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This story was first published in Island Magazine #116, Autumn 2009, then republished on Tragicocomedia in 2011. I am re-posting it as the title wasn’t included in the URL and it wasn’t coming up in searches.

Xanea, Harbour, December 1996. Scan of photo print

Xanea, Harbour, December 1996. Scan of photo print

Tortoise Kiss

“We haven’t had an argument in months,” said Sarah.

“I know,” said Paul. “It’s great. I hate arguing.”

“Really? You always seem to like arguments.”

“Not exactly. I just don’t like letting things go. It’s not about winning, or being right, it’s about clarifying.”

“Maybe,” said Sarah, “but only if it’s something you want to clarify. Not always with things that I want clarified.”

Paul shrugged and Sarah fell silent. It was Christmas day and they both knew the danger, so they turned their eyes back to the water. The little humps of brine shone white against the inky dimples.

They were sitting in the Venetian harbour of Chanea, Crete. Across the water, to their right, lay the long arm of the harbour wall with its lighthouse. Behind them was the white dome of the Mosque of the Janissaries; supported by four curving buttresses and situated behind four smaller domes above the façade, it looked like an octopus squatting on eggs.

“I do feel more at ease,” said Paul. “Like we’re friends again.”

Sarah took hold of Paul’s upper arm with both her hands and pulled him closer.

“It has been very peaceful.”

Paul continued to look ahead into the water; kicking his feet idly.

“Anyway,” said Sarah, “you don’t try to run away now when I kiss you.”

“No,” said Paul.

She kissed him. He smiled.

The awnings of the buildings around the harbour hung like droopy eyelids. They left Sarah feeling sleepy. Behind them was the gradual, yet dramatic rise of the White Mountains; dusted with snow from the peaks to the hills behind the town. It was blinding, inspiring, exhausting.

“I’m glad you like me again,” said Sarah. “It’s easier to believe you still love me.”

Paul grunted.

“Of course I still love you. It’s just that sometimes there’s so much noise in my head I can’t separate it. You know what I’m like. Gus reckons I have Aspergers. I sort of one-track everything and the confusion of all the rest, well, I hate it. It makes me uptight. Being on the road is different. I don’t feel petty. I feel mature.”

“You certainly act more mature.”

“Then I guess it’s true. Really, what it is,” said Paul, “I feel so uprooted. All the accretions of stagnation, the quotidian, all the bullshit, it’s gone. Gone in the drift of things. I mean, how long ago does work seem? Or even England, or Spain? We’ve been away four months now. It’s like an eternity.”

“Working was horrible. All that effort just to get here nearly wrecked everything. With us, I mean.”

Paul locked his gaze more firmly on the water.

“Well,” he said, “after we moved apart I didn’t go out much. There was all that tension.”

Sarah seemed to be looking down his line of sight. Perhaps she could see something of what he was thinking in what he was seeing.

“I guess it did sort of wreck everything,” said Paul, “But, then — ”

“Anyway,” said Sarah, holding tighter to his upper arm. “I hated working. I don’t ever want to have a job again.”

“No,” said Paul. “Neither do I.”

“We needed to get away.”

“We need to stay away.”

Later they walked past the mosque in the brilliant sun. The stones and pavement reflected clean, dry light. They had noticed, since arriving in Greece, how familiar the light seemed. Not softened by haze, or yellowed as it was in the angled north, the light in Greece was white and reminded them of Australia. The air was still.

Just past the mosque lay a row of Venetian storehouses. The long sandstone wall fronting onto the docks was capped by five triangular peaks that followed the shape of the roofs. It looked like a parapet. Standing out the front of this was an ancient, grey-haired man in the fisherman’s caps so common around the Aegean islands. He wore tightly pressed trousers, a white shirt, cream sports coat and polished brown shoes. He seemed both peasant and aristocrat in one. He was portly and dignified and toying with a set of amber beads.

The old man watched as Paul and Sarah approached, then began to walk towards them. After a few steps he held up his hand in greeting and said “Hello,” in English.

“Hello,” said Sarah, smiling.

Paul nodded. He did not feel like talking to strangers.

Reaching them where they had stopped, the old man held out his hand.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

“Merry Christmas,” said Sarah. She took his hand and shook it.

“You are travelling?” asked the old man.

“We’re from Australia,” said Paul.

“Australia? I have a grandson in Australia.”

“Oh, right,” said Paul. He had heard it all before; it was a common enough story in Greece. So common that he didn’t any longer believe it.

“How do you like Crete?” the old man asked.

“I love it,” said Paul. It’s a beautiful place.”

“And today is a beautiful day. In Germany now it is snowing. But here, Zeus is happy.”

He beamed, flashing a fine set of false teeth and suddenly Sarah and Paul were glad he had approached them.

“Yes, he’s been happy for days,” said Sarah, and they all chuckled diplomatically.

“You are walking to the harbour? To the lighthouse?”

“Maybe,” said Paul. “We walked to the lighthouse yesterday. We were just taking a stroll before lunch.”

“My mother is buying us lunch!” said Sarah, gleefully.

“Your mother is here too?”

“No, but she sent us some money.”

“For Christmas?” asked the old man.

“Yes, to buy us Christmas dinner.”

“That is nice.”

“I like to walk to the lighthouse,” he said. “Can I walk with you?”

“Yes,” said Paul, who hadn’t exactly said he was going there, “if you like.”

They resumed their walk along the waterfront. It was not at all busy, with only a few families and three or four other tourists. The old harbour of Chanea was larger than those of Rethymnon and Iraklion, also built by the Venetians. Here the sea entered deeper into the town, which hugged it like a lake. It was still and flat, with the water slightly latticed by the faint, occasional breeze. Just a week before, while Paul and Sarah were in Iraklion, a great storm had struck right across the Aegean. Watching at dawn, they had seen the ocean heave and seethe. Outside of the harbour wall was a leaping mass of water, yet behind it, on the inside, was complete calm. The yachts gently bobbed and swayed, but the violence stopped abruptly at the wall. Never before had the utility of a harbour been so apparent.

Since Iraklion the weather had remained fine. Just last night they had witnessed a wide, red sunset; the water ripening to deep aubergine. Sarah thought of fishermen, while Paul made an ineffectual sketch. They had hardly spoken; the long weeks of space had rebuilt the comfort of mutual silence.

“What do you call the beads you have?” asked Sarah of the old man. “All the men seem to have them.”

“Yes,” he replied. “They are Komboloi, worry beads. All the men have them.”

All the old men, thought Paul.

“Here, you try.”

He handed the beads straight to Paul, who was taken by surprise and took them reverently, as cautious as if handed a child.

“Komboloi?” he asked, handling the smooth, thick amber. The old man said nothing, he just smiled at the beads in Paul’s hands. They tapered in size and were strung on a yellow cord, ending in a soft tassel. Paul wanted to hand them to Sarah, but perhaps they were only for men. Sarah feared the same and looked closely as Paul spread them across his open palms.

“These are beautiful,” said Paul. “I can see how they might be calming.”

He was used to choosing his words carefully now; trying to limit his vocabulary to the basics. It was, in its way, exhausting. He wondered if “calming” was simple enough, wondered about the conditional, the subjunctive. Still, the old man’s English was unexpectedly good. He handed back the Komboloi.

They walked around the turn at the narrow elbow of the harbour. The old man remained silent and, after a minute or so, Sarah and Paul began to feel the choke on their conversation. No longer free to be at ease with saying nothing, they could think of nothing to say. They had explained themselves so many hundreds of times in the preceding months; where they came from, what it was like, what they did, who they were and why, that apart from beginning to wonder at the truth of it all, they were frankly quite sick of it and no longer wished to volunteer the information. In other towns they had met with many travellers, which they had appreciated, but here in Chanea, the last two days had been a pleasant void.

Half way along the harbour wall they stopped to look out to sea. Paul had a sensation he’d not had in years, of being chaperoned by a boring grandparent. Watching the seagulls in silence, however, he soon ceased to care. As the minutes ticked by, smoothed by the wash of the waves and the odd resounding echo of the town, any sense of concrete understanding vanished altogether. Sarah felt it too. An air of dissipation hung over everything, as though purposelessness were slowly lessening the gravity that held all the atoms together. Then she remembered lunch. It was something to hang on to, something to steer by.

It was at this point that the old man surprised Paul by touching him on the shoulder and saying, “Can I kiss her?”

“What?” said Paul, more abruptly than he would have liked.

“A kiss?” said the old man. “Can I kiss her?”

“Well,” said Paul, “you shouldn’t ask me. You should ask Sarah.”

“A kiss?” said the old man, turning to Sarah. “For Christmas.”

Sarah was as surprised and bewildered as Paul. The man seemed so old to her, even beyond grandfatherly. She had almost forgotten about him entirely.

“Well,” she said, reddening, “I don’t see why not.”

Sarah turned her face sideways and offered him her cheek. The old man was slow in his movements, but determined. His wrinkled neck strained and quivered as he leaned slowly into the kiss. He closed his eyes and puckered his mouth into a beak, while his liver-spotted hands reached out with the rigor mortis of a golem. He clumsily took hold of her shoulders and brought his face close to hers. Paul watched all this in profile; saw his girlfriend being taken in the arms of a mummy.

Sarah knew instantly what the old man was about and was having none of it. He had taken too long in crossing the distance. She was gorgeous and voluptuous, wearing a knee-length skirt. It was all so clear to her now. When he placed one of his dry, papery hands to her cheek and tried to turn her face towards him, her charity vanished. His stiff upper body was craning like a tortoise. He came in close, his nose brushing hers, but she snapped her head back in time and shook it from side to side, emitting a weak “no” in protest, ducking from his grip.

“Hey,” said Paul, reaching forward limply. He was paralysed by the man’s age, and, rather than reaching for him, he reached for Sarah, to help extract her. Yet she had, by then, extracted herself, stepping back several paces.

“No, not like that,” she said, out of breath with fright and embarrassment.

“What do you think—” said Paul, but something stuck in him; something about himself.

The old man was entirely unmoved. He stood in the end point of his manoeuvre as though nothing was amiss. He remained silent and lowered his arms; recomposed himself.

Sarah and Paul began to walk slowly; away from the man, away from the lighthouse, back towards the town. They stepped deliberately, as though tied in some way to the location of the incident. It was courtesy that kept them from running; courtesy, embarrassment and the length of the stretch, for the harbour wall ran for another hundred feet, open, exposed. They were trapped in the aftermath.

Sarah was inwardly fuming. It was the assumption that angered her so much. That man, that ancient, rubbery brothel-creeper with his revolting, antiquated misconceptions.

“Why didn’t you do something?” she said, thirty feet on.

“Do what?” hissed Paul “Do what?”

“I don’t know. Just make sure it never got to that.”

“But, but it all just sort of happened.”

Sarah was looking at her feet. She was ashamed and angry that she should feel something so contrary to her role in the matter.

“It’s easy for you,” she said, “you’re always kissing other people. I don’t… It’s horrible.”

“Don’t start that again,” said Paul.

“Why can’t I start that? I never get to start anything.”

It was all back in her, all the burning ‘errors’ she’d forgiven. She knew this wasn’t his fault, but it was just the sort of thing that happened to them now, and only because of him. Must everything always fall so short of what she hoped for with Paul? She allowed herself to believe his assurances, unable to see how far his bleakness and sabotage went, but her belief was no longer tempered by trust. It was simply that when he was on her side she felt stronger, safer. He was a useful ally. She hated that her love for him had deteriorated into something so utilitarian. He was as cold as a stone buttress.

“Just…. not now,” said Paul. “Not today. It’s fucking Christmas. Let’s just forget it. The whole thing was an innocent, silly mix-up. I thought he was going to kiss you on the cheek.”

“So did I.”

Sarah looked at Paul. Paul opened his mouth but said nothing. He was always in the wrong, and quite genuinely. If he hadn’t learned to avoid being in the wrong, he at least knew it wasn’t in his interest to start discussing why he was in the wrong. He had only learned this recently. Naively, he had always primed excuses and deployed them pre-emptively. He was good at excuses, but Sarah was better at truth and the one always countered the other.

His eyes relaxed. Her eyes relaxed. They both began to smile. They had reached the end of the harbour wall and turned around its hairpin to the stretch beside the storehouses.

“I’m not,” said Paul, “saying anything.”

“Let’s just say nothing,” said Sarah.

Paul looked behind him. The old man was ambling along, about twenty metres behind, toying with his beads.

“Fuck that old goat,” said Paul, “what’s his game anyway? Let’s make a run for it. Come on!”

He grabbed Sarah’s hand and broke into a run, pulling her with him. She skipped and hopped and then she was running as well, running with a widening smile. They ran until they came to a junction beside the weathered Venetian warehouses.

“This way!” shouted Paul, growing hysterical with mischief, turning away from the harbour. They came to a half-collapsed and roofless building. There was a boarded-up entrance that had been pried open, kicked in. Sun was streaming through the open top and the inside space was light and warm.

“Come on,” said Paul, “let’s hide in here.”

They stepped through the opening and placed their backs against the wall beside the doorway. Now they really started laughing, big gulping laughs and exhalations. They looked about. The ground was covered in rubble and overgrown with tall weeds. Half-broken planks hung from the wrecked floor above. It seemed a beautiful, happy ruin.

“Let’s go up the stairs and hide properly,” said Paul. “Just for the hell of it.”

“Is it safe?”

“I don’t know. The stairs look sturdy enough.”

They climbed up the stairs to the landing and stepped along the remaining edge of the floor, where a few beams protruded. Here they stopped, still breathing out the flurry of excitement.

“Seems pretty solid.”

The post-holes in the walls shuffled with nervous pigeons; seagulls cried overhead like polished glass. The sandstone was pocked and crumbly; honey-combed like frail conglomerate. Paul was drawn to its wear, to its ruin. He fingered the loose fragments of wall; it was bound here and there with dusty web. Sarah peered over the wreck of a window ledge to the street below. She sought the old man, but he was nowhere to be seen. He was likely still meandering by the harbour; likely still feeling the brush of her nose, the softness of her shoulder. She shuddered.

Paul sat down on the stairs. He was calm again now, overlooking the warm ruins. He had come to Europe to look at ruins; come to see the relics. He felt right at home with ruins. For one thing, they were never pressing, having lost all their urgency. He kicked his foot against a pebble on the stairs. It skipped down into the matted, weedy rubble.

Sarah watched the pebble bounce. How good it had felt when they ran together! It was so long since they had been in such unison. Ever since she had read his diary, when the dust finally settled, everything had been so cautious, so careful. She longed to be free of this deliberateness. Her eyes moistened and she fastened her grip on the weathered window sill. She was always waiting for Paul now. It wasn’t fair, but she could not face leaving him. Just now, she could not face him.

Paul began to think about lunch. He was a man of strong appetites, even at his most apathetic. How he loved the novelty of foreign menus.

“What do you want to eat?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said Sarah. “We can have a look in town. You decide.”

She held tight to the sill, wanting to place herself back in the happiness of running. It had flushed her like a sugar high, and now she was coming down. How like Paul to have moved on already; to be thinking about something else. Slowly, silently, she began to cry; saddened by her weakness.

Paul failed to notice. He was thinking about pork chops; staring ahead into rubble.

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This short story was begun as long ago as 1998 and has since been through many revisions, rejections and further revisions, including changing its name three times. Apart from a quick run through before publishing it here, this draft dates from around July 2011. I’m unlikely to work on it again and don’t believe in it strongly enough to continue submitting it, plus, it rather fits the bill of tragicomedy, so here it is! 

 

Lady of Shallot - Waterhouse

 

For the Love of Seneca

“I have a bath again now,” said Oliver, sitting in his mother’s kitchen on a grey Sunday afternoon.

“Well, you know what I’ve always said?”

“Yes, I know. And if you say it again, I’ll come round next time you’re in the bath and throw the bloody hairdryer in.”

“Charming.”

Oliver’s mother, Janet was making pastry for a peach pie.

“It’s true,” she said. “Hot baths are very good for you.”

“I know, I know.”

“So how is Rachel?”

“She’s fine I guess.”

“Don’t you know? The last time I saw her she complained she never sees you.”

Oliver sipped from his cup of tea.

“I’m busy, mum. Anyway, she’s just being melodramatic. She’s got a thesis to write and if she made better use of the time I give her then she wouldn’t have anything to complain about.”

“You give her!”

Oliver smirked.

“Well, whatever. I just don’t see why she can’t amuse herself.”

“Don’t you want to see her?”

“She’s hard to entertain. I’m tired of going out. The only thing I like is the cinema.”

“Haven’t you got anything in common any more?”

Oliver shrugged. He was tired and wanted to get home to indulge his lethargy.

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“You seem to know about everything else. I hope you’re not misleading her. After four years, I’d like to think she could expect some honesty.”

Oliver shrugged again. Janet’s eyes widened.

“You little rat.”

_________________________________________________

When Oliver arrived home that evening there was a message from Rachel on his answering machine. The daily phone-call; it was as ubiquitous as it was dreary. Did she really need to hear his voice?

He sighed and phoned her nonetheless. She was in a good mood and he hoped it wasn’t his fault. It seemed so simplistic, this happiness she got from him. She wanted him to do Latin American dancing with her.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said.

“But you said you’d take dancing lessons with me.”

“I said I was willing to do ballroom dancing, not Latin American dancing. Anyway, I don’t have the right sort of shoes.”

“What sort of shoes?”

“Plus I haven’t got the right clothes. Whatever the case, I can’t go tonight. I’ve got half a book to read.”

“But you promised you’d go with me. Who cares about the shoes or clothes? Just wear anything. And this is ballroom dancing. I don’t see what the difference is.”

“There’s a big difference. Anyway, I couldn’t stand all that fickle, jaunty music. You know I only promised after you hassled me about it, and to tell the truth I’m annoyed with myself for showing such a complete lack of spine.”

“Don’t be so full of shit, Oliver. It’s not fair. You said you would go. Emily’s going and Johannes is going and I said I’d go and now I don’t have a partner.”

“You’re an attractive girl. I don’t think you’ll be a wallflower for long.”

“God, you can be a real prick. If you’re not coming just say so without being nasty.”

“I’ve already said I’m not coming. How many times do you want me to say it? I can’t tonight, I’ve got stuff lined up.”

“Well you obviously don’t need a girlfriend then do you?”

“If it’s a choice between sanity and Latin dancing, then you’re probably right.”

_________________________________________________

Oliver worked weekends and his Monday mornings were the height of liberty. It was then that he could shine and feel the world to be wide and glorious. This Monday morning was no exception. With so much possible he could afford a brief rest and chose to lie in bed with his face in the sunlight. He imagined basking in a rowboat, drifting from a bank of arching reeds. Further up the idling river he conjured another such boat carrying another such sunlit dreamer. There she lay, drifting towards him, a living Ophelia or Lady of Shallot, soft and quenching as a Waterhouse. If only their hulls might collide.

When he opened his eyes he was back in his room with its brown carpet and walls stained by the rotting wood of the window pane. Still there was every reason for hope, for today was all his and he might just run into her.

It had, after all, happened before; this longed-for extra-curricular encounter with Lucinda. Exactly a week ago, after a class, he had found her in the library, full of speculation. In her merry, assured voice, with its strong hint of English aristocracy, she explained how Walter Scott was to blame for the American Civil War; that Emma Bovary deserved respect for striving for titillation amidst a sea of mediocrities; how Levin in Anna Karenina was merely a self-portrait of Leo Tolstoy, and finally about St Anselm’s spurious proof of the existence of God. If Oliver had been in deep before, last Monday was the final straw.

Dared by her intellectual openness, he had mentioned his love of Seneca, unveiling his innermost vice. What raptures had filled him with her wide-eyed response.

“Oh I love Seneca,” she had said in his wake. “He’s such a tragic figure and so marvellously brave. There was such nobility in the way he took his own life. I do so admire the Stoics.”

Was it to be believed, that he should meet a woman, indeed a girl, so fond of someone as crustily wonderful as Seneca? He had to face the facts; he was hopelessly in love with Lucinda and he came away waving his arms close to his chest. These restrained gesticulations accompanied a revisitation of her words, for he smarted long after with her brilliance and reworked his way through her expositions. How she outshone everyone and everything that had existed anywhere – ever!

So it was that a week later, after a morning of writing and study, Oliver set off with a will to be lucky. On campus anything could happen; he would patrol the library and the cafés and hope that he might intercept her. If he could not find her on campus, then perhaps he might see her on the streets of Glebe. After all, she only lived a few blocks away and so long as he was out of doors and in their locale, there was a chance he and she might meet.

Once in the library, having collected a pile of books, he photocopied with vigour. He thought he looked very strong in a tee-shirt and positioned himself to be seen in profile by any who should enter the copy room. She did not come. Later, he wandered through all the levels of the library tower, walking up and down the aisles and formulating excuses for being where he did not need to be. Much to his disappointment, however, these jovial musings were never required to be uttered.

After two coffees at the one café she had told him she frequented, he resigned himself to defeat and set off to dawdle home. Along Glebe Point Road his eyes were hawkish and he ventured into all the book shops, yet failed to catch a glimpse of her.

As his door closed behind him and all possibility died, his mood sank quickly and he walked to his bed for a mope.

_________________________________________________

“You’re not seeing someone else are you?”

