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Monday, June 30, 2008

VIVA VOCE!

CURTAINS RISE on the stately interior of a Barouque-style palatial manor. Curtains, in the colours of certain South American nations, billow to the floor, lightly ruffled by offstage WIND MACHINES. Centre stage is a grand oak table, surrounded by fourteen chairs, luxuriously upholstered in glorious leathers and satins. At the head of the table sits JEREMIAS BANG, replete in flowing garbs of state of certain South American nations. ALVA DROSTE, A regal, erect woman in her forties enters stage left.

ALVA: My dear sir, are you still here at this ungodly hour?

JEREMIAS: M'lady, I shall remain at this table until such time as I see fit to leave it.

ALVA picks up an elaborate candleabra.

ALVA: I declare, Mr Bang that you are the most uncommunicative man I have ever had the pleasure of meeting!

ALVA puts down the elaborate candleabra.

JEREMIAS: My dear Ms Droste. You assume that silence equates to ignorance. That is a most diffuse folly.

ALVA: How so?

JEREMIAS: Simply because I do not describe with every waking breath everything that is going on in my head, you assume that I have no feelings. This is patently wrong.

ALVA: But how, then, am I to ascertain in what mood you find yourself in at any particular moment. You give me no verbal clue, fine sir.

ALVA pulls her left hand to the side of her face, much in the manner of the titular character of Caravaggio's "Boy Bitten By a Lizard".

JEREMIAS: Aye, there's the rub! The true way to a man's mind is not through his words, but his actions.

ALVA: But how, when you give not the slightest movement with which to betray your emotions?

ALVA crosses down stage right, approaching SLIGHTLY RAISED PLATFORM.

JEREMIAS: My dear lady, you seem to conclude that life should be conducted in a series of staged actions, depriving those unique human traits of nuance, metaphor and suggestion. Such a life, I can assure you, is not one practiced on this sane portion of the earth.

ALVA steps up onto SLIGHTLY RAISED PLATFORM, lighting a cigarillo in a vexed manner.

ALVA: You do vex me, Mr Bang. Here am I, having alighted the stairs not moments ago to check on your wellbeing, and here you are accusing me of being some sort of ... of ...

JEREMIAS: Vignettist?

ALVA (exasperated): Oh!

JEREMIAS: For example ...

JEREMIAS produces an ANTIQUE HANDGUN WITH POLISHED MAHOGANY HANDLE, and shoots himself in the side of the head.

ALVA: Well, that's just typical. Always acting out.

CURTAINS FALL.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

PINCIO AND HOOCH

It was revolutionary. But was this how revolutions happened? Saul asked himself this now, every three seconds or so. The idea had seeped out at the very bottom of a board meeting, an added piece of other business, and as such passed and seconded without a moment's thought. Every pair of eyes was on the clock, which had ticked well past the usual time most people put up with a Friday before springing out into the unfathomable possibilities of a weekend. Beer? said someone, and they all agreed. It was only on Saturday afternoon, as Saul's brain blithely received a game of televised football, that the thought drifted through his head. What was it we actually agreed to?

A few calls to those present at the board meeting confirmed nothing new. Something about a special promotion? Maybe a strategic push into a new market? Saul spent Saturday night in a club, letting thumping music and bad bourbon do battle with anything his head tried to tell him, so that it was Sunday night before his hangover had subsided, and with it any worries about work.

It was a surprise then, as he walked up to the front doors on Monday morning, to see three men in overalls waiting, it seemed, to meet him.

"You Saul?" said one.

"Yeah." Saul was naturally suspicious of anything unusual, especially if it occurred before he'd had his morning coffee.

Another of the men stepped forward. "We're here about the signage."

Saul scratched an itchy patch on his cheek. "Listen," he said, pointing upwards. "I've been through all this with the council. We've had those billboards up since before the new zoning legislation came through, so there's no way I'm taking them down."

The men looked nonplussed.

Saul craved his coffee. His body expected to have access to it by this time on a Monday morning. It would not tolerate council workers standing in its way. "You can take it up with my lawyer," said Saul. "These billboards are part of my business. People expect to see movie stars above Saul Pincio's cinema. It's tradition."

"We're not here to take anything down, chief," said one of the men. "We're putting up the new signage." He jerked his thumb back over his shoulder, and Saul saw a ute parked across the street, giant rolls of paper and rollers sticking out of its tray like breadsticks.

"What new signage?" Saul was careful to keep his tone static, avoid any sense of hostility that might come between him and a carefully poured espresso.

One of the three men took off his sweat-tinged cap and pushed a hand through his hair. "Alls I know mate is that someone from here rang us late on Friday arvo and paid extra to get us here Monday morning."

"Can I ask who that was?" Saul grimaced.

"Mate," said another of the men, "We just put up the signs."

Saul's head began to ache. "Wait here," he told the men.

"It's your time, chief," said one of them.

Saul unlocked the front door and raced down to his office. Katie, the snack counter girl, however, intercepted him. She held up her hands like a traffic warden. She was smiling, and in that moment Saul already knew what she was going to say.

"Thank you again," she said. Her hands changed from traffic warden to Busby Berkley in the blink of an eye.

"Thank me for what?" said Saul tiredly. He would never drink another coffee, he was sure of it.

"For agreeing to my idea!"

"Ah."

"I just never thought I'd be a board member—" Katie's hands were now award acceptance hands, "—let alone one who could contribute so fruitfully."

Fragments of the board meeting glinted forebodingly at the edges of Saul's brain. "It was a special promotion," he ventured, "wasn't it."

"Of course it was," said Katie. "That's why I ordered the banners."

"Oh shit." All the colour drained from Saul's face.

"What's wrong?"

"Your idea. It was bring something ... to the movies ... day."

"Bring Your Dog to the Movies Day!" squealed Katie. "I couldn't believe everyone agreed to it! It was just one of those thoughts that just came to me, you know? It's going to be so cool."

"So those guys outside," said Saul, "they're putting up a banner to this effect?"

"To what effect?"

"To the effect that we will be having a Bring Your Dog to the Movies Day."

"Oh, yeah, right. Yeah, it's going to be great. The banner will go across all those old billboards with Mel Gibson and Eddie Murphy on them. It's going to make this place look so fresh."

Saul said nothing. Just turned on his heel and headed to the nearest theatre, to sit for a while, to think.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

DUSK

Across the timber-cracked boardwalk, under the sad sad twilight, there he is. Arms in a heartbreaking circle. Empty but for all the faces pressed beside him, looking up into the bright wonder of the sky. All those detonations below us, silent timed explosions down beneath the bridge, they shoot into the air. His face glows green for a moment, and the stars seem to rain down among us. His tears, tinged with glorious light.

Friday, June 27, 2008

SERGEANT RORY

Grandpa would call us down with his weak and withered voice. Like a thin stream of steam, rising up the stairs. Heads and limbs of adopted siblings appear in stairwells and doorframes and suddenly we’re one hungry monster, tripping down hallways in slippery sock feet, pinballs to our impatience. And there he is. Sergeant Rory—Grandpa—sitting quietly in an armchair, as if as natural to our living room as a lamp or old rug. Ears hanging down like a Sherpa’s hat. We secretly touch the parts of our own face that we know keep growing even after everything else in our body has stopped. Sergeant Rory has told us stories of friends he’s known, older than him, eyesight and speech all but gone, with ears and noses down to their knees.

Today, Grandpa has a canvas bag, crumpled on the floor next to him, with a rectangle poking out inside. We take up spots around the lounge room, settling in crannies and planes like fallen rain, and as we settle back, Sergeant Rory begins a story. He tells us it’s not a story that runs from middle to end, but rather appears in many places at once. He leans over the arm of his chair and reaches into the canvas sack. In his brown talon fingers is a leather book—a photo album, he says. A few of us groan; this is what other old people do, not Sergeant Rory. We don’t want trips down memory lane. But Grandpa holds up a finger, growling at us under his breath. He looks at us, each of us in turn. His eyes tell us this photo album is very different.

When we’re all quiet, he clears his throat, in that way we all know so well. It’s like a bullfrog, we say to ourselves, shaking our heads like it’s something we hate. But we all secretly approve, because the Sergeant’s throat is a bell signifying an exciting beginning.

Prascovia, Grandpa tells us, is what I like to call a dying country.

We all shuffle forward, our ears straining, trying to get comfortable. The position we’re sitting in now will be the position we’ll still be sitting in when the story’s finished, hours later. This much is certain.

Sergeant Rory opens the photo album, but instead of turning it up and around for all of us to see, he keeps it in his lap, peering down into it with his old green eyes. Prascovia, he says, is where I was born.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

MAKING IT, BEING IT

"The real secret," said Plasky, drawing on his thin cigarette with grim reaper intensity, "is to shorten their names. Make them more familiar. So, Robert DeNiro becomes Bobby DeNiro. Robert Duvall becomes Bobby Duvall. Marlon Brando becomes Bobby Brando."

"They're all Bobby?"

"They're all Bobby." Plasky blew some smoke out across the skyline. The middle of the Chrylser Building disappeared for a moment behind the haze, then hastily reassembled.

Yves, whose last name was also printed on his name badge, but it wasn't even near being spelled correctly, leant back against the side of the building, balancing on the balls of his feet and his wrists, performing curious backwards push-ups while Plasky watched with evident interest.

