Manacles, a novel by Robert Whyte 1972-2020
“All I ask of living is to have no chains on me.”
in which we find James, a portrait of the artist as a young man, in the fabled gardens between an estuary on one side and his city on the other
On its ribbon of gently-rising mangrove-edged estuary, prime river-front real estate expanded upstream and down in a long, serene reach, troubled only by the presence of cross-river bridges, windmills, commissariat stores, failing bookshops, hokey-pokey parlours, doomed tobacconists, second-hand record stores, department stores, railway stations, dental hospitals, sandstone universities and granite government buildings, an ubiquity of underground cinemas and a pestilence of shopping malls. It was a meeting place and centre of ceremony, at the centre of which was the intersection known as the Eternal Traffic Lights.
Once shared land of the Aboriginal people of the Yagura language group, it had been seized by a scumlord British Penal Colony, felled, fenced, drawn and quartered, gutted, diseased, polluted and poisoned, criss-crossed with bitumen roads and snarling traffic, built up, torn down, excavated, dug up, filled in, fought over, bought and sold and resold, resulting in an eclectic, ungainly mess of sky-scraping steel, glass and street-level grime. All was not lost, reliable secret parking places in lanes were still sacrosanct, known only to very few custodians of cultural knowledge, while sanctuaries like the library adjacent to the City Hall stood apart from time as refuges and incarnations of inspiration. The library was a stylish affair, shiny, coloured like a pantone swatch, its ‘quiet please’ whispering accompanied outside by the shimmering water noise of a fountain, around which the pelagic shoals of humanity drifted on their ways hither and yon.
James could see all this from his vantage point at the top of the tallest hoop pine in his garden. Many tall hoops remained, despite being the source of most of Brisbane’s timber and tin houses, perched on stumps with all-around verandas to catch the bay breezes. James regularly climbed this hoop by means of its cross branches, the straightness of its trunk timber stretching into the sky like a ship’s mast, ironically not used for this purpose, being rejected by the snobbish British Admiralty as inferior even when it was quite the opposite. It is at this point, without any forewarning, we dive straight into the inner, un-bracketed, twisting, turning thoughts of our hero. Let the stream-of-consciousness begin. Not good enough for you? Pomp and ceremony be damned. Can’t see the wood for the trees. For the rest of us a forest is just a forest. Call yourself an admiralty? Lemons too dear? Cheapskates. Morons. Limey bastards. History, a nanna nap from which I am trying to awake, oops, nearly lost my footing there, let’s not stream all our consciousness at once, save some scraps for later.
Re-establishing his footing on the rough bark James watched from his perch the movement of the lunchtime crowd, human and avian. Pigeons wheeled up, swirled, landed again, settling into shuffling neck-bobbing walks, hustling for scraps of conscious streams, each crust erupting in blue-feathered squabbles. At random, the air was filled with a hundredfold wing-beats. Pigeons flew up as one, whirling briefly, landing once more again to peck and steal and strut.
With his head in the clouds, at the top of his tree, James had discovered it was possible to commune with ancient Greek gods. You didn’t expect that, eh. Gods! They not only exist, we’ll have you know, they are rather pleasant treetop companions. Except for Poseidon, who was a gobshite. Fortunately, he was mostly aquatic and unlikely to tiptoe through the tree tops.When climbing trees, James carried a red plastic bucket to whack Poseidon with, his bucket charmed by the powerful goddess Post Viral Neurasthenia who thought Poseidon was a tiresome tool-squeeze.
While happy in his own strelitzia patch, James was accustomed to offsetting the potential tedium of full-time gardening with occasional forays through the city, searching for signs of his characters, the movers and shakers, poseurs and fakers, manoeuvrers and forsakers, whose interwoven threads made up the rich tapestry of life. It was a hobby. He wasn’t looking for a father figure. Why did he think of that, just now? he wondered, as he climbed down from the tree to the ground, emptied out the heavy green pine cones he had picked to weight his red bucket in case of encountering fractious deities and set out on his rounds of the city. First stop the chalk-white university buildings adjacent, notably the anatomy lab where he once had a part-time job cutting the noses off human cadavers, so the skulls were easier to boil clean. This was next door to the Veterinary School where he just couldn’t get enough of the joy of watching people treat their pets better than they treated people.
in which James visits a retired navy admiral disguised as a young woman, resists the temptation of lamingtons, joins gay blades playing poker in the back room and barely escapes with his sanity and sobriety
Placing the red bucket in its nest of broken bracken, crushed leaves, snapped twigs and brown earth, behind a green screen of close-growing ferns beside the squat building of the Veterinary School, James turned the tap, watching the whites of his knuckles pink again as the tap water gushed out. The weight of water settled the red bucket more firmly in its enclave. James, gazing distractedly at the curled end of a fern frond, was thinking they were called fiddleheads.