“No, mum, I’m not seeing someone else. What makes you think that?”

“Everything.”

“Well, I suppose, technically speaking, I have seen someone else.”

“Bloody men.” She looked at him fiercely. “I hope you were discrete this time.”

“I haven’t done anything! I’ve just had my eye on someone. A girl from my history class. Nothing’s happened and it probably never will.”

“Why won’t anything happen?”

“I don’t know. It’s like she’s out of my league. I’ve never met anyone so interesting or intelligent, and we’ve got so much in common, down to the most trivial things. Though, with her, nothing seems trivial.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Probably nothing. I’m too much of a coward to corner her.”

“Well if you really think she’s so special, why not ask her out? And while you’re at it, why keep Rachel hanging on? You’re hedging your bets. If Rachel finds out you’ve got a crush on another girl it’ll be awful for her.”

Oliver shook his head. Why did Sunday dinner so often turn into an interrogation? It was his business after all.

“I’m too jealous to break up with Rachel. She’s so attractive, she’ll find some other bloke in no time. That would be a real blow.”

“God, Oliver, you’re as self-centred as your father. And what about this other girl?”

“Lucinda.”

“If you really have everything in common, then she must know it as well.”

“Maybe she sees things differently.”

“Well, why don’t you find out? If it’s over with Rachel then end it and ask this girl out.”

“It’s not that simple, mum. If she’s not interested, then it’ll be bloody embarrassing being in the same classroom. It wouldn’t be fair to her.”

“Maybe you need to think about being fair to Rachel first. Why not take a long hot bath, and think about what’s right, hmmm?”

_________________________________________________

Oliver worked hard over the next few weeks during which time he found little solace. Though he visited the library daily and patrolled the locale in spare moments, his hopes of running into Lucinda proved fruitless. When he did see her in class on Wednesdays he lacked the nerve to attempt to command her attention. This was usually directed to another chap called Cain with whom she already had a strong rapport. Oliver did not feel comfortable trying to insinuate himself into their chats and could barely find the courage even to hover by the notice board after class in the hope of being addressed. He would, more often than not, slink off with a honking, nasal farewell. The bravado that had netted him indiscretions in the past was merely the drunken scion of intense shyness.

One day, as he was playing tennis, Oliver saw Lucinda walking up the hill towards the library, bustling with her usual energy. He was turning to collect a ball by the wire fence and was so shocked to see her that he almost did something daring and cried out. Having intercepted his first would-be shout, he began to consider his appearance, which, sweaty and unsophisticated, lacked the stage management that went into his classroom attendances. Before long she had turned the corner and vanished from reasonable earshot. Her admirer remained staring a while, gripping his racquet impotently tight, ready to serve a fiery fault.

Oliver felt this missed opportunity to be a terrible blow and it sank his spirits further. His growing determination to pursue Lucinda added a marked surliness in his dealings with Rachel and he saw her even less than before. It would be just his luck that Lucinda should see him on the street with his girlfriend and that would be the end of that. The difficulties were great enough as it was, but to be revealed as a dud option was out of the question.

All the same, his surliness did not emerge free of guilt. Often he found his own obstinacy to be unpleasant and was afraid that he had hardened his heart too much. It was the sound of his own voice that most disturbed him. He found it difficult to like himself when he spoke to Rachel, but something inexorable prevented him from behaving charitably. He feared that he was really punishing himself and his regret stemmed not so much from an unrealised desire to please Rachel, but rather from the suspicion that a more active social life and less time in “the monastery” might be invigorating.

He had long ago identified the real problem in his attitude to Rachel. It lay in his resentment of her happiness, and that principally because he was the source of it. It struck him as pathetic how happy his mere presence could make her and insulting to him that she expected him to derive the same pleasure from her. No one should be entirely responsible for someone’s happiness, he mused. It was an unreasonable burden, an impossible burden and he wanted none of it.

What he resented most of all was that he had spent so long searching for “the formula” and he feared that Rachel had found it. Well, if she believed him to be the answer, then he would have no choice but to prove how flawed this idea of hers was.

“Why is she not plagued by philosophical questions day and night?” he asked himself. “Why does she not sweat as I do over the insoluble? How can anyone rightly be comfortable in this world?”

Despite being aware of the pretentiousness of his angst, he indulged in it, all the while telling himself that he longed to be more like Seneca; dour and joyous in his sobriety, heroically useful in his reasoned application. As yet, the only thing he had managed to put aside was his lust and physical passion, but he could not achieve a level temperament. He was all angles and jarrings, the mere elbows and knees of a personality. At best he was awkward and stiff, while at worst he was cranky and mean spirited. He felt at times that his selfishness knew no bounds. Worst of all, however, at the absolute pinnacle of hypocrisy, was Oliver’s fear that he too had found the formula, only for him, the answer was the unattainable Lucinda.

Rachel continued to phone him every day to see how he was, understanding his outward moroseness to be the result of plunging himself into so much work. She was upset and worried at the absence of his old optimism. He was more ambition now than hope, and the one was a good deal more curt than the other. He was thirsty and faithless and sought too many memories to whisper subversively about the stale present. When the sun set, he fell into his soul and he saw the heavens and the claws. The morning would return to give him the confidence to forfeit his life to work and an uncertain chance. It was a hollow security, staid and forced; with little chance for air.

_________________________________________________

“I’ve half a mind to tell her what you think myself,” said Oliver’s mother one evening. “I just don’t understand why you refuse to do the decent thing. I thought all these philosophers you’re so fond of wrote about ethics and morality and personal decency. Hasn’t any of that rubbed off?”

“I’ve adopted the work ethic…”

“Well, that’s a start.”

“I can’t help myself, mum. I’m completely hooked. I don’t know what to do, but I feel I have to do something.”

“You can’t just keep Rachel hanging on. She’s going to find out the hard way and you’ll be in a right pickle when she decides to leave you for neglecting her.”

“Oh, she won’t leave me. I know that for certain. She loves me far too much.”

“You sound pretty sure of yourself.”

“She’s told me so herself. She couldn’t leave if she tried. It would break her heart. Irreparably.”

_________________________________________________

One Wednesday afternoon Oliver arrived at class to find no one present. He sat in a chair in the vestibule where he often sat when he was early. It must be a coincidence, he thought, that everyone is late this week. A further five minutes went by, the clock passed two and still no one arrived at the classroom. Then he remembered and leapt from the chair.

“Fuck, shit, shit,” he spat, marching to the notice board. He scanned and flipped the hanging sheets, but he could not see what he was looking for. He pulled his course outline from his bag. It confirmed his worst suspicions. Their trip to St Mary’s Cathedral for a lecture on the Gothic architectural style was this week, not next week as he had somehow mistakenly recalled. How on earth could he have made such a monumental error?

He pictured his fellow students, joyous and smiling and Lucinda most of all, delighting in the upper galleries. They were probably touring the vault first, damn them – and he would miss the chance to see her moist with excitement and to charm her with his remarks, delivered on foot with a chance for theatre. The knowledge, the experience, the bonding would all be missed, and the week following he would seem out of touch; an outsider, and the rest all just a little closer.

He cursed again and moved to the stairs. If he took the bus and ran across town he would be almost forty minutes late. He would have to take a taxi and even then he would be at least twenty minutes late, probably twenty-five. But what if the tour was for one hour only? He would arrive flustered, be forced to talk to priests and be led like a lost lamb to his tutorial group, out of sorts and bumbling excuses. He would look a desperate fool, and his every effort would be sunk. By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, he had decided that it was already too late. He marched off in the direction of his flat; frowning, sulkily barbaric.

Once at home, Oliver paced up and down his flat, regretting his decision not to go. Eventually he took himself to his desk to try to write, but he found it impossible to concentrate and decided to take a walk instead. He had a shower first, changed his clothes and set off for the park at Glebe Point with his camera, a blanket and a book. If he could not write, then so be it, but were he to take a good photograph, the afternoon would not feel so lost.

The sun was warm and a light wind flecked the water with a broken glare. The air was touched with damp scents from the fig trees. The grass was springy and welcomingly soft.

Oliver lay his blanket down and rested on an elbow. He lay like this for an hour, reading about the fall of Berlin, then sank on his back and placed the book over his eyes. He dozed off quickly with his camera stuck in his armpit. Over the next hour he drifted in and out of sleep. He felt serene lying as he was and for a time he lost his tension as the world retreated behind a few snap dreams.

It was five o’clock when he sat up in the lower sunlight. Straight ahead, across the water, stood two old power station chimneys. Before them was docked a jumble of half-scrapped ships. The fading green and yellow paint of an old harbour ferry had blistered with rust like red moss.

Across the face of this setting stepped Lucinda and Cain, strolling slowly beside the water. Oliver’s breath caught as he heard the sound of her voice.

“Oh and I just love what Suger has to say about vaulting. Isn’t it splendid that such books exist?”

Oliver did not move a muscle. Even when Cain, nodding, touched her upper fore-arm and directed her gaze to the boats opposite, he remained perfectly still. The moment their backs were turned he rubbed his eyes and adjusted his hair, then straightened up his clothes. His mouth opened and closed as the decision to speak was revoked. He could not be seen like this. His eyes were too puffy and his face un-alert from sleep. His throat needed clearing and the salt of dried sweat to be washed from his park-lawn limbs. He watched with horror and fascination as Cain and Lucinda stood pointing across the water.

“Look,” she said, “they’ve started removing the panels from the hull.”

“Yes, I saw that yesterday,” said Cain. “My favourite thing is that crane over there,” and he pointed to the horizon.

“Yes,” said Lucinda, “it’s a splendid crane.”

Then, as Cain stood admiring the scene, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Cain looked surprised.

“I thought you said not in public.”

“Well,” said Lucinda, “mostly. Just not on campus, that’s for sure.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, and kissed her back.

Oliver lay straight back down on the grass. He picked up his book and held it in front of himself, blocking the view of his face with its open cover; ruins and a Russian tank.

_________________________________________________

Oliver lay in the bath, steaming. It was pleasant enough in itself to give him second thoughts, but on this matter he was quite resolved. Things had really taken a turn for the worse in the last three months. The decisions he made had left him disgusted with himself and there was little of which to be proud. Pulling out of his thesis was a tragic error, but when Rachel left him for Johannes, the floor had fallen rapidly away.

Despite what he had witnessed between her and Cain, Oliver’s desire for Lucinda would not let him rest. He stepped up his efforts, trying to drive himself like a wedge between the two of them. Oddly, like a man engaging in an undeclared duel, he targeted Cain. He played Cain at tennis and lost. He played him at chess and lost. He played him at Trivial Pursuit and lost as well. Nor could he equal him in a philosophical discourse; the way he was shown up for a fraud on Aristotle was quite the final straw. Lucinda still shone like a beacon, but Lucinda was gone; taken in hand by a lover with glowing credentials. Perhaps, had he not left his trying so late, he might have stolen a march. How different things might have been had he not hedged his bets! Compromise had stifled him and Stoicism had failed him, but this time, he would not fail Stoicism.

“No one else shall have the choice to kill me nor spare me.”

He wanted to laugh at himself for speaking such portentous mimicry, but he had lost his humour a month ago.

“Fortitude, constancy and self-reliance, versus avarice, greed and time-wasting.  Bugger.”

With the weighty results of his disappointment, his fortitude was failing. His constancy was long since tried and proven to be hollow. His self-reliance was exhausted if unflinching, yet he was tired of having to do everything for himself. Avarice, yes, in the desires of the heart; Greed yes, in the form of his lust; and time-wasting in the drinking brought on by his depression.

It is a terrible thing to forget to be nice to the right people.

He took the razor and held it to his left wrist.

In the pointed style, but again he was too heavy to find it amusing.

He squinted and clenched and drew it towards him, running smoothly with a bitter sting.

The red line rising in the wake of its passage took its time to flourish, yet from this deceptive innocence a gushing flow soon sprang.

Oliver blanched at the sight of his own blood and closed his eyes in horror.

“What have I done?”

He felt sick enough to vomit, though he merely gagged and tautened. He peered through his lashes and felt a strange tickle, but could not bear the sight of his wound. There was so much blood! When Seneca took his life he’d had to cut his wrists, then ankles, then the backs of his knees and he still did not bleed fast enough. Indeed from here, in what had been such an apposite and inspirational gesture for Oliver, Seneca was then thrust into a warm bath to accelerate the flow after a walloping dose of Hemlock. Yet, neither poison nor the hot waters were sufficient to break his constitution, so he was finally rendered unto Caesar via a suffocating steam bath. Such heroic misery was not forecast by Oliver and, in his case, as he now acknowledged with his slitted, frightened eyes, the hot bath was working all too well.

He took another look at his wrist; all scarlet and curlicued on the drop-studded armrest; it was scathing beauty, so perfectly bright. The wound pulsed and surged and he flinched from its slow throb. He turned it upside down then thrust it away from himself.

“Holy fuck, holy shit,” there was panic upon him, but with his eyes locked shut and his stinging wrist resting now cold and downturned on the bathside, he felt a certain calm regained through the warmth and faintness prevailing.

He sunk his head back and tried to think clearly, for he had indeed predicted that the action itself would unseat him. He inhaled deeply and felt his shoulders bristle with cooling sweat. He slid down further so the bath might cover him and turned his head upward so that when he opened his eyes, they would not behold a vision of horror.

There was no hope now of going through with his other wrist, for he could not look down at all. Surely it would not be necessary. If he lay still enough he would drift into cloudiness, then fade away for good. He had to overcome the immediate panic and consider his decision with the reasoning that had led him to this bath. And what was that reason, he asked of himself – an absence of hope?

The sting was growing and brought its own inevitable caveat. Yet, just as he had predicted, once the first step was taken, the consequences of living with the psychological ripples from a failed attempt would make his life all the more unbearable in any possible aftermath.

With his eyes still closed and the back of his head tingling with watery nerves, he forced himself instead to think of his philosopher heroes. When Thrasea took his life his friends gathered round as they had with Socrates, to watch and assist in ending his days. Likewise with Seneca. And these were the most educated men of their times. Even if branded traitors and told that they ought to kill themselves, or, like Socrates, sentenced unfairly to death, still they went ahead with it, with friends about and in good humour. And still, such a thing was acceptable, even honourable, even for young men.

How different the world was today, in which so few respected the decision to end one’s life! Certainly Oliver respected it – at least for himself – though perhaps not for everyone.

“And how might that be justified?” he asked, trying to regain some mental equilibrium. “If such a course is suitable for me, surely it is suitable for everyone. But what of those who are not ready? Perhaps they should only allow suicide for those who have a thorough philosophical education.”

He became quite resolved on this point and, momentarily, cheered by it. It would have been splendid if someone were sitting next to him and he could have sought a second opinion. Oddly enough, the most appropriate candidate was Cain – quite the sharpest mind he knew when it came to philosophical dialogues. And Lucinda, of course. She might have smoothed his brow with a cool washer and, if she were made of sterner stuff than he, which he didn’t doubt for a moment, then perhaps she could have assisted him by slashing his other wrist.

He liked this way of thinking, as the steam and heat began to ripple his skin. Lucinda would at least understand the bravery in all this. And she loved Tacitus as well, and Tacitus, after all, had told the best stories about suicides ever recounted. At least in ancient literature, and there wasn’t too much to be had from the moderns on the topic. Or so Oliver thought, for whom such certitude from a position of relative ignorance was not atypical.

Oliver was still too terrified to look to his wrist. He had not moved it since he had lain it along the bath’s edge, cut facing downwards. From those opened veins he could feel a vibrant pulse. His life! The blackness was still at a significant remove. There was as yet little of the static with which his eyes were flooded when he had fainted in the past. Perhaps because he was reclining, perhaps because his head was supported against the back of the tub – either way, he was not dizzy. Indeed, he felt particularly energetic, something he had not felt for some time. There had been the throes of bingeing to carry him briefly, but on the whole his spirit had been lacklustre and weighty.

Unsurprising that it should come back to him now, but he recalled a conversation in which he denounced suicide as pathetic; a spineless, selfish course of action. Had he not once declared that before taking such a measure one should try every chance at happiness? Had he not then said that should the sorrows grow so great, he would rob a bank, fly to Venezuela and burn his passport? Anything, however extreme – a chance must surely be better than no chance. He felt himself to be, to some degree, a hypocrite.

He had been right, he decided, but the words were spoken with energy and passion and not from a body that had become lethargic and moribund. He lacked the energy to rob a bank. Indeed, it was precisely that sort of effort that shamed him now. If he had the urge to get up and get on with things, then he would not have taken this course in the first place.

Oliver edged himself up in the bath with his feet. Perhaps he was now feeling dizzy. The corners of his vision were tingling with flickers of black, creeping like noise into a photograph. He was on the brink of wondering where he stood on all these matters, but a mild panic now arrested him. He felt too hot and prickled and, not wanting to fade in discomfort, he reached out carefully, without catching sight of his bleeding arm, to turn on the cold tap.

Socrates.

He had had something to say about suicide.

“Tell me then, Socrates,” said Cebes, “what are your grounds for saying that suicide is not legitimate?”

“No doubt you will feel it strange,” said Socrates, after a fashion, “that this should be the one question that has an unqualified answer.”

Oliver had been reading the Phaedo only that afternoon and found himself questioning the merits of the dialogues.

Socrates said: “I want to explain to you how it seems natural that a man who has really devoted his life to philosophy should be cheerful in the face of death, and confident of finding the greatest blessing in the next world when his life is finished.”

“But you weren’t an atheist!”, Oliver protested. “For all your quarrelsomeness, you thought you were going somewhere better. And if you weren’t, then hell, you were an old man. You had lived!”

Oliver took his hand from the cold tap and shook it in the ugly, leering face of Socrates.

“You claimed that a philosopher spends his life preparing for death, denying the visceral in favour of the intellectual and spiritual.”

The static was building behind his eyelids, accompanied by a mild and sweet nausea. The water was cooling quickly and his body temperature was spiking between heat and chills.

“You spent your life trying to divorce your soul from your body,” continued Oliver, reassuring himself not with his words, but the sound of his voice, “but I’ve spent my life improving myself for this world, not the next. As an atheist, how can I even fathom the end of myself, let alone sanction it?”

The cold flow was snaking across the surface water.

Wincing now against sharpening discomfort, he thought more on the matter. For all his qualities as a disputant, Socrates’ arguments seemed poorly structured and full of non sequiturs. He was like a television journalist who loves tearing people apart but never really asks the right questions.

“You were surrounded by sycophants! All your bum-chums loved rolling over and pissing on their bellies. They loved wriggling around in your spurious horseshit.”

Oliver began to giggle at the vehemence of these words. This was a man he had always admired! He was being so unfair that he was sure he must be getting delirious. Often, when overtired he found himself able to laugh or cry at the drop of a pin and just now he was shaking his head.

This was a time both for laughing and crying.

He was getting off track too, thinking about anything and everything. He needed to bring it on home.

“What would Thrasea have to say and do?” he asked. “Old Thrasea just went right on and topped himself. It was like he couldn’t wait, like he’d been itching all along to have a slash at his veins.”

Thrasea had gathered his friends around and called on the sharpness of a philosopher friend in the form of Demetrius, yet no one knows what the two men said. Unbelievably, in perhaps the greatest cliff-hanger in the entire history of western literature, the manuscript of Tacitus breaks off with the line: “then, as his lingering death was very painful, he turned to Demetrius…”

“What did he say?” asked Oliver.

Oliver had a friend called Demitri, perhaps he should call him up and say nothing? But seriously, what might Thrasea have said? Probably something dull, but profound. Then again, knowing Tacitus, some immensely subtle and scathing indictment of the emperor that would only stink of dissidence to those who could do cryptic crosswords.

Oliver’s wrist was killing him now. The sting was sickening and a dull ache had spread all the way up his arm and into his biceps, through his shoulder and along into his neck. This secondary agony, this sympathetic warning…

Christ, he thought. If I was Thrasea, I would have hot-footed it out of there. Perhaps what he really said was “get me the hell out of here. Bind my wrists, grab me a toga, get me some wine, roll me up in a carpet and smuggle me the fuck to Egypt, you doddering homo!”

Oliver laughed again, this time in a hiss of piping giggles. He hadn’t felt such levity in months! He lifted his head forward from the back of the bath and felt its weight on his neck; it lolled and his eyes rolled and he put it straight back down; fearful now of losing consciousness. He was closing in on dissent against himself and could not afford to lose the chance.

The more he thought about it, the more Demitri seemed an ideal candidate for someone to have by his side. Demitri always cut through his pretensions like a knife. Whenever Oliver got worked up about something, Demitri would call him “poofter”. It had been going on since high school and perversely, it gave him great pleasure. Indeed, so run of the mill had it become that whenever he phoned Demitri now, Demitri would answer “is that you, poof?”

How he relished it! Maybe he wasn’t a poof, but a fool, yes, indeed – for why was he now thinking he wanted Demitri beside him? To cut through what? His other wrist, or his immense stupidity? Had he not told himself that his sentencing must be carried out beyond the shadow of a doubt? There could be no doubt at all, either reasonable or unreasonable, and from the moment his wrist had begun to spill he had questioned both his motive and goal. He couldn’t even hold a decent philosophical discourse with himself without piddling about in childish tangents.