"So," said Yves, "I just go right up to—I don't know—the Alphabet Lounge, and I say I'm a friend of Bobby Gyllenhaal, and they'll let me in?"

Plasky laughed, a gaunt, weedy laugh. "There's something more to it than that," he said. "But, if you put your mind to something, there's nothing really stopping you except yourself."


*

Yves waited tables, like they all did. Pushed up his sleeves the moment the last customer left the door. They were the real kings of this town. They propped up the powerbrokers: fed them coz they couldn't feed themselves. Al Pacino was in last week. Yves got his table, not realising who was there until his black leather pad was out, taking orders. Bobby Pacino, he kept hearing, Bobby Pacino. Pacino ordered a house salad, talking on his phone the whole time. Yves' mouth went slack every time he came back to the table. Extra water. Extra rolls. Bobby Pacino.

Backstage, fame was a surname:
"You've seen who's out there?"
"Who?"
"Pacino."
"Fuck."
Yves knew that was real fame. Not even needing a first name. Sucked that no one could ever spell either of his names right. Maybe that changed, eventually.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

YESTERDAY

Jack had the most popular name in the country, said the newspaper in front of him. He imagined an army of little Jacks, then thought about an army of big Jacks. Jacks and Toms and Dicks and Harries. Jack grimaced. Whoever had read the paper before him hadn’t folded it up properly, and it didn’t feel right without the proper creases. Jack’s shirt-tail had rolled up like a scroll at the small of his back, so he stood up to tuck it back in.

All around him were properly tucked and folded people. Even the fat man sitting in the opposite row of seats had his little triangle legs somehow crossed, looking like the delicate ends of a French pastry. Jack sat back down and took a sip of his weak tea from inside its plastic cup. As the tasteless hot water trickled down his throat, he returned his eyes to the view outside the large blue windows. Flat land, tarmac clouds. Early morning planes scattered like seagulls. Landing strips, Jack still called them. Runways seemed too much.

When the announcement came through, Jack almost leapt from his chair. The usual Public Address fuzz, followed by Jack’s flight number. He looked nervously around at the others, some cocking their head slightly, others still engrossed in books and conversations. Had he heard it wrong? No, there it was again. A call for passengers with children or those with special needs. Jack had never quite understood what that meant. Did that mean a wheelchair, a missing limb? Such a sliding scale, really, when you thought about it.

He walked over to the service desk, where a young lady in a red coat stood wearing a headphone. Jack assumed it was she who had made the announcement.

‘Excuse me?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘This announcement,’ Jack pointed vaguely to the sky. ‘These special needs. What exactly are they?’

The young lady brought out a wide smile. ‘Well sir, sometimes those with mobility problems or—’ her smile widened slightly more as she searched for a word, ‘—or those who need special attention, it’s nice to get them settled in a bit earlier, to save any discomfort.’

‘Discomfort, yes.’ Jack nodded, although he was really no clearer. He reached into his top pocket. ‘Do I need to go on earlier?’ he asked, producing his boarding pass and seniors card. ‘I thought I might have to, as I’m walking a bit slower than I used to.’

The young lady nodded. ‘Certainly sir. If you’d like to go and see Katie at the boarding check, she’ll be happy to sort you out.’

What a strange choice of words, thought Jack. Sort you out. ‘I don’t want to waste anyone’s time,’ said Jack, ‘that’s all. I called the airport yesterday, but they couldn’t really tell me how early I was supposed to get here, or—’

‘Katie will be happy to help you out,’ said the young woman, thrusting an open palm past Jack’s face like a swimmer, ‘just to your left there.’

Jack followed her hand and saw another young lady in a red jacket standing at a podium. A small queue of people had assembled in front of her. A man with a baby in a holster around his neck was first in line. ‘Thank you,’ said Jack, walking away.

It was going to be a long, long flight.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

TRANSGRESSIONS

We took care to step carefully over the jagged hilt glass that formed the tight welcome of our forced entrance—we had heard stories, after all, of small cuts left alone, festering, becoming hopelessly infected, months later poisoning whole limbs—and as we let our feet find purchase on the cold concrete floor, we had to hold each other, for balance, and not at all in a sexual way. When we had made it safely inside, Shania took off her balaclava, produced a plastic bag from her pocket and began eating what I eventually worked out—in the dim glow of that tea-coloured early morning light—were shavings of carrot, cut so thin that when she turned them sideways they seemed to disappear, so that it looked like she was gaping at pure air with her lips, which were shaped in a perfect cherry pout, which is how I would have described them if I had been forced to depict them in a sexual way.

I had boltcutters with me, because I had told Shania I knew where my brother kept them in his shed, and that they were easy for me to get, which wasn't really true, as I hadn't spoken to my brother for some years, and, despite the fact I had seen them in his shed, it was when I was only thirteen, and had gone in there after he'd just moved in to a new house and he had shown me where he kept his pornos, in an old toolbox at the back of the toolshed (they were tattered, wrinkled magazines, some even in black and white, like something from the war, which was not what I was expecting) and when I was there I saw these big boltcutters hanging up behind the door which for some reason I noticed because they looked like something a ganster would use to lop off someone's toe and when I asked my brother why he owned them, his reply just reminded me why he was older and stupider than me, and much more inclined to see things in a sexual way.

Now Shania was saying Let's get in there now, while we can, and all the while I watched her body shake with excitement, or fear, and I tried to make myself imagine her like one of those girls from my brother's magazines: grey, crouching, crinkled, naked, with her face peering coyly from behind folded-up limbs: only I couldn't do it, because try as I might, I just couldn't see Shania in a sexual way. We had been friends since we met on a cruise ship—our respective parents having been offered, respectively, the trip as part of a time-share promotion that travelled from to different towns in a caravan that could fold up into a sort of showroom so that it could set up in the main street and immediately lend itself a sort of gravitas that inevitably convinced good, hard-working folk such as Shania and mine's parents that time share was not only fun, but good value for money—and, during the cruise, thanks to us being pretty much the only kids on the trip, we spent a lot of time together and ended up sharing a cabin together, but only after asking our respective parents whether this was okay, so they would know that we were sharing a room in the spirit of cameraderie only, not in a sexual way.

And so, when Shania's parents lost a lot of money because of the time-share company went swiftly bankrupt, they moved to my town, which was a lot cheaper to live in because of the high element of undesirable elements (the government's word, not ours: most locals viewed the high numbers of gentleman's clubs, casinos, and drug labs in our town an inevitable symptom of our town's relative isolation coupled with its position as a geographical occlusion between two major ports—ie. an obvious stopover point where one's future problems and one's past worries tended to cancel each another out—and as such, were unusually town-proud), and this happily co-incided with my parents putting half our house up for rent—for they to had been financially shaken by the time-share meltdown—and led to Shania's family and mine co-habiting, in a financially beneficial way, and not—as the phrase is so often made to represent—in a sexual way.

I managed to cut the thick chain-link fence with the boltcutters, but each time I snapped the metal my arms shook and by the time I had cut enough for us to bend back and squeeze through my hands were jarred and aching, although when I whispered this to Shanaia, she took my fingers in hers and rubbed them until they were warm, saying to me: You're so cool to be doing this with me—I definitely couldn't've done this by myself: and if I hadn't, who would've freed all these poor rabbits from being tested on, not just being forced to test chemicals on, remember, but sometimes in a sexual way?

I quickly removed my fingers from her warm palms because she was always talking about that stuff—the sexual stuff they supposedly did to those rabbits here—and I always found it very uncomfortable as I didn't mind freeing a few bunnies from a cosmetics research lab, but the thought of people doing those other things to them ... I didn't really want to risk getting caught by people who would experiment on animals in a sexual way.

You're okay to do this, right? said Shania then, squaring me up by my shoulders, looking me right in the eyes, so that I had no choice but to smile and nod my head and she had no choice but to—sensing, I think, my sacrifice—put her arms around me and take me deep into such an adult embrace, so far removed from any affection she had previously shown me, that I was forced to press my body against hers and let loose a little sigh that had built up inside me ever since I had first seen her, walking towards me as a glimpsed shape suddenly made real against the shimmering sun-swamped deck of a cruise ship, and formed an instant pact with my fledgling mind, an agreement too precocious, surely, but somehow so real because of it: I can never let myself think of this girl in a sexual way.

Monday, June 23, 2008

AWKWARD SQUAD

"Gentlemen."

The room fell silent. The meetings had always begun this way, despite the evident discomfort of the female persons variously dotted around the giant onyx table, their faces stoically unmoved in the glow of the pulsating purple lights that sat impossibly deep in the thick slab of quartz. One female face was especially notable in its immobility, particularly as it consisted mainly of venemous bees. Her name was Eusociala, and she did nothing to display her displeasure of the ingrained sexism in the meeting other than gently nudge her coffee cup with mandibled fingers.

Professor Condemnation, the convener and host of the meeting, steepled his fingers together and stared down the table, making sure to shift forward slightly in his chair so that the purple lights lit him up form below to create, in his countenance, a sense of serious foreboding. It was a look Professor Condemnation had been practicing all week, mainly for the purpose of upsetting Admiral Doom, who was seated deliberately to his left, and whose illuminated nuclear zeolite chest cavity was cast from a vibrant green into a nasty fecal brown by the purple table lights.

"Thank you all for coming," said Professor Condemnation, wishing he hadn't used his evil finger-steeple quite so early in proceedings. "I appreciate your efforts in finding time to join me here in my secret sub-terrestrial haven, at the very heart of my Condem Nation."

