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Clue Five (Duncan Felton)

16 May

I’m hunchbacked over keys, typing faster than electricity, and I’m melting into the couch and the clackettyclackettyclack is the erratic rhythm of everything and everything is about to come together when a subtle sound (‘fftt’) jabs my reverie. I swivel my neck, possessed, looking for the sound. My eyes laser to the sliver of blue hall-light under the door. A sudden white rectangle slid there also. I clamber over the back of the couch, scamper over electronic, organic and uncategorised waste. An envelope. No address, just two words: CLUE ONE. Grasped. No contents. From that, my first and last case begins.

My apartment: an office. I make a sign bearing ‘P.I.’ and affix it to the desk/couch, then venture out into the aqueous corridor, to the garbage disposal. The two-doors-down lady across the hall, she doorway glares, all curlers and stareful judgement circuits, bags of fluid. I size her up with detective instinct to instantaneously decide she knows nothing and so hiss at her. Slam. Well, good. I investigate the chute, peering down darkness. Nothing. Process of elimination rocketing to victory. Scuttling return to office, shifting eyes, swipe my card and enter, almost slipping on another rectangle, deposited while my back wasn’t watching.

Horizontal, I later lay in wait, forehead to doorjamb, eyeballs moist and freshly peeled, scanning up and down the glowing hall sliver.  But: fruitless.  I reluctantly hobble off to excrete stench into my cubicle. Awaiting my return, secreted into my cleared sentryway is yet another accursed postal infiltration. Clearly a well-matched adversary, pending nemesis. Roll the dice, make a move, hide, seek, repeat.  I hold my poor poker player hand triptych and consider the portents of their contents. CLUE ONE: empty. CLUE TWO: ‘get out’. CLUE THREE: ‘or else’. Certain of warning and meaning in the envelopes, I deduce espionage.

Constant beyond shutters, dark hours hurtle into light relentless, like the insect vehicles below far.  My cybersearch yielded little, my calculation literature: inconclusive, but I hesitate to look further than askance. Through the dim, I  sustenance slurp from tins of oiled cabbagefruit, keep attuned with high-vol rumblewave. Perseverance. But the peeking mystery morning prickles my retina, vicegrips my mindmince. A vendetta to sleuthtaunt, sinister epistles, communiques of gumshoe confoundment, slow beckon, stupor greyout. I awaken in sixth-sense seizure. CLUE FOUR arrived as I snored. ‘Final Warning’: the fine-fonted memo within. My clockwork jigsaw conundrum clicks and whirrs, self-constructs revelatory panorama.

It’s that trickly hepcat downhall: Klaus Dagmar! With his cursive whiskers, typographical spectacles and poisonous flares – Nemesis! Incipient checkmate, elaborate takedown. Finally: hallbound. I go to grapple with his doorbell, with bundled documents, holstered eviction drafts. But affixed beneath his door numerals: CLUE FIVE. Prodigal evidence. Victory grin. Momentary clutched, then taloned apart. I blindburst inhale a choke of white. Spore scrabble, hollering revulsion, jarring bellowing enemy mirth behind doors. Headpipes sizzling, tumbling elevator evac, whooshing earthbound, spluttering apocalyptic.  My initial mission: de-mystery. Now: pending detective infection hospitalisation bracket incognito vagabond eviction peripatetic itinerant endbracket. End investigation. Ever-closed case.

Calculations (Elizabeth Bryer)

9 May

The alarm goes off early morning, and in her dream she is thrust into a hospital as the monitor of a ghostly someone makes the piercing sound of a heart stopped. It’s been ten years since she found her father cold on the kitchen floor and yet still her sleeping mind throws up such things.

After fumbling with the clock she reaches for the warm body beside her and, when she finds him, burrows her face into his chest until he slips an arm across her back. It’s only after they have breakfasted and showered and he has left for work that she is struck by something: for some time now she has been sleeping on the left-hand side of the bed. No longer the tangle of limbs, no longer the rolling apart while dreaming to a different side each night.

She checks beside the bed and it’s as she suspects: her books are piled there, a few pairs of earrings lie there, her hair ties are scattered there. And, on the right-hand side, on the floor, are his things: three DVDs, a scarf, some socks. She stands there a moment—freshly showered, freshly kissed goodbye—and wonders at her alarm.

The coffee she brews finishes what the shower began; after downing it, she sits at her desk to start today’s accounting job, alert. But she is also restless, oddly, so after an unproductive hour she scrounges around for a scarf and, not finding one, grabs his (from the floor beside his side of the bed) before hurrying outside.

She finds herself heading to the supermarket but once there she can’t think of anything they need and so doesn’t go through the glass doors when they part for her. She encounters some women spilling out of a cafe, loose limbed and giggly, the bubbling of their conversation punctured with laughter. She finds herself smiling in their wake. And then comes, just as abruptly, the dread of the dream made fierce by memories of her father (his careful explanations to her queries; his drawing her attention to the beautiful orderliness of numbers; his sudden, brutal abandonment). She’ll have to change the tone on her alarm clock.

When she returns home she brews another coffee and gets back to work. She relaxes into the comfort of the figures behaving as she expects them to, the symmetry and rhythm of her calculations and, finally, a perfectly exact balance sheet.

But she finishes early and the solace fades. She distracts herself by googling around until she remembers something she vaguely considered reading once. She decides she must search for that book right away. She finds it; it’s cheap; she means to buy it. She clicks through the payment-details pages, hoping that the knowledge of a purchase in the mail will help ease this creeping discomfort.