He reached out and placed his hand under the cold tap which was still running. He cupped the cold and threw water across his eyes. He repeated this several times before reaching for a face washer lying on the bath’s edge. Folding it into a triangle with one hand, he raised his bleeding arm and shook with the image it brought him. He did not hesitate and nor did he flinch as he slapped the washer hard against it, wrapping it tight and binding it into a knot with his teeth. The water in the bath was colder now and he was starting to shiver. His eyes were holding out just fine, but he was fighting strong against the swoon.

With his foot he worked out the plug. He heard the lurching gurgle as the pipes took the flood, then reached for his mobile phone. He had left it on the bath-side stand and knew exactly what had to be done. It was there should he need it and he had hoped he would not, only why was it there were it not for his habitual failure of nerve? Bah! he was no Stoic, he was all cry for help.

Then, as he lingered in the bath with the water draining about him and his body growing heavier each moment, he hit Demitri’s number.

“Is that you, poof?” asked Demitri.

Oliver did not laugh this time, but rather, he explained himself by saying the following…

Seneca

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This piece describes events which took place back in 1996, during a five and a half month trip across Europe. It began as a long poem, then, thinking it too prosaic and feeling it was far better suited to a short story, I expanded it a few years ago. After a number of more recent revisions and rewrites, here it is.

 

I first saw Mikhailis on the wide balcony of a hostel in Rethymnon. He sat in the corner on a plastic chair, beneath a mop of tufted, wiry hair. He did not look like a traveller and surveyed the space darkly, with the eyes of a bandit reproached.

Kirstin and I had arrived from two damp and cloudy days in Iraklion; a city that seemed to disappoint us the more we sought its merits. Until, that is, on our final evening, when we visited the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis. From there, high up by the fortifications, late sun broke through the storm clouds to jewel the clutching trees in amber light.

Rethymnon’s appeal was immediate. It was the colour of palm trees, petunias and sandstone; tawny, olive, red, purple and pink. The weightless blue sky made these colours sing. We entered the town on foot through the Venetian Great Gate. Though unimpressive in scale and divorced from its once bold walls, this structure aroused in me a strong sympathy for the parochial sentimentality with which it must have been named.

Our guidebook recommended a hostel that was promisingly cheap. It was a warm eighteen degrees and we took our time finding it. The hostel owner, (a Londoner, I guessed) who looked like Andrew Lloyd Webber, introduced himself as Nick.

“I’ve got plenty of room,” he said. “For you and anyone else you can find. Stay as long as you like.”

“And breakfast?” I asked.

“Not included, but cheap and cheerful. Fried eggs, omelettes, toast, cereal, bacon, whatever.”

He was effusive and gentle. He showed us to our room. There were no double rooms to be had, but, a mere eight days before Christmas, business was quiet and he gave us a dorm to ourselves. It was a basic place; the room as narrow as a corridor. We dumped our bags under the battered wooden bunks and Nick, having taken our passports and handed over the keys, made his way back downstairs.

“This’ll be fine,” said Kirstin.

We had been on the road for four months. Having worked our way over land and sea from Britain, we were used to welcoming necessities as luxuries. After the desolate, dusty, cold-water hostel in Iraklion, this at least felt more like a school holiday camp than a prison. Perhaps it was simply that the sun was shining, or the ramshackle charm of the panelled wooden walls, but Rethymnon had lifted us. Already I was fond of its ancient streets.

We showered, changed our clothes and toured the hostel. There was a spacious balcony at the back overlooking a sunny, paved courtyard. A weathered sandstone minaret stood tall across gardens bright with bougainvillea. It was here that I first spotted the mop-topped, bearded man in the corner. He was looking at us intently. I nodded to him and he nodded back. I looked away quickly and turned my eyes to the English newspaper on the table. It was over a week old and I knew all the headlines.

“I’m hungry,” said Kirstin. “Maybe they’re still serving food.”

“I’ll find out,” I replied.

I went inside. It was just after lunch and I wanted more eggs. Money went a lot further at this end of the Mediterranean. The cruel austerity of my travel budget was finally paying dividends. After four weeks of tinned sardines in Italy, I was beginning to put back some weight.

Nick gave me the thumbs up and I ordered two helpings of fried eggs.

When I came back outside, the bearded man in the corner was still studying us. Though his eyes were kept low, he was not making any effort to conceal his interest. I detected a hunger in his brooding curiosity, inviting us to lift him from the torpor of his sulk. It was then that I remembered the boldness I’d acquired through months of strangers and, offering a little wave, I said, “Kalimera!”

“Yiassou,” he said, gruffly, if not rudely. He did not smile.

I turned my eyes back to the newspaper. I could sense that he was still looking at us and guessed it was Kirstin who drew his attention. She had been sized up by many local men over the last few months; her disappointment at this being roughly commensurate with the keenness of their interest. Still, if occasionally the cause of unwanted attention, I guess it was her good fortune as well as mine that she was such a beauty.

Turning my eyes to the minaret, smiling into the wide sky, I felt the gravity of the bandit’s stare – so I had come to think of him – and, looking his way our eyes met again. This time his face spread with a cunning smile.

“You play chess?” he asked, with a strong accent.

“Yes,” I replied. “I love chess.”

“Good,” he said, standing up. “We will play chess.”

I stood up too and a moment later, Kirstin also stood up. It was as though some forgotten formality was hurriedly being addressed.

“I am Mikhailas,” said the bandit, walking over and offering me his hand. “I am from here. From Kriti.”

“I am Ben,” I said, “and I am from Australia.”

We shook hands.

“I am Kirstin, also from Australia.”

“Hello,” said Kirstin, skipping around to stand beside me.

“You are Australian?” said Mikhailas. “Then you like to drink.”

“Ummm, yes, yes we do,” I said, laughing. “Day and night, you can count on us.”

“We love to drink,” said Kirstin.

“Good,” said Mikhailas, looking squarely at me. “Later we play chess, and drink raki.”

“Sounds good to me.”

He offered me his hand again.

___________________________________________________

Kirstin and I spent the afternoon walking around the Venetian fortress, soaking up the sun. The sea was Irish moss, the sand a mustard yellow, polka-dotted with smooth white and grey stones. The fortress was an ancient seabed, chiselled into jutting chins over which the guns once poked. Inside was dry and grassy, yet the stems were vivid green. One tall palm presided.

As winter progressed in Europe we had moved gradually east and south and thus avoided the onset of the cold. After a quick swim and double helpings of pork yeeros, we returned to the hostel with two bottles of wine.

I found Mikhailas drinking in the common room. The chessboard was already set up and he was waiting for someone to play him. The only others present were two couples, one Dutch and one French, who were, for the moment, keeping to themselves. No one had given him satisfaction.

“Ah,” he said when he saw us come in. “You play chess now?”

“Definitely,” I said.

I had never been much good at chess until this trip. Kirstin’s foresight in bringing a portable set had provided us with hours of enjoyment and allowed me to hone my skills. Most hostels have a functioning chess set and, where possible, we played on larger boards. In Athens, at the Thisseos Inn, it so happened that the manager had once held a world ranking. When I’d asked him whether or not the hostel had a chess set, he’d replied “no, we don’t. But do you play blind?”

“Blind?”

“Yes, you know, without the board. You say the moves and remember where the pieces are.”

“You’re joking?”

“No, I’m not. It is common for professional chess players.”

“Jesus. Well, I’m no pro.”

In the end, we played four games; my heart beating furiously and my hand trembling over the tiny board. Of course I did not win, but my chess fitness served me well enough to avoid humiliation, even allowing me to salvage a draw from an exhausting stalemate. Such was the state of my chess when I sat down opposite Mikhailas.

Mikhailas had a satchel beside him from which he produced a bag of olives and feta cheese. He placed these on the table with a quiet gesture of offering.

“Have you had raki?” he asked. “Proper raki?”

I shook my head. “Not that I know of.”

“Then you must have raki.”

He produced an old plastic water bottle and nodded to my glass of wine. I picked it up and drank it down, then placed the glass on the table in readiness.

“First, wash.”

Mikhailas poured a small amount of raki into the glass and I swished it around until the wine had blended, then tipped it quickly back. It was sharp and acrid, though it flowed more like a breath than a draught. I placed the glass back on the table. It was quickly filled by Mikhailas who then filled his own. He raised the glass and I raised mine, and then he simply said “raki”, and down they went. It was liquid fire, like loza or grappa, but it was pure and brought with its fumes an instant high. On its reaching my stomach I felt such an surge of energy that I sat up straight in my chair.

Kirstin watched all this with a bemused smirk. Mikhailas had not offered her raki and I wondered if it was supposed to be a drink for men only. Yet, when, a moment later, she asked if she too could have one, Mikhailas raised no objection. She gulped it down without blinking and Mikhailas grinned.

“Ha, you like raki too?”

“Yes,” said Kirstin. “It’s good and strong.”

“Good. Yes. And now,” said Mikhailas, withdrawing his hungry eyes from her breasts and sicking them on the board, “we play chess.” He clapped his hands together in an assertion of readiness then picked up two pieces. I drew white and the game was on.

For the first few moves my glowering opponent proved little different from others I had played in my travels. He spoke little, kept his focus and maintained an air of reverence for the game. Yet, it was not long before he showed his true colours. When capturing his first piece, one of my pawns, he swept it from the board and onto the floor with the heavy base of his knight. I chuckled nervously and looked up to see his vicious smile. Yes, Mikhailas was a fighting man and right away I knew he liked to fire a gun.

“Your move,” was all he said, as I bent to pick the pawn up off the floor.

Clearly this was a contest between “men”. With the stakes tacitly raised to a test of masculinity, I felt a rush of strength from the presence of my well-endowed girlfriend and placed my hand on her knee. If she wasn’t considered proof enough, I would have no choice but to dash his king to the floor before the game was out.

The match continued for forty minutes. At one stage I captured Mikhailas’ queen, which he disputed on the grounds that a queen should be treated like a king in check and that a warning was required. I’d never heard of such a rule and though it frustrated me greatly, I accepted it for the sake of diplomacy, figuring that what goes around comes around.

Immediately after this, Mikhailas poured me another raki, perhaps feeling guilty about my disappointment and embarrassed by his indignation. From here the shots of raki came regularly and he was generous with his feta and olives. The alcohol was raw and exhilarating and, with the olives, it cut through the cloying paste of the cheese. I wondered if he was trying to addle or distract me, but my concentration was intense and I sweated not to let it waver.

In the end I had his measure and was secretly delighted to have beaten him. Mikhailas was too proud not to show his dissatisfaction, though he refrained from being churlish just as I refrained from gloating. After all, we were men, weren’t we? I sat back in my chair and looked around. We had become the centre of attention; the couples were watching from their tables and a blond, long-haired Englishman, whom I had spotted earlier sweeping the stairs, took advantage of the break to greet Mikhailas and join us at the table. He introduced himself as Simon and I soon found out he was both living in and working at the hostel.

Mikhailas suggested another game. I wanted to walk away from the tension of it all, but could not refuse him a return match.

“Raki?” he asked us quietly, and we were quick to answer yes.

The second game did not go well for me. I blew it from the start with an overambitious attack. I should have known better, having always been a defensive player in strategy games, but the raki and masculine intensity of Mikhailas drew me out. I felt stung by the loss, especially now that I had an audience, but I was also becoming increasingly drunk. Mikhailas was smiling now, a true bandit grin across his curly chops. With the atmosphere growing boisterous around us, I knew I would not retain my focus in a third game, but accepted the challenge nonetheless.

Despite doing my utmost to play a safe hand, I found it harder and harder to think ahead and calculate the consequences of moves. When I realised my game had gone to the dogs, the only recourse was to pretend indifference. I laughed as the tragedy entered its final act. Mikhailas, having trapped my king in a corner, slew me with his trademark flourish by clubbing the piece to the floor.

The end of the contest came as a great relief, for my head was reeling with booze. As my king fell the volume of the voices shot up. I sat back and stretched and the conversation expanded across the room.

Kirstin called for more beers, while I, sweaty and thinking of other refreshments, suggested we all go swimming the following day. Simon, who had shown himself to be both affable and amusing, with occasional asides throughout, agreed to come.

“I’ll be well up for a swim,” he said. “Weather permitting of course.”

“Swim?” said Mikhailas. “In winter? You are mad.”

“But it’s not even cold. And the water is warm.”

“For Crete it is cold. Too cold for Crete. And the water is not warm. It is cold.”

“Huh!” I said, with a light-heartedly cruel smile. “Real men don’t feel the cold, Mikhailas.”

___________________________________________________

The following day began slowly. We ate a big breakfast and talked to Simon on the balcony. The sun was blazing. An old, white-haired Australian veteran who looked uncannily like a Koala wandered into the hostel and spoke with us at length. I soon learned that he was a regular feature here, having retired to Rethymnon several years ago. He told us he had been captured on Crete during the war and taken into the heart of Germany as a POW. He was charming and entertaining until he began telling us about his plans to bottle and sell the water flowing from the thaws in the White Mountains.

“It’s a travesty,” he shouted. “They just let it run into the sea! All that water going to waste.”

Despite its initial novelty this conversation was destined to grow tedious, so I brought forward our own appointment with the ocean.

Simon led us to a beach a mile and a half out of town. It was rough sand adrift with stones, but the water was not as cold as I feared. I relished the horizontal pleasure of leisurely swimming and emerged feeling clean and salt-stung.

Upon returning to the hostel we found Mikhailas in the common room. He was having an afternoon beer, waiting for something to happen.

“Look,” he said, leading me over to a wall-map of the Aegean.

“What is it?”

“Look,” he said again.

“I’m going upstairs,” said Kirstin, and left me alone with our bandit friend.

“Here,” said Mikhailas. “Look.”

Urging me closer with rough gestures, he planted his forefinger firmly on the Bosphorus.

“Constantinopolis,” he said, his voice becoming more guttural. “Constantinopolis belong to Greek people. To Greeks.”

His features were weighty and serious, yet there was an energy in him that seemed almost playful; a cutthroat joviality.

He fingered Istanbul again and murmured with gruff affection. “Constantinopolis belong to Greek people. Not to Turks. All over Greece, we are ready. There are men waiting to take it back, all across the islands.”

“Well,” I said, not really sure where to take things, “I’ve always felt it was a bit of a pity that the Turks took it. I mean, if the Byzantines had hung around for another five hundred years there’d still be a Roman Emperor, I guess.”

“Constantinopolis does not belong to the Turks,” said Mikhailas. “How can it be Turkish, it was built by Greeks?”

I began to wonder if he was trying to sign me up to something. Of a sudden he had become so fierce, so Cretan, so tribal, that I pictured him now in traditional costume; the vraka – baggy bloomers; yileki – a shortened waistcoat; zounari – the binding sash; stivalia – high, traditional boots, and the basilis – a Cretan knife – tucked into his belt. He was just like a character from a Kazantzakis novel; from Freedom and Death.

“One day, Constantinopolis will be Greek again,” said Mikhailas.

I was still standing in front of the map when Kirstin came back into the room.

“We’re talking about Constantinople,” I said. “Planning a reconquest.”

Mikhailas stood staring at Kirstin.

“Constantinopolis should be Greek,” he said. “One day, it will be Greek again.”

“Well,” she said, “let’s hope so.”

Mikhailas stepped away from the map. Perhaps this plotting was men’s business and he did not feel comfortable invoking such subjects before her. As if to confirm this, he switched tack altogether.

“Why are you not married?” he said to Kirstin. “A girl like you? Here you would be married.”

“But I’m not from here, am I? I’m only visiting.”

“Still, you are ready now. Look at you, you should be married.”

I leaned against Europe, my shoulder on the Mediterranean. I knew Kirstin would be offended by these queries, but as a counter to the presumption of his masculine narrative, she must answer Mikhailas herself.

“I’m not ready to be married,” said Kirstin, “I’m only twenty-four. I don’t want to be married yet.”

“But what about children? It is not good for a woman to leave this too late.”

“Nor is it smart for a woman to burden herself with children too soon.”

Now Mikhailas looked at me. “Why don’t you marry her? Do you want her to get away?”

I exhaled a short laugh; more amused than derisive.

“I don’t see how marriage would change that. If she wants to leave, she’ll leave. Anyway,” I said, with deliberate finality, “we’re too young to be married.” Things were more complicated than that, but for the moment our travels had, through the need to co-operate, held our problems at bay.

“You play chess again tonight?” asked Mikhailas.

“Yes,” I said, “I’ll happily play chess tonight.”

“Then it is fixed,” he replied.

That evening, with more onlookers than the previous night, over beers, olives, feta and raki, in a reversal of form, I lost the first game and won the final two. The scores were now level and I determined not to play him again; content at least with having had the final word.

___________________________________________________

The following afternoon, having taken the bus to the beach at Georgioupoli to swim in the mouths of three rivers, we returned to the hostel for beers. On the way through we collected Simon, who bought a beer and joined us. As we walked onto the balcony a tanned, dark-haired man stood up and addressed us. “Simon!” he said, “who are your friends today?”

“‘Allo, Kostas,” said Simon. “Alright? These are two Australians who are staying here, Ben and Kirstin.”

“Hello,” we said in unison.

“Ah,” said Kostas. “Then these are the Australians I have heard about from Mikhailas.”

“Yeah,” said Kirstin, with a chuckle, “that’s us.”

“And you are having a drink now?” asked Kostas.

“Yes, yes, we are.”

“Yes, yes, good,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I will drink with you too.”

“Of course not,” I said. “Join us!”

Kostas bought a beer and sat with us. His hair was unkempt and his face unshaven, but he had about him the confident air of an operator. Less sullen and brooding, he seemed a more charismatic bandit than Mikhailas.

“I am from Cyprus, originally,” he said. “Though I have lived here now for many years. I came here to escape all the troubles in Cyprus. You could say I am a sort of refugee.”

He did not, for the moment, explain further. I wondered if he was in some way political. It was difficult to determine his age, which might have been anywhere between twenty-five and thirty-five.

“I have a flat here in town,” he said. “But I often stay with Mikhailas in the village.”

Ever since reading a Hemingway short story in which he derided the practice as condescending, I’d been wary of speaking too slowly to non-native English speakers. The fearsome weight of Hemingway’s opinion had gradually dissipated in the face of many travelling miscommunications and, with Mikhailas, I’d been speaking like an elocution teacher. This was not necessary with Kostas, for his English was considerably better than that of Mikhailas; it was refreshing to return to speaking at my natural pace.

I felt an instant liking for Kostas on account of his vibrant spirit. My first impression was of a hearty and generous person unable to restrain his passion and excitement. There was something enchanting and unpretentious in his obvious, trusting delight at having company, and, over months of sudden alliances, I had come to like the readiest people best of all. He poured out good cheer and, thus warmed, we poured it back in equal measure.

Two hours later we were still sitting and chatting on the wide balcony; sun streaming through. It was four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and Kostas was in the mood for some fun.

“Have you eaten?” he asked. “I am starving. Why don’t we all have a feast?”

“Where? How?” asked Kirstin.

“Why, at my place of course. I have plenty of food: Olives, cheese, wine, chicken. If you can get some potatoes and bread, then I can make a great meal for us all.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, if you’re sure it’s alright.”

“Of course it’s alright. I am the host!” He tipped his head back and laughed aloud, dispelling all questions of propriety.

“Okay,” said Simon, “count me in.”

“And me,” said Kirstin.

“So,” said Kostas, “we will go now and feast, for I am hungry and it will be some time cooking. You,” he said, pointing to Kirstin and I, “go buy bread and potatoes. And get some beer, or some wine, though already I have plenty. I have raki from the mountains, wine from the village, plenty of wine from the village.”

He stood up from his chair and clapped his hands together loudly. “I will try to find Mikhailas. We meet here in twenty minutes.”

___________________________________________________

Half an hour later, Kostas let us into his flat. He had been unable to find Mikhailas and we’d decided to go ahead without him. The flat was small and tiled, with a narrow kitchen. It was cluttered but negotiable, its walls and tiles reflecting a pale, grey-blue light. Outside was a wrap-around balcony and a hint of a view between the unit blocks.

“Sit down, sit down!” said Kostas, indicating the large, laminated dining table. “I’ll start the food.”

The beers were cold so we shared these around and put the rest on ice. Curious, we all stayed on our feet. Kostas carried the groceries through to the kitchen, calling to us: “Make yourselves at home. Relax! There will be enough food for everyone.”

He returned from the kitchen clutching jars and crockery. He set a deep bowl on the table and tipped in a great splash of Kalamata olives; the loaves he placed on a board. My mouth was watering at the sight of it all. Simple, peasant meals have always stirred my emotions and, since coming to Greece, they felt all the more poignant as a connection with the ancient world. There was a long knife to cut the bread and a decanter of olive oil; salt and pepper, fresh basil from a pot at his window, and Kostas, smiling benevolently.

“I am hungry, hungry,” he said, clapping his hands together. He liked to punctuate with bold gestures. “Now we must have our first raki!”

Simon, Kirstin and I all stood back while Kostas plunged about, stretching and reaching. He ducked down and picked up a tall plastic bottle; the bootleg appearance made the raki seem all the more exciting. Next he produced four sturdy tumblers and banged these on the table. “First we have a raki, then maybe another raki, and then, we think about another one while we are cooking.”