Someone sniggered.

The Professor arched an eyebrow, squinting slightly. Those lights were a little bright, if you came right down to it. "Is something the matter?" he intoned.

An orange tentacle whipped across the table. "Are we all really the heart of your condemnation?" said the vertical mouth-hole of The Squid. "Are you not pleased to see us? Or is it a Condom Nation perhaps?" Grey ink sprayed across the table as The Squid talked, spattering the hem of Icilica's snow-gown. Icilica, for her part, made an all-but-imperceptible shudder.

"No," boomed Professor Condemnation, "I do not condemn you. Nor do I envisage a principality based around prophylactics. Condem Nation is the name of my vast underground empire."

"Oh," said The Squid. "Two words?" He held up two tentacles, one knocking over The Anagram's bottle of sarsapirella.

"Calamity with a cobra!" exclaimed The Anagram. Everyone knew how he loved his sarsapirella. Or, as he often called it, Real Liar's Sap.

"Pardon?" said The Squid.

"I think what The Anagram was trying to say," came the voice of Tierra del Cranium, "was: Watch it, Calamari Boy."

"Who asked you and your shiny head?" The Anagram retorted.

Tierra's head began to hum. Her curt answer was: "A hardheaded sinus honky, you, yow!"

Professor Doom winced. The meeting was rapidly turning into a worse farce than their last: a now infamous get-together aboard Minotaurus's Electric Zeppelin, which ended in the unfortunate expulsion of Mole Man from the International Alliance of Supervillans, as well as a two-month ban from attending all trivia nights. Which was a shame, as Mole Man was so good at English Royal History.

It was then that the Professor's purple table lights blew out, one by one, leaving the room lit only by Admiral Doom's chest cavity, returned to its former gorgeous evil green.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

KNOCK KNOCK

Goldtoe. That's what stuck in my mind. The letters picked out with no real thought, or so it seemed to me at the time. As to who or what Goldtoe was, I had no idea, in fact this name was not what I should've been really focusing on, when it all happened.

It's like when you're flipping through a book, a magazine, a newspaper, and suddenly one word appears in your head. One of the hundreds you've flipped past and unconsciously processed. And of course, now, you have to go pack through the pages and find that one word. It's that strange, lost feeling of unraveling your own thoughts: the detective already inside the mystery.

So Goldtoe was in my mind, those gold-on-black letters imprinted on the side of that groaning truck, the truck that knocked down Jerome Walden. Well, knocked down is something I said to people later, but really he was carried. Like some theme park ride, the truck's front grill picked his body up and held it there. He was the figurehead on a diesel-chewing, brake, screaming ship, until it he magically detached, flailing out into the air. Those real human twists of his arms, that was when Goldtoe disappeared, and I realised it was a real person flying hard into the corner of a bank, crunching real bones against brick, scraping real skin against the concrete of a pedestrian walkway, coming to rest.

I stared at Jerome Walden's body. He had come to rest under an ATM, whose screen was still blinking through a series of, I imagined, helpful messages. People were running to him now, or at least—and this was what I actually thought—running to what used to be him. Then I saw Jerome Walden in my mind's eye, peering at me from behind a doorway, his white-gold thin hair shaking its way from the dreary grey of another office day. Susan, said Jerome Walden's face, if you can't do your own work properly, please don't bring me into it.

Was I the last person to see his face making real, ugly, expressions? Was I the last person to hear him speak tawdry, human words? That joint report, to which Jerome Walden had contributed nothing and expected everything, was the last thing in on my mind before Goldtoe streaked across it. What was Jerome Walden thinking, what spiteful ideas was he stewing, before a truck wrenched him from the ground and then threw him back to it?

Whatever last thoughts he had were now smeared—with all the rest of gravity's head-mess—onto the concrete underneath the ATM, where unsuspecting shoes met a pulpy surprise as they stepped from the bank's silent sliding doors.

With all the excitement done with, with the sounds of sirens echoing far away, and with only 20 minutes now left for lunch, I felt it only right to walk away. Jerome Walden valued consideration—after all—above all else.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

TO EXPLAIN

The sound, outside, is either rain slowly dripping onto pavement, or clothes pegs being snapped off a clothesline. I would plump for the latter, as suddenly there's an image of tiny fat toddler's fingers unclipping plastic peg springs. I let the image play in my mind awhile, but I remain in my seat, facing the swathed blankness of my bedroom wall. Always slow to turn around, I wonder how much of the world I've missed, daydreaming, imagining.

It's hot, sticky: bare flesh weather. The best I can do—even at the private confines of my own desk, is a black T-shirt with its sleeves rolled back at the arms. No shorts for me, either—I'm in three-quarter khakis, bare feet scrunching against the carpet. The dripping, the snapping, whatever it is, gets louder, and I'm forced to turn around to look out the window. I let out a little groan as I use my arms to shift myself in the chair. It's hard, if you're anything like me, to give up a comfortable position you've spent so long getting into.

Even moved, I still have to strain my neck to see over the bougainvillea that invades most of my window view. A few loose strands of my hair fall onto my cheek and stick there. Outside, of course, Seb, my little brother, runs senseless barefoot laps around the rotary clothesline. Scattered in the grass—or at least the brown crap that passes for grass in our yard—are mum's new multi-coloured plastic pegs. Seb runs through this spiky, stippled rainbow without any evident thought. I picture his tiny feet, punctured with coloured plastic.

I sigh, loudly enough to make me imagine maybe Seb can hear it. He keeps running. I look down at the thick paperback in my hand. I've bent the cover back around, my finger holding my place. I had really pictured this afternoon as free of distractions. That glorious, uncracked birthday copy of Wheel of Time I had so looked forward to—it was in my grasp, half-read, begging to be finished. I had pictured reading the last few pages as the afternoon light slowly dwindled. I had read Magician in one day: why did my perfect record have to be in doubt?

But this afternoon, free from parental meddling, was conditional. I had to be the good older sister. I had to look out for poor, helpless Seb. I had agreed—why wouldn't I?—because Seb seemed to spend every allowable moment on his Megadrive. That was where he should be. Why the sudden pact with nature?

I try getting up from my chair, but it's just too comfortable. The whole afternoon's inevitable procession plays out in my mind: getting up, finding shoes, fighting with Seb, Seb following me back into the house, making me make him afternoon tea, him pestering me when he realises that all I want to do is read my book. The Sunday would be gone, and then the dread of next day's school would engulf me, and I'd not be able to exchange the book at the co-op on the way back from tennis on Monday afternoon, and then everything else would just fall apart from there.

I let my hand casually flip the book back open, let my eyes wander to the words, just for a moment. Caught, then, like a fish on a hook. At a chapter break, the white space snaps me back. I look up, letting blissfully forgotten thoughts wander back. Seb. Pegs. Mum.

I turn around again, with effort, and peer out into the yard. Seb's not there. The pegs are in a little pile under the clothesline. Better than nothing. I noticed the sun, burnt half away over the top of our fence. It's then I observe that unusual thing. Our house in complete, utter silence. The first thing I think, of course, is: No distractions. I open the book, holding the pages I have left. My fingers buzz them, flip through them, and it feels like no more than 150. Perfect.

But, as is so often the case, I still have—by my best estimate—only 20 pages to go when mum storms into my room, shouting, her makeup all lopsided from crying, blaring out phrases like how did you not and he's so young and taken so quickly.

And all I can really think is: Way to ruin an ending.

Friday, June 20, 2008

MISTAKEN KINGDOMS

They leave with the sharp sound of chair-scrapes. That classic cafe endnote. Sometimes leading to better things, better places, more things to do. Today, though, it's the sound of something ending. The last thing they will remember about each other, she thinks, is that one awful sound.

But somehow there's one moment more, a stolen secret second neither of them are quite prepared for. Peter's eyes, reflected in the shiny black stone that lines the door. A chance glance, perhaps. His eyes are disturbing, she thinks, not in their intensity but rather in intensity's absence. Then he's gone. Leaving nothing but the white glare of an afternoon.

Ellen sits back down at their table—now her table—pulling in her chair. She puts her arms out in front of her, considering, intently, her palms. That was it, she thinks. It's done. A long sigh escapes her throat, sour and deflating. A relief.

She had spent the entire night half-awake, sick and searching for air. She pictured all the things she loved about Peter, she held them there, in her mind's eye. She forced herself to see them as only as what they obscured. Every happy memory was a thin paper over that unseen depth of his deception. Every fond moment was one he shared equally with another person—that name without a face, his other. Holly. The name kept conjuring. Holly was a name only, a voice only once caught. Holly was stitched together with dial tones. She was made of unexplained absences, swallowed words.

When she had said the name—Holly—that simple, festive name, Peter's eyes went wide. His coffee cup swung in his hand, hinged by its tiny handle from his rigid first finger. The dregs of his cappuccino dribbled out, creating new liquid countries on the laminate. His mouth made protests, but his eyes told Ellen she was right. She felt the tension break inside her eyes. The hot tangle of tears she had spent all morning fighting.

Peter's arms had slid out to her then, pushing through the spilled coffee clouds. All she could do was stare at his freckled arms, the fake granite table, the smeared milk. Just tell me, she said. Just tell me.