‘Ship to same address? Yes / No’

She stares at the question a moment and then hesitates before making a move to click ‘Yes’. She checks the clock. One hour until he’s home. He is perfect in every way—she can’t remember a time when someone made her happier—and now they have their own sides of the bed.

‘Ship to same address? Yes / No’

She stills her breathing and makes a final calculation: x + y = z, where x = love, y = loss and z = grief. The chance of y, she knows, is much greater than most people imagine. And the only way to avoid z in the case of y occurring is to stifle x before it grows too deep.

She closes the laptop and goes into the bedroom, where she pulls her clothes from the wardrobe and starts shoving them into a suitcase. If she finishes quickly, she can make the break before the sight of him melts her resolve.

Scenes from Orbital Brides: The Lady’s Request (Daniel East)

25 Apr

A cream-coloured door with two deadbolts ajar; through it walks a young woman in blue trackpants, her strawberry-blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, three shoeboxes in her hands, nails unpainted. She enters a room to the left of shot. A man in jeans climbs three front steps, boxes obscuring his face. Bumps into the doorframe, swears, then walks toward camera down the hall and exits to the right.

PAN LEFT. Scuffed floorboards, high wooden ceilings, lopsided venetians, a citrus tree and a fence.

‘You okay?’

‘Ran into the door.’

‘Be careful, honey.’

‘Yeah yeah.’

More boxes, a purple futon, another doorway leading to a linoleum kitchen.

CUT TO: the woman is standing at the sink, kettle boiling, stacking plates into the cupboard, hanging spoons on a cutlery tree. She wipes beads of sweat from her neck. Turns around, opens the uncurtained window, stops. Her face hardens, softens, her top lip twitches.

‘Tom?’ With urgency. ‘Tom!’

BACKYARD: two eucalypts, a steel Hills hoist and a clearing beneath it in which can be seen a tribe of tiny aborigines. They hunt through the lawn, pushing through overgrown buffalo grass with twig spears. Thumbnail-sized babies suckle at freckle-sized breasts, mothers crosslegged under the wavering shadow of the clothes line.

The couple on the back verandah. Tom scratches at the wristband of his watch.

‘Come on in, Jen. I’ll call the real estate in the morning.’

Jennifer’s hair is pulled over one shoulder like a question mark.

LOUNGE ROOM. TIME LAPSE: Tom moving through the room, boxes appear and disappear, Jen huddled on the couch, on the phone, then with a cup of tea, an argument, a cuddle – behind the futon, the lemon tree glows green, yellow, purple, now the window mirrors the room. Time lapse over, they eat a pizza from the box.

‘What do they want?’

‘Babe, don’t worry. Eat my artichoke.’

‘I don’t want it.’

They are lying in bed. She is staring at the ceiling. He mumbles in his sleep. A windy night, trees whistle, sirens wail, midnight to predawn to sunrise.

FLASHCARD:THE NEXT MORNING

A cluster of chest-high skyscrapers, paddocks of clover extending from the suburbs to the soil quarries by the back door. A red helicopter swoops past the space needle. She speaks with choked pauses.

‘It all looks so small from up here.’

‘They’ll send someone out this afternoon.’ He goes inside.

FLASHCARD: THAT AFTERNOON

The suburbs deserted, shattered glass and overturned cars. Burnt homes like teeth with the crowns rotted through. Fields empty and torched. Cables reach up to the arms of the Hills hoist, red and green lights affixed to the four cross beams. He stands alongside, rubbing her shoulders. She puts her ringless left hand on his to cease his idle movement and says:

‘Tom. I want a baby.’

The Waiting (Elizabeth Bryer)

6 Apr

She sits quietly, ankles and knees pressed together, hands settled neatly into her lap on the faded flower print of her tired dress. She is not going anywhere but would much prefer to be and indeed imagines she is, even though in her imagination it is not to somewhere but to someone. That would be preferable to this waiting that gnaws at her as it has for long years past.

She unfolds and refolds her hands.

There is a glossiness to her eyes that could be hope, but could just as well be the pain of memory and its fixedness, its fact, threatening to overwhelm. She hears children before they come into view, their glee tumbling ahead of them. She notices without contempt that they quieten their chatter as they hurry past her house, and she wonders if they think she is a witch. If her frailty, unkempt appearance, crinkly skin and lonesome existence reveal that her broom has aspirations far above sweeping the floor and that her kitchen cradles a cauldron.

She wonders this as she sits on the veranda, bones creaking gently, waiting with glossy eyes as she has for many years. But above all what she wonders, as she has wondered countless times, is this: Can what I am doing be called waiting when I was the one who left?

Ghosts I and II (Sarah St Vincent Welch)

3 Mar

I

Ghosts shift by the road in the moonlight, standing in line, alert.

A collision with a kangaroo is not only unpalatable to the kangaroo but is expensive to the motorist with the average panel-beating cost estimated at approximately $3000.

It was as if I dreamed his dying while half asleep in the front room, listening to him roll over in the gutter, lifting and dropping his tail. My ghosts called to him and let him in; I tried to wake. I heard the ranger come with her winch, her gun, her soft voice, and I continued to dream, listening to him still, even though she’d taken him away.