“This raki is come from the villages,” he said as he poured. “Everything I have comes from the village. Up there in the hills there is good soil and plenty of rain; good sunshine in spring and summer; the land is rich and the produce is good. You can feel it swelling inside you; you can taste the village. Here,” he said, distributing the half-full glasses. “A toast to the village.”

We raised our glasses and Simon said, “Alright then, to the village.”

“To the village!” replied Kostas, and all of us drank.

“What is raki made from?” asked Kirstin, once the glasses were back on the table.

“Aha,” smiled Kostas. “Raki is made from the fire of dragons, from the breath of the mountains, from the sting of the sea.” He laughed as he spoke, making it up as he went along.

“No, truly, it is made from the grapes left over from the pressing. Everything not going in the wine is pressed again, harder, like they want the blood from a stone. That is where raki comes from.”

We resumed our beers and Kostas went through to the kitchen. Kirstin and Simon wandered onto the balcony to lean on the railing. I followed Kostas and found him once again in a flurry of organisation. He was cleaning off surfaces, moving pots, pans and plates. He lay down a board and produced the potatoes for peeling.

“What are we eating?” I asked.

“You will see, you will see. It will be a great feast.”

He peeled the potatoes and put them aside, then lined up the tomatoes and three large onions. Once all these were chopped into rings, he opened his freezer and, with some wrestling, pulled out a great cairn of frozen chicken pieces. It was a ghastly sight – wings, thighs and legs, iced awkwardly together like a pile of corpses. He placed it on the bench and began to pull them apart. As the pieces came free he flung them into a huge oven pan, eventually giving up on the frozen core and placing it whole in the middle. Around the chicken he arranged the potatoes, onions and tomatoes, throwing in whole cloves of garlic and olives, then sprinkling the lot with herbs. Once this was done he took a great tin of olive oil and drowned the lot.

Kirstin and Simon had also come to stand in the doorway and watch proceedings. When Kostas was done and the food was in the oven, he ushered us out and made straight for the raki.

“The feast is on,” he said. “In an hour or two we can eat. Now, of course, it’s raki time!”

He picked up the bottle and poured another raki for us all.

“This time we should toast Kostas,” said Kirstin. “For his hospitality.”

“Yes, here’s to Kostas!”

“Here’s then to me,” said Kostas.

Once again we all drank.

“And now another,” said Kostas, “because I cannot really drink to myself.”

He poured another measure and before anyone else could claim the toast, I cried, “Here’s to Greece!”

“Here’s to Greece!” and we all drank again.

Two in a row went straight to our heads and the conversation turned boisterous. We sat at the table, speaking of home and of travels. I had a cassette with me of traditional Greek music from the islands – tales of villages and the sea; ancient laments and dirges – which I had been carrying about all trip. Handing this to Kostas, he put it on. From here the conversation was interspersed with bursts of singing from Kostas when he encountered a familiar dance or dirge. I added my deep and tuneless voice in a phonetic attempt to sing along.

Kostas found one song particularly enjoyable. In Greek the name is Τσιβαέρι and, despite my knowing nothing of the words or their meaning, the slow, mournful chorus of “sigonah, sigonah” had long held me in its thrall. It was a tearful, seaside melancholy. Arm in arm, Kostas and I sang along to this, me rather more fraudulently, and I liked him all the more for so gladly relishing sadness. More rakis ensued. Within an hour, as Kostas checked on the food and the scent flooded through from the opened oven, we were all quite drunk. I was stuffing myself with olives and bread doused in olive oil, to keep from swooning with the booze.

“Now,” said Kostas, clapping with his trademark showmanship, “we will try a village wine. You will find this tastes especially of Crete.”

He plucked a four-litre plastic bottle from the floor, half filled with an umber liquid. From this he poured four measures, straight into the raki tumblers. The wine was thick and syrupy with a sweet and nutty nose. I raised my glass and held it against my upper lip. I was certainly no connoisseur, being the cheapest of the cheap, but was curious to inhale this local vintage. It smelled wonderful – of almonds and chestnuts – and when I tasted it the flavour lay halfway between oak and walnut.

“This wine is delicious,” said Kirstin. “I want to buy a whole barrel.”

We were all in agreement. We drank two glasses while Kostas looked on, beaming with satisfaction.

“Yes, you like it, don’t you?” he said.

My initial impression of Mikhailas had been of one of Nikos Kazantzakis’ characters, and so it was with Kostas. He was as lively and visceral as the author’s robust prose, and equally capable of an uncanny, spiritual subtlety. He would smirk and pout his sweetly curled lips, narrow them in a cunning grin, then fling them wide in a toothy smile. He created a mood of joyous conspiracy.

“Now,” said Kostas, clapping once more, “the food will be ready. At last we can eat!”

Despite all the bread and olives I was ravenous. We all were; hungry with drunken desperation. I felt a vast, leering and lascivious appetite, and as Kostas carried the sizzling, steaming tray through, with its hot wafts of mouth-watering meat scent, we clapped and cheered then stood with our ovation. As it came to rest on the table and I saw the roasted chicken, the oil and fat-stewed potatoes and tomatoes, I felt a surge of love for life.

“And now we feast!” said Kostas.

What followed was a free-for-all of duelling, cautious fingers; plucking the burning chicken from the tray. With a plastic spatula, Kostas dished out the oily slices of potato, the shrivelled, browned, crisp tomato and the softened garlic cloves. Not wishing to miss the rich and boiling stock, we dipped our bread in the base of the pan to soak up this greasy mana.

There was more than enough food and, after the initial orgy of feasting we slowed our pace. Ahead lay the long, slow satisfaction of smoking, drinking and picking our teeth. Having finished the village wine, Kostas poured more measures of raki. Kirstin was tottering on the brink of a very great drunkenness and waved her glass away. Then she drank it anyway, and sank down in her chair looking woozy.

Over the next half hour we talked almost exclusively of food. Kostas, having detected the reticence of the others to drink more, began nudging me under the table. “Secret raki,” he whispered in my ear. He seemed to be implying a certain duty; that to protect the others from harm, us men had best drink up the booze. Kostas did not offer any more raki to Simon, and I felt guilty about this favouritism. All the same, feeling gung-ho and bullet proof, I drank all three of his “secret rakis” while Kirstin and Simon chatted away oblivious.

Then of a sudden Kirstin stood up. The moment I caught her eyes I knew she was in trouble. They were slacked with a haze of worry; sliding about in search of focus. Her face had grown white and pasty, while a thin sweat pricked her forehead. She held the back of her chair, unable to stand unassisted, and we all stood with her.

“I’m going to be sick,” was all she managed, before making her way to the bathroom. I waved back the others and ran in her tottering wake. She had caught herself just early enough and made the toilet in time. There, sure enough, she emptied the contents of her stomach.

“Is she alright?” asked Simon and Kostas, when I emerged five minutes later.

“Yes, yes, she will be fine,” I said. I based my judgement on the understanding that there are two basic ways in which one is sick. The first is the worst, the long night of constant retching; the second is the easiest by far; a quick and complete evacuation, then a restful aftermath of shock.

Kirstin was sick for ten minutes, after which she began to feel safe. She washed her face and cooled her forehead then emerged from the bathroom. “I need fresh air,” she said, so we made our way to the balcony. Kostas put down a thin, rubber mat and gave her a pillow and a glass of water. Kirstin was certainly no lightweight, and I knew she would pull through soon enough. The whole episode had left me worrying about exactly how much I had drunk.

And yet, Kostas persisted with his secret rakis. He was now fabulously drunk; waving his arms and singing and dancing. He stood on his chair and balanced on one leg, jumped to the floor and clapped his hands. He spread his arms wide as though, having performed some famous trick, he expected applause. I stood and danced with him in incoherent steps. Simon was a more phlegmatic character and sat back chuckling and smiling. Not an actor but a theatre-goer, he was content to let others do the work. He sipped his way through a last bottle of beer.

“Crete is my home now,” shouted Kostas, before bursting into strains of a chorus. Finished with singing, he continued, as though never having dropped his thread. “But I will never forget my true home. My true home is Cyprus – wrecked by the fucking Turks. Cyprus has been raped by everyone! They should have joined with Greece –  Enosis – the joining together of the Greeks. Then the Turks would not have dared with their sacrilege and filth. They would never have dared to take on Greece in a war.”

Once again, as with Mikhailas, I found myself not knowing how to behave in the face this passionate nationalism. Afraid of saying anything fickle or falsely sentimental, I said.

“Yes, I hope all Cyprus’s problems can be resolved one day.”

“The only way to resolve it now,” said Kostas, “is to get rid of all the Turks. They should not be there, they must not be there. They are a cancer on the island and they have ruined Cyrus. Ruined it!”

I should have said nothing. What Kostas had begun he now felt he had a right to continue, in order to explain himself properly.

“The Cypriot Greeks won’t take it much longer, but it is not them who should have to fix it. It is not because of the Greeks that Cyprus is like it is. It is the fucking English who are responsible. It is the English who ruined Cyprus. It is because of them that Cyprus did not join Greece in the first place. It was because they listened too much to the Turks. It is because of them that Cyprus is now on its knees.”

He had become very suddenly enraged; red-faced and brimming with fierceness. He was shaking his fists and marching up and down the room.

“Yes, Simon,” he said, turning on Simon who had remained completely silent in the face of these last remarks, “It is the English whose fault is Cyprus. It is the fault of the English alone.”

Simon, with his easy-going, quiet nature, spread his arms in disassociation.

“I know nothing about it, mate. I wouldn’t have a clue.”

“But you are still responsible! How could you not know about it? A disgrace like that?”

“I dunno, man. I don’t know anything much about politics. It’s nothing to do with me.”

“But you are English. It is to do with you.”

“Come on, Kostas,” I said. “It’s no point having a go at Simon. Maybe the English were responsible, but not…”

“The English are responsible!” he shouted. “There is no doubt!”

“Yes but Simon is not responsible. It’s got nothing to do with him.”

“All the English are responsible. You cannot deny responsibility. If you are English, then that is enough. What difference does it make?”

It was only now that I realised we had a real situation on our hands. When Kostas had so suddenly began his tirade, I figured he would drop it just as quickly.

“It’s no good yelling at me, mate,” said Simon. “Come on Kostas, you know me. I don’t have a thing against Cyprus. I didn’t even know you were from Cyprus until today. I thought you were from Crete.”

“What difference does it make where I am from? It’s you who are English!”

Kirstin, who had come back to life at the sound of the heated voices, walked back through from the balcony just as Kostas struck a new peak.

“Do you want to make me a terrorist?” he screamed. “Do you want me to get a machinegun and kill people? Bombs and grenades, is that what you want? Do you want to make me a terrorist?”

He hurled his tumbler to the floor with such force that, striking the ground on the side of its base, it leapt back into the air and bounced away across the linoleum. It was a comic emasculation of his anger and the situation ought to have dissolved into laughter, yet it only fuelled Kostas the more.

“It is the English who ruined Cyprus, the English! You!” he shouted, pointing at Simon. “You! How can you not know that?”

“I don’t know anything about Cyprus, mate,” said Simon.

I couldn’t work out where all this had come from. Did Kostas have something against Simon that he had been holding back? Was he so drunk that he did not know what he was saying, could not see how unreasonable he was being? Hardly knowing him at all made it difficult to judge. It must be frustration, I thought, an immense and dreadful frustration born of his years in exile. Strange how often it is those no longer at the front lines who bear the most malice. I was open to being sympathetic and would have tolerated him venting his anger were it not directed so cruelly at one of our party.

“Do you want me to fight?” he asked. “To become a terrorist? Is that it?”

“No, Kostas, no,” I said. “Why would we want that?”

Simon just shook his head again.

“Come on, Kostas,” said Kirstin, “leave Simon out of it. He is here as your guest.”

Then Kostas exploded once more, this time with a piercing scream.

“Do you want me to be a terrorist!” he shouted.

He mimicked firing a machine gun and throwing a grenade. It was vivid play-acting, done with all the craft and zest of a child who believes he has nailed the repeating bat of a gun, only Kostas looked positively murderous.

“Kostas,” said Kirstin, “we came here to have a good time and for you to have a good time as well. Even after just today we’ve come to think of you as a friend because you have been so hospitable. We would happily listen and learn about Cyprus, but none of us knows anything about it.”

“How can you not know? How can you turn a blind eye? Ah, but I am not angry with you, I am angry with everyone. With everyone and the English! They let Cyprus down when it should have been Greek. They laid the plans for the future and the future is war. If Cyprus was Greek as it should be, then I could live in my home.”

He poured himself another raki and despite it clearly not being a good idea, no one was about to stop him drinking it. I did not feel physically threatened by Kostas – his eyes were hot and lurching and his sharper gestures were softened into arcs as he swayed – yet I was also terribly drunk and fed up with his ranting. It was no way to spend an evening.

“Just give Simon a break, man,” I said. “Can’t you see that he’s not directly responsible just because he’s English. He doesn’t even know the first thing about it.”

“It doesn’t matter! It is the English – you,” he said pointing at Simon, “Your people who are responsible for all the troubles of Cyprus.”

He had gone on for far, far too long, yet the heated conversation was not to stop for another hour. Kirstin lacked the energy after having been ill and Simon seemed only to infuriate Kostas every time he tried to placate him, so in the end it was left to me to drag him from his mood. I tried every trick in the book – I humoured, flattered, begged and prayed, persuaded, cajoled and insisted and, just when I was moving into my second phase of despairing that nothing could salvage the evening, Kostas suddenly fell silent. He sat down in his chair and his shoulders slumped. Having bashed his head against the wall so hard and for so long, he was at last ready to sink in an interminable sulk.

In the quiet, Simon and Kirstin stood up. “I think I’d better go home,” said Kirstin. “I’m still not feeling great.” She looked much recovered; the slack and puffy pallor that hung like a mask on her beauty had passed. The colour was back in her cheeks, yet I could see she was exhausted. Simon too was exhausted and, I guessed, upset. I felt very sorry for him, particularly since he and Kostas appeared to have previously been friends.

“Kostas,” said Simon, “I’m off, mate. Thanks for the feed.”

I looked at Kostas with his head sunk onto his chest. He had pursed his lips and was nodding a path through his thoughts.

“Kostas,” I said, “say goodnight and then let’s go out for a beer.”

Recalling some of his previous energy, Kostas sprang to his feet and rubbed his chin with his hand. He snapped his hands to his side and wiped them on his jeans, then thrust one out and offered it to Simon. There was no shift of reconciliation in his face; no smile or softening of sympathy, but rather a drunken preoccupation as though all his thought and energy had gone into these simple and exaggerated movements.

“Good night,” he said, with all the zest of a man who was already dead, but yet to stop moving.

___________________________________________________

Twenty minutes and two more secret rakis later, Kostas and I left his flat. We walked arm in arm, singing “sigonah, sigonah” in a low and mournful moan, bound for a bar called The Lemon Tree; one of only a few in the old quarter of Rethymnon. I was seriously intoxicated but my mind felt clear and sharp after negotiating such a heavy dialogue. Friends had told me that I became more eloquent the more I drank, though I often had occasion to wonder if the contrast was caused by them growing increasingly less so.

Walking down the flowering white street, I recognised Mikhailas immediately. He was leaning against the wall of the taverna, one foot planted on the front step. It was a tough-guy stance, casually angled; puffs of smoke rolled from his short-bearded lips. Kostas opened his arms as he approached, in greeting and announcement, and Mikhailas, strong and silent, merely nodded.

“Mikhailas,” said Kostas. “At last I have found you.”

“You were looking?” said Mikhailas.

“Of course. We had a feast. You missed the food.”

“I have been drinking.” He looked at me. “No chess tonight.”

“No, I guess not.”

We went inside to buy beers. Kostas and Mikhailas walked to the end of the bar and stood. I pulled up a stool and planted my elbows on the counter. I had no intention of moving for a while. I felt that I was back in charge of my evening at last.

The barman was a middle-aged Englishman, thin and greying. He looked askance at my Cretan companions and served me with a raised eyebrow. “What did you have bring them here for?” he asked.

“They brought me.”

Beside me sat an Australian and an American. I had seen them arrive at the hostel that afternoon and turned to them now in the hope of some lighter relief. I introduced myself and we struck up a conversation. Within a couple of minutes of arriving it seemed I had lost Kostas and Mikhailas to themselves. I heard them speaking in Greek. I was happy to let Mikhailas take up Kostas’ reins, for I was tired of worrying about him; tired of the required concentration. Talking easily with the American and Australian, I realised just how much energy I’d put into bringing Kostas out of his rant.

It was half an hour before we spoke again, and then only because Mikhailas was leaving. He was tired and drunk, though he did not let it show. I looked at my watch – it was just after ten. I suddenly felt completely fed up with both of them and wished they would leave altogether so I could lose myself in thought. The Australian and the American were boring me – the sort of people who find common ground by talking about sport or asserting national stereotypes. The barman, who had a sharp, sarcastic tongue, scowled at me as I ordered my third beer. I was feeling fed up with everything; everything except sitting and drinking.

I knew that if Mikhailas went I’d be stuck with looking after Kostas again; an idea that I did not at all relish.

Mikhailas offered his hand around and said a simple “goodnight.” Then he left, and, sure enough, I was stuck with Kostas.

He had at least risen to a different, more buoyant drunk and for a while he became entertaining. In a loud and singsong manner he tried to engage the American and Australian beside me. They found him amusing at first, but soon showed their true colours and rejected him with unsubtle body language as an undesirable local. My heart went out once more to Kostas. It was just he and I – a pair of ranting drunks – and the world was ranged against us.

The Australian and the American now left. The barman looked at me and shook his head. “See, I told you, you’re driving away my customers.”

“Rubbish,” I said. “And anyway, they were boring.”

“I like boring customers,” he replied. “They keep their mouths shut and drink.”

“Another beer, Kostas?” I asked, keeping my eyes locked with the barman’s.

“Please, my friend, yes.”

“I better have another myself. To make up for the shortfall.”

I bought two beers. The barman smiled. He was a tough nut, but he seemed alright to me. We now we had an understanding, based on mutual displeasure.

“All we need is the women,” said Kostas, slurring.

“You may recall that I already have a woman.”

“Yes, yes, you have a beautiful woman,” said Kostas. “I, myself, have no woman.”

“Well, don’t feel too bad about it. Right now, I don’t want a damn thing.”

Kostas’ hung his head low, saddened to remember his loneliness, and I wondered if the real reason he was so angry was because he wasn’t getting any. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the reason he wasn’t getting any was likely because he was so angry.

“I am tired,” he said; a rich note of despair in his voice. A second later all the strength had gone from him and he slumped onto the bar. “I am very tired.”

Mikhailas would never have shown such a sign of weakness, which was perhaps why he left when he did. They both differed greatly in their wildness; Kostas spent himself like a wastrel, Mikhailas waited like a snake.

It was midnight when Kostas finally left. He had stayed with me the whole time, leaning closer and closer to the counter til he could drift no more. For a while we had spoken of simple things, but it was only when he finally left that I realised how little I knew of him; neither what he did nor what he hoped to do, how old he was or where he was headed with his life.

There was a lot to digest and I stayed behind at the bar, swapping insults with the barman. Once Kostas was gone his sarcasm rose to a new level. I was blessed that night with unerring stamina and stepped up to this new challenge. Here was a man with whom I could quip; a man after my own heart – a little too bitter, a little too lippy, jaded and probably a prick. It was just how I saw myself turning out. We went on like this for hours, and I was still there at three o’clock when he told me he was closing up.

“I guess I’d better go then,” I said.

“Yeah, and not a moment too soon. You sure cleared the place out.”

“I did nothing of the sort.”

“Whatever you reckon,” he said, squinting at me whilst polishing a glass. “Well, thanks for coming, Bruce, now clear off home.”

I’m not sure exactly what it was that set me off. Perhaps it was inevitable with the cumulative insult-swapping, the boiling mire of secret rakis, the sweet, nutty syrup of the wooded local wine, the shortened fuses and the countless beers since arriving here. Our edgy banter had indeed been a risky thing and, without even seeing it coming myself, I suddenly blew my top.

“Fuck you!” I shouted, banging my fist on the bar as I stood from my stool. “I’m sick of your shit – you’ve been at me all night, for nothing!”

“Go on, get out,” he said, pointing to the door.

I picked up a glass and hurled it to the floor. “Do you want to make me a terrorist?” I screamed. Unbelievably, just as had happened with Kostas, the glass bounced, and, just as had happened with Kostas, it only helped to fuel my anger.

“Screw you all,” I shouted. “I hope you all goddamned well die,” and, a moment later, I stumbled out onto the street.

I stormed off around the streets of Rethymnon, so enraged that I did not know where I was going. I stormed up and stormed down, around the Venetian harbour, under the Great Gate, cursing and frothing, shaking my fists. The old quarter was, however, mercifully small, and as soon as I turned my mind to it, I found my way to the hostel.

Once inside, I woke up Kirstin. I was in a rage and needed an audience. I swore through spittle that I was going to go and kill the barman, that I would find some way to revenge myself upon him. I don’t know what made her choose that moment to tell me, but just as I was beginning to slow down in my violence, she told me that when had returned to the hostel, the Dutch man had propositioned her out on the patio. She should never have mentioned it. My rage boiled up again, greater than before.

“I’ll fucking kill him as well, then!” I shouted.

“Shssh, shssh,” urged Kirstin.