Ellen takes out a ten dollar note from her purse, holding it to the light. In it she sees, even in the harsh polymer plastic, the wrinkles and dents of time. Not like a coin, she thinks, with the date stamped forever, always traced back to a single year. Getting up, shrugging off the dry remnants of emotion, Ellen leaves the cafe, walks off into that blank glaring afternoon.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

CASTING OFF

"He'll do it," said the father, Quincy, hoisting up his life jacket to ear-grazing heights. "For sure he'll do it." Quincy Erlenmeyer gave off the air of a man far more comfortable making the short trips of everyday life—couch to fridge, bed to bathroom—than the epic adventures he was currently prescribing his son.

Local TV stations had made their way down to the pier, a place usually reserved for quiet and contemplative fishing, but which now was the staring point of something, seemingly, quite heroic. It was when the really shiny vans began arriving that the buzz (as more than one veteran cameraman remarked to another) really started to happen. These were vans with real satellite dishes anchored atop them, actual to-space-and-back-again receivers, circus-large and scary. Reporters rolled out of the shiny vans, famous ones, journalists who had shed a job title and become a name, their reassuring, familiar faces rapidly filling the tiny dock.

Quincy Erlenmeyer beamed. Backlights and reflective umbrellas shot up around him. When all the necessary station intros had been filmed, he began to repeat his speech. All those whirring, focusing lenses eyed him with matte stares. He brought both thumbs up to where his lapel would usually be, and hooked them behind the little bits of rope that threaded through the reflective plastic of his life jacket. He made sure to keep his feet absolutely still. He still hadn't learned to completely trust the ever-sloping deck of a boat.

"A few years ago," he began, "my wife and I lived ourselves a happy life." Quincy winked to where his wife would be in the crowd had she been here at all. "We thought ourselves lucky in our lives. Me, a successful financing business. Mae, my wife, her embroidery."

A seagull screeched past, tottering sideways against the stiff breeze, wings folded back like meat hooks. It passed over the crowd, and its shadow seemed to linger, a dark spot against so many light, careful heads.

"Up until then, the most exciting thing to happen to us was the birth of our only son, Kit." Quincy glanced back at his son, who sat against the mainsail, his expression hidden behind reflective sunglasses. "Well," said Quincy, "one day, not long after Kit was born, we were watching the news, and on comes this report about a young guy—Austrian I think—who had become the youngest person to sail single-handed around the world. To circumnavigate it. And I turned right there and then to Mae and said, 'This guy on the TV, he's 16. All he's got to do is stay below-decks and play computer games for a few months, and then bang! Easy. World record.' Mae gave me this look—and I'll never forget it—this look, like Well, what are we going to do about it, Quincy?"

The deck lurched suddenly, in a swell, and Quincy's left leg somehow slid around behind him. Nearly cursing, but not quite, he managed to steady himself with his right arm against the safety railing that ran the perimeter of the boat. A camera flash went off somewhere, Quincy spinning his head around to try and catch it. He cleared his throat as authoritatively as he could; his left thumb had remained tucked securely in his life jacket, which was something. Once he regained his footing, he went on: "So I decided, then and there, that we should train Kit to sail. Not that either of us, Mae or me, had ever sailed, but once we set our minds to something, it's hard to persuade us otherwise." Quincy turned to his son. "Isn't that right, Kit m'boy?"

Kit seemed nonplussed. His coolness was one of his basic traits. Quincy was proud his son had brought his game face, this of all days. Kit scratched his fingers lazily against the sailboat's deck. Quincy knew his son just wanted to get on with it. He decided to cut to the chase—the real story, the action. "Anyway, folks," he said, sweeping an arm theatrically across the bay, "here we are now. With Kit ready to hit the open seas!"

Sensing the speech was over, the reporters moved closer, huddling up on the thin jetty, treading carefully on the gap-filled planks. "Mr Erlenmeyer," said one, with distinguished hair, grey wires streaked against black like plant roots in soil, "Don't you think your son is, despite the record attempt, a little too young?"

To Quincy's ears, the reporter sounded slightly pained as he spoke. Perhaps, Quincy thought, the reporter had a young son, keen on sailing. A record forever out of reach. "Records," quipped Quincy, "are made not only to be broken, but to be fixed again and shut again tight behind you."

"But surely this is unsafe at least," said another reporter, a lady with a tan stripe across her forehead, "and negligent at most. Criminal at the very worst." She spoke her last sentence in a near-hush, so that when Quincy leaned in to hear her, his indignity at the ready, the seagull took him completely by surprise.

That grey shadow, that instant of one bird blocking the sun, was enough for Quincy to lose footing completely and—his thumbs locked in place at his chest—allow himself no brace against the fast approaching safety bar. He flipped neatly over it, entering the water like an upside-down scuba diver—one foot extended, arms pressed to his chest.

The reporters, the cameramen, the figures in flak jackets holding camera cables—no one moved. As the reporting, as it was, continued, and the satellites on the shiny vans sent pictures of the after-accident straight into space and back again, the young boy sitting on the deck of the boat began to cry.

And somewhere beyond the sea breeze, beyond the fruity tang of hairspray and concealer, beyond the choking fug of van exhaust, came a familiar stench.

One single soiled nappy.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

WHAT FLOATS, IS HOPE

Who needs castanets? Castaways. Clicking their way through the endless days. Clacking out a real infinity. They hit that wood against wood until it's worn away and what they're left with is two thin shavings of timber and eventually they too break, and then it's matchsticks for an ailling fire, toothpicks for salt-crammed teeth. The wood's gone, but there's a loop of string from the broken castanets, string that looped around the castaway's thin, tanned arm, holding the instrument safe from gravity. The string is sweat-stained and sun-softened, but still it's sturdy enough to catch a sand rabbit, a topaz reef fish. Still with enough integrity left to hold strong around a lesser neck. And when the meal is eaten, when the rope rinsed off in clean, boiled water, the castaway can pull it taught and drag it across a section of fresh, dusk-cooled sand. And with this leveling string, helped by two steady, dinner-fueled hands, the sand becomes a smooth unblemished canvas. And with a straight middle finger, the castaway can carefully sketch a scene from a mind's eye. A baby's laughing face, perhaps. The front gate to a weekend home, swinging lazy open. Grass, flowers, life.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

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Monday, June 16, 2008

SINGLE FILE

I have never been punched in my life. Never hit, never attacked. Never felt that sweet primal smack of skin on skin, that tangible buzz of such focused anger, misplaced understanding, or injustice. Somehow, I find this fact so romantic in its absence. And I think about it every time I am whacked in the guts.

Most mornings it happens. With the frantic chime of my morning alarm, my head wrenched from anxious sleep. The first moments of my conscious mornings come with a 150 heart-rate. Like a gun going off next to me on the pillow, this is your every morning absence.

Mornings, with my face waiting in front of a computer’s grey glow, the same grey out my window. Information. All that information. I fill my head with it. I read the same news stories over and over, background colour changing, but words staying the same. This miracle of modern life, being able to fill my head with distractions, without a lapse, from the moment I shoot awake to the moment I crash back gladly to nothingness.


At work, I spend my hours leaning over a painfully low desk, enabling, facilitating: some such action that allows me to stare creatively into space and be paid for it. A computer is there too, a large, window-sized whirring thing that completes tasks at a speed so far ahead of my meagre needs that it makes me laugh with that husking, scraping noise that I now allow to escape my throat.

I sit through meetings, nodding yes when I have to, rising from my chair at others. Pointing laser pens at a yet larger screen. Being able to read from the screen to a roomful of people who need no help reading it. In hallways, faces appear, firing buckshot pleasantries. These are my ever-less eventful, fruitless days. Gloriously empty. Every day, every fucking day, I wish my thoughts were just as blank.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

PURPLE PROSE

STEP 1:
Begin by unpacking section A (fig 1 i). Unfold flap H first, as shown. Gently prise sub-flap K4 up, thus releasing tetrafold E9. Remove contents.

STEP 2:
Start the assembly by laying flat prime struts 1 and 2 (fig 5 iii), making sure to present open planes in isometric alignment (fig 5 iv).

STEP 3:
Insert johnnyscrews (leaving aside inert johnnyscrews for section 14a) halfway into assigned holes in substrate prime struts (now having been rotated proximally 45 degrees), taking care to leave post-rounded ends exposed.

STEP 4:
Prepare supporting braces 23a and 23b by aligning pre-trasversal skewlines (fig 43 xi) and attaching adjacent pulse sockets A-K.

STEP 5:
When socket A is turned counterclockwise, pin appendage J17 can be attached using 1/4 inch crowscrew (fig 13 ii). Repeat procedure for all remaining sockets, save those with preturned asquegient bearing.

STEP 6:
Once sequential arc-tumblers have been supinely positioned against now assembled prime struts, reverse angle quadrature can now be easily achieved (fig 356 xiv). The pretractilate supporting braces will now slide into postcoiled Gram's grooves 3 and 4.

STEP 7:
Enjoy!



Saturday, June 14, 2008

STRANGE DAYS IN JULY

Mandy kicks her feet through the autumn leaves of election week and smiling faces scatter along the pavement. She leans back against the fence and despite her negligible weight the chain-link bends and squeaks. I watch the freshly kicked Opposition pamphlets eddy onto the road, circling around oblivious early morning voters, bleary-eyed and baby-burdened. Four thick-waisted ladies sit perkily behind picnic tables just inside the school gates, acres of lamingtons and orange cake strewn before them.