Foot length was used to estimate age in preference to head length because of the difficulty of obtaining consistent measurements of head length from multiple field staff. Leg length was not used because of the high incidence of broken legs in macropod road-kills.

Dogs lick blood off metal.

There were large and statistically significant differences in kill rates between different moon phases, seasons, and between males and females for immature animals.

I just collected him. Saw him in my lights. A little one. He hit the bonnet, then the roof, and I kept driving, while holding my boy’s hand.

II

In the 1960s in country New South Wales churches were open every day, any time you visited them. We’d pull up, grind up the dirt roads and swerve round potholes, our dust rising over the gentle church—open for us— light behind it, an overexposed photo in my mind.

I touched the font. I touched the holy water, the pews. I touched the organ, pulled the stops. I wasn’t allowed to touch the cross. Flowers on the altar wilted mid-week. We signed the Visitors’ Book. My father kneeled, bobbed and crossed himself. My mother’s aching knees would not let her worship. And out the back—the graveyard—our destination.

I loved the babies’ gravestones. In the arms of Jesus, a month, or only a year old, I calculated. Jesus said, Suffer the little children to come unto me. ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild, look upon a little child, pity my simplicity.’

White moulded flowers in wire mesh. Broken headstones. My father rubbed the words with chalk to reveal the names, the dates, the dedications, the shallow grooves in the worn out stone.

My mother says I’d lean over from the back seat and whisper, ‘Drive on, there’s another graveyard, don’t let him see it,’ as my father slept. I don’t remember it that way. I remember graveyards, their dirt in my mouth and under my nails, and the child ghosts I met, and wish now we’d stopped at every one.

Dad parked the car on an empty road and kissed Mum under the mistletoe (or what they called the mistletoe) a heavy parasite hanging from the Stringy Barks. I pretended to sleep in the back.

In the 2000s, New South Wales’ country churches are locked against vandals, their Visitors’ Books closed.

In Bendigo, Victoria, my little boy and I visited a Chinese temple. Shadows touched the red and gold walls. The year before we came the ancestor scrolls were smeared with shit and burned. He counted the remaining scrolls, practising his numbers.

We believe in ancestors, believe in ghosts.

***

Report text from LIVING WITH EASTERN GREY KANGAROOS IN THE A.C.T. – PUBLIC LAND THIRD REPORT TO THE MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT, LAND AND PLANNING A.C.T. KANGAROO ADVISORY COMMITTEE October 1997

Eight Rules for Making Fire (Shane Strange)

29 Feb

  1. I watch him through the kitchen window as he cuts the wood, outside, in the cold morning.  He has his back to me. I watch as he braces his legs and raises the axe over his head and, with two arms, brings the axe down.  In my mind’s eye I can see the muscles flex and contract in his back, the tendons in his legs strain, the muscles on the side of his neck widen beneath his scarf.  Mists roll in the valley. The mountain is covered in a grey veil. When the sun rises higher it will burn off the mists. And through the day, the shadow of the mountain will meander across the valley before darkness again.
  2. He is the bear man – a big, slow man. I am the tiny bird: the sparrow; the wren.  My life burns away faster than others. I flutter.  My heart beats fast against my chest. When he opens his arms, I fall into his paunch, and he wraps his arms around me and folds his claws together at the nape of my neck.
  3. I imagine that he has become an adept, a scholar, a high priest of being with me:  versed in my moods and emotions. I should be grateful, but his levelness, his steadfastness, his reliability have all been used at times in judgement of me. We have had mighty battles. No quarter has been given. More than once, we have verged on dissolution. In this way we have mapped our tendernesses.
  4. Some days we walk long into the property, him and me, tracing cattle tracks, noting rusted barbed wire fences and tiny gullies of eroded soil. There is a forest of eucalypt trees and low scrub down the mountain and into the valley.  The trees are silent and shambolic, with gnarled branches tapering into the sky as if seeking fissures in the air.
  5. Once, we discovered an old house down beyond the forest. A solid, brick chimney stood alongside foundation stones: the outline of a home. Inside the area that the foundation stones described, he found an old tin can and a solid piece of rust-coated metal that he said was a tool of some kind. Near the chimney I found the rim of an old pot, a china cup handle, a bone. I stuck my head inside the chimney. The back was stained dark – charred bricks crumbling. In a shadow in the back corner something shone for a moment, and without thinking I reached my hand in to grasp the shiny thing. It was a tiny spoon, stained green and black, such as might be used to feed a child or a baby. ‘Be careful,’ I felt his hand between my shoulders. I stepped out and he pointed up to the top of the chimney where a brick teetered out over the edge, ready to fall. We walked back through the trees and along the cattle tracks in silence. He carried the metal tool with him, and I held the spoon in my pocket, tightly and secretly, rubbing its bowl with my thumb.
  6. As I make lunch, I watch him working on the wood shed from the kitchen window.  I watch him saw wood with a handsaw on an old wood horse, and drill nails with a hand drill, and sand down boards with sandpaper wrapped around an off cut block of wood. I know at the end of the day he will have exhausted himself, and I worry that he overdoes it. But he is strong. He is always strong.  At the table in the kitchen, we eat in silence.
  7. In the evenings, he and I eat on a small table in the lounge room.  After we finish he clears the table and washes the dishes while I sit in an armchair with a glass of wine, staring into the fire.  I always let him deal with the needs of the fire. I like to pretend it is a mystery that only he is privy to. I hear the chink and splash of dishes as he washes them in the water. He hums to himself while he cleans: croaky and low.
  8. The fire is like a hand that holds me, and a hand that crushes the wood into bright embers. The wine is having an effect. I can feel it drawing down my throat, like a long cold wire. White smoke is being drawn upwards into the chimney and away across the mountain. It is the smoke that chokes us, never the fire. What is this place we are in? This place of quiet trees, waiting for fire.