“No, fuck it, I’ll kill everyone!”

Now I knew just exactly how drunk I was, but I was fired up and didn’t care a hoot. The world was juddering with my drunkenness; spots floated before my hot eyes.

“You can’t do that,” said Kirstin, “just come to bed now.”

I stormed up and down the room; stormed to the bathroom and plunged my face under the cold tap. I looked up and tried to focus on myself in the mirror.

What was in me? A great, seething, bellowing, boiling madness. Me, a liar and a cheat; me who had betrayed Kirstin before and was destined to do so again, fuming and kicking against the pricks. I knew there and then that really it was me I was kicking against; the me I saw in everyone that I did not like; the me I saw in all life’s frustrations; the me I kept trying so hard to forgive.

___________________________________________________

The following evening we returned to Kostas’ flat. He had invited us to join him and Mikhailas to smoke some hashish, and, unwilling to appear discourteous, on we went; weary and wary, hungover and low on juice. It was a maudlin night that ended early. Kostas and Mikhailas were in ebullient moods. They sat on the floor in bandannas, pretending to shoot things with imaginary guns.

“When the Greeks throw the Turks out of Cyprus, there will be bloodshed!” yelled Kostas, smiling and firing.

“When all the Greeks rise up and take back what’s theirs, then we can live without humiliation.”

Neither Kirstin nor I were in the mood for this bullshit. It was a tired and dull act, the high point of which had been the ping of a rebounding tumbler. I only wanted to get stoned, but the hashish had next to no effect on me. As soon as it was clear that this hope would not be realised, I grew doubly bored with our hosts.

There was something distinctly perverse in Kostas’ mood that evening. Perhaps he felt that in re-iterating his national passion he would show how committed he was and thus cast his prior performance in a more sincere light. Either way, neither Kirstin nor I were buying it. Kostas and Mikhailas were kidding themselves about Cyprus and Constantinopolis. Frustrated with a historical reality that had long gone beyond any chance of such a violent and comprehensive resolution, they clung to naïve and childish dreams. It was only lunatics who wanted a war with Turkey, for, apart from the awful consequences of such a conflict, surely Greece would lose.

I looked at Kirstin and her eyes said it all: once was enough, please can we go.

“I’m afraid I’ve had it,” I said. “I’m going to have to go back and get some sleep.”

“But you will still be here tomorrow?” they asked.

“Yes, we should still be in town tomorrow.”

“Good,” said Mikhailas. “We can finish the chess. To see who is the winner.”

“Yes,” I said. “Perhaps tomorrow night we can play chess again.”

“Then we will say goodnight for now.”

“Okay then. Kostas, Mikhailas. Good night.”

When we checked out and left town the following morning at six thirty, it was with a mixture of guilt and relief. We had told Simon we would take an early bus and he got up to see us off.

“Do you know what the funny thing is?” he said, as we stood out the front shaking hands. “I mean with Kostas blowing off like that the other night. The funny thing is that my dad was in the R.A.F. and he was based in Cyprus after the war. But he never told me nothing about Cyprus, and I swear I never told Kostas he was there either.”

“Fancy that,” said Kirstin. “Goodness me.”

“God, that really is a gem,” I said.

“So you are responsible after all,” said Kirstin, giggling.

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Simon with a smile. “Me and me dad fucked over Cyprus.”

___________________________________________________

In Istanbul several weeks later, in the new year of 1997, speaking with a young English pastor’s son whose precocious wisdom impressed me greatly, I described to him Kostas’ treatment of Simon.

The young man said:

“It’s typical of people who believe strongly in nationalism. They can’t divorce themselves from a national identity, or the state itself, and they are unforgiving in judging people as guilty by association. It is precisely why nationalism of any kind is so dangerous and such a liability for people who have no interest in reducing their identity to a set of conventions and symbols. Like a flag, for instance.”

He was absolutely right. That afternoon, I tore the Australian flag from where it was stitched on my backpack. I have been unable to bear the sight of it, or any other nation’s flag, ever since.

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“Get out, get out!”

Michelle was awake in an instant.

“What? What?”

“Get it out!”

Seth was sitting upright in the bed, hands over his ears.

“Get the damn thing out!” he shouted.

He shook his head madly, clutching at his ear. The whole bed shook and Michelle bobbed up and down.

“What is it, Seth? What is it?”

“Jesus Christ, get out!”

“What, what?”

“There’s something in my ear. Something’s crawled in my ear.”

“Oh my god! Here, let me see.”

Michelle turned on the light. Seth swung his legs over and sat on the side of the bed. He stuck his pinkie inside his ear and dug around, hoping to catch it under his nail.

“It’s right inside my head! I can’t get at it.”

Michelle touched him on the shoulder.

“Seth, quick, come here, lie under the light.”

“Holy shit,” said Seth, “it’s burrowing. It’s burrowing into my ear!”

“Seth!” Michelle shouted. “Come here under the light.”

Seth stood up, shaking his hands on either side of his head; theatrical panic and indecision.

“Get some water, anything. Flush the bastard out!”

Michelle jumped from the bed, naked. She picked up a towel and threw it over her shoulder, then ran to the kitchen. How could this happen? How could she be so unlucky?

Seth paced up and down at the foot of the bed. He could feel the bug clawing away at his ear-drum, scraping away and making one hell of a racket. Damn he could hear it close – it was right there, banging on his goddamned drum. It was probably eating his wax!

Michelle rushed back with a glass of water, she had wrapped herself in the towel.

“Seth,” she said sternly, a schoolteacher through and through. “Lie on the bed and let me look in your ear.”

“Flush the bastard out,” said Seth. “Get him!”

He was not at all calm, but he came to the bed all the same. He lay down and Michelle bent the lamp over.

“Can you see it?” asked Seth. “I’m not bullshitting, it’s in there. Some big, fuck-off bug.”

Michelle strained and squinted. She brought her eyes right up close and tried to see something. It was dark in there; perhaps it was the angle.

“It’s in there, I’m telling you!” He lay on his side, squirming and kicking his feet.

“Stay still,” said Michelle. “Stop moving.”

Seth looked across at the clock radio. It was four seventeen. He tried to focus on the light but his whole being was agitated. Once, when he was six, the doctor told him to look at the tennis balls on the shelf while he gave him an injection. He spent weeks wondering what it was he was supposed to have seen in the tennis balls. Then, one rainy day, years later, he sussed that it was just a ploy.

Michelle shifted her head and tried another angle. She picked the lamp up and held it right over Seth’s ear. She noticed his temples were greying. How thick and black his sideburns were. He had a strong profile and the way he was lying emphasised his high cheekbones.

“Is it there?”

“I can’t see anything. It’s too dark. Maybe it’s gone in too far.”

“It’s bloody big, I’m telling you. It’s huge. I can feel it.”

“Maybe it just feels big. I guess it might.”

“No way,” said Seth. “This thing’s big, I’m telling you.”

“Aahh!” he cried.

“What is it?”

“Sonofabitch! It’s started burrowing again. It’s clawing right up against my eardrum.”

He held both hands to his head, shaking and squeezing it.

“It’s driving me insane!”

He shot her a bolt of panic. His eyes were wide and manic, then clamped and red and pained.

“Flush it out!” he shouted. “Flush the bloody thing out.”

“Okay,” said Michelle. “Calm down.”

She stood by the bed in growing horror. Despite the excitement, she felt deflated now that she had woken up; deflated with impotence, in being so isolated from the trauma. How could this happen on their first night together? In her own home? She wished he would stop shouting at her.

“Lie still, Seth,” said Michelle. “Lie still and I’ll pour in the water.”

Then she remembered a film, Mountains of the Moon which she saw as a teenager. In it, one of the explorers, the blonde one, got a beetle in his ear and went wild with panic. He poured in hot wax, then tried to stab it out with a letter opener and wrecked his ear for good. She quivered, imagining a bug in her ear.

Seth lay stock still, his face screwed up tight. Michelle tipped the water in, slowly at first, then, raising her hand, she increased the force of it. Seth clutched the edge of the mattress; he pulled at the sheets. The water tickled and ran down his cheek, snaking along the back of his neck. He shivered, picturing the bug floating up like a cork in a glass. He saw it bobbing, rising with the tide, bursting from his ear on the top of a geyser.

“Has anything happened?” asked Seth.

“No,” said Michelle. “Nothing’s come up.”

Seth lay quietly, waiting. The bug had stopped moving. He’d seen flies drown before, but this didn’t feel like a fly. If it was a cockroach, then nothing would stop it, not even nukes.

“Anything at all? Pour in some more,” he said.

Michelle tipped more water into his ear. Again she raised the height from which she poured, hoping to flush the bug out. What was it? An earwig? Is that why they called them earwigs? Seth kicked and squirmed again as the water leapt around in his ear. The bug wasn’t moving, but he knew it hadn’t drowned. The water soothed him, though it blocked his hearing like it did in the surf.

“Nothing’s coming out,” said Michelle. “Is it still moving?”

“It’s stopped for now,” said Seth. “Maybe the water freaked him out.”

Michelle wanted to cry. It wasn’t like her place was dirty. Seth himself must be able to see that. Every old terrace in Sydney had cockroaches, it was hardly a revelation. You just couldn’t beat them, try as you might. Put the food away, wipe down the benches, disinfect, polish, scrub; they still managed to breed, living off flakes of dead skin, off dust mites and minuscule crumbs, lurking until dark behind the drainage pipes under the kitchen sink. Those sly bastards would eat anything. Hell, even earwax.

“I’ve got to get it out,” said Seth. “It might do some serious damage. What if it gets into my head, or wrecks my hearing? I’ve got to get the bastard out.”

“Maybe if I poured some hotter water in,” said Michelle. “Not too hot, just lukewarm.”

“No, no,” said Seth. “Those mongrels can handle nukes.”

“Well I don’t know,” said Michelle. “I’ve never had to deal with this before.”

Seth sat up, then got to his feet. He felt dizzy, off balance.

“Okay, sorry, I’m sorry. I’m freaking out. But this is hectic. I’ll have to go somewhere. It’s got to come out.”

“The hospital’s only five minutes walk from here. We could go there.”

“That’s it! The hospital! I didn’t even think of that. They’ll be open for sure.”

Six minutes later they were dressed and in Michelle’s car. She drove in a state of self-imposed disgrace. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t her fault. She knew she wasn’t the best catch in the world, though she was a pretty fine one at that, and if Seth went away with a complex about sleeping over, if every time he saw her he thought of cockroaches, dirty, invasive bugs – by the gods were they going to cop it; spray, bombs, exterminators, the bloody lot – then how on earth were things supposed to work out?

It was just two blocks to the hospital. Seth expected it to be busy on a Saturday night, but when he bustled through the door, emergency was empty.

“I’ve got something in my ear,” he shouted. “An insect crawled in my ear, I need help.”

“What is it, exactly?” asked the man behind the counter. “In your ear?”

“I don’t fucking know! It crawled in while I was sleeping.”

Then the man woke up and came to life.

“Righty-o. Easy, tiger,” he said. “Let’s check it out.”

Michelle came in after parking. A nurse had Seth by the arm and was marching him through to the ward, curious doctor on hand.

“I’m not smoking crack here,” Seth was saying. “I’m not tripping or peaking or anything. I was asleep, and now there’s a cockroach the size of a small dog in my ear and it’s clawing away at my eardrum. It’s killing me – it’s driving me nuts!”

He turned around.

“This is my, ah, girlfriend,” he said. “She’s with me.”

“Come through.”

But? She wondered.

The commotion had already caused a stir. It being a quiet night, the staff began to drift in to have a look. Patients sat up and watched. How could they miss this?

They led Seth to a bed and lay him down. He lay on his side and clutched the edge of the mattress with both hands. The doctor leaned over Seth’s ear and began his inspection. He brought up a pair of tweezers and carefully lowered them into Seth’s ear.

“Aha!”

The doctor held up his tweezers. On the end was a long insect leg.

“Got it!”

“Where?” said Seth, sitting up and staring. “Bullshit!” he cried. “That’s just its leg.”

How could they be so stupid? A doctor for Christ’s sake?

“Keep going. It’s still in there.”

“Okay, okay, let me try again.”

The doctor leaned over again and reached in deep with the tweezers. Seth had mastered himself now. He lay as straight as an arrow, neck held thick like a bull’s.

The crowd was still growing. There were ten people watching now. One of the staff went outside to tell the paramedics who were smoking on the sly.

“You gotta see this,” said the nurse. “There’s a bloke inside who’s either nuts or a huge bug crawled in his ear. They’re trying to fish it out.”

The paramedics came in. The cleaners gathered round. The nurses came from across the ward to watch the struggle of man against insect.

“There!” shouted the doctor. “Got it!”

He held up the prize on the end of his tweezers. All could see that it was a large insect, doubtless a young cockroach, but not, perhaps, as large as it ought to be.

“That’s just the back half!” shouted Seth, who was now sure he was the only sane person in the room. “They don’t even need half their shit, they just keep going. Keep looking!”

Michelle wished she had brought her camera with her. At the extreme end of her embarrassment was a liberating sense of what it means to be alive. She wanted to take a video, talk over it, make a little documentary. She wanted to get that cockroach and have it mounted.

Everyone was leaning in; sweat on brows, eyes strained. Seth’s distress was so assertive they were all infused with urgency, as though the cockroach really might kill him if left unchecked.

“That’s it, that’s it!” cried the doctor, and this time he was right.

On the end of his tweezers was the front half of a German cockroach, clawing away at the air in some discomfort, as one might be inclined to do when cut in two. A great cheer went up around the bed; eruptions of laughter and spontaneous clapping. Michelle was clapping too; relief like a shot of soft emotion; the flushing, the draining of the poison mood.

Seth was on his feet. He grabbed the hand that held the tweezers and looked the bug in the eye. It was reaching out towards him, motoring away like the stripped-down Terminator with itslegs blown off.

“You dirty son of a bitch,” said Seth. “Next time you try going up my arse and I’ll show you who’s boss.”

Michelle started crying, and she wasn’t entirely sure why.

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Hot and Bothered

The following is a short story set in Varanasi and written roughly a year ago, with various edits and updates since. As I shall be returning to India for five weeks in December and January, I figured I ought to get closure on the last trip and get this short story out there.

Varanasi

The hustle was more than enough to keep him in the hotel room. If it wasn’t a boat ride on the Ganges, then a head massage or a fortune told; future mapped and past explained. There was much on offer: spiritual comfort, physical relief, food, drink, trinkets, baubles, ornaments, silk, hashish, charras and flowers for Puja. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t always so hot; if they weren’t always so insistent. Dirk was having none of it – with the exception of the hashish and charras.

The heat was everywhere; in the air and in the stones; even it seemed, in the river. It hung in the atmosphere like grease; textured by the dry dust of the north Indian plains. It coated everything in a thin film; hair, clothes, skin, eyes, camera lenses and sunglasses. Dirk could take all kinds of privation, but humidity was his kryptonite. It made him irritable and short-tempered; enough so at times to act with a rare lack of courtesy. It had wiped him out in Vietnam, where, having been cheated, his anger had risen in a volcanic surge. With that incident in mind, he worked hard to maintain his equilibrium. Yet, for the first time the evening before, after two months of diplomacy, Dirk had lost his cool and called a man a “slack-jawed cunt.”

He had taken his first shower at 0615. It was the time to get things done, for by midday the air would be porridge. He sat on the end of the bed, rolling a joint.

“Buy a pipe today, Dog.”

He mostly spoke just to hear the sound of his voice, and had taken to addressing himself as “Dog.” Travelling solo, it was in part to prevent himself going mad, though he now wondered if that was precisely how people went mad; by becoming accustomed to it. Outside of his own company, most of his utterances took the form of polite refusals. He was not unsympathetic to the countless poor traders, shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers, but nor was he inclined to accept their constant overtures just to please them.

“You should have stayed in the mountains, Dog. You ran away like a coward.”

Dirk licked the paper and sealed the roll. He twisted one end, then picked up a match and tamped down the contents of the other. He tore off a length of slim cardboard from the cigarette papers, rolled it and slid it in for a filter. Working it with the match, he made the filter fit snugly and tightly inside the joint. He was both proud and fatigued by this meticulousness. These small things, these necessities, he could manage quite well, though the effort left him work-shy.

Dirk stood up and listened at the door. He heard only the rushing of the fan outside, blowing hot air up the suffocating staircase. Lately, Dirk had retreated from the expansive, affable mood in which his holiday began. Perhaps he had smoked too much; become isolated, paranoid. He had, in various locations, often felt he was playing cat and mouse with the hotel staff; that they knew somehow of his furtive joints, but hadn’t caught him yet. Perhaps they didn’t care, but he couldn’t take the risk. He remained bluff, assertive, yet could not meet their eyes; not without sunglasses. He always wore sunglasses, cleaning the lenses obsessively.

Dirk moved to the squat balcony door. It was firmly shut, as was the patterned window beside it. The glass was green in some places and gold in others; a blended reflection of painted walls. The wooden frame had been sloppily coated and thick dark brush-strokes marred the regal pattern on the glass. From outside, red and ochre light crept through, and the room was in earthy semi-dark.

Dirk lit his joint. He sat back on the bed and smoked. He lay back and smoked. He savoured it, holding it in for greater effect. First of the day would send him straight to the toilet, but he lay a while, blowing it up to the ceiling. All this time and now more than ever habituated to dissipation, to aimlessness. He was a tourist, he wanted to see things – he saw things. He was a traveller, he wanted to go places – he went places. He was on holiday, he wanted to holiday – he didn’t have to do a single goddamned thing if he didn’t want to.

Dirk struggled to sit up. He was tired already from thinking about how much he could do. He could leave his room and walk around for hours taking photographs, or, he could fall back on the bed and stay there, day-dreaming. Time had slunk off after the first month, taking much significance and purpose with it. The hungry search for “gold”, for photographs he deemed to be of quality, still niggled him. It was his purpose, and the inspiration on which it was contingent was ever-present if he could tap it just right. The joints helped him get started, but later he would slow to a crawl.

Dirk stood up, buzzing with the creeping stone. He had eaten breakfast in his room; banana pancake with honey, a bowl of fresh curd and a pot of heavy-duty filter coffee. He still had some coffee left. He reached over and took a slug; all this, and only now did he feel ready; ready for another shower.

The sun hit hard. At eight o’clock the shade was still cool, but not for long. The jagged steps of the staggered Ghats swung down the river facing fully into the light. Dirk retreated to the small laneway outside the Ganpati Guesthouse where he was staying. A goat had climbed onto the protruding foundations of the wall opposite and stood there staring at a dog. Dirk stood and stared and thought about a photograph. Already he’d taken twelve thousand shots. Did he need one of a goat looking at a dog? He stood watching; a dog looking at a goat looking at a dog. That settled it. He took the photo.

“Hello sir, good morning!”

A young local man approached him.

“Which country sir? Which country?”

“Umm. Australia.”

“Australia, very nice. You like cricket?”

“I guess, sure.”

The young man had a killer tan and wore western garb. He was handsome, but his eyes were milky and red.

“Listen my friend, how can I help you? Anything you need, I can get for you. Hashish, marijuana. Best hashish, pure and soft. So good.”

“I have some thanks. I’m okay.”

“What have you got? Where from?”

“Actually, it comes from Varanasi. But I got it in McLeod Ganj.”

“From Varanasi? My friend, it won’t be like this stuff. I have the best. You want, you come with me.”

“Look, not now. I’m going for a walk. Maybe later.”

“Anything you need my friend. I am here all day. Here, around, on the ghats. You will see me. I will see you.”

Dirk laughed. “Yeah, I bet you will. Everyone sees me.”

“Because we have what you want,” said the young man, smiling.

Dirk was impressed that he got it.

“Okay, maybe later.”

“Later then, my friend.”

Dirk set off with more purpose, full of confidence from his first refusal. He had never liked talking to people in the morning and tried to avoid all contact. He adjusted his sunglasses, ran his hand through his hair and walked down closer to the river. It was a blinding expanse. The Ganges was low, but still wide and glittering and, across the water, the bright flatness continued in a dry floodplain.

Dirk took note of those who would approach him. He had come with an innate sense of how close he could get to a hawker before they would attempt to ensnare him, like attracting the aggro in a computer game. Yet, since arriving in India, this sense had been blown away, for here there seemed to be no limit to the ground they were willing to cross to offer him something he invariably did not want. In Varanasi, it was always boat rides and head massages.

“Boat, sir,” called a man, from twenty metres away. He was moving purposefully towards Dirk, and Dirk, having seen him, was shaking his head. The man grew closer, but Dirk paid him no further attention. “Don’t look back,” his mother had always told him with stray dogs and cats. “They will follow you.” Dirk fiddled with his headphones, which hung from inside his tee-shirt.

“Boat, sir! I take you across, see ghats.” The man was now only a few feet away and Dirk had begun to shift. He didn’t feel it was necessary to say no twice, but as the man hadn’t accepted his first indication, he now turned his face to him.

“No thanks,” he said firmly.

“Very cheap,” said the man. “Good price.”

“No,” said Dirk.

“Maybe later?”

“Maybe later, but I don’t think so.”

“Okay, okay,” said the man. “Later it is! I will be here.”