Mandy watches with her hamster eyes as people walk past her, their faces nervously flicking away as she thrusts a pamphlet out to them like an eager relay runner. The weight of individual responsibility compacts so many shoulders that slump past. Only the taught-legged pensioner wearing day-glo running shorts shows any interest, taking a how-to-vote card from Mandy’s hand with flamboyant relish, winking at me as he walks past, flashing the glossy-printed candidate’s face at me like an entry pass.

This is our demographic, says Mandy under her breath.

Eventually our shift ends. By now, though, it’s lunchtime, and the line of people waiting to vote backs down the street. We both silently agree to join them. It’s the first time either of us will vote. Somehow, a fat man with a backpack gets between us in the queue and I don’t quite know what to do. I’ve only known Mandy for five hours, and I don’t know if this gives me permission to stand next to her. I wait, awkwardly, focusing intently on a badge on the fat man’s backpack that says ‘Honk if You’re Horny’.

Honk.

I flash my eyes up and Mandy’s watching me looking at the badge. She rolls her eyes. Come on, she says, grabbing my wrist, pulling me into line next to her.

Thanks, I say.

You were just going to stay there, she says, weren’t you?

I didn’t know whether … you know …

After all we’ve been through this morning? She punches me in the arm. We’re in Solidarity, remember?

I smile at her twisted slogan and we wait in silence for a few more moments, teetering along with the rest of the democratic dominos. Mandy’s cheek flushes knife-wound red in the chilly air, knitted beanie jammed low over her head, blonde hair curling up to catch the light.

This is strange, I say eventually. Voting, I mean. I used to play cricket on a Saturday, but it seems all a bit …

Saturday’s my holy day, says Mandy, and I almost laugh until I realise quickly she’s serious. It’s my Sabbath, she repeats, scratching the back of her arm.

So you’re pretty religious?

Jesus’ll sort that out, she says, when he comes back.

We eventually reach the polling station. The booths are spread out along the walls of the school basketball court, where everything seems too thin to keep out the cold. I notice the long, high windows, diffuse with collective human heat. I stare at Mandy’s neck, at the light fuzz of her jumper. The queue splits up into four tables where people sit with electoral rolls.

A woman looks up from her table. Name?

Mandy McInley.



Mandy reappears in my life exactly one week later, standing on my front doorstep, peering out from behind her father.

Here to check the mains, says her dad. Water restrictions.

I take them out the back, where mum’s turning the compost heaps. She and Mandy’s dad start to talk permaculture. Mandy comes and stands next to me. It feels wrong to be talking outside of election day.

I say, How’s your week been?

Not too bad. I got into trouble for throwing away Opposition voting cards. Not as if they were going to win, though. Not as if we were going to lose this electorate.


I imagine a McInley dinner table piled high with political discussion: late night debates of conscience and free trade.

We perch ourselves on the truck tyres that house mum’s cherry tomatoes. Mandy lets her thongs slip off into the grass.

Do you go around to all the houses with your dad? I ask her.

And she says, Not all of them.

I swallow thoughts that fall down the back of my head. I’ve never seen you around before, I say.

No, you haven’t. She grins, then. The first time I have seen her smile.


Night has cooled the road. We lie in opposite directions, our heads aligned on the bitumen. The streetlights are long since broken, filaments burnt out from overuse. Mandy and I bask instead in the glow of winter’s midnight. Freshly crept from our sleeping houses to meet here, to talk.

It’s a big red dusty truck, Mandy says up into the night sky, on its way through from Sydney. The driver’s been awake for thirty-five hours and his mind’s all fucked up with drugs. I can hear the scream of a diesel engine overcooking. I can taste the molten heat of exhaust. She says, This town’s just another dot on the map. It’s nothing special to him, just more dark empty roads. He doesn’t see us lying here. He doesn’t notice until we’re underneath his wheels. And then she’s quiet. She doesn’t know I’m no good at this game.

I sense the hum and rumble of distant tyres through the ground. See the lolly-bobbing head of the driver, his eyes rubbed thin into petrol stains. I get up and walk over to the safety of the nature strip. Mandy remains where she is—Mandy, the midnight creature, white legs played in a tartan skirt, body open to attack. I sit down and stick my hands down the sides of my shoes. The silence is so obvious it throbs.


It’s some time later, weeks maybe, before I let my voice unlatch. Way out beyond the fence line, in the hollow of a gully, we’re sitting together in silence. The way I tell it, the word jack-knife stabs the air violently, when really it should be slower, less definite. I tell Mandy I always imagined the worst part to be the moment before the truck ignited. Hearing the Chinese whispers groan of metal from back axle to cabin, smelling the fuel as it dripped from some rough-edged puncture. Mum says it was over in an instant, but I know about the terrible wait.

Mandy takes my hand in hers and says, I’m sure he didn’t suffer.

She asks to see a photo of my dad, but I can’t think where one would be. We were never a family of frozen moments.

Mum just pissed off with a guy in a campervan, says Mandy. Now that’s a bad way to go. She winces as soon as she says this and I can’t work out if this gesture is contrition or her own memory.

She asks me to take off my shirt, and I do. Then she’s running her fingernails right down my back, and up again, tracing eight electric paths. I almost cry out, but I’m afraid my voice will echo.

I’m writing on your back, she whispers.

I stare at the sky, imagining the invisible edges of stars. Mandy traces constellations in my freckles. She moves closer, so her breath is hot on my neck. Her hands move around to my chest and I feel her pressing into me, like a vice.


We come back the day after. This time we’re above and the gully is below. I stare over the cliff’s edge, looking longingly at the flattened grass below us, picturing Mandy’s naked back, white, red-striped, rolling over, beneath me, my mouth a silent howling circle.

She is quieter today. When I try to take her hand she wrests it free, not unkindly, more like a magnet unconsciously repelling. We’re so deep in the Olsen’s property, so far from East Street, that even the sky looks different.

I want you to trust me, says Mandy. Can you trust me?

Yes
, I tell her. I can.

You can, or you do?

I fight the urge to kiss her there. I do.

She puts her hands on my shoulders and says, Close your eyes.

The world turns brilliant grey and yellow behind my eyelids. Mandy twists my body suddenly, and I nearly fall. The cliff’s edge is only a few steps away. But she keeps me up, and I realise she’s turning me around in circles. Keep them closed, she says. Keep spinning until you can’t work out which way you’re facing. And, despite myself, I obey her. The sun flashes through my eyes, wiping against me like torch beams, and gradually, quickly, as the light gets faster, my mind wipes away any reference and I lose the sense of where I am. It’s then I hear Mandy’s voice, right beside me: There’s no safety net now. Her hands slap my shoulders to a halt.

I open my eyes and vomit twenty metres down, off the cliff, over the rocks and grass and spindly clinging weeds. Mandy pats me on the back and pretends to pull us off the edge a few times, laughing.

I brush her away and collapse on the ground, letting the firm certainty of rocks dig into my back, letting my breath feed itself through a fissure in my throat. Mandy walks off, and through my squinting eyes I watch her hitting the back of her arm against the rough skin of an ironbark, counting out loud the procession of blows until she draws blood. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen.


Mandy’s dad comes back to our house quite often. Mum shows him how she rotates the chicken coop around our five different vegetable plots. Mandy always follows, sometimes arriving with her dad, sometimes later.

I’m in the kitchen making tea when she arrives. I hear her clack open the flyscreen door and I picture her walking through the lounge room, tracing a finger along the top of every chair. She comes into the kitchen and kisses me, her face folded up strangely.

What’s up? I say.

She fixes me with a stare.

I blink, waiting.

Do we create our own reasons for being here? she whispers.

I turn away, shifting the kettle slightly on the stovetop. What do you mean?

I mean, do we have to invent things to keep us here?

To keep us alive?
The kettle begins to gently grumble.

To keep us thinking we’re alive.

I don’t think we have to invent reality, I say, scooping tea leaves into the pot. It’s just there, isn’t it?

But what if we don’t know what reality is? How can we say what’s real and what’s not?

The kettle starts whining. I picture the water turning, tumbling inside it, whirligigs of roiling movement. I should get the cups out.

How can we risk not knowing?

They’re just in the cupboard behind you.

How can we test our knowledge?


The kettle screams for relief. I let its noise fill my ears. The cups? I shout, moving towards her.

How do we know what we know?

I push past her, sick of her questions, opening the cupboard, calmed by the sight of the china cups sitting right where I knew they’d be, upside down, resting with blue handles pointed towards me. Then the room falls silent.

I turn around, expecting to see Mandy, back to normal, holding the kettle, smiling. But the first thing I see is the kettle sitting on the benchtop and this is wrong because it’s started hissing again. Then I see Mandy’s face against the hotplate. Her left arm slaps against her leg and her hands are convulsing like plucked dying birds and I hear heat crackling the skin of her cheek and all the time those pale strong eyes look straight towards me.

Things are stretched then. I seize Mandy by the shoulders and try to pull her off the stove but every time I touch her a ferocious jolt from her limbs wrenches me away. I try again, my fingers digging into her skin. Whether she is stuck, or truly stubborn, I don’t know.

I run outside, shouting, the sun tugging at my indoor eyes. Mum and Mandy’s dad are standing together the garden, peeling leaves from a lettuce, laughing. I shout again, Mandy’s name, and the air cracks from her dad’s face. He sprints into the house, moaning, choking, screaming her name. Mum seems glued to the dirt. She turns the lettuce over vaguely in her hands. I leave here there and run to the top of the driveway to open the gate for the ambulance.


