stabbing. Now kids go around gassing people and shit; gassing and shooting and pipe bombs and blowing up trains and gang-raping whole gangs – serious stuff. But it’s hardly surprising what with about eight million wars and religious freaks everywhere and that tanker they blew up in the harbour. No wonder some kids wanna run away and smash the state. I reckon it’s fair enough, and at the end of the day, I guess I’m one of those kids. Well, sorta, kinda. See, smashing the state seemed like it was way too big a job, so I went for a compromise. I decided to dodge it instead, and that’s kind of what this story’s all about.

Either way, I was just a kid and you can’t do too much about that. I never asked for anything and this all just came along – everything and nothing – and maybe I’m better for it, after such a run of bad luck. And just as I didn’t know what was coming back then, I’ll likewise lay it all out so you don’t know what’s coming. A big old pile of carpet no one’s ever seen before, rolling out after a quality boot with some screwed up pattern by a crazy weaver going nowhere and always different – never a dull moment; not in this day and age.

So go on, comrades, lend me your ears!

But you can keep the blackheads and the wax.

**********

So there I was down at the park with a bunch of mutant fish and I started to get a bit worried. Hell knows why I was sitting around in the open. It’s always the way – along comes some cop who’s been having a wank in the bushes and next thing it’s hand-jobs all round or off to the barracks.

It was high time to make for the public dunsters and get out of my “prison garb”. I’d even brought some clean pairs of dungers with me, in case Lorna took pity. After all, you never know your luck. That’s the sort of thing Conan might have said if he wasn’t so hard-core and spent a bit more time philosophising. In this old film of Conan, Conan’s dad told him to learn the riddle of steel and only trust his sword – not men, not women, not beasts. My dad gave me good advice too, and he reckoned you make your own luck. So, sure enough, I brought a clean pair of dungers with me.

I stepped out after a couple of minutes in my funky pants, trainers and a black tee-shirt – nothing conspicuous, then set off towards the comforts of Redfern. The sparkling glories of the mall were in my sights. My dad reckoned Redfern was a slum about twelve thousand years ago, though I can’t see it myself. You still get a few mutants down the shopping village. Bums love seats – it’s the simple truth. I kind of like bums myself. Both kinds, like especially the ones on women. This bloke was saying the other day, arse is the new tits, arse is the new tits in some crazy mantra, which is like when they say the hundred’s the new fifty with inflation on the up. But really I do like bums, and I quite like boobs as well, now that you mention it.

You can see I was thinking about Lorna. Not like I’ve ever seen her breasts, only the outline, pressing through her tops – it’s sick the way they do that, I swear to cod. The more I’d think about her though, the more nervous I’d get. Alfonse only ever saw her once but he reckoned she was hot as and described her as “sultry.” I reckon! Supple as a panther, like the birds in Conan, supple and lithe and all things nice, and either a total sack-monster, or she’d be shit hot with a scimitar and a complete legend at climbing walls with daggers – that’s the birds in Conan, not Lorna. But Lorna did have a body like those Brythunian women Conan’s always finding in Zamoran brothels and seedy Zingaran taverns. Or at least, so I reckoned, not ever having been to Hyborea and seen such ladies in the flesh.

I ducked down a few back streets to steer clear of the cameras and it wasn’t long before I was a mere block from the untold pleasures of what my brother used to call the Pigslops Bonanza. I never understood why, just like he used to call Angus and Robertson, Hangin’ for Robinson and Barbecues Galore, Bumroots Gaylord. He used to call people Turk-farts – not like it meant anything, but then he was always creative with language. Didn’t matter if what he said made sense, or whether it was logical or anything, but my brother had a word for everything under the sun. Brown Spiderman was one of his.

I made straight for the hot bread shop where they sold the cheese and bacon rolls and stood in front of the cutesy Chinese chick who I secretly hoped was a chronic sperm bandit. I was running a bit of a risk because some turd-burglar of a security guard was struggling to hold up a vast gut right next to the shop. I could see he was checking out the Chinese chick too, filthy old fatso. He had a head like a cup of hot fat and when he saw me approach his face screwed right up like he smelled a runny one from a prison plops bucket. I stuck out my chest and cleared my throat and thought I’d better talk all neat and trim.

“Hello,” I said, “could I please have two of your finest cheese and bacon rolls, and a half-dozen sugar and cinnamon donuts.”

I was all politeness and there was no stopping me now, so I turned to the keg and flashed him a smile, all the while thinking, Cuuuuuuuunnnnnnnntttttttttt…  He really was a hideous fucksplint and I was afraid for a second he might want a piece of me too.