Dirk nodded, putting the headphones in his ears. He didn’t like to be rude to people, but he also didn’t like it that people continued to address him despite wearing sunglasses and headphones. If he wanted something, he would ask for it, not otherwise. He wanted a tee-shirt with “Do Not Disturb” written on it, though he doubted it would make a difference. The man was still lingering, so Dirk walked away, not looking back. He made a point of casting his eyes across the river, away from the boatman, and then, following his gaze, moved quickly down the steps towards the water.

There were many small boats moored in the fetid shallows; some with tall wooden prows, others low and flat. A short, black-tanned, wiry man, with muscles hard as nails, glutes like iron muffin-tops, scrubbed the underside of a propped boat. To Dirk’s right, the river curved in a long, slow arc, and down its length lay the curious geometry of the unevenly stepped banks, the stacked hotels and temples. It was yellow, red and purple, green where the trees protruded, and already it was shimmering in haze.

Another man approached him. Dirk kept his eyes facing forward with even greater purpose, refusing to make eye contact. He was determined not to say anything, especially now the music was in his ears. The man arrived beside him, asking him if he wanted a boat. Dirk could hear him, but he pretended he did not. He pointed to his headphones and, opening his arms in a gesture of helplessness, said “sorry, I can’t hear you.” Didn’t they get it? He didn’t want a fucking boat.

The man repeated his offer and Dirk ambled forward a few steps to indicate that he was not listening. What annoyed him was that he was listening. He was listening intently, watching from the corner of his eye, waiting for the man to leave. How was he supposed to enjoy this morning, this wonderful, hammering stone that he had achieved, when people must interrupt him? Could he ever be alone in India?

He wandered a few steps further towards the water. More men had noticed him now and he could feel their hands tingling with the desire to massage his head. Maybe a head massage would be nice now that he was baked. He was standing very close to the water and took a closer look at it. It was poo-brown in colour, tinged green near the bank with the algae that grew from the stones. The water, so polluted in some places as to be septic, had undergone a transformative journey from the fresh thaws of the Himalaya. Just a month ago Dirk had watched it, rushing through Rishikesh, clean as a whistle; so clean he could swim in it. From there it had passed through more than a hundred towns and cities, collecting their poisonous run-off.

The man beside him shook his head and walked off in a huff. Huh! So it was Dirk who was rude. This mutual distaste was not his idea of a cultural exchange. He stepped back from the water and continued down the ghats. It was still relatively quiet, unlike the middle of the day when so many tourists arrived to suffer in the heat. Further along, men and women stood in the shallows beating clothes upon stones. The vigour of their work churned the water, giving it oxygen and life. To his amazement, the clothes came out stunningly clean. Dirk stopped to take photographs. He shifted every time someone took an interest; like a magnet repelled by the same polarity.

A bearded man in white robes stood with two goats on a leash. Beside him, dressed in black robes, another bearded man held his own goat on a rope. They looked like themed chess pieces. Dirk shot them without restraint. The river backdrop snaked lazily away through the heat haze; the foreground’s tail. Just beyond the goat men, he watched a man pulling on his trousers; as immaculate as most Indians; poor but bleached and starched. He was selling fake bags; the Reebok label poorly rendered. Dirk walked past him and clambered atop an octagonal parapet. From there he could see further down to another distant parapet, whereon a red-robed, bearded mystic sat cross-legged with a cup of tea. His face was black, yet his hands were white; the pigment lost in some genetic mishap. It was a common problem in India. In a country with so many skin-whitening products for sale, Dirk wondered if such was considered a blessing or a curse. He photographed the man indiscriminately.

Three hours later Dirk sat on a step in a cool lane near his hotel. He had just finished e-mailing his family; updating Facebook and tweeting: I said to the man are you trying to tempt me? Because I come from the land of plenty. He smiled at the conceit of this quotation. The contact had brought him back to earth; he felt the tug of Australia, and the impending sense of his holiday’s end. Already he knew he was in the coda and had few expectations of further beauty. Since leaving the mountains of Himachal Pradesh he had been sad; despite the energetic chaos and colour of the north Indian plains, or, indeed, because of it. The people of the mountains were less pushy; Buddhists mostly, they were quieter, less wanting. The mountains were clean and quiet; the air thin and brisk. The high rise of the peaks, the towering cedars, the crashing cascades had left Dirk tilting and small. He had lost himself in the scale, reduced to the smallest unit in a cool, epic landscape. The rough spines of the Himalayas had a stark and beautiful brutality; unaffected by people, without their complications.

Here, in Varanasi, Dirk carried his body like a burden. He could feel the weight of his limbs at all times, as though he had just stepped out of water.

He put his head in his hands. It was approaching midday and already he was spent. He had smoked another joint on the ghats and, once the high had passed, his lids and frame had grown heavier.

“Hello, sir!”

Dirk looked up, for the voice was familiar. So was the face. The young man he had met that morning approached him on the step.

“Hi there,” said Dirk. He felt strangely pleased to see the young man, and realised only then that he was lonely.

“How are you? Is there anything you need, sir?”

“Dirk,” he said. “You can call me Dirk.”

“Dirk!” said the young man, flourishing it like the shiny dagger of its namesake.

“I am Manoj. Like the cricketer!”

“Manoj Prabharkar?”

“Yes! See, I can talk to Australians. They know.”

The young man stood beside Dirk, leaning over him. He leaned in closer.

“Do you want some hashish, some marijuana? I have the finest hashish, not far to go.”

“How much?” asked Dirk.

“How much do you want?”

“No more than one thousand rupees. I’m running out of money.”

“One thousand rupees, no problem. But for one thousand five hundred, you can have the best quality.”

“Maybe,” said Dirk. “But that’s more than I want to spend.”

“You can spend what you like. First, I show you.”

Dirk shrugged. Again he noted Manoj’s milky, red eyes, and Dirk was sure that he must be a heavy smoker himself. In Darjeeling the local dealers, the pony-handlers, had eyes like piss-holes in the snow; their gaze always disquietingly unfocussed.

“Fuck  it.” he said. “Come on, show me. Is it far?”

“Not far, very close.”

Dirk stood up and swung his pack over both shoulders. The small bag, his only luggage, never left his sight, nor was it ever out of reach when not in his hotel room. The young man waited for him to be ready then set off keenly down the lane.

Manoj led Dirk through a network of alleys. Dirk wasn’t especially worried about becoming lost, for despite the confusion of streets, he only needed to find his way back to the river to orient, and the Ganges was hard to miss. The city stopped dead at its banks, with no bridges across, nor settlement on the other side. Instead it spread in a white blaze of heat towards a wobbling horizon; the flood plain of a river not now swollen.

The back lanes were full of small businesses; hole-in-the-wall shops, barbers, kitchens, spice-traders, grocers. Since he first began exploring Asia, Dirk had finally come to understand what the cities of the Roman Empire, which he had spent much time studying, must have been like. The eateries, with their counters sunk with vessels, stoves and ovens, fronting straight onto the street, were practically the same design. These huddled buildings would leave similar ruins. Here too was a polytheistic society. Manoj led Dirk through a great crowd milling about a Brahmin-blue temple entrance.

Five minutes of walking through the winding streets, brought them to a white-washed wooden door. Manoj pushed it open and walked straight through. Dirk followed cautiously, whilst Manoj waited inside for him then closed the door behind.

Manoj called something which Dirk did not catch, then beckoned him to follow. They were in a dark corridor that led into a small room at the base of a stairwell. Sitting on the floor was another young man. He smiled up at Dirk with the same milky red eyes.

“Hello,” he said. “I am Sanjay.”

“This is my brother,” said Manoj. “He will show you what you want.”

“Hi,” said Dirk. “Thanks.”

“Sit down,” said Manoj. “Take off your bag.”

Dirk sat down as instructed, though he did not remove his bag from his shoulders. There was something strange about the way Sanjay was sitting, and a moment later, as Sanjay shuffled on his hands across to an old wooden cupboard, Dirk noticed the horrible marks on his right leg. Almost the entire leg was covered with large, lumpy scabs; dark brown masses surrounded by yellow skin. Dirk shuddered at the colour and scale of it, and felt a wave of revulsion. What on earth could have caused such a thing? Was it a skin disease, or a horrible accident? It looked so unnatural, like burned foam. He caught himself staring as Sanjay, still resting on his haunches, pulled two large bricks of hashish from the cupboard. He crawled back across towards Dirk and placed these bricks on the floor. Wrapped in cling-film, they must have weighed a kilogram each at least.

“I have two varieties, as you can see,” said Sanjay.

Dirk nodded.

“This is the local stuff. From here in Varanasi. I don’t think it is the best. It is harder, less soft. Not so strong.”

“And the other?”

“From Punjab, very special. Very nice. Softer, stronger. You can smell it, please.”

He leaned forward awkwardly, across his wounded leg which was stretched in Dirk’s direction. Dirk took the heavy brick in two hands and tested the weight. It was a hefty block, and when he brought it up under his nose, he caught a strong, nutty scent; pungent and oily, with a dusky sweetness, like cloves.

“It smells good,” he said.

In truth, he had no idea of how good hashish should smell. It had long since vanished from the market in Australia, and the last time he’d seen it with any regularity was eight years ago in Rome.

Dirk handed the brick back to Sanjay. Despite a growing discomfort at the sight of the man’s wounds, his eyes could not help but be drawn to them. He looked around to see Manoj standing behind him and suddenly he felt very uncomfortable. He wanted his back against the wall, did not want anyone between him and the door. Dirk was an experienced traveller who didn’t like to put himself into situations from which he could not easily run, yet here he had done precisely that. He was large and strong, and didn’t doubt he could overpower both of these men, yet what secrets lay within this house of theirs? Other accomplices, a cloth full of chloroform, guns? Perhaps it was just paranoia, but such was his disposition, and anxiety had long been selected for genetically, precisely because the wary stayed alive.

Sanjay was talking to him.

“How much do you want? I can do you any deal you like. Big, small. You want a lot, I make it cheaper.”

“I’m a tourist,” Dirk said. “I just want a little.”

Manoj now spoke from behind him.

“One thousand five hundred. One thousand five hundred for the good stuff.”

Dirk had a feeling of growing sickness in his stomach. He couldn’t stop looking at Sanjay’s leg. Perhaps it was the heat and the sun; perhaps it was the air. There was something vile about the air in Varanasi. The back lanes were full of rubbish and dung, malnourished rag-doll animals skulking half dead among the refuse. From the river came the cloying humidity; full of the ash of funeral pyres, burning plastic and septic, stagnant water. Dirk could only guess in horror at what manner of bacteria must have crept into his lungs. The wounds on Sanjay’s leg seemed to herald some tropical corruption; some grotesque, mutilating virus unheard of outside these swollen latitudes. Dirk felt himself reeling. His mouth went dry then quickly flushed with saliva. He was not about to be sick, yet fear had risen swiftly in him and he felt an urgent panic. He swallowed nervously.

Sanjay was talking, but Dirk, tired, stoned and dizzy, was not listening.

“I only want to spend one thousand,” he interrupted. “Can you just give me less? Really, I don’t care. Just give me less.”

“This is one thousand,” said Sanjay. “This one thousand five hundred.”

“I don’t mind,” said Dirk. “One thousand, please.”

“You don’t want the good stuff?”

“No. I mean, yes. But not so much. Can you just give me less?”

“Sure. But it won’t be so much.”

“Any is plenty. I don’t care.”

Sanjay watched him closely. His smile made Dirk feel even more nervous.

“You are wondering about my leg?” said Sanjay. “You are wondering what happened?”

“Umm, sure. What happened?”

“I was catching a train,” he said. “The train was leaving and I had to run to catch it. I tried to climb in, but fell and got caught on the step. The train dragged me for a very long way. My leg was skinned. My whole leg. Look, you can see. All the way.”

Dirk did not want to look, but something compelled him to do so. The yellow skin around the dreadful scabs seemed worse than the wounds themselves. What had made it that putrid, mustard colour? Was it the bruising? It seemed artificial, like the stains of mercurochrome. Dirk felt a new wave of sickness coming over him, and again he flushed with panic.

“I was selling hashish. I sold two kilos. I had two thousand dollars in a bag. Two thousand dollars and another kilogram of hashish. I dropped it on the train tracks. There was no chance to go back. All was lost.”

All was lost indeed, thought Dirk. This guy was the real deal; a proper dealer. A criminal. What was Dirk doing here, in this strange man’s house? With a drug dealer who dealt in kilogram blocks? Coming here was a bad call; it was too big for him. Sure, he wanted some hashish, but he didn’t like to be so close to the source. Inside this house, in a corrupt foreign country, anything might happen. He should have kept all such business to the streets; where he could run, where he could lose himself. Was the front door locked? Would he be able to escape if they tried to take him down? It was all taking too long and Manoj was still standing behind him, making him feel even more nervous. He hadn’t come here to be social; he had come here to score some goddamned hashish and didn’t want to be kept waiting; not when he was hot, not when he was scared, not when he was paranoid. He stood to his feet, clearing his throat in an exaggerated manner.

“I need to spit. I feel a bit sick.” He summoned up all he could in the hope of maintaining the ruse, despite his mouth having gone dry again after swallowing. Manoj stepped aside and watched him; the path was clear to the door! He stepped around the corner into the corridor; only metres from the street and from freedom. He hurried along, his bag still on his back. The door was not locked. Indeed, it was slightly ajar. If he needed to make a break for it, he could go right now, leave them wondering. He cleared his throat again, pushed open the door and stepped into the street.

Outside the sunlight was blinding. Thank god he still had his sunglasses on. He rolled his shoulders and opened his lungs. He spat what little he could manage. They must not suspect that he feared they wished him ill. Perhaps they would take offence, and rob him. He looked up and down the street. It was bright with the overhead sun; quiet in the midday heat. He took deep breaths and ran his hands through his hair.

“It’s okay,” he muttered to himself. “It’s okay, dog, relax.”

A moment later the tension seemed to go. They were waiting for him patiently. It was just a simple drug deal after all.

Dirk turned back inside, leaving the door slightly open. In the corridor, he reached into his pocket, withdrawing the small wad of notes he kept there to avoid fishing his wallet out in public. He peeled two five-hundred rupee notes off the roll, and returned to where he had been sitting on the floor. This time, however, he remained standing. The two young men smiled at him.

“All good,” said Dirk, handing out the money.

Sanjay reached up from the floor, handing him a fat little ball of hash.

“I think you will like it,” said Sanjay.

Dirk took the hash and placed it in the pocket of his tired, dirty shorts. He adjusted the bag on his shoulders and made a snorting laugh of release. The men chuckled with him; business done and everybody friends now.

Nothing, after all, was amiss.

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This is a rather ribald and naughty short story I wrote in 2006, shortly after moving back to Cambridge. The title is a play on the famous post-coital quote from Balzac “There goes another novel”, indicative of how sexual satisfaction can sap creative energy. It contains adult themes and sexual references, so you have been warned. I’ve edited and re-edited this over the years, including just now, but its length has been prohibitive in submitting it to journals which almost universally have a 5000 word cap on short fiction. It is deliberately “overwritten” in deference to the style of the Baroque Minstrel, a nickname I acquired on account of my excitable and exclamatory conversational style. Having said that, this is merely a lurid fantasy, and not to be considered autobiographical!

A note for non-Australian readers:

Root (noun) (verb,  transitive / intransitive) – A synonym for “fuck” in almost all its uses. “Did you root her?”; “This thing is rooted.”; “I need a root.” and so on…

 

Here Comes Another Novel…

My thoughts had long been emerging stillborn. I couldn’t shake the tendency towards irony, which is really a despicable tone in which to write. It was nothing less than a thin disguise for a bitter indictment of the human condition. I was, admittedly, appalled by the state of affairs around me and had good reason to distrust my fellow men and women, yet the results were more the bile of perforated arrogance than the sweet renderings of the high and mighty distaste I longed to cultivate.

And then, after months in the doldrums, wondering what on earth should be the subject of my next novel, I started having all my best ideas during sex.

The recovery began one autumn Tuesday. I attended an exhibition opening in Paddington in the hope of free booze and totty. The theme was the Romanian harvest and the paintings were so surprisingly good that I was swept into a mood of delicious exposition. I clung to the few people I recognised and smoked everything they had on them; snaking glass after glass of wine and sinking against the wall with milky eyes. Outside was a long, lurid sunset, deepening to royal blue. Honestly, the last thing I expected was to strike it lucky.

I was riding a conversation about Harry Tangiers’ latest stage incarnation as a highwayman when this cracking girl called Charlotte joined in. She had long, wavy, dark brown hair, fine full eyes, pale skin and thin lips. She struck me somehow as Czech. So far as looks were concerned, there were few boxes left un-ticked, so I did what I always did on such occasions – raised my voice slightly and tried to sound more emphatically intelligent.

The conversation wended its way down a jauntily colourful path; art, books, politics, booze, the need to engineer a virus that killed only fuckwits, and slowly but surely the comings and goings saw Charlotte standing next to me. Being close to the wall and awfully drunk, I leaned back and propped myself up, hoping to draw her in with a relentless stream of words. When the rest of the talkers began to drift off, probably sick of the sound of my voice, I at last secured her exclusive attention.

“Goodness,” I said, after trying in fifteen minutes to divulge all my positives without looking like the incurable egotist I know myself to be, “everyone’s gone.”

“They are closing now,” she said, peering inside the gallery. “Looks like it’s all over.”

“No more booze then.” I moaned.

“I guess not.”

“Dear, oh dear.”

“You may not be aware of this,” she said, “but there are places called pubs and bars where they sell drinks. You have to pay, but they rarely ever run out.”

“Crikey, you must be an angel.”

It seemed we’d tacitly turned this into a date. I found the prospect both brilliant and terrifying for I could not bear the thought of letting her get away, but to go further into the night and maintain the energy required to charm and woo seemed such a challenge that I longed to be cowardly. The uncertainty of it all, the hoping against all the doubts and questions, the looming and potentially devastating revelation of her marital status… I was still hanging in there with a bawdy, roiling wit, but on the brink of uncontrollable sloppiness.

Fortunately the alcohol had not only robbed me of patience, it had also left me disinhibited. Before I could believe I was doing it and reel myself in, I took the bold step of seeking certain assurances.

“If we do go for a drink,” I said, pressing keenly against the wall to sustain my leaky stance. “What are my chances?”

Charlotte smirked and raised a hand to her mouth. She laughed with her eyes and exhaled through her nose. Her fringe fell crossways and blinked away an eye, and then she laughed out loud.

“Excuse me?” she said. “What exactly are you implying?” It was playful and uncompromised, though her tone betrayed at least a hint of shock.

“I mean,” I said, “that it’s been a long day.”

“Cryptic.”

“And if I’m going to spend my precious inner reserves of will to power another drinking session, I’d like to know now, for instance, that you don’t have a boyfriend and you’re not a lesbian and you don’t have children. Because, if we do keep drinking I’ll just get to like you more than I do already and then it’ll be a blow to me when I find out the truth.”

I struggle to make eye contact at the best of times, so I followed her mouth instead as it poised and twitched, curled and pursed, decoding my words for any measure of insult. I was pushing my luck, but you don’t get a damned thing if you don’t ask for it. Or worse, you get everything you never wanted, twenty-four seven.

“You’re very calculating,” she said. “Christ, and I thought Romance was dead.”

“Romance doesn’t have to be subtle. It’s the stuff of foundations, the root of myth, the mythology of rooting, if you will.”

I was pleased when she laughed at this, and I even laughed myself. It was a while since I had felt so lyrically lucid and I could see this Charlotte might just be the muse for whom I’d been searching.

“There’s no reason why a drunken lurch cannot be construed as romantic,” I added.

“Do you mean by way of a lunge? And what if you were to miss?”

“Or, if the target fended me off with what they call, in Rugby League speak, a ‘don’t argue’? Well, even then the humbling failure might become the keystone of a later, ennobling victory.”

She put her hands on her hips and frowned and smiled.

“So, then, are you going to make a lunge or not?”

“Are you going to fend me off?”

“Only one way to find out.”

“Hang about,” I said. But I didn’t hang about. Courage comes rarely and hence I’ve learned not to forsake it. I was on a slope, steep if short, and to lean away from the wall was a significant risk after all the wines and joints. Still, her words were the nearest thing I’d had to an invitation in a while and I longed to sink my hands into her hair.

Off I went. I launched myself with searching hands, hoping by a combination of balance and weighting to step neatly into her space. Her curls hung heavy and rich, tumbling down upon breasts so pert that they seemed to be craning upwards. I tilted towards this vision of loveliness, leaning across the chasm with the grace of a leading man; natural, gliding, firm and sure, and for about three eighths of a second I was on track. Feeling ahead with my right foot, however, committed to the step that would bring me into her ambit, I came down hard on the edge of the narrow, back-lane pavement and went shooting off sideways in a ghastly flail of word and limb.

“Fuck me dead!” I cried, striking the bitumen hard.

In she came, after me like a comet tail; long legs folding, calves tucking, heels pointing and hair spilling as her white blouse erupted with taut frontage.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“No,” I answered. “That really fucking hurt.”

“Here, let me help you,” she said.

And thus, as I had so unwittingly predicted, did the mythology of our rooting begin.