*


I lift the log-splitter high into the air and let gravity do the rest. There’s a splintering crack, and the wood divides cleanly in two. The axehead buries itself deep in the chopping block, its wood worn soft and fibrous from a winter’s work. I pick up the fresh kindling and place it in the brass wood bucket. My ears burn, for some reason, in the night air.

It’s then a figure appears at the top of the driveway, in purple stockings, a dark definition against the white gravel. A scarf obscures her face, but I recognise the curled stalks of blonde hair.

I was watching you, says Mandy. You chop wood very well.

Thanks, I say, as I can think of nothing else.

Come for a walk, says Mandy, moving towards me. She links her arm into mine. We walk up the driveway and out onto the road. I feel warm, even though I’m wearing no shoes.

How are you feeling? I ask.

Had to have a skin graft. Took bits off my thigh. Mandy pulls down her scarf and her cheek actually looks okay. There’s a patch of skin that’s darker: not a circle shape, like I’d expected, but a long irregular oval. The skin’s pinched and scarred in places, like the eroded edges of a lake. It was strange, she says, when I was stuck there. It wasn’t hurting in my cheek, but there was a pain somewhere on the top of my head, and in my arms.

We get to East Street.

Let’s go down to the cliff, Mandy whispers. I’ve got something we can do.

I follow her visible breath through the fence. A piece of barbed wire catches on my shirt and drags itself through my skin.

Mandy takes a sip first, and it looks like death she’s enjoying. The bottle in her hand is so clear it’s invisible. Then there’s silence, as the air fogs up in front of me. Dead grass creaks underneath my bare feet. Mandy’s eyes have a film that appears thick in the moonlight.

Here, she says. Try this.

As I lift the bottle to my lips, I recognise this moment as one I can pin down with certainty. A point in time to hang from the rest of my life.


It’s different spinning at night. Different with half a bottle of vodka inside you.

Love and death, they’re just different things to different people, right?
You’re just afraid because you’ve lost something and can’t find it.
Our parents should just get together and have a good time.
Why do you feel you have to hurt yourself like this?
What did it really feel like to live with the pain?
We should fuck right on top of those rocks.
Do you love me because I’m suffering?
We should drive away somewhere.
Does this prove that I’m real?
What is it you believe in?
I love that you’re here.
This is so exciting.
I’m lost now.
I know.

Friday, June 13, 2008

OFFENCES RELATING TO FIRE EXITS — PART THREE

As I hope you're all aware by now, preparation is the number one most important issue when you're a Fire Safety Officer. So if you think I let the strange man get away, then you do not belong here in this lecture hall and should probably leave. Moreover, if you think I followed him—"tailed him", as they are so fond of saying in police procedural television shows, than you obviously haven't been listening.

I smiled curtly at the strange man, before calmly walking away, leaving him to gather himself into an inelegant bundle and hustle off back past the reception desk and into the hotel's elevator number two. How did I know this? Well, after disappearing from the man's line of vision, I swerved 90 degrees to my left and sprinted behind the lobby bar, where a small stack of black and white televisions on a desk served as the Royale's security centre. It was, as always, unoccupied, and I had no trouble at all finding the right screen. I followed the strange man's awkward gait all the way from the lobby to the lift. I flicked a switch on the small control panel, and an image of the inside of elevator two crackled into view. Just as it did, I saw the man pressing the button for floor eleven. The top floor.

Thanks to a complete self-imposed training programme I undertook in my first month on the job, I was proud to admit to myself that I knew as much about the running of the hotel as anyone else there. I knew that the morning traffic patterns off by heart: it was a Monday, which meant high numbers of people coming down from high floors to check out, and thanks to the variable nature and frequency of the Royale's elevator system (anyone staying more than a night at the Royale quickly learnt that it was best to just jump in the first one that would have you, whether it was going up or down), the man was going to have a very slow trip to the top floor.

I also knew that the service elevators were far more efficient. I arrived on floor eleven, I knew, far before the strange man. The service elevator came out into a storage room that looked, from the outside, just like another hotel room. I opened the door and peeked out down the corridor. The normal elevators were just opposite. When I heard the ping of an arriving lift car, I pulled my head back inside the door, so that I could only see through a tiny crack. Sure enough, the strange man got out of the elevator, alone. He disappeared around the corner and I quickly went after him.

With my back flattened against the wall, I inched closer to the corner. I heard the man knocking on a hotel room door. Only, something was awry. It wasn't the hollow wood of a hotel door. It was tinny, glassy. My spine tightened. I risked a peek around the corner of the wall. As I stretched my eyes vainly, all I saw was the man disappearing into the mysterious room. I came carefully around the corner. It was then I realised this was as bad as I'd feared. The strange man had not disappeared into a hotel room. He had gone straight out a fire exit.

What had been moments ago just a slightly suspicious situation being surveilled by a conscientious staff member suddenly fell under the utter purview of a Fire Safety Officer. I slowly made my way to the fire exit. I had checked the integrity of this very exit not three days before. It was always the last stop on my regular weekly check. It was only when I saw the sign that my jaw actually dropped. On the frosted glass, straight over my decal that said FIRE EXIT - EMERGENCY ONLY, someone had blu-tacked a printed sign that read, MAXIMILLIAN ADAMS, DETECTIVE AT-LARGE.

Now, as I look out at all your expectant faces here this evening, I know what you are thinking. This is indeed the very incident I referred to at the start of this lecture. I had found someone who had deliberately and perhaps maliciously exploit fire exits and fire exiting strategies for their own selfish needs.

And what did I do? Well, you should all have guesses by now. I rolled up my sleeves and opened the door, not fearing for my own safety, not fearing for whatever or whichever dangers lay behind that frosted glass. It was my duty, as a Fire Safety Officer. Someone had breached the rules, and I had to make sure they came to regret it.

And, I can thoroughly assure you, I did.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

OFFENCES RELATING TO FIRE EXITS — PART TWO

It started with a very good cup of coffee. Now most of you in this room are young enough to have spent most of their lives within walking distance of an espresso , but back when I started at the Royale, I, like so many others at the time, knew no better coffee than the generic drip-sludge they served at every diner you sad down in. But, fortunately or unfortunately for me, not three doors down from the doors of the Chelsea Royale was a genuine Italian coffeehouse. It was run by a pair of Brothers from Palermo who had come over nearly twenty years previous.

My first visit came very early morning, during a spot-check I was undertaking on the safety of the hotel's front windows, when the Royale's doorman, a tall man whom I had spoken to a few times before, called me away. We walked slowly, behind the street-sweepers, the twenty metres or so down to the coffee house, whose doorway was dwarfed by twin statues of Saint Rosalia. The doorman, sensing my trepidation, just smiled and bustled me inside.

Needless to say, my first taste of real espresso coffee was sublime. My mind, I'm happy to admit, was freely given over to the spicy persuasion of that wonderful bean. Not to get too poetic here in this environment of learning, but that morning I spent in the dark confines of that coffee house was one of the more fulfilling of my life. Or so I thought.

The doorman and I eventually emerged back onto the street. After the steam-cupped warmth of the coffeehouse, the wind seemed to bite with extra venom. I pulled my coat up around my cheeks and hurried back inside the hotel, fully forgetting to finish my spot-check of the front windows. And can I tell you right now, that is not the last mistake my caffeine-addled brain made that day.

The rest of the morning I had put aside for urgent paperwork, and some essential maintenance of some signs I had had printed up about fire exit rules. Thanks to my coffeehouse diversion, however, I was now running supremely late. I grabbed a banana from my lunchbox in the staff canteen fridge and set off for my office, where a fresh ream of paper and a new biro awaited me. To get from the canteen to my office—at this stage nothing more than a cubby hole in cleaning supplies storage area—I usually wended a long but unobtrusive path through the labyrinthine corridors that led from the canteen and through the service tunnels, but as I was so late, I had to cut through the lobby of the hotel. Checkouts were already underway, and as my mind buzzed with coffee echoes, I strode purposefully across the carpet, winding my way through scattered luggage and the old wingchairs that served as the lobby's waiting area. And I blame myself for another mistake here—trying to make up for lost time by cutting corners and being conspicuous in doing so. How quickly I had forgotten one of the cardinal tenets of the academy: When A Fire Safety Officer is Doing His Job Well, He Is Never Noticed.

I caught the eye of a middle-aged man in a dishevelled sports coat, who immediately looked up at me, as if it were I he had been waiting for all this time. Then he said the strangest thing:

"Three knocks are fine, four knocks define."

I stared at him a moment. "Excuse me?" I said.

The man repeated his cryptic sentence.

"I think you have me confused with someone," I told him. I reached for my laminated name tag in order to verify my identity but for some reason it wasn't clipped to my pocket as it usually was.

The man looked confused. "I was led to believe," he said cagily, "that I could meet with Mr Adams here at 9.05 AM in order to be escorted to his office for a private consultation."

I was about to explain to the man that I had never heard of a Mr Adams or his office when, thankfully, my training finally kicked in. I quickly assessed the situation as one of extreme interest. And when I say interest, as I'm sure you're all aware, I of course mean a situation that may require the ingenuity and deft thinking that only a Fire Security Officer.

"Of course," I said. "Unfortunately, Mr Adams has been briefly detained, and asked me to enquire if you would be so kind as to proceed directly to his office yourself." I tried to slow my breathing, which had become rather ragged. "I assume you know the way."

