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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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