He turned off the tap. Slopping water over the rim until the level was three-quarters full he wiped the bucket on the grass, entering the reception where a collection of plants, waggling like scimitars, greeted the visitor with unintelligible swordplay. He placed the red bucket on the parquetry beside the plants and after moistening a handkerchief began wiping the residue of dust from the dark green leaves.
The ancient voice of the octogenarian at the counter creaked as it spoke:
“Putting the hurt on dirt.”
“Busting the lust on dust,” James said
“Putting the time into grime,” said the voice.
“Scraping the stuck-on-muck to chuck.”
When James got to this part of the rhyme he stood up and began mimicking the dance of the receptionist who, despite being a man in his eighties, occupied the body of a young woman in her late twenties. The dancing style involved a great deal of exaggerated elbow movements and not much below the waist. The stability of the hindquarters was to prevent bodice ripping, always on the edge of spontaneous combusting out as her sides strained against the seams.
The old man and James repeated their lines together in a high pitched wheedle of no particular melody, the old man in his dark haired, dark-eyed, firm-breasted, low-cut body, with a skirt like a spray-on tan emphasising the shapes of hip and buttock which, with every beat, were given a tiny nudge, producing a barely discernible oscillation.
The office desk between them began swaying sympathetically as the gorgeous body teetered on high heels towards the counter and leaned over it, looking at the plants James had been cleaning. James raised his eyebrows and tilted his head in a mock salute.
The old man batted back his expression with an eyelid, pretending to busy himself around the office, walking to and fro, picking things up and putting them down again.
“I’ll just finish these leaves and leave,” James said, regretting his words as soon as they left his lips. If he leaves from the right, does that mean he’s left?
The old man held up the young woman’s hand, bent at the wrist and arched towards James with curled, painted nails descending forwards in an oh-you-wicked-thing gesture.
The old man rarely spoke. His wizened voice tended to shatter the illusion of the young female body it occupied, hip-swaying, swivelling, sliding into a high-tech office chair beside a sleek Selectric typewriter, an exterminating-angel hand sliding across the surface of the counter to take a compact mirror between its thumb and first two fingers, bringing it up to the unblemished face to inspect an eyelash, askew.
A display aquarium was set into the desk, two-toned legs darkly visible through the moss-ingrown plate-glass tiles of its sides, distorting their image, the legs, until they resembled those of an improbably tall, two-toned unicorn. Hair clips shuffled back and forth silently in a lacquered, mountainously permed, top-heavy black do. Cheekbones blazed, as subtle as the arches on the Sydney harbour bridge and approaching that magnitude. A war hero in his eighties, happily inhabiting the body of a Geisha in her bubbling aquarium office, pursing bright red lips at the kissing fish.
James rinsed his rather manly handkerchief in the increasingly dirty water in his red bucket, squeezed the moisture from it and finished wiping the dust-glazed leaves. The old man held out a plate of month-old lamingtons which James had declined for the previous 30 days and did so once more as he backed away and manoeuvred himself through the entrance doors, returning to the nest of close-growing ferns where he poured away the dusty water, his leaf-wiping snotrag disappearing in a wet arc through the air behind the flush green ferns, landing with a sound like far-off thunder.
Below the Veterinary School was a basement of ill repute. It contained an alcove for listening to LP records on headphones, a billiard table for playing snooker and dimly lit tables around which students of medicine and engineering played poker for small change.
James exchanged a dollar bill for a hundred one-cent pieces and sat down at the tequila table. The Jim Beam, Bacardi and Stones Green Ginger wine tables were already full. All eyes were on Belinda who kept her cards very close to her chest and her hair extensions locked to prevent the lads lifting them. She maintained her advantage at cards by not drinking anything stronger than a storm in a teacup.