Do You Remember? (Laurie Steed)

17 Feb

It’s fifteen years since the accident and the guy who fell off the ute is back on track. He’s got a job at DPC and has coffee-drinking competitions with a blond-haired, blue-eyed guy called Adam Eisenberg from Ontario, Canada.

I agree to meet the guy and Adam at an Irish pub in Northbridge because it’s Friday night and I’ve got nothing better to do. The guy says he needs to go to the toilet and leaves me with Adam Eisenberg, who asks where all the girls are:

“They’re all around you,” I say.

“Not these girls. The girls.”

“You mean women?”

“The girls out west,” he says, like I know what he’s talking about.

Further discussion reveals that Girls out West is a porn site where bored girls take their pants off in storerooms, parks, and outside abandoned houses. I say it sounds creepy and Adam says it should be but it’s not.

“Who’s your favourite?”

“I like Chloe,” he says.

“Who’s she?”

“Chloe,” he says, “is dynamite.”

He tells me about a particular photo shoot; she’s wearing a green coat but then she takes off the coat and she’s wearing nothing underneath. She lays down in the grass and starts playing with herself. “You can see the houses over the fence,” says Adam. “They’re just in some park somewhere and she’s playing with herself, with like dildos and shit. It’s wild.”

“So what makes her so special?” I say.

“You ever seen a girl, wanted to be with her, in her?”

“Mm.”

“Well that’s it,” says Adam. “Come on, let’s blow this joint.”

I know I came with the guy who fell off the ute but he’s nowhere to be seen. I remember a bouncer hauling someone out and we both said “Taxi,” and then I laughed so hard that beer came out of my nose.

It’s fifteen years to the day since the accident. I know this is not where I’m supposed to be but my brain doesn’t work so well anymore. The guy, his brain doesn’t work so well either. He padlocks his water bottle, he can’t drive a car and he takes his PlayStation 3 plug with him when he leaves the house because he’s sick of his sister using his things.

“The guy,” says Adam, “is my best friend. Well, when he shows up. Word is that he used to be a hell of a guy.”

“He is a hell of a guy,” I say. “You talk like that again, we’re going to have a problem.”

“Whoa, psycho. You got issues? You want to talk?”

“No,” I say, and take a swig of my beer.

“Better just to forget,” says Adam.

“What do you mean?”

“Sometimes we forget such important things,” says Adam. He takes a swig of his Corona. “Where’s the guy?”

“I don’t know. Shit, I honestly can’t remember what happened.”

“He said you forget things all the time.”

“It’s him; he forgets,” I say. “But he made me promise, I remember that. He made me promise to–“

“I need Chloe.”

“Shut up, you’ll make me forget.”

“She’s my girl.”

“Man, just put a…shit! I forgot.”

“It was Chloe. We were talking about Chloe.”

We weren’t talking about Chloe, I think to myself. We were talking about a day, and I was driving, and the guy was so happy. So happy to be free for the day, and I put my foot down on the accelerator and said hold tight, man. For God’s sake, hold on tight.

“Where are you going to live, anyway? You can’t stay at the hostel.”

“The guy who fell off the ute has me covered.”

I stare at him. “You call him that too? Why?”

“He doesn’t remember a thing before the accident,” says Adam. “Far as I can see, it was his Ahab.”

“His Ahab?”

“You know what I mean,” says Adam. “Big Fish. Drama. Crash bang chaos.”

We start walking home because that’s what you do with a guy who’s hopped up on Red Bull and Vodka and looking for a specific pair of tits.

“So why Chloe?” I ask again.

“She wants me,” he says. “It’s the way she looks at me.”

“She’s not real,” I say.

“Who’s real?” he says. “You got a forgetful friend with a fucking etch-a-sketch for a brain. Where is he, anyway?”

“He got kicked out of the club,” I say. “Quit yelling.”

“God, I love Chloe,” he says. “She reminds me of Angela.”

“Who’s Angela?”

“She used to be my girl.”

“She dumped you, right?” I say.

“And who are you, Mister know-it-all?” says Adam. “I asked the guy who fell off the ute. He says he doesn’t even know you.”

“I knew him before the accident,” I say. “His name’s Andrew. I picked him up to go off-road on his eighteenth birthday. And on the way to the hospital, I held the cloth to his head saying, “Please, please don’t die.’”

“You’re out of your mind. Fucking Australians,” says Adam and then sits down on the kerb, his head in his hands.

I leave him there thinking, man, there’s something I should be doing and it’s not this. My phone rings. It’s the guy who fell off the ute and he asks where we are. I say, “We’re here, where are you?” I hear a dull hum in the background; another man shouts; the guy cuts in and then out of reception. I ask again where he is. He says “It’s amazing, Simon; it feels like I’m flying,” and then the phone goes dead.