The man regarded me for a moment with en eyebrow cocked. "Ahem. Well, I'm sure Mr Adams is a busy man." He smoothed out a mountain range of wrinkles on his left trouser leg. "Of course I can find my own way." As soon as the man smiled, I knew I was on to something.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

OFFENCES RELATING TO FIRE EXITS — PART ONE

Mainly, the problems you'll encounter will be the direct result of simple misunderstandings, pride, or just simple ignorance, but, more often than you'd think, you'll come across a person or persons unknown who will deliberately and perhaps maliciously exploit fire exits and fire exiting strategies for their own selfish needs. You may not think it will happen to you, and indeed it may not have happened yet to anyone you talk to, but let me make one thing clear: It Will Happen To You.

My first experience, luckily or otherwise came early in my career. I was a rookie, a greentop, a regular Johnny chump-chow. This was back in the day before your electronic status alerts, your remote systems identification tags. This was me, a walkie-talkie and a back pocket full of street smarts. I was three weeks deep into my first job as fire security officer at The Chelsea Royale, a hotel you may know today as The Royal Chelsea, four stars to the brim, forty stories to the sky. Back then, of course, The Royale was only eleven stories, and had a reputation that didn't exactly encourage families to visit on a whim.

Moreover, the fire safety, when I arrived, was disappointing to say the least. The evacuation plan, I discovered in my first week, was a pencil sketch on the back of a beer coaster thumbtacked to the staffroom wall. Do you know what it said? It said, In case of fire, get out of the hotel. Needless to say, this more than rankled principles. I was fresh, no doubt, Academy polish still shining my boots, but this was just dangerous. Which is not to say the Royale was totally negligent. They had to accommodate basic industry standards—extinguishers, alarms and the like, but their equipment was years old, and God knows if they'd know what to do with it should an emergency arise.

According to a bellboy I talked to, the Royale had experienced–amazingly—only a handful of fire-related incidents in its long history, culminating in only one slightly singed bathroom in room 412, and no serious injuries. Lucky, I thought, as I began my initial safety checks and procedural implementations.

But let me be clear. I have not come here today to heap scorn on an uneducated hotel. In a way, they had been failed by the same system I represented. I endeavoured to change this. By the time I had entered the forth month of my position as The Chelsea Royale's Fire Safety Officer, there systems and procedures were, to put it in today's parlance, cutting edge. The first real hurdle I came to, the hurdle that was my first real world lesson, is what I really wish to tell you about.






Tuesday, June 10, 2008

ANOTHER LASER ATTACHMENT

She was deafening. That atomic frou frou walk. Those trebuchet hugs that came with chance meetings. That constantly working, constantly moving mouth. This morning, she came, full pelt around a corner, struggling to open her clamshell phone with three fingers. The other seven were occupied with zipping up an enormous handbag, pushing equally sized sunglasses to the top of her head, and holding out her fingers in such a way that they were ready to impart serious meaning to the very next thing she said. She flipped the phone open, quickly closed again, then half open, checking an evident message. All the time she was talking. But to who? To me?

Dahling!

I look around, just in case.

Hi.

Look at yhou! A series of crate-sized shopping bags fall to her wrists. A sight for soure arrs!

I pull my stomach in. How are you?

Orh!
She flings back her bangs with a flick of her head. I cahn't begin to tell you.

She begins to tell me. It's a tale of tanning beds and racing carnivals, champagne and media plans. It goes on for some twenty minutes, and it's the dead-on the most boring story I've ever heard. About twelve minutes in, I realise I'm not going to get to the post office before it closes. Sunlight slowly begins to disappear from the buildings around us. Evening city shadows, those hulking monsters, start to envelop us.

She seems to have no stamina problems, even with what looks like twenty kilos of shopping bearing down on the two points of her painfully high stilettos.

You lirke? She says, noticing me glancing at her shoes. I had sarch a tough tirm farnding them. You have no ahdea.

Or at least I don't have any idea until she begins to tell me. And I quickly realise this story is going to be even longer than the last. Ideas of getting to the post office have long since gone, and I start to wonder if I'll get home tonight. If I'll ever get home.

I'm not an inherently spiritual person, nor would I say I respect any particular religion, but that afternoon (quickly falling into evening), I prayed. I prayed to whatever entity it was that answered people like me. I needed some way out of this encounter. Not a miracle, but just something. And as she kept on with her story, that mouth unflagging, I stood there, praying, hard, for whatever good deeds I had done in my life to start cashing themselves in.

And it's then I feel it. An itching in the crook of my left elbow, underneath the material of my jacket. At first, I dismiss it as simply nervous eczema, but there it is again, deeper, more painful. Great, I think, a tedious conversation and now a tick burrowing its way into my arm. But then, when I plunge my right hand down under the arms of my jacket, I don't feel skin. I feel something harder. I hold my left arm up to my face, like I'm casually checking the time (a ploy I had tried for real some 45 minutes earlier, to no avail), and pull down the cuff of my jacket. My arm is now metal, gunsmoke grey. A series of lights run up the inside of my arm, grading from green to red in tiny inverted triangles. I clench my fist, and the lights begin to switch on in sequence. I feel a pleasant heat passing up my forearm, like I'm putting it into a warm bath.

Still she talks, her body swivelling mindlessly. I turn my fist over, and see a tiny barrel protruding from the knuckle of my middle finger. God, I say to myself, Allah, Yahweh—whoever you are, I promise to obey you, follow you, in every way, every day. Just for this. Thank you. The heat in my arm intensifies. I feel the power narrowing, focusing, to the small point in my knuckle. My fist, compressed to the point of pain, aches to unspring.

And her voice joyously—impossibly—begins to disappear. I'm filled with something else: a pure analog ecstasy. When the bright jump of laser leaves my hand, it's all I can do not to laugh, deeply and gloriously.

Monday, June 9, 2008

EMBEDFELLOWS

When the wing shears off, and when I see it flash past the cockpit window like a startled swallow, this is when the panic sets in. With me, as I’ve been told, there’s not a big bang of fear, rather a slow, measured dread. I can sort of see it now.

I carefully check all the instruments and readings as I feel the propeller shaft disengage and I begin my all-in freefall. It’s strangely silent, when all you’ve been led to believe is screaming wind and howling engine noise. Here, there’s just the faint tickle of the altimeter spinning, the slurp of the aneroid barometer slipping quickly away.

I re-engage the failed navigation device, watching hexagons align themselves on the tiny screen. Welcome, says the read-out. Where would you like to go?

For a brief moment, I consider typing in up, but I settle on the button that says Search and Send Location. The little pixelated envelope fills up and whisks away. I black out, somewhere around this stage.

When I come around, it is perhaps days later, as my man in the mirror in front of me has a healthy growth of stubble on his cheeks. I’m stripped to the waist, hands tied behind my back. The air smells like fish. The room I’m in is small, but surprisingly well decorated, like a drawing room in a proper terrace house. The only difference is the windows are smashed, and outside I can see great masses of ferns.

I test the ropes. They’ve been expertly tied, or at least as expertly as has been my experience. A grunt comes from the corner of the room. I twist my head around, and the grunt comes again, but I can’t see from where. Then, turning my head back to the mirror, I notice a figure lurking near some thick window drapes behind me. There’s another slow-spreading horror as I make out the shape of a bull’s head on a man’s body: a Minotaur in the drawing room. I make to swallow, and my throat is thick with something sour.

“What’s going on?” I shout.

The Minotaur shifts slightly, still remaining mostly unseen.

“Where am I?” I shout again.

The creature simply heaves its head and breathes noisily.

I try to lift my eyes to the ceiling but there’s a yanking pain at the back of my head every time I do. I realise too late that there are some sort of spikes in the headrest of my chair, positioned to poke into me every time I move my head.

“What’s going on?” I say, more quietly. The smell of fish comes back, but it’s not fish, it something else familiar. Then I see the jar of blue liquid and it all makes sense. Inside the jar, like some eerie formaldehyde museum creature, floats a black comb. The smell is human hair, gently gelled, freshly cut. I’m tied to a barber’s chair. I’m imprisoned in a hairdresser’s shop. Behind me, pinned to the wall above the heaving Minotaur, is a faded block-mounted poster of a man with wavy, blonde-tipped hair, smiling unconvincingly out at the world. A generic style-cut photo I’ve seen dozens of times in various nondescript hair salons.

I stare straight at the Minotaur. Narrowing my eyes, speaking as reasonably as I can, I say, "Is this part of The Resistance?"

The Minotaur's shoulders slump.

"Huh," I say, taking this is a minor victory. We knew they were down here, somewhere beneath the thick foliage of the jungle. But hiding out in hair salons?

The Minotaur takes off his head, emitting a spluttering gasp. A teenager's features emerge through the late afternoon darkness. He sneezes twice, violently. Wiping his nose on the back of a sleeve, he squints at me skeptically. "Took you long enough," he snuffles.

"What is The Resistance doing here?" I ask him. "And what's with the wookie heads?"

"You—aitchoo!—tell me," says the teen. "Playing hell with my allergies."

I smile, despite myself. "Apparently that's how they got Napoleon."

The teen pulls a pistol out from a holster on his belt. "Just remember where you are," he says with an affected growl no doubt picked up from TV.