______________________________________

 

Three weeks is a very long time when starting anew. It is also the best of times; fulfilment has not yet compromised the sweetness of desire and many questions remain unanswered. It took a week for our sexual rhythms to synch and after three weeks we were both champions of each other’s pleasure. Our conversations rushed with agreement, our passions found their fellows, and in each other’s space we became completely comfortable. Were I younger and more foolish I might have declared myself to be in love, but I have long since learned to wait and see. Love, lust, in love and loving – who can fathom these subtleties when they are completely and utterly cunt-struck?

And, sure enough, after three weeks, I was cunt-struck. Charlotte was marvellous – she had a high school debating prize, she wrote film reviews and book reviews, she’d studied fine arts and knew her way around an auction house – and she’d even read my first novel. I was enchanted and flattered, fulfilled and yet craving more and more. Best of all, however, my mood was lifting and the barriers were falling away – I could feel another novel coming on.

I once used to prefer to have people come to my place to be in control of the environment, the music, the atmosphere. As I got older I came to realise that it was better to pay visits in order to be in control of the coming and going. I also wanted to get out of my Glebe flat, which was beginning to feel tired, as was Glebe, and Charlotte had a wonderful, run down old art deco apartment in Kings Cross. The whole area was a thrill to walk through. I like to be titillated; hookers, lingerie, dance-clubs, tough guys and junkies; neon, trash, vomit and class. Walking past the pros and cons was a buzz.

Charlotte and I soon fell into a routine of spending time at hers. This way we both had the upper hand we liked best. Our shared vices ensured all was well; good wines, good food, marijuana, films, occasional cigarettes, coffee and of course, plenty of generous sexual intercourse.

So, one Saturday night, about three and a half weeks in, when our sexual familiarity had shifted up another gear, on the wings of two bottles of wine, having just finished a savage joint, we fell to dizzy fondling. I felt sloppy and submissive and was positively aching for a noisome wallow.

“Bedroom,” said Charlotte in caveman-like contrast to her recent discourse on Scandinavian cinema.

“Get yer kit off,” I said, standing from the couch like Superman in a mobile strip.

We made straight for the bed and feasted on what was revealed. My head was spinning in the wake of the last few tokes, yet salvation came in the form of utter commitment to pleasure, freeing my mind from all fear of nausea.

Ten minutes later I was on my knees, thrusting like a demon. Charlotte’s hair clung sticky to her back and I watched closely as the skin slid palely across her bone and muscle. Her shoulders were hypnotic; thin yet unyielding, feminine but by no means frail. The narrow isthmus from her hips to her ribs became the playground for my hungry eyes. There was grunting and sighing and no hint of holding back. I was thrilling now in all forms of sensual pleasure; muscles and joints, warm with exercise, hard as a rock, and shoulders prickling with sweat. The droplets gathered on my forehead and chest and my hands became slippery with rivulets of humidity.

Then, it happened.

I began lifting from the scene, entranced by the rhythm. The more I shovelled, the more I sweated, the more I became detached from what I was doing. My brain had been running with a sexual discourse – give it to her, thrust you ape, you barbarian, you baboon, shove and push and yes, that’s the way – the dirty talk of the lustful mind on the job in a post-porn world; only now a new voice began to emerge as I forgot somehow what I was doing and focussed instead on the motion alone in which I was caught. Soon, through its aerobic continuity, through its meditative intensity, through the driving, cardiovascular mesmerism, I lifted away altogether and began giggling inaudibly. A gate had opened and in rushed a thousand thoughts.

Fast upon the heels of a blinding flash of butterscotch came a Shakespearian figure gesticulating wildly, like a man in a blender trying to get out. Now he was happy and declaiming how so. He was chuckling and robust; a young and trim Falstaff in belching pantaloons; poignard and rapier slung from his gyrating hips. About him cowered all the trivialities; sun and moon and stars, diminished by his cheerful bombast; about his feet, the faces of a sunken audience; admiring, worshipping. As musical notes flowed physical from his lips, it soon became clear that these were the hopeful delusions of the man himself. Yet, who was he?

Before me the isthmus, the skin sliding upon bone and meat and cartilage; the silk screen for these vibrant scenes. And in my mind still far from the geography before me, this Bardic gent stood proffering his baroque exhortations and entertainments. Now he was on a street corner, unleashing his smiling rhetoric against some wrong-doers in a window opposite above a convenience store; making bold and heroic a petty disagreement. Now he was on the steps of the town hall, addressing a protest, rousing a hundred thousand cries against injustice.

Who was this jester, this troubadour, this raconteur? Who was this thespian, this demagogue, this chanteur? Who was this baroque minstrel?

I pondered these matters; thrusting, dripping, adjusting my grip; smirking, then broadly smiling. I began to giggle again, only this time there was no restraint. My amusement had been steadily growing and now ripened with hilarity. Who was this baroque minstrel? A vision of him quaffing a tankard and leering through a hundred songs of mirth destroyed my equilibrium. I erupted with laughter, spittle flying towards the wall, slumping forward, arms weakening, staggered in rhythm, divorced from sensuality by this intense distraction from what had begun as engulfing indulgence.

“What?” said Charlotte, turning in an attempt to look at me.

“Sorry, sorry,” I gasped, out of breath.

The beat was lost, but so used to the motion had I become that I did not stop altogether.

I laughed again.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

“Nothing, honestly. I was just enjoying myself so much it seemed almost ridiculous.”

I let my weight go fully forward and kissed her perspiring shoulders. We collapsed loosely to the mattress. I still did not wish to stop and continued with a few slow pushes. Charlotte pressed against me eagerly, yet we had come down several gears.

“Go on, then, what were you laughing at?” she asked.

“I don’t even know, honestly. It was just random. This pot is quite out there, I have to say. Maybe that was it. Either way, sorry. I felt so good it made me laugh.”

“It’s just a bit disconcerting when the person rogering you starts laughing to themselves behind your back,” she said.

“Sure, sure, I can imagine,” I said, still slowly grinding away. “I know it’s a bit ludicrous. But it had nothing to do with you.”

“Well I hope no one else was involved.”

“Ha! Touché. No, no, there was no one else involved.”

“Just a few clowns by the sound of it… Good then,” she added. “Just keep your mind on the job in future, eh?”

I smiled at her playful reproach and picked up the pace again; needing to prove now that I was serious about the task at hand. And believe me I was, for sex with Charlotte was no mere thrust and bust fest, but rather a sensual hip-dance of a thoughtful and measured nature. It was energetic, but delicately nuanced; total, but not undiscriminating. We were, after all, just getting started.

That said, despite my genuine enthusiasm, after being so merrily off with the planets I had to find my way back to Charlotte through concentrated effort. I was afraid of laughing again. For all my off-hand dismissiveness, it had been deeply embarrassing. What was foremost on my mind, however, was the revelation of this new character and a new novel. Already I could see how to use him, and already I could see the title that would focus my mental keywords.

The Baroque Minstrel!

A Novel by

The Baroque Minstrel!

I needed to come quickly so I could go and make some notes.

______________________________________

 

The following day I was home by eleven and writing like a king. My mind felt slow and cloudy, yet a clear stream ran through to my fingers. I was banging out chapter one of The Baroque Minstrel! by The Baroque Minstrel!

It was a struggle at first to recall all my ideas and shape the burgeoning outline, but once underway I was mapping like Mercator.

It was Sunday and I had nothing to do other than my own work until Wednesday. So, when five o’clock came around and I had three thousand words and a brutaliste chapter outline, I phoned Charlotte to confirm prior plans for me to visit.

I bought the wine and while Charlotte cooked I rambled for an hour about The Baroque Minstrel. We talked over character, plot, subplot, voice, length, structure. My excitement had me on my feet the whole time, pacing the kitchen, waving my hands about in a manner not entirely unlike that of the Baroque Minstrel himself.

“If you want to make him a boastful, but lovably misunderstood genius, caught up in violent times,” said Charlotte, “Benvenuto Cellini is the first thing that comes to mind. Why not model him on that?”

“Zounds!” I cried, in the idiom of my new-found late Renaissance / early Baroque mindset. “What a brilliant idea.”

And it was a brilliant idea. I had spotted Charlotte for a potential muse the moment we first began talking, which had encouraged my initially outrageous boldness. Now I could see how it was paying off.

I took her hips in my hands and kissed her neck.

“You know you are truly wonderful, don’t you?” I said.

“Of course.”

An hour after dinner, we were in bed. We’d smoked a joint with dessert and had both been in the thick of it for some time, lacking any narrative cohesion. Yet, by the time we hit the sack, things were clearing up a tad.

As was the case the night before, we soon slid into the rhythms of pleasure and found a narrative in its vital, instinctive continuity. We flicked between foreplay and fullplay, our bodies soon wriggling with the grace of well-lubricated machines, and sure enough, as had happened the night previous, my mind set off elsewhere, beckoned by a certain antique proponent of unabashed minstrelsy.

The timing was very different. I was going down on Charlotte and working busily away. I’d learned by now that despite my every trick it took at least seven minutes to get her there, and after the first few minutes, when my tongue hit autopilot and my ears became focussed utterly on the notes of her breathing, hot blood pooling in my head, it was then that I entered the realm of the baroque.

Was this wrong, I wondered, to be off away with these thoughts? Why should I not combine work with pleasure? I had not slipped a moment in doing what I loved so much to do; playing her sighs like a bagpipe. This moment really is for her gratification, more so than mine, so why should my mind not be free to outline and to plot?

Having decided that The Baroque Minstrel was to be a retro-futuristic tragi-comedy with a touch of steam-punk, I needed to make people laugh as well as cry, and that meant conjuring funny scenes, a risky prospect considering my recent misdemeanour. Already, were they not otherwise engaged, there would have been a smile on my lips. So enamoured was I with my new creation that the very thought of the Baroque Minstrel tickled my fancy.

Just don’t laugh, I told myself, recalling those high school moments of being disciplined by a teacher and, in a fit of nervous panic, pissing myself to the worst possible effect.

And then, without any warning, I was off. I choked, I spluttered, and I came up laughing aloud. Straightaway the music died.

“Oh, Christ,” said Charlotte. “I was so fucking close!”

She sounded more exasperated than angry.

“Sorry, sorry,” I said.

“Why are you fucking laughing?”

“God knows, I just-”

“What’s with all the laughing all of a sudden?” She was up on her elbows, staring at me through a tangle.

“Hell knows. Perhaps it’s the pot. I dunno. I just started laughing.”

“You must have some idea why.”

“Not really,” I lied. “Maybe it’s just being down there, you know, there’s something intrinsically funny about it all.”

“Gee, that’s a relief. I thought it was pretty serious business myself. Next you’ll be telling me there’s something fishy going on.”

This really had me in stitches and I had to sit up fully to let the laughs out. Charlotte started chuckling too and then we both had a good old belly laugh at her prime piece of wit.

Yet, the interruption had occurred all the same, and when we finally got back to things I had to finish her off with my fingers, biting the pillow.

If only these thoughts would come to me in the daytime! I’d rarely had such clarity in conjuring scenes and characters. There sure was something fishy going on, but it was proving damned profitable for my work. The Baroque Minstrel’s revelations might be ill-timed, but they were pure gold. The major concern was of course, that if it went on much longer, it was going to throw a bloody great spanner into our love life.

______________________________________

 

By Tuesday I’d hit the wall with Chapter four and wondered where to go next. Nothing was coming and I needed my muse. Charlotte was busy with work and parental catch ups and I would not be able to see her until the following night. I wanted to run a few things by her and get her opinions, but it had to wait. Plus I hoped that if the circumstances were right, the Baroque Minstrel would reveal more of his secrets.

When Wednesday came around I was feeling desperate and dry. Nothing I wrote had any merit whatsoever and when I looked at the unfinished paragraph in front of me, it was lifeless and bloated; effete and unworthy. The motor was starting to stutter…

Come Wednesday evening I was over at her place in a flash. It was my turn to cook dinner and as we chopped and boiled and fried and drank in the kitchen, I let Charlotte in on my concerns about the overall structure. I didn’t want to get too far into the novel before realising I had to rework everything. Reworking was inevitable, but it would be nice to avoid a complete overhaul.

“I’m not sure what you should do,” said Charlotte. “Perhaps you should start with his childhood after all. Or, maybe with him looking back. With the final scene.”

“Mmmm, you see how I’m torn? It’s supposed to be an autobiography, but that would bug me since he’s going to die at the end. I need to know what I’m working towards.”

“I’m sure something will come to you.”

“I hope so. It’s stopped me dead in my tracks.”

Yet, as I had so slyly hoped, salvation was just around the corner. Sure enough, with uncanny timing, after dinner, going vigorously at it, the Baroque Minstrel appeared to me as we approached a much needed mutual climax.

This time, however, there was a different interruption.

“You’re not about to start laughing again, are you?” breathed Charlotte.

“No, no,” I pushed. “Not this time.”

Though my train of thought was broken, it proved a timely intervention. She had brought me back from an epic poem of the worst kind, which was just about to get uproariously funny. It was the way the Baroque Minstrel bunched up his cheeks and broadened his smile as he geared for his whimsical punchlines. I might well have laughed my guts out, but instead I drove on. My questions about the Baroque Minstrel had been answered, and I had gotten away with it.

For the rest of the week I was writing like a madman; five chapters, six chapters… Two weeks later I was pushing on into chapter nine.

It seemed I had mustered sufficient self control to stop myself laughing and was able now to enjoy the fruits of my labours. And there was a great abundance, let me tell you. The best ideas were bursting forth during our hypnotic couplings. It was a mantra, a meditation, freeing the mind from the present by making the present so heavenly it was not to be believed. Out it all came: plot, structure, dialogue, nuances, idioms, colours, tones…

Then one evening, four weeks after I’d first erupted with baroque chortling, with my head tipped back and my hands on Charlotte’s hips, working away like a piston as the Baroque Minstrel wound up a ribald song about politicians in the context of a Milesian farce, Charlotte caught my distant eye and her features grew perplexed.

She turned back to the bed-head and we pressed on regardless, yet I feared that questions were waiting the other side of climax.

Sure enough, returning from the bathroom and standing in the doorway with a cigarette, Charlotte turned serious.

“You seem very detached of late whenever we make love. Just before, when I looked at you, it seemed as if you were elsewhere.”

“Perhaps I was in Nirvana.”

I smiled with innocent mischief.

“Yes, well you didn’t seem to be in this room, that’s for sure.”

“Well then, I demand to know the name of that man you were just fucking.”

“Ha ha, very funny. No, I mean your face. You just looked… not vacant, but somewhere else.”

“God, I hate to think what sort of face I wear when I’m going hard at it.”

“You looked like you were engaged in some private joke. I thought you were going to burst out laughing again.”

“No, no. None of that.”

It was then that I made what was likely a dreadful mistake. Feeling relaxed and tired in the aftermath, I had dropped my guard and was not forecasting; not thinking six moves ahead.

“Actually, truth be told,” I said. “I was thinking about my novel.”

“Oh, were you just?”

“Yes. I often think about it during sex.”

God knows what was going through my mind, but in that moment of light-hearted naivety it struck me that sharing my secret might somehow alleviate the nagging guilt I felt at rejoicing so often in my mind’s absence from our copulation.

“How much? Like what sort of things?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes I just solve problems. I used to do it when I went running.”

She stood naked and beautifully sinuous; one arm folded across her breast, resting in the elbow of her smoking hand.

“When you went running? So hang on, remind me what we were just doing again? This isn’t Fitness First, you know.”

I laughed to bring things back to levity. I was too tired for an argument and wanted to avoid lengthy explanations at all costs.

“No, obviously, it’s different. But sometimes I guess I think about other things. Because it’s so pleasurable, I think.”

“That doesn’t make sense.’

“Doesn’t it? Crap.”

“But what sorts of things? I mean, god, are you thinking about… I don’t even know where to start.”

“No, it’s often surreal things, like images, broader ideas, funny things.”

“Why aren’t you thinking about me?”

“Of course I’m thinking about you, my lovely. You know how much I like you. But we all multitask these days. Give me a cigarette and come here for a cuddle.”

I managed to wriggle away from these questions by trivialising their import; but Charlotte was too prone to analysis to let it go altogether. We lay and smoked and I asked her about her work in more detail to keep the subject elsewhere.

The following evening, however, with her on top of me, she held down my shoulders, paused and asked me what I was thinking.

“I was thinking about you, and how attractive you are.”

“Good answer, but way too crawly to be true.”

She narrowed her eyes.

“What else were you thinking about? Mmm? Were you multitasking?”

“Umm, no, not at all.”

“Yes you were. I can just tell by the way your eyes were halfway between me and the ceiling.”

“Oh that’s just because I always stare over people’s shoulders during sex to avoid feeling self-conscious.”

She giggled at this.

“You’re so full of shit. Go on then, tell me what you were thinking or I’m going on strike.”

“Oh, god. Okay, I was, admittedly, also thinking about my novel. But it’s like that with novels. You could work on them twenty-four hours a day so you always feel like you should be writing them. Sometimes, you end up working all day, without even being near the computer.”

“Well, at least that’s closer to the truth. So tell me what you were thinking about. Exactly, I’m curious.”

Then she added hastily, “I promise I won’t be cross.”

“And then can we go back to fucking?”

“You mean, then can you go back to work? I suppose so.”

So I told her, what the hell, I told her every stupid thing that had been going through my head for the first hundred and one thrusts…

I finished up and we got back into the swing of it, but my concentration was broken on both things. I had to change position to avoid her gaze. I felt I had revealed too much.

For weeks I had been slipping away after sex to the bathroom, taking notes on the sly as I sat waiting to urinate, jotting down the ideas that had come to mind in hasty keywords on a notepad I would stash upon arrival behind the cistern.

This time, however, I gave up on any pretence of secrecy, took my notebook from the bathroom, lay down on the bed and began to take notes. I felt curiously annoyed at her inquisition. What did it matter if sometimes my mind was elsewhere? Was I not allowed to think freely? I didn’t ask her what she was thinking. Didn’t everyone’s mind wander during sex? I was annoyed because I loved her so much. That was it. It was only six weeks in, but we’d seen each other practically every day and there was no doubting the strength of feeling. This was the only thing so far that had caused me any annoyance, and it wasn’t even really her doing. Perhaps it was for that reason that I was so annoyed.

As I sat jotting down my notes, she looked at me with unsettling blankness. She was difficult to read, which made her so much more interesting. But right now I would have given everything to know what she was thinking, only, it seemed somehow rude to ask.

______________________________________

 

Oddly enough, thus began a brief period of bliss. Charlotte’s curiosity was engaged and there were no longer any secrets. She wanted me to share my thoughts with her – she wanted to be there, riding the wave I was on, hearing about the Sun Machine and the Purple Band, the Garfish, the Golden Pantaloons and the “Magic Poignard”, the forming of the Order of the Quills, the ghastly elephantiasis afflicting his noble sidekick…

It was a time of rare glory, which, like all golden ages, seems to last forever, but is over in a flash. I’d be giving it my all, really giving her one, and then I’d hit what I’d begun to consider the creative equivalent of “the pump” – an appropriately named phenomenon experienced by body-builders which is akin to an adrenaline and endorphin orgasm – and I’d start calling out the visions like a greyhound commentator.

“I can see the Baroque Minstrel! He’s in a hot air balloon with some minor royalty. He’s dumping sandbags, but instead of just chucking them, he’s upending them, full of lollies and cash! Now he’s holding a scroll, a tapering scroll unfurling as he embarks upon another epic!”

My eyes would roam all about, up and down her spine, focussing at length on her buttocks, drifting out the window to the red Cadillac which never moved, across the harbour where at dawn the haze of gold dust hung across the echoing quiet.

Then it just became too damned strange. I felt weird and, I can assure you, Charlotte felt even weirder. The increasing need for sensationalism was undermining the clarity of my vision and preventing me from working through the more mundane problems. My writing was becoming more colourful than I wanted. Tangents were creeping in and bloating the text. Unnecessary layers were thickening the book and for all its growing scope, it began to feel claustrophobic. It also irked me that I was dominating our encounters and the only fair response would have been to allow Charlotte equal scope for fantasy. Yet where would that leave the Baroque Minstrel? I wanted to keep the product of “the pump” all to myself.

So, after a couple of weeks I brought these baroque declamations to an abrupt halt. I pared back the story, scrapped a nascent subplot, cut out a few all too keen passages and more or less got back to basics. I hoped our fucking would somehow become less complicated as well, but in the weeks that followed, there came a new snag. Charlotte began to be suspicious of what was going through my mind. Why exactly was I now disguising my thoughts? Had they become unsavoury or in some way disloyal?

I decided then and there to play a wholly new card. I lied blatantly and told her that I had stopped thinking about the novel altogether during sex; that instead I was again relishing her pert bosom as it skipped around her ribs and glorying once more in moulding her buttocks with my greedy, grasping hands.

She wasn’t convinced by this explanation and began to press me in our extra-coital conversations with questions about the novel, just to see if she could in some way catch me out. In order to up the ante and prove I was back on track, I took a new approach and began muttering long streams of dirty thoughts. Out came all the porn monologues that had once flowed so freely through my rutting mind.

Under such circumstances I was hard pressed to retain my focus. I began to anticipate my looming expressions of detachment whenever a good idea was forming fully and to head it off with showpiece passion and theatrical grunting, culminating in an endless torrent of filth. It was cogitus interruptus of the worst kind. I was making no headway and found myself choking when I sat down to write. The ideas were forming on the crest of “the pump” but they nosedived into a sandbar of porn. I needed to find a solution.