 

The World-Swimmers (Patrick West)

27 Jan

For days now you have been driving across unbroken grassland, which you know you’ll never be able to leave behind forever, no matter how fast you might go, or however deep into the night you persist in your journey. The northern coast of your country is far in the distance and darkness, yet nothing is clearer to you than the knowledge that the plain you once in a while spit into will surely not disappear when it gets to the water. You have faith it will move without interruption through the breakers, even picking up speed across the ocean, until there is no more ocean—and with all the more reality if it takes on a form you could not even begin to comprehend. After so much confusion—the wrack of entire cities on sickening flats of sand—this alone seems certain.

As you fly across the land, constantly accelerating over slicks of water, you are granted once or twice a momentary vision of a greenness of the least degree of intensity, which before it disappears resolves itself into a pale and flowing plain. You see no people on this plain, in the instant before it evaporates, but you can picture yourself there—a vision within a vision—in the easeful company of the men and women you have decided just now to call the world-swimmers. There have been no other cars in either direction for ages. You have nothing left to do but continue. Even the radio falls dead eventually, and in the morning of your last day in Australia, an ungodly silence fills your mind.

On a radio station phone-in program in the Midwest of America, just before dawn on a day never to dawn, a woman is unable to finish reading out the carefully prepared statement she wanted to make on a subject closely related to the death of her husband, a year ago to the very hour. Before the program host can finish telling her, transmitting on a twelve-second delay, that no one could blame her in the circumstances for being reduced to tears, she puts the telephone receiver down next to its cradle, and walks outside into the yard, her last words moving through the icy air of the state on a twelve-second delay.

In a country of the future, a century or more from now, the first of its inhabitants ever to cry is immediately accorded all the privileges of an emperor. She surveys her people through watery eyes. It is said that she has been elevated to tears. Millions of eyes blink all at once in China; for the briefest of moments, an empire is watched over by no one.

Now you are about to come to the end of the beginning of your journey. As its final hours pass by, you wonder even now—the sole occupant of your strangely empty car—how you could ever describe, to a friend or to a friend of a friend, the momentous things that you have already been witness to, along a stretch of road that has never been anything, you feel, but perfectly flat. Entirely new oceans well up in the most delicate furrows of grassland, their waves breaking in and out of being, as fragile as the high clouds of a coastal region.

Once, when you were many years younger than you now are, you sat in a classroom of sunlit air as your geography teacher described the strangeness a plain of grass uninterrupted by roads or cities would have, if it stretched all the way from the boundary of your suburban school—deep in the drowning depths of Australia—to the furthermost point on the earth’s surface. How might one species of grass give way, under the influence of new weathers, as the miles thundered by, to another, and then to another? But think of this, your teacher said, think of this for a moment: is it possible that by a million freaks and faults of nature a single blade of grass of the original variety flourishing between the roads that you, girls and boys, will this afternoon travel home by, could somehow make it all the way—passing through countless species of grass—to where the inhabitants of the most distant region of the world laze and sleep, even in the middle of sunlit days, on soft and nearly pure lawns of velvet?

You have always associated yourself, my driver, with that single blade of grass—a foreign flag of green, born out of your teacher’s late-afternoon imaginings. But you have nothing of any of this in mind now, as the edge of Australia, its vastness awakening to the moon, draws ever closer. Sullenly you are suffering from an almost overwhelming desire to piss, yet you dare not stop the car, and you cannot bring yourself to dirty your clothing. It must wait, you tell yourself, until you can clearly hear the sounds of the beach and the ocean.

In the middle year of a century in China in which the ban on all forms of swimming or water play has once more been lifted, a peasant kneels with bowed head in the middle of a paddy field, to know for the first time around his humped body its slush and splash. After a little while other men come and settle themselves alongside him, their backsides all turned to the sun, experiencing each in their own way the touch of water almost unflowing. The peasant who has set off this communal event is hardly thinking of it as a revolution, as he walks slowly back to his village, long after the dropping of darkness, while other men remain in the paddy field of shallow channels and low ridges, experiencing each in their own way the feel of rice seeds floating between their lips and through the gaps in their teeth. A year later exactly, in Peking, the ageing and weakening Emperor, having just partaken of a lavish meal made up of a single grain of rice plucked from every paddy field in China, suddenly becomes tired of lackeyism and wearisome power. Frightening away the many servants nervously tarrying over the various waters that flow through his palace grounds, he enters the single stream—barely a trickle over grass—that he alone knows will, without a doubt, take him into a river that runs to the ocean. For many days he floats along, the peasants fleeing up the banks at his imperial approach, until he reaches the ocean wherein he wishes finally to die.

As odd waters are swelling within you, the coast comes into view eventually, its sounds rise over the sounds of driving, and you are able to empty yourself of your sour waste at last. It disappears quickly into the earth, and from this you gather that, for every one of the hundreds of miles of your journey, the land has been gradually tapering towards the point where air and land and water must meet, and where the bottom of the land (for such there must be in a place like this) comes to an end. You tell yourself that you can remember even now a firm feel to the ground in the area where you began your trip—an enduring sensation of foundation entirely absent in this place, where even skipping lightly on the spot threatens your old confidence in the security of your footing. What matter lies below this inner-land or under-land, perhaps only inches away from where your car tyres have snugly settled, you do not even begin to think about, least of all when you have the urge to name the ordinary sand dunes you are on—as if you had just discovered them—the Shallows of the Land.