James watched the play for a while, not entering the game, partaking of lavish serves of Cheezels, Jatz, Twisties, Iced Vovos, Tim Tams, Violet Crumble, Vegemite Worms, Samboy Chips, Maltesers, Cherry Ripes and Burger Rings on trolleys being pushed between the tables by the players.
The card sharps at the tequila table, munching on oreos and lemon wedges, were, from his left, John Malkovitch, Paul Newman, Sean Connery, Belinda, Hunter S. Thompson, Black Jack, Jodie Foster and George Clooney.
James jerked his outstretched first and second fingers towards himself, indicating to Foster he wanted in. She dealt the cards expertly, at high speed, without betraying the emotions raging behind her eyes. James fanned his five cards to view them, while keeping them almost flat to the table. He observed he had been dealt a straight flush in diamonds, from Ace to 10. He pushed his sack of cents to the centre of the table.
“All in,” he said.
Letting the cards snap back to the table, and keeping them covered with his left hand, he took a cheerio dipped in tomato sauce from a nearby cart.
The other players seemed to take forever to decide what to do. Foster peered at James over her insouciant lisp and pushed two bags of pennies to towards his.
“I’ll see your cents and raise you mine,” she said.
By this time James was feeling rather queasy, swallowing repeatedly and experiencing unpleasant spasms of colonic pressure. He looked at the tumbler of tequila on the table in front of him and wondered if that might help. A sort of vague ripping, gurgling sound came from his intestines.
He pushed his cards forward.
“I fold,” he said, bolting for the toilet.
As the dunny door rebounded off the wall and hit him deftly in the forehead, he noticed the urinal had a number of large pink crystal tablets in the grated gutter at the bottom of the plate of stainless pissing steel. They weren’t the answer. He hurried past four occupied cubicles and darted into the fifth. He saw why it had been avoided. The seat, back of the lid and the rim were all liberally smeared with fresh shit. The stench was so powerful it caused a column of projectile vomit to hurtle from his oesophagus, hitting the toilet dead centre, just grazing the shit-smeared seat, filling the bowl instantly with a strange mixture of colours which would no doubt retain their intensity for thousands of years. The vomit torrent ceased as abruptly as it had begun, barely touching the sides of his throat on the way out. He felt fabulous, apart from the smell. The shitter, not his. He smelled like a champion. Like Fleurs de lis. Like Josephine’s demi monde. Shielding his nose in the crook of his elbow he reached forward to pull the chain, releasing a cistern of water which threatened to rise up and overflow before the S bend reached out and dragged it away, leaving a bowl of sparking clean water. The cleansing power of fresh snack vomit. Astounding. He reached for the relatively unspeckled toilet brush and waved it pathetically in and out of the water and across the smears of shit until the scene began to resemble Lake Eyre rather more than the Simpson Desert. This took about six full flushes, something he would not have been able to do had not the wholesale evacuation of his stomach contents resulted in such spiffing health and revived spirits. He felt extremely community-minded as he returned the toilet brush to its holder. He decided not to gather up a few handfuls of toilet paper and finish the job properly. Civic pride could only take you so far. Anyway, there didn’t seem to be any toilet paper in this cubicle. He made his way back to the wash basins and splashed water over his face to muted applause from the occupied stalls. He thanked his engaged audience, saying, “Another victory like that and we are done for,” as the applause petered out.
in which James emerges from a dive in pretty good shape and continues wandering in search of a fortune-telling cookie, having sent his food snake down to Luggage Point
Emerging from the basement of ill repute with no more than a light sensitivity to remind him of the after effects of excessive hospitality, James squinted at the bright sunshine. Sounds and smells came to his senses. Tarmac. Muted conversations. Doors clicking shut, others opening. Labouring air-conditioning units. Soft rustle of leaf fall. Sensations. Sand, more often dried-white and airborne, now heavy trace elements of language the wrack of tide and wind have silted here. The mind like the half-dry sand of a beach darkened by waves. He carried his empty red bucket towards the City Square, across measured sea-green grass flats criss-crossed by strict bordered paths hedging their beds.
A guttural whisper of cut grass. One of his fellow gardeners, a time-wizened cirrhosis, bent wheezing over a rake, microscopically gathering in the stray fragments of grass not trapped in the catcher. Precise, ordered, suspicious and bitter, juggling the workings of a green world, a study in decline sketched on a green canvas, the smouldering stub of a roll-your-own lodged in the corner of his snaggle-toothed mouth.