I do remember. I take my gaze away from the boy's ridiculously pink head. My breathing quickens. I do remember.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

MINOR KEYS

All the while, music sweeps down from upstairs. Sweet rolling notes, coming down to find me. No muffled sounds, not in this thin-floored chalet. It takes me all night to fall asleep.

That morning, I'm walking by the bay, ignoring the water, keeping my eyes cast down. Concrete fissures are always more interesting to me—somehow more organic—than those endless sheets of weak ocean. She's waiting for someone at the corner. She's wrapped up in layers, a patchwork of fabric, the mass of clothes making her somehow smaller than she is. I stop just down from the opposite corner, leaning up against a wall and lighting a cigarette. Through these sweet chemicals I watch her, blue smoke my only screen.

It's death by a thousand cuts, or so they say, that hurts the most. I'm sitting right by the blare of a blank whiteboard, staring incessantly at the untold number of bland presentations not quite rubbed out, sitting ghostlike behind the fresh lines made by a man in armour-grey suspenders. I picture all the bleary disappearing afternoons this whiteboard has weathered, all those punctuated swathes of ill-informed strategy, all those points not quite got across.

Dinner is with my reflection, that isometric me tearing veal in a tilted mirror somewhere above my head. Around me are people with meaningful connections to one another, talking, clinking, toasting. Thin cords run from tiny buds in my ears back down inside my jacket, bringing me closer to the sad music I chew to.

And, that night, more music finds me. Turning sideways on a clotted pillow, sweet rolling notes come down to find me.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

STARTS WITH AN S, ENDS WITH A YDNEY

It seems a city obsessed with your opinion. Questionnaires form the moment you alight from the your plane. Papers fluttering in your face as you haul your carry-on down a moving walkway, disposable pens littering the airport floor. Then, as you step out into the blaring light of a real day, you're stopped by barriers, squeezed through a maze, according to choices you make without really knowing it. Slipping onto the train, you think you're safe. Then a wild-haired woman thrusts yet another pen in your hand, this one slightly chewed, slightly bent. She makes you rate your satisfaction of something you haven't even had a chance to experience yet. You lean your head against the scratched perspex window, straining. Would you travel CityTrains again? Agree? Strongly disagree?

You stumble off at the station, back up to street level. You begin to walk, pedestrian-pummeled as you are by the streams of lunch hour shoulders. But you smile: no one needs your opinion, at least for a precious moment. But here, now, is the true cold vacuum of human empathy. All these individual minds, squeezing every spatial inch from every public space, still walking forward as traffic streams towards them. You begin to stare longingly at the cars, with their comparatively balletic problems of angles and tiny victories, merging slowly together in an organic urban dance.

You arrive at your hotel with an empty head and with all energy spent. This city, you think. Some might say a city looking forward. You see a city too obsessed with the present to even consider anything or anyone else.

Friday, June 6, 2008

TEMPORARY LIKE ACHILLES

It was a slow day in the old town. The sort of day that had stopped moving around mid-morning, leant against a wall, and hadn't really seen any reason to do anything else. Even the wind was slow. All that summer dust, which usually pocked the air like so many sunspots, hung lifeless, swinging listlessly from random points in the air. These were the days, in the old town, that were by far the worst.

Arial swung her big front wheel around the statue easily. She let her feet rest on the pedals, but really it was a cycle-once, spin-forever sort of day. There were hardly any cars on the road, just those few nondescript nose-out chassis you saw everywhere on the main street. She held her chin up to the sun, squinting up her eyes, watching her nose push through some lonely clouds.

Down towards the park, smoke circled its way into the sky. Ghosts of boredom escaping, Arial thought. She let her bike coast back down past the hardware store, empty except for shopping trolleys silently grazing beside an overflowing skip. Home, she thought, was always waiting for her, just fifteen minutes back up the hill. But then, the thought of all that pedalling, of aiming for a destination.

She rode on past the park, down towards the river, dry except for tiny trickles.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A TRACING OF ANGELS

Wallpaper. That's what they called this sort of thing. Visual wallpaper. As if there was any other sort. Not noticing what's right in front of you.

Graham grabbed the fire extinguisher from its wall mount, the same fire extinguisher he had seen every day of his school life but had never really seen. Hands shuddering, he turned the canister over, trying to read the instructions, written in airline emergency hieroglyphs, tracing paper people being calm, so calm with their blank mannequin faces.

The thin black hose he gripped tightly, squeezing its shakily while trying to stay calm. There was a pin to pull, not the sturdy iron hoop he imagined a grenade would have, but rather a thin coil of wire, the same as you'd find on so many cheap key-rings. Graham pulled the pin, running, running all the while.






Wednesday, June 4, 2008

COMMENTARY TRACKS FOR MY HEADSHOT

1.
Looks like you've caught me most of the way through a three-quarter turn. Again. Good thing I'm often prepared for just such an occasion. As you can see, my eyebrow is lifted just enough to say, "Woah there, where'd you come from?", but if you look closer, it's also saying, "Not that I didn't expect it."

2.
Oh yeah. Just like that. My hair just did that. Just another inch. And. There. Perfect hair. You can just tell I didn't care what my hair did for this photo. It's so messy. And it only took three hours of subtle refinement. You'd better believe it.

3.
That's what they call smouldering, bro. Like my wife's just been killed by Russian terrorists, but I'm too angry to grieve. Like we're toe-to-toe on a clocktower, and you've knocked the Glock from my hand, but there's still enough cool determination in me to take you on, even with your flamethrower.

4.
I'm so at home in this thick turtleneck, it's not even funny. I'm a cool breeze wafting off the Riviera. I'm looking straight into the sun, but you know I'm not even going to blink. Just that slight squint. Bogey and Bogart rolled into one.

5.
Beard? Optional. Cleavage? Personal.

6.
I'm not really standing in front of Niagra Falls. That's just a blue screen. It's not really blue, either. It's green. And I assume that's Niagra Falls, but it's really just water. The important thing is my chin. We can all agree on that.

7.
Breathe. Just fucking breathe. In. Out. Just like that. Don't try to make the breaths even, dammit. Three seconds in, three seconds out? No fucking way. Makes your pulse go weird. A shorter one in and a longer one out. Just don't think about it. Who spends so fucking long thinking about breathing?




Tuesday, June 3, 2008

STRING THEORY

"So this country music, it's okay now?"
"Some of it is."
"Which of it is okay?"
"Just some of it. You'll be able to tell."
"I feel like a fucking alien."
"Experiencing life for the first time."
"Exactly."
"So what should we do?"
"Why don't we waltz?"
"All the way across Texas?"
"Ha. You do know country music."
"Some of it."
"Alright, shall we waltz, then?"
"Waltzing always seems like such a waste of time and space."
"How's that?"
"All those diagonal backsteps. And you don't even end up going in a straight line."
"Fair enough."
"Drink?"
"Drink."

Monday, June 2, 2008

TINY FLAGS ON A STRING, REALLY

When you manufactured and sold bunting, like he did, you learnt to get your bunting up in the quickest possible time at the shortest available notice. You couldn't just sit around when people asked for bunting. If your bunting wasn't up within an acceptable time to the person who just asked about it, then you just plain would not sell any bunting. And to not sell bunting you could have sold, as a bunting manufacturer and seller, is in fact completely contrary to what you, as a bunting manufacturer and seller, would hope to achieve in your business.

So he was always ready. Sometimes, when he had spare time on this hands, he manufactured more bunting than was needed at the time, because sometimes you actually needed more bunting than you thought. Sometimes, someone would need a little bit of extra bunting because they had underestimated their need for bunting, or perhaps someone had a bunting emergency—either something had happened to the bunting they already had, or needed some almost straight away, for whatever reason. He never pressed his customers for specifics. He just gave them the bunting they needed. He found, from experience, that if you pressed your customer too much about why they needed a certain amount of bunting at very short notice, they were liable to become offended and perhaps take their business elsewhere. And that was the last thing he needed.

Bunting was a cut-throat business. You sank or swam by the quality of your bunting. That was just the way it was.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

OUT STEALING MONKEYS

There, in the shadows, that sound like a watch-face snapping. A magician's hammer sound, a deep-sea pressure sound. This is what it's like out here. Those damn similes of silence. Me in my thick Narrabeen pants, feeling particularly low on beauty. Tonight, of all nights.

I've seen others returning, faces pink-flushed with excitement, black grease smeared underneath their eyes, hands clutching those glorious wriggling bags. I would watch every weigh-in with so much excitement and such a bitter, heavy jealousy. Those reports in the paper, the day after, where they'd often spell names wrong but it so didn't matter—that was what got me most.

And for so long I stood on the sidelines, inventing so many excuses that eventually I just wasn't asked. For what reason did I hang back? For what reason did I deny myself the possibility of so much pleasure? That was my personality, I suppose. The same reason I spend hours winding paper through my typewriter, not willing to commit to anything more permanent and fallible than a thought.

But now, here I was. Fully kitted out. Rather than face the horror of the main street, I caught the bus to Newport where I knew a few people, but not many. Of course, it would've been easier to find the right nets and sacks somewhere on Ocean Street, but then I would've been far too conspicuous. So I trawled the shops on Barrenjoey Road for the necessary supplies, taking far too much time and spending far too much money before I had everything I needed.

My fingers twist and tangle in the fine wire of the snare. My eyes never leave the road, lined up army green through my night-vision. I remain sprung down on my haunches, like I've seen other kids do. It's a matter of time, I tell myself. A matter of time.