There is no hurry yet to go on. As the strained and pressured parts of your stationary car continue to cool and cool, and the remaining drops of petrol in its tank fly apart like quicksilver, you prepare a bed for yourself, and lie down to begin the most blissful sleep of your life, resting your head on a pillow of weeds. For two days and two nights, you dream of nothing but leaves of grass, circulating slowly through the caves and caverns of the most unknown depths of any of the world’s oceans. Intermittently, you urinate without waking, childishly emptying your body of ancient water. On the morning of the third day, you wake to discover that your car has disappeared, along with all of your clothes, and other belongings. Something once close to you is stealing away. With hands made green by the touching of weeds, you rub the sleep from your eyes. Your face is the colour of a sun almost colourless. Birds fly low and fast through the dry riverways of your veins—wings liquid on the upstroke, pure fire on the down. An ocean, barely tidal, laps at the shelly shore of your heart.

Leaving behind the sandy zone you christened the Shallows of the Land in the last moments before you fell blissfully asleep, finally satisfying your urge to name it, you make for the breakers, where somehow (without your having realised it) things in the long silences of forgotten nights have turned into what they were not. Suddenly you find yourself wading through shallower and shallower wavelets, rather than through water deeper and deeper, and the breakers themselves have become still, as if they were the foothills of the solid sea—holding back the tidal mass of the country—protecting the ocean’s hinterland from death by slow drowning. Depths swirl within you as you begin swimming, easily enough, through rolling waves of grassland. Fish notice, then forget you. The land is calming. You are surprised by its warmth as of blood.

In the final minutes of the eighteenth century, on a damp part of the border between Germany and France undisputed in the course of his lifetime, a young man realises that he has become an official of the State with not a single function left to perform. Immediately, by candlelight, he begins to set down the reasons why he will continue to live and to breathe. His writing becomes salty.

With the coast of Australia not yet out of sight above the turbulence in the turf that forms your wake, you don’t yet have the boldness to call the plain that you are swimming through the Grasslands of the Moon, much as it seems inadequate to think of it as no more than a special region of the ordinary liquid and solid planet upon which you have always lived. You hear a shout once from the shore—a matter of your car, perhaps—but only this and nothing else, and soon the silence enters into the paleness of the place, and overwhelms you. You swim automatically—the Australian crawl—almost as if you have forgotten that you are a man with a man’s nature. Crabs scurry through the dirt; your naked body barely responds to their touch. If you once dived beneath the earth, you would find the roots of the grass swirling and billowing in the currents of the soil. But you do nothing other than swim across the world’s surface, breathing regularly—with nothing left of Australia to bother you now.

The steady rhythm by which your muscles are being exercised goes on without interruption or alteration for many hours, until suddenly you enter into a channel of water that baffles every movement, resisting you rather than, as before, embracing and protecting (like an extra skin grown later in life) every hard and soft part of your body. The comforting swells of the land have given way to wavelets of surface rock, which hurt you in many places, and put sand and grit into your eyes. You think, this is water too thick to be natural. Then somehow you pass through it all, and, as if for you this were a second awakening of the day, you start to think, and to feel, and to act, like a man again.

You concern yourself over a sea shining with every known and unknown colour of the world, green excepted. You muse on an image of the water that collects beneath cathedrals and graveyards, lying still in the earth, it’s said, over centuries—a solace for water-ghosts. You spit a mouthful of dirt high into the air, as you change your stroke to the pull and the kick of the butterfly stroke. The pattern of the wake behind you changes—it’s wider, deeper too—and you can’t help but smile, and shout, and laugh. You are active and free, in a world that is becoming ever more active and free. Seagulls are crying overhead—their tears stinging the ocean into which they are slowly falling—but they are alive, after everything, and you are joyful for it. Every last part of you quickens into greater being, as the waters of your body sustain and nourish the flesh and the tissue of a new season. Young blade that has made it this far—rake, lad, new seed—your body beats the water like a hunter flushing game birds out of grassland.

There are people, the world-swimmers to be sure, not so far off in the distance. The nearest of them, you can see, are surfing on tumbling waves of soil, grass and stones, their tanned faces breaking into brilliant white smiles as they surface through the foaming dirt, their boards wedging into the earth, dripping with sand. For your part, you don’t stop stroking a path through the water, and your view of these fabulous athletes becomes better and better with every rotation of your untiring arms, and with each new pulse and push of your legs.

There is no shore to govern the way the waves form and fall, but there is something that causes them to crest and collapse in the same place every time. Behind this stretch of whiteness, the groups of waiting surfers undulate on what looks to you—as each new wave is born—like a line of hedgerow, or like a rise of thick and knotted grass. Your thoughts rip, then smoothly curl over on themselves (a breaking wave; a still lagoon) and you look closely at just one of the surfers with a changed but settled mind—you see now that he is wearing a wetsuit of ocean mud, with scalloped segments resembling the scales of a fish.

A moment passes away, dies. While still unnoticed, you plunge under, and begin swimming through the petrified remains of ancient city-races—the Melburnians, the Sydneysiders, and deepest of all (of course) the Darwinians—letting balls of water escape from your mouth, and from the pores of your skin, watching sometimes the surfers above you, their legs dangling into the roots of grassland. The sun’s illumination only reaches you like the light from a star on the edge of death and blackness; millions of coming Australian years have blindly passed you by already, down where you are. Somehow all the speed that your vehicle flung out into the plain during your car journey—land kissing water—finds its true counterpart here. You go very much deeper than you expected you would, but within a few minutes you come to the surface of the dry ocean, well behind the surfers, finding yourself among the main mass of the world-swimmers—although, by chance, a little away from the nearest of them. Thus, you remain the unobserved observer, the observer unobserved and secret; a subtle mystery even to yourself; a stain of skin on the green water.