James approached the library, his red plastic bucket dangling bright beside him. It was a strange building, uniform on the outside, unsubtly less-is-more modernist, the exterior stone but not stone, fake stone, or to be pedantic, real stone aggregate with Portland cement, concrete textured and coloured to look like stone, yet looking like nothing, just form following function.
The library was functionally and in reality a simple shell, an incubating chamber for metamorphosing. In it there were books of every shape, colour, age and smell. In those books, remorseless knowledge. It seemed concrete, but this was certainly an illusion. Most things are, which is convenient when you have made up your mind, then have to change it. The walls were in fact constructed from a combination of rough and smooth endoplasmic reticulum which formed an interconnected network studded with ribosomes where protein synthesis occurred. From this superficial tension James observed an adult human was emerging, like a butterfly unfolding from a chrysalis, leaving behind its grubby past. It was a female human, not a particularly interesting or significant female human, just one unlucky enough to be observed by James in one of his wilfully imaginative moments, which he utilised to transform ordinary reality into something with more literary potential. Or so he thought. In his mind, if we can call it that, he saw a creature with the body, tail and back legs of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. She was wearing tight black slacks and a yellow blouse, which tempted James to consider a hymenopteran mud wasp as an alternative to a griffin but his entomology was rusty so he opted for the antiquities, which he knew better. Anyway, ancient Egypt had more legs, not in a factual sense, more in a marketing sense, than a mud dauber, which like all insects had six legs, but let’s not let the truth get in the way of a good story.
The human, emerging from the glass door entrance to the library, quite apart from what was going on in the mind of a passing stranger with a red bucket, had two ordinary, human legs, not at all resembling those of a lion. She looked taller than average but her head was lengthened by a twisted mass of blond hair and tied into a shape like a wrung-out mop, which looked lopsided and aloof, as though her head was somehow too high for her body, which could have caused her proportions to be misjudged. Privately, James had noted her legs looked long, which suggested either that he was having difficulty maintaining the griffin-from-the-chrysalis idea, or that she probably was tall. She was carrying a double stack of library books, two stacks side-by-side and precariously balanced, forcing her to lean back a little as she walked, her arms around the books which pressed against her yellow blouse. The moving library doors, closing after her, reflected the back of her blouse, the back of her slacks and her platform soles, which, even if she was already tall, would have made her taller. In the reflection she might have looked like a distorted griffin, if you mapped—onto the imagined griffin shape—the actuality of longer black legs, a yellow torso and an aloof head with no characteristics of an eagle to speak of, and an utter absence of wings, this last a sure-fire deal-breaker for griffin-hood. James watched the reflection of the black and yellow shape dwindling in the plate glass. What would you rather, a tiger in your tank or a female lion on the back seat? He smelled the smell of a dog sniffing the bloated carcass of another dog and closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells which were not there. Go easy with those visions like a good young imbecile, he said to himself. He had left the library behind him and had come to the end of the path where it crossed in front of the City Square. He looked across the road, paused in thought, then jaywalked across, dodging between two blue buses, the bucket dangling red and bright against the field of blue.
in which George McIntyre senses trouble brewing like a double-strength pot of tea on a cantankerous stove with no hope of biscuits, just mouldy rye bread and meagre supplies of Mandelbrot sets and morphine to help him pass the time between now and then, here and the hereafter, not to mention the remembrance of things past and the search for lost time
George McIntyre watched from his window of lead-lined glass, lit with green and red diamonds, which left only some of the panes to see though. He shifted his weight sideways, his eyes on stilts, his body and its language following James and his red bucket sidestepping between buses, crossing the angry street and disappearing around the corner of the building’s white-in-grey flecked stone.
On this corner, around which James had just now disappeared, an Indian girl in embroidered white and dull pink was handing out brochures extolling the virtues of selflessness. George knew this because she had given him one of those pamphlets. He had slowed, using the pretext of spiritual enlightenment to satisfy his curiosity on the topic of her embroidered white and pink one-piece dress, gathered at the waist by ribbons, below which the skirt section reached more than midway down the calf, almost to the ankles. Above the skirt the attached bodice was shaped in such a way as to make allowance for her small breasts, which George had convinced himself were bra-less. Their shapes were visible through the lace-work, an embroidered crescent moon, its tips on her shoulders, the curve gathered with two darts, making the bodice quite close-fitting and being lace-like, not entirely opaque but nearly so, dozens if not hundreds of small lace-embroidered, roughly circular gaps revealing the suggestion of bare skin and the girl’s nipples.