The Chinese chick handed over the paper bags and hit me up for nineteen bucks. I pulled out my wallet and smiled like a total gonad.

“No sweat,” I said, “inasmuch as I have the wherewithal herein,” which was a favourite line of my brother’s when he was trying to sound like a ponce. I don’t think she had the faintest ballsplinter of what I was saying, but man she was tasty, and who could deny a feisty one smelling of bacon rolls and donuts with flour fingerprints on her cheeks? If I wasn’t meeting Lorna, I might have asked her out. Yeah, right, just like I did all the other times too…

I squeezed off and took up pole position on one of the benches. I was getting more and more nervous by the minute and didn’t have half the hunger I thought I did. I knew I’d be packing the moment Lorna showed up. I had to distract myself and get off the nerve rack and the easiest way was to visualise a bit of quality hack and slash. Sometimes I could really paint a picture, and this time around I had no trouble getting started. I opened my bag and had a squiz at the cover of Conan of Aquilonia and whooshka! – my mind was off.

In runs Conan and he’s heading straight for the Cup of Fat. The Cup’s seen nothing and before he can even get his hands out of his pockets and off his nob, there goes the arm in a flash of broadsword and a torrent of grease. Then Conan, bristling with steely thews, shears through the other one for good measure and the Cup’s going down like that Black Forest cake my dad cooked once using margarine instead of butter. Next thing Conan goes nuts when he realises he’s surrounded by a bunch of useless, retarded parasites loaded with booty and he’s swinging like a propeller, scything through skin and bone and cartilage and brains and ears and noses and guts and there’s no shortage of carnage whatsoever.

I was clamping my eyes hard conjuring this massacre and made it get so big I saw myself jumping over the counter and hiding with the Chinese chick under a couple of old flour sacks until the butchering’s done and Conan’s made his way back to the war galley he filched from some Hyrkanian pansy, leaving a trail of twitching gore.

My head was nodding up and down with the pace of my unfolding vision, and next thing I stopped dead in my tracks. I realised my legs were shaking and my fists were clenched tight and my mouth was all gummed up with bacon roll. I wasn’t panting but I sure was swallowing heartbeats. I’d gotten myself real geed up in a welter of violence and my head was starting to spin. The old panic set in and I got this feeling as if everyone really might die as I’d imagined, or like maybe I’d be the one to do it, or worse that I might die too. I had to pull myself in and stop the fear, because I knew where it would lead and then I’d get the sweats.

I chewed my dry mouth of bacon roll and took a deep breath. Like how crazy is that – that you can think some shit up for the hell of it and totally horrify yourself in the process? I clamped down on those thoughts right away. Man, I used to really love violence, but then all that shit happened and the government gave me that bloody medal like they wanted to insult me. And how fucking dumb was that – getting a bravery medal for not being somewhere when the shit hit the fan? If they’d told me what they were really doing to my mate Alfonse I might not have spat on that guy when he handed it over like he was real sorry and it wasn’t their fault in the first place anyway.

They kept an eye on me after that. But my brother would have done even better. My brother would have told them they were about as much use as a dead bear in a dust-storm. He would have asked them about Alfonse and made them tell him what they were doing to him, even if they didn’t know shit. Christ I missed my brother. But like the psyche-man said, be brave, be brave, and a huge, steaming pile of other positive ballslap that’s no consolation for a whole harbour full of people. At least I had my Conan books, and even if they were a bit violent and got me so fired right up that sometimes I got scared, I could still think about Conan taking a mighty sword to whoever the hell it was that killed my family and all the people who drove them to it. Conan was the only brother I had now.

And then I was all choked up. My bacon roll was gumming my mouth something savage and I couldn’t swallow because of the lump in my throat. I managed to get some of it down, but there were sniffles as well and I was shaking like a leaf, feeling weak and down in the dumps and scared shitless about meeting Lorna and her friends in low places and what was going to come of it all once we started skulking about in sewers.

And would you believe it, but I started crying. Right there in the shopping village with Lorna about to show. Huge, pathetic, milksop tears running down my cheeks and I could hardly breathe with all the thick gooey mess of roll in my mouth. I needed a drink real bad and couldn’t work out why the hell I hadn’t bought one at the bread shop, but I just clean forgot. I tried to stop crying, but I was fully packing now and my father and mother and brother were all there in my head and not even Lorna Fishburn was going to stop me thinking about them. And the tears just kept on coming and my cheeks were puffed right out and I tried hiding behind my hand, but nothing could stop me looking like an unblown nose.

And that’s how she found me, crying like a sissy; having a first-rate bawl with bacon chunks in my cheeks. It pretty well goes without saying that it wasn’t the way I had planned it.

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