You understand that one of the world-swimmers will have to see you before the night finally comes, and you picture yourself swimming towards them—sometime in the future—clumsily imitating their native stroke. The whole plain seems to be under the influence of a single current now. Beneath a darkening sky, while everything is moving, everything remains relatively as it is. Breasting tiny sets of streaming earth, now and again gently pissing into the grassy water and soil, you give yourself up to the inevitable drift of the land.

Time passes—slivers of grass through an hourglass.

Then the falling sun casts a greenness of the least degree of intensity over the pale and flowing plain, and you notice for the first time a woman looking in your direction, and squinting a little, as if adjusting her eyes to a sight never seen before. Without any hesitation, you start to move towards her, drinking from the sap of the grass that parts before you, thirsty for the world, no more to be a lonely swimmer on the enchanted ocean; the woman is smiling at you, she is smiling and calling to you among the weeds of the water, and you believe that you can see all the way into your future, to the time when you will be known to her and to her many companions as the Last of the Australians, and frequently called upon to talk about the absurd and quaint lives of the peoples of Adelaide and Brisbane and Perth, whenever comparisons are made between the failed societies of the past and the magnificent civilisation of the world-swimmers. And now you are almost into her arms, as stroke for stroke she begins to come towards you as you go on towards her, and her eyes are glowing like oceans of snow, like grasslands of the moon.

* * *

The World-Swimmer is available at selected bookstores and through the author $25.00 postage free: patrick.west@deakin.edu.au

 

What it’s like to want to write when all they want is for you to sing (JL Shenstone)

21 Jan

There came a time in my life when I had to face the fact that I was never going to relate to most of the population.

They go to work, they study, they buy wide-screen televisions and touch phones, they go to IKEA on the weekend, they go to the gym, they read magazines and newspapers and they never find the time to read literature.

They’re comfortable being caught up and swept away in the commotion to catch a train at seven-thirty in the morning, to exit buildings for an hour at lunch, to get into their car and enter freeways, to pull into their driveway with the matching driveway next door, the same television shows on the same televisions screaming out the same advertisements, the same glass bathrooms, the same mobile phones, vacuum cleaners and breed of dog. I could picture them sitting on their latest Swedish design with the remote-control in their hand reclining into the ground, opening the next beer to dull the sound of their child calling his brother a faggot, while the wife stares blankly ahead wiping over the kitchen table for the hundredth time that day, and finally when the beer, or wine, or gin had done its job they could sigh into their pillow and dream about deadlines and debts.

I didn’t understand.

Working full-time was never an appealing option for me. I went to university for three years to study an Arts degree. Because I dropped my subjects on a whim and was less focused every year, I never actually finished. And for three years I was there I spent most of my time at the tavern with students who assumed the world was theirs and the rest of the time falling in love with every intelligent girl I met (the ones with bob-cuts, red lipstick and black boots, who read Gertrude Stein and Jeanette Winterson, who lived alone, who drank in the day, who bought records instead of CDs, who had black bed sheets with white cum stains and rooms that smelled of incense and adventure). I didn’t believe in the power of a degree like everyone else. Going to university is like practicing for a life that doesn’t exist. So I quit and decided to become a writer instead.

After that I only ever occasionally wrote. Though still claiming to be a writer, I spent my time sitting around drinking, smoking and reading. It didn’t take me long to settle into this lifestyle, so much so in fact that I didn’t want a moment of it, I wanted a lifetime of it.

When I started to call myself a writer, people didn’t react well. They seemed confused, almost hurt that I had no plan in life now except to sit back and write about what ever came to me. I figured they were uncomfortable with all the free time I had. They would come up with goals and plans for me, bringing me pamphlets on short courses in creative writing, adult education and book clubs. I had no interest in any of it, of course. I was aware of every hour I wasted in their eyes, when I could be doing something, anything but this. But I’d created this existence and I liked it. I wasn’t nervous about an empty day. I had the freedom to walk the streets with no obligation to be anywhere. While the students rushed off to learn, the businessmen in suits and ties rushed in and out of tall buildings, mothers rushed to the store, cleaners cleaned, couples loved, machines ran, children played, I walked alone, lost in it all.

There was never one moment I thought I wanted to be a writer, only hundreds of them. Like the time I picked up a book by George Orwell and by the third page my hands were shaking. Or when I was reading Henry Miller’s Black Spring and I had to put the book down because it was too good, too much; a page of it was enough to fill me up to the brim. I was only up to page fourteen but I was done, sold and forever enslaved to the book and to the man who wrote it.

…Such a day it may be when first you encounter Dostoevski. You remember the smell of the tablecloth on which the book rests; you look at the clock and it is only five minutes from eternity; you count the objects on the mantelpiece because the sound of numbers is a totally new sound in your mouth, because everything new and old, or touched and forgotten, is a fire and a mesmerism.

I seek the solace of authors, most of which are long dead. Sometimes I think they know me better than anyone else.

And maybe they do.

The Pre-Dentist Not Wearing Red (Lara S. Williams)

2 Jan

She says she will soon be a dentist. She likes teeth and is fascinated with their decay. At the  Canada Bay Private benefit she attracts a crowd of followers who, one at a time, bend their heads back to the Darlinghurst terrace chandeliers and submit to her probing fingertips. In teeth she sees future meals and cocktails and heart break and the many lies it will take for their owner to reach death.