The garment, which from a distance effectively clothed her torso, waist, hips and legs, seemed to be the only piece of clothing she owned. Since George had not seen her wearing any other, he surmised either this was her only garment, washed each evening, or more likely she had several identical dresses which she wore when handing out brochures.
Her slightly angular face was classically beautiful. She resembled an idealistic vision of Rani Padmavati, Queen of Chittor, and she may well have been this person, except for the non-alignment of time zones. Padmavati had been an exceptionally beautiful princess of the 14th century Singhal kingdom of Sri Lanka, according to a talking parrot named Hiraman.
After seven minutes of George ogling and dissembling on the topic of spiritual attainment, the goddess Athena happened to be passing and mistook George’s loitering as the result of some sort of hocus pocus. She sent Hermes to break the spell which he did by cracking George across the back of the head with a winged staff around which two snakes were carved, then ferrying George back to the town hall in a shopping trolley, leaving him unconscious on the floor of the Lord Mayor’s office as one of his impish pranks. George had since gone a bit vague on the whole beautiful-Indian-girl thing, but knew she was trouble. Still, he couldn’t stop spying on her. It was around that time that George began stocking up on serious drugs.
He turned and trundled towards the drinks cabinet for his morning fix. Nicely tucked away in the cabinet he had a smear of high-grade hash on a butter knife with a bone handle, a mouthful of mescaline, a foolscap book of blotter acid, an assault shaker half full of cocaine and a thousand celebrity poppers, pumpers, pimpers, primpers, plumpers, uppers, downers, inbetweeners, a quart of tequila, a quart of Jim Beam, the butt of a bottle of Bacardi, a pile of rolling Stones Green Ginger Wine, a pint of raw ether, a bag of restrained ecstasy, a knockout punch of ketamine, two lungfuls of nitrous oxide, a mushroom cloud of psilocybin, a tub of bath salts, a pork barrel of peyote and two dozen amyls, a lot to choose from. Strangely, he still preferred the gently aromatic wild-sea kelpie of a single malt.
1.5 LOTUS EATERS
in which there is no silence in the storm, no rest for the ruckus, no rest for the leftovers for that matter, does that look like a camel’s arse to you, no it looks like hang-dog look, this is heavy shit man, I’m spinning out
Let’s step back in time a few minutes. Aloof on platform soles an angular, clear-limbed face is accompanied by a tall body descending a stairwell in the library, peering over a large double stack of books. Her name is Glenda, but we can call her Lotus Eater, even though she doesn’t eat lotus flowers and probably wouldn’t even if she were offered some. She is, however, actually tall and blonde. Naturally blonde, if you want to know. She is not happy about this situation and it’s going to be a tricky thing to keep her on course in this story.
Having lived through a bad marriage with an abusive bricklayer and a ten-year-old son, Glenda was now attempting to get her life back, little realising she never really had one, neither in the past, nor in the future—due to the problem with her gender. As we might have mentioned, she was female. This was a serious disadvantage. We could have made her male but that wouldn’t have drawn James out of his delirious fantasy of writing books to be acclaimed by Joycean scholars and the man in the street and notice we didn’t say woman.
Have you ever noticed there aren’t any housebloke’s knees? They don’t exist. Men must be allergic to mops. They say they’re frightened to kick the bucket. Yeah, yeah.
Reality is cold. Despite all the hat-pin jabbing and Emily Prankster efforts, men have serious skills and we have wearisome skillets. It’s out of the frying pan into the washing up, scrub those flotsam jams. Who’s taking care of your health worker? Who’s thrown out the baby? Who’s saved the bath water? Who’s stubbed their toe in the tunnel of love? Who’s up a drainpipe quicker than a pepper sprout? These boots are made for wearing out. One foot’s on the platform, another’s out of sight in a train of thought.
Did we mention she was not happy?
in which fingers grow from the earth like asparagus spears only to find themselves trapped in underwear world designed to keep the outside world from being soiled by sweat and excretions, bringing new life to the phrase sanity clause
As George McIntyre savoured the first of his morning malts, Tom Ryan, a grave man with a deep crypt and an even deeper voice called out, “Morning Deputy.” His honeyed utterance boomed.