I tried everything that came to mind. I began fantasising about other women in the hope that the synchronicity between act and fantasy would link the two more firmly so I might go back to fantasising about other things without looking as if I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. It was perverse logic, but I was desperate to make progress.

I conjured up old favourites; a girl I’d worked with twelve years ago in a deli, who one day had a tandoori handprint on her backside where she’d wiped herself on her white smock; a girl called Lauren in the first jazz mag I’d ever bought, pouting all frisky and Germanic; a woman I met at a bus-stop once who had liked the hat I was wearing. I fucked them all about town, no holes barred.

For a brief while I relished this wicked indulgence. Yet, apart from the crippling fact that I was still making no headway, I felt like a cheat. It was playing havoc with my conscience. I might look alright on the surface, but I was dirty inside. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just focus on Charlotte. Christ, I loved her, and god, was she ever tasty, but it had all become so complicated.

So my novel hit the wall and my agent was pissed. Charlotte was pissed because of the doubts underlying our sex-life; it had come to act misleadingly as a metaphor for our entire relationship. It might well seem as though our sexual relations were out of proportion to everything else, and they were, though they need not have been. I’m thirty seven and these days the sex usually just falls away in most relationships until it reaches an unexceptional frequency. As much as I love it, I can get by without it – without good conversation, the sex is never enough. The problem with Charlotte and I was that our sex had acquired baggage it should never have acquired; it had become a cause for suspicion and distrust. What seemed most ironic was that it was the best sex I’d had in a good many years – so good in fact that it induced hallucinations – whereas previously it had only been an issue when it was either alarmingly poor or bafflingly rare. In this case I both loved the sex and needed it for my work. I also felt an increasing need to make love to Charlotte as much as possible to prove to her that my mind was not elsewhere, all the while hoping I could get away with my mind being elsewhere. Dilemma, dilemma, dilemma. It was all the fault of the fucking Baroque Minstrel. No wonder he was laughing so much, he had the best view in the house. I looked eagerly forward to his demise.

______________________________________

 

“I’m sorry,” said Charlotte. “I just can’t. It might be ridiculous but that’s how it is.”

She wouldn’t look at me. She lay with her arms folded staring straight ahead.

“Well, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but it is fucking ridiculous.”

I got out of bed and stormed off to the kitchen. It was fucking ridiculous, even though I was acutely aware of exactly how much it was my fault.

This time it started with nothing. Or was it with everything? We were in good moods, Charlotte was tickling my cheek with her shrimp-sifting, platypus kisses and rodentine nibbles and things were about to get underway.

“So, another threesome then?” she asked.

“Hmmm?” I inquired, not entirely paying attention.

“Is the Baroque Minstrel coming as well?”

“Oh, I suspect so,” I said, with a jolt to my heart. It had become such dangerous territory.

“You know, you could bring someone else along,” I said.

“Oh, really? Male or female.”

“Well, it’s really up to you.”

“Should I be alarmed at your not being discriminating in this matter?”

“I don’t see why.”

“Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you for the last few days. I’ve had an idea for a novel that I wanted to run by you.”

“Oh, really? Do tell.”

“Well, maybe not now. But, you see, believe it or not, I started writing a novel last year and then put it aside. Since then I’ve felt sort of awkward about it – I guess because you’re a writer and if I was crap then it might make things difficult.”

“Maybe it’d actually be worse if it was really good. I don’t know if I could handle the competition.” I tickled her as I said this to indicate I wasn’t serious, though perhaps on a certain level I was.

“What do you mean?” she said, sounding fierce. “You’d prefer it if I was crap so you could feel superior all the time? Why does that not surprise me?”

“No, no, really I was just kidding.”

“No you weren’t. All your jokes are just thinly disguised criticisms. It’s when you’re so-called joking that I take you most seriously…”

Thus began the new ice age a few fringe scientists had so long been predicting. It was one of those terrible times in relationships when sourness colours everything rightly or wrongly. Charlotte’s criticisms were genuine and based to some degree in truth, while my defensive barbs were equally well founded. Yet, whereas we might well have joked about our differences or our areas of selfishness, few though they were, and gotten on with celebrating the many more things we had in common, indeed the many things which had caused us to declare at last that we were in love, these few negatives had blown clean out of proportion and come to dominate everything. Charlotte was overreacting, yet at the same time I kept saying things that could be construed as provocative; misconstrued, in my mind.

I went into enforced hibernation as the winter crept dryly in. We avoided all dialogue about the state of affairs and this allowed things to proceed with civility and tact at the very least. Yet, it appeared as though the damage might well be permanent and I despaired to think that a relationship, which, I hoped, had the potential for permanence, might collapse after only six months. I needed to clear my head and think more carefully about everything that had passed between us. Without wishing to ask for or genuinely believing in the benefits of a negotiated period of separation, I pleaded the encroaching end of the Baroque Minstrel and the need to knuckle down in order to buy some time.

On the subject of the Baroque Minstrel, fortunately, the rotten mongrel bastard was about to be polished off. For, despite all the mental anguish, mind games and fantasies, I had at last seen my way clear to the end of the novel.

Charlotte seemed happy to have some space as well. I hardly saw her for the last two weeks of May during which time I cancelled everything else and wrote all day. My discipline was back and I locked out the booze and the smoke to maintain my terminal charge.

And then, one Tuesday afternoon in early June, I put the Baroque Minstrel out of his misery. Down he went, fleeing from overwhelming numbers, caught by a backstab in a final drunken hoorah with neither his ego nor chivalrous bravery diminished one wit. The last sound to echo from the pages was the resonant clatter and hum of his lute as it banged to a wooden floor.

I phoned Charlotte immediately and told her that the Baroque Minstrel was done for. She sounded much more pleased to hear from me than she had when we spoke two nights previous. I was overjoyed at her cheery tone. I went straight over and she met me in the doorway in a shift. She looked as languid and sexy as ever; physically at ease and without the underlying tenseness of our last few encounters.

“I’m so happy for you,” she said, kissing me and making me so pleased that I blushed. “It’s been a lot of hard work.”

“It sure has.”

“I’ve been working on my own novel as well, you know, these last few days.”

“That’s marvellous!” I said. And so it was.

We moved inside and did not fuck around. We smoked a fat joint, went straight to bed and got right into things.

I couldn’t have been more pleased with the way things were turning out. Everything seemed just as it was at the start; both of us hungry and shameless. It had been at the back of my mind that completing my novel might bring about a change, but this was far better than I had hoped; with the Baroque Minstrel wrapped up, all the baggage was falling away. It made me realise just how insidious was his presence in Charlotte’s mind; having come to symbolise all her misplaced feelings of jealousy or inadequacy, just as he had come to embody my frustration and selfishness. I believed it was now possible for a full love renaissance to bloom; stripped of the distrust that had plagued us.

My eyes roved across the sheer delight of Charlotte. Not only did I love her, but I was free, at least for the moment, from the pressing worry about work. Our nascent romance had spawned the Baroque Minstrel and then been inextricably caught up with him. At last, cut loose, it was ecstatic in its own right.

I stepped up the pace and clutched the bed-head for extra strength and depth. Charlotte urged me on and my face stretched into a rictus of pleasure. I ploughed on; pelvis arching and sinking; my left hand clasping and my right propping her legs apart, her left leg hanging like a coat across my forearm. It was a magic fuck, hitting its strides and both of us gulping for breath.

Then, sweating and relishing the clench and strain in my tummy, my body turned liquid as I burst into “the pump”. My eyes were closed and our stomachs slid smoothly through our sweat, I was locked into the pace now, thrusting like a hydraulic engine, rocking back and forth like a feeding pigeon, and yet, as had happened so often in the past during “the pump”, my concentration was suddenly broken. For, with no apparent provocation, Charlotte began to giggle.

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Falconettied

This short story is based on an anecdote from an old friend. The story intrigued me when I first heard it, and I have since found it popping back into my head at the oddest of times. The natural response, as with recurring dreams, was to write it down, as I both remembered and imagined it…

 

Simon woke up in the dark. He couldn’t see anything at all. He was lying face down and he felt awful; dry mouth, headache, nicotine skin, half drunk and desperate to urinate. He raised his head and blinked twice. He still couldn’t see a thing, yet he could sense somebody nearby. He rolled onto his back and felt about on either side. To the left was the edge of a thin mattress, carpet, the leg of a chair. To the right he felt something warm; a back, another person.

“What?” said a voice. “Simon?”

“Yeah. Who’s that?”

“It’s me.”

“Who? Dom?”

“Yeah, it’s Dom.”

“Where are we?”

“I dunno, man. I can’t remember.”

Simon rubbed his eyes and tried to swallow.

“Do you know where the dunny is?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s down at the end of the hall. There’s like a glass door.”

“Sweet.”

Simon was lying under a sleeping bag, burning hot. The bag was designed for more capricious climes, but this was summer in Sydney. He peeled it back and stumbled up to his feet.

“I’m going for a piss,” he said.

“Yeah?” said Dominic. “I’m going back to sleep.”

Once on his feet, Simon looked about for the door. He could still only make out the barest outlines of shapes that remained indistinct. On the far side of Dominic he detected a thin slice of pale grey light. He figured it was the window, so the door was likely behind him.

He struck out his arms and began to feel his way forward. His leg bumped against a chair. He took hold of it and steadied himself, then stepped carefully around it. His bladder was bursting and his head was pounding. He felt drunk. He reached out again and felt a smooth, plaster wall. He slid his hand along it to the left until he struck a perpendicular ridge of wood. A doorjamb. Continuing over the ridge, his fingers found the stiles, panels and mullion of a wooden door. He moved his hand down to the lock rail and swept for the handle. Aha! There it was.

“This is tough,” he whispered.

Simon opened the door and entered the corridor. It was even darker than the room. There was nothing but static and fuzz before his eyes. So close was the blackness that he felt removed from himself; as if the dark had crept inside and pushed him out. It was dizzying, confusing. He leaned against the wall and felt suddenly very ill. He took slow, deep breaths until the nausea passed. Where the hell was he? Where on earth had he been?

He began to feel his way down the corridor, bumping a hung picture at his first attempt. He moved his hands lower, leaned on the wall and reached out a foot with precarious curiosity. He was barefoot. The floor was covered in rattan matting. He could even smell it through the sweat of beer and heavy reek of smoke in his stale nostrils.

He took another step forward, then another; using the wall as a guide to keep him going straight. The blackness was rearing and enveloping. The fluid shifting across his eyes sent ripples through the inky continuum. He felt a pearl of fear forming inside him that soon dissolved into frustration and anger. How had he wound up here? What was the last thing he remembered?

Simon stopped and patted himself down for a moment. He was wearing his jeans and a tee shirt; his wallet and soft-pack of cigarettes were still in his back pockets. What shoes had he been wearing? He was sure it was a pair of thongs. Then he remembered: sitting on a swing, kicking out his feet with his thongs dangling from between his toes. So he had been in the park. Only what park, where?

He pushed on down the corridor. His eyes were not adjusting as there was no light by which to adjust. The rattan massaged his feet. It was a pleasant, dry and soft sensation, but the occasional tickle of an upright thread gave him fright. He had trodden on Lego enough times to know the true meaning of pain.

Feeling ahead, he felt sure that he was approaching something, or was something approaching him? He stopped, afraid, sure there was something there. What was it that made him know? Did his eyes see something his mind could not process? Was it some sixth sense that blind people had mastered, a combination of hearing, touch and scent? Perhaps a sense of the movement of the air around objects? Was he merely being paranoid?

He took another step, sure there was something in front of him. Then he felt it – a glass door! A glass door with a thin, fine wooden frame. He stopped and ran his hands across the cool, smooth panels, finding his way to a handle. It was a curiously thin and narrow door, an odd choice for a toilet. When he found a second handle it all made sense; it was a double door, two tall, narrow doors opening outwards.

Simon pulled on both of the small knobs, opened the doors and took a tentative step forward. Bang! Rattle! His knee struck something hard and the world shook with the clink of crockery. An object slid along a wooden surface and landed, rolling and ringing. It was a plate settling on a shelf. He had walked into a china cabinet.

“Fuck,” said Simon. “This is bullshit.”

Nothing fell to the floor. What a fright it had given him! Simon exhaled at length and took a deep breath. His heart was racing and he flushed freshly with sweat. He closed the doors and reached around the cupboard, finding his way back to the wall. He was at the end of the corridor where it seemed to take a small turn across an open doorway. Through the opening he detected pale moonlight falling across a table. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought it must be the kitchen. If it was the kitchen, then perhaps he could take a piss in the sink. He gave this idea some thought, but, standing there on the threshold, he smelled the bathroom to his right. It was the coolness of the air and a mild whiff of Harpic loo cleaner; a faint hint of Pine-o-clean. It reminded him of the retsina he’d drunk at his Greek mate’s birthday.

He felt ahead, sure now that he could see something at last. Before him were two tall, oblong panels of frosted glass, grey-lit with pale, filtered moonlight. How could this place be so dark? Were they living in a burrow? Were they hobbits? He inched forward, felt for the handle, opened the door, reached forward with his foot and felt cold tiles beneath his feet. At last he had found the bathroom. A moment later he found the light and, closing his eyelids against the expected, punishing glare, flicked it on.

Five minutes later, relieved, watered, blinded and with a throbbing head, leaving the bathroom light on to show him the way, Simon retraced his steps and went back to sleep on the floor beside Dominic.

___________________________________________

“Si, wake up, man. Wake up.”

Dominic was leaning over him, shaking him by the shoulder.

“What is it?” asked Simon. He was startled. He looked up, unwillingly alert, his mouth uncertain. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, man. It’s just morning. We should get out of here. I don’t even know where I am.”

Simon relaxed, flopped back to the mattress.

“Jesus. I feel like shit.”

“Yeah, I feel pretty special as well,” said Dominic. He stepped back and Simon lifted up his head again. It was heavy, woozy.

“So where the hell are we? Can’t you remember getting here?”

“Man, I can’t remember a thing,” said Dominic. Then he laughed. “Pretty classic, huh?”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

Simon sat up, resting on his hands. He rubbed his face and knuckled his eyes.

“So what is the last thing you remember?”

“I remember being in Centennial Park,” said Dominic. “Then we went off with William, but I can’t remember where. Like a bar or something. I remember being in a taxi, but I don’t remember getting into it, or where I got into it.”

“Man, that’s more than I can remember,” said Simon. “The last thing I remember is sitting on a swing. It must have been Centennial Park.”

He laughed in recollection. “Hang on, that’s right. I remember Luke having a full-on spew. He was going for a massive chuns between his legs. That’s fully the last thing I remember.”

“It’s weird.” said Dominic. “Did we meet some other dudes or something? Some chicks? I reckon I’d remember if we met some chicks.”

“Yeah, me too. But then, you’d reckon you’d remember whose joint you were staying at.”

“Wherever we are,” said Dominic, “let’s get out of here.”

“Have you got all your stuff?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Simon stood up and looked about him. Dominic had lifted the dark blinds and indirect sunlight flooded the room. They were in a lounge room, not a bedroom. A thin double mattress had been placed on the chunky, fluffy carpet. There was a television, lounge-setting, coffee table, magazines, a cabinet. It looked like a family home.

“Must be someone’s parents’ place, I guess.”

“Yeah, but hell knows who.”

They looked at each other, laughed, groaned, shook their heads.

“Well, let’s make a bale then,” said Simon.

“For sure.”

Simon and Dominic stepped out into the corridor. It was windowless, with a heavy wooden door at the end. Curious, they walked in the other direction, towards the china cabinet and the bathroom. They could smell breakfast cooking and hear the sound of a radio. It was Sunday morning and Australia All Over was on the ABC. They smelled bacon, eggs, toast and grilled tomato. Simon’s mouth watered and his stomach yawned. He could almost taste the orange juice.

At the end of the corridor an arched opening led into a spacious kitchen. Simon and Dominic shuffled nervously under the arch to survey the scene. There before them, sitting on a beanbag by a long, low wooden table, was an enormously fat man. Opposite him, standing by a stove, was a gigantically fat woman working a frying pan. Beyond them lay an open door and overgrown backyard. They did not recognise these people at all.

“Good morning,” said the man and woman. “Did you have a good sleep?”

“Yeah, yeah, thanks,” said Simon.

“Just fine,” said Dominic.

“You’re just in time for breakfast,” said the lady at the stove. “Can I tempt you with bacon and eggs?”

Simon and Dominic both looked to each other, each expecting his friend to make a decision. They frowned and aspirated, cheeks bunching, eyes opening, but found no answers. Then Simon spoke:

“Nah,” he said. “I think I’m alright.”

Despite his rapacious hunger, he felt an urge to get away. He was only seventeen and was not completely comfortable sitting down to eat with strange adults.

“Yeah,” said Dominic. “Me too, I guess. I better get on home.”

“There’s plenty there if you want it,” said the man on the beanbag. “Baked beans, eggs, bacon, the lot. Even some saussies if you like.”

“Nah,” said Simon, “thanks very much for the offer, but I better get on home to mum.”

“Alright then. You don’t mind if I don’t get up, do you? The front door’s just at the end of the hall.”

“Yeah, we can find it alright,” said Dominic. “Thanks for putting us up.”

“No trouble at all,” said the man.

The lady by the stove was smiling at them.

“Look after yourselves,” she said, waving with the spatula.

“Yeah, thanks,” said Simon. “Right then, see you later.”

Mr and Mrs… ? In his quick scan of the kitchen he had not seen anything to make plain whose parents these people were. No family photos on the fridge, no framed family portraits. Were they even someone’s parents? They hadn’t mentioned a son or daughter when they might have done. Simon felt too embarrassed now to ask, and despite the burning curiosity, he had already excused himself and wanted to be out in the open air. With a final nod and a wave, they turned and walked to the front door.

___________________________________________

Simon and Dominic stepped out into a long, treed street. It looked like somewhere in the eastern suburbs, though they did not recognise exactly where. They glanced about, stared at the front of the house, walked to the middle of the street and stood staring down it. Most of the houses were terraces, but there were also bungalows and unit blocks. Moreton Bay figs lined the street, their branches reaching from one pavement to the next and forming a continuous canopy. It might have been Bondi, Bronte, Woollahra, Paddington, Coogee. Neither Simon nor Dominic could quite tell which, if any.

There was hardly any traffic so they walked along the middle of the road. It was a warm summer morning; the temperature already up in the mid twenties. Simon looked at his watch. It was just after nine o’clock.

“Where are we?” mused Dominic. “Bellevue Hill?”

“Nah, I know it too well,” said Simon. “I reckon it could be Vaucluse, or Rose Bay. Actually, screw it, I wouldn’t have the faintest.”

“It’s gotta be the eastern suburbs for sure,” said Dominic.

Simon pulled a bent cigarette from his battered packet. He offered one to Dominic.

“Have a smoke, to make the bus come.”

They both lit up and kept walking in the warm, patchy sunshine. Before they had reached the next intersection, only half way through their cigarettes, a vacant taxi turned into the street. Dominic spotted it first and hailed it.

“Where you boys going?” asked the driver, pulling up.

“To Bondi Junction, I guess,” said Simon, looking at Dominic.

“Yeah,” said Dominic, “I can get home from there.”

Sitting in the back of the cab, the two young men turned their attention to piecing the evening back together. Starting with a rendezvous at the Paddington Green hotel, they recalled moving on to the RSL, to the Imperial Hotel and, finally, up to Centennial Park. Beyond that, however, they could make no further headway.

“There might have even been a couple of other stops in between,” said Simon.

“It’s a fair way to walk without a pit-stop. We’ll have to ask Luke and Willie.”

With their attention focussed on the task of reconstruction, Simon and Dominic failed to note the streets through which they were driving. When, after ten minutes, the taxi emerged onto New South Head Road, they were so relieved to be in familiar territory that they forgot to ask from where they’d come. Three minutes later they paid the driver and stepped out into Bondi Junction.

They were both exhausted and sat down on the pavement to bask in the sun.

“Why didn’t we ask the bloody driver?” said Simon, lighting up another desultory cigarette. “About where we were.”

“I dunno, mate,” said Dominic. “My brain just isn’t working.”

“Geez,” said Simon, rubbing his temples, “I’ve got such a savage hangover. What a shocker.”

“Yeah, tell me about it. We must have been completely smashed last night.”

“I was a total goner,” said Simon. “Judging by the damage report, I must have been fully falconettied. Done like an Italian vendetta.”

“Falconettied, aye?” said Dominic. “That’s one of William’s isn’t?”

“Yeah,” said Simon, “it’s a gem of a word. I reckon it sums things up pretty good.”

“I reckon,” said Dominic, reaching out for a drag of Simon’s cigarette. “There’s no two ways about it; we must have been seriously falconettied.”

In the days that followed, despite questioning everyone they could recall taking part in the events of that evening and following all leads there from, Simon and Dominic were unable to determine where they had stayed. The query burned brightest in Simon, who continued to look for answers in the months that followed. Though he eventually gave up asking, he never gave up hoping that the mystery might one day be solved in a chance encounter or remark. That was twenty-two years ago, and often, walking through the eastern suburbs of Sydney, with their broad, tree-lined streets, he still wonders at the provenance of his hosts.

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