‘You eat a lot of curry.’

‘I wouldn’t say a lot,’ says a neurosurgeon from The Rocks. ‘I do like it. Mutton is awfully good for the jaw.’

‘Not so good for the molars. They look like Blitzkreig back there. And yours! You’ll need a crown within the year.’

‘On this front one?’ asks a PR agent from Balmaine. ‘I just had them checked. You sure?’

‘Oh, yes. I never miss a nerve rupture.’

They all laugh and she wipes an embroidered napkin around the announcement of her mouth. The hostess, always in black, is attracted by the attention.

‘You’re a regular magician over here,’ she says, one hand carefully placed on her mantelpiece, fingers curled underneath. ‘Making cavities appear, vanishing healthy gums.’

‘It’s a serious matter.’ The pre-dentist puts down her fat-bodied red and interlaces her fingers, palms to the floor. ‘This is the flesh that holds our mouths together. Teeth in gums, gums on bone, all that. When we damage our gums, some of these little wires pop loose.’ She nudges a cardiologist from Bondi. ‘Could you pull one of these fingers our for me, please?’ With her ring finger free and easy she continues, ‘and when we don’t properly attend to this damage,’ again she nudges and he obliges, ‘more are disconnected until eventually…’ she waggles her fingers in front of her throat and everyone laughs and someone refills her glass.

‘Quite amusing,’ says the hostess. ‘I could use you on the hospital board.’

‘Oh no,’ she replies. ‘I’m not yet qualified.’ Her left incisor is a shade darker than the teeth around it. She licks it, slowly, when she believes no one is watching.

‘Can you practise?’ asks the PR agent. ‘Without a license?’

‘Only during training.’ She leans forward until the bow on her dress slips through the skein of her wine. ‘Actually, I’m not technically suppose to consult outside the clinic.’

‘Does this count?’

‘Only if one of you say something.’

The hostess thins her lips and motions to a waiter carrying a tray of bruscetta. She takes two but the others, watching the pre-dentist turn them down, wave the tray away.

They ask about the challenges of reconstructive surgery within the current budget cuts but she brightly excuses herself and winds her way through the crowd, into the bathroom. Two women are hovering before the mirror, one applying blush to the other’s cheek. They have a look of midwifery about them. They part and smile and one puts a hand to her own lip.

‘You’re the dentist.’

‘Very nearly.’

‘Could you look at something for me?’

‘Only if you write me a cheque. I didn’t bring a donation.’

They leave, whispering, and she locks the door and sits on the rim of the bathtub. The taps are so highly polished she can see the warped image of herself bowing around their curves. Her red dress looks like the angry dome of a sunset. She wonders why she wore it again when she can so clearly see the outline of her bra through the fabric.

There is a knock, then a scrape of keys and the door opens to the hostess. She steps in sideways, closes and re-flips the lock. The pre-dentist looks at her through two cupped hands, unsurprised.

‘Just thought I’d see if you were all right.’ She puts her keys on the ceramic sink, wipes a smudge from the surface. ‘We had an unfortunate incident in here last year with a radiologist from Strathfield.’

‘I heard he was very depressed.’

‘Certainly depressed enough.’ She sits beside her and both women place a hand on each knee. ‘It happens like that. Sudden, in your host’s toilet.’ She turns and looks over into the bowl. ‘Hell of a place to choose. I wanted a larger one.’ She flushes it and tuts.

They are silent for a long while with nothing but the occasional hiss of the cistern. Eventually the hostess says, ‘you’re not really a dentist.’

‘I’m getting my qualifications.’

‘But you’re not. Are you.’

The pre-dentist closes her eyes and smiles so widely a flash of filling can be seen. ‘How could you have possibly figured it out?’

‘Your tooth. That pointy one.’

‘Incisor.’

‘No dentist would have a discoloured incisor.’

The pre-dentist stands and puts both hands out in supplication. ‘I did study dentistry. I mean, not at university. From books.’

‘Dentist for a father?’

She stops to think, then stretches out a ‘no.’

‘How interesting.’

The pre-dentist fiddles with the chain of keys. ‘If I leave now, can you not tell anyone? It so comforts people to be told by a professional that they have broken teeth.’

The hostess brushes a hand toward the door. ‘I won’t say a word.’ She watches her reach for the doorknob.

‘I was at the Baulkhan Hills children’s ward fundraiser last year,’ the pre-dentist says. ‘I thought you did a wonderful job.’

‘So did I. People fawn over these doctors and surgeons and chiefs of medicine but really it’s us, the wives behind, that make these things happen.’ She slips a hand through the air to brush a piece of lint from the pre-dentist’s upper arm. ‘We organise and chase up and worry about the money; how much money are we raising, how much do we need, how much will they let us get away with? Do you think doctors give a thought to all that?’ She slaps a hand to her thigh. ‘We do. Women outside the picture.’

‘It’s a very safe place to be.’

When the pre-dentist leaves she takes her umbrella from the deer antler rack, tells the elevator operator to grow his hair out and hails a taxi from the building’s entrance. She looks up at the seventh floor where the flashes of party reflect on the hats of street lamps. The silhouette of the hostess stands out against the lights. She has one hand raised in farewell and the pre-dentist does not return the gesture. She takes her dress off in the taxi with no intention of putting it back on.