“Morning, Mr Mayor,” said George in reply, his voice falling on absent ears, for Tom Ryan was well away, gliding in his electrically powered wheelchair along the hall, between two vaults of grey bric-a-brac stone and a polished floor. The wheelchair turned into an open doorway, leaving the empty corridor behind.
George, high on a mixture of bennies, a hefty overdose of heroine and a gallon of raw peyote, was hallucinating himself in a bus on his way to his own funeral, having realised he was dead. This wasn’t entirely to be expected, since he was alive although he apparently dies later, after being walloped by the bumper bar of a fleeing bus, but that just goes to show you the power of strong narcotics.
Just what, exactly, is the meaning of the expression “I don’t mind”? That’s a toughie. George McIntyre, however, is not the sort of guy to worry about such trifling issues, having hopped into the lotus flowers after the troubling incident with the Indian guru girl.
When Ajax snubbed Odysseus, he had good reason. Odysseus was given the armour of Achilles, which was impossible to penetrate except for a missing bit on the back of each ankle, but Ajax thought he should have got it. Same old, same old. Instead of waiting in a dark alley to give Odysseus a good thrashing Ajax instead goes totally batshit and kills himself, which is why he’s in underwear world where everything is breathable gortex, not really a solution to broken down hormones which give rise to that really interesting odour you think should be appealing but isn’t.
in which having narrowly avoided a fate worse than strawberry jam, James is scattered to the four shortcuts between the bookshops, his charm intact but his vocational skills lacking
A second bus, sliding into place behind the first, lurched forward in an attempt to smear the annoying redhead-and-bucket, frustratingly few moments too late to jumble bits of James against the emergency window and rear section of its twin. The scissor-sound of unsatisfied chitin slithered below, as six legs criss-crossed in vain. The bus ahead surged away, filled with passengers heading west. Frustrated, the second bus ignored the last spoiled portion of Grammar girls wanting to get on, leaving them to fester on the footpath. Snorting bus mucous, it pulled away from the kerb to follow its friend. The two buses gathered speed and side by side zoomed across the pedestrian crossing at the next intersection, scarfing up four buffaloes, half a wildebeest, two zebras, a reclining giraffe and a hyena couple not enjoying listless sex. Soon there would be nowhere safe in the city to cross the street.
James had felt a puff of oily air and machinery as he squeezed through, but did not look back knowing it was generally unwise and specifically to be avoided when emerging from the underworld.
He entered the brazen schoolbook, the first half of which was overflowing with copies of the Jacaranda Atlas, which James imagined must be filled with blank pages since philosophers had told cartographers the map was not the territory. After this display the shop devolved into a labyrinthine maze between stacks of unsorted volumes. A path between them led to the side entrance into a lane between this block and the next, where a Chinese restaurant opposite had rigged up a trellis of so many bright-red roast Peking ducks there was no way to get into the shop. James assumed there were private tunnels like the pneumatic postal system in Paris, through which customers could be blasted with compressed air to land inside the restaurant on plush, buttoned, red leather sofas, keen to sample China’s duck delicacy, big in the Ming Dynasty when the first roast duck restaurant, Bianyifang, opened near Qianmen in Beijing in 1416.
Next door to the Chinese Restaurant was an occult bookshop featuring life-size tarot cards, lovestrology failures, astrolabes, pendulums, obsidian spheres, flagging chakra and black tourmaline. James was not superstitious, so he wasn’t tempted to petrol bomb the place. The lane led further to Australia’s self-confessed premier fabric retailer since 1930, then veered diagonally to an arcade where stax of wax overflowed almost to the escalator with fine vinyl, the name coming from the early Dutch masters. James had only ever bought one record there, Both Feet on the Ground by Kenny Burrell, which featured snakeskin boots on an aerial photograph of farmland with clouds at knee level. He hadn’t listened to it, as he did not own a record player, but he had bought eleven copies with his first pay cheque, knowing it would become rare one day.
The next stop was the main intersection, one block back from the estuary, where the black cat tobacconist on one corner supplied Celtique, Gitanes, and Gauloises for would-be writers. An arcade midway from there to the estuary featured a shop selling bongs and hookahs, a vegetarian bookshop with edible but not very nutritious books, then lloyds where you could buy a tea-chest full of books for $30.00, read them and sell them back to the shop for $3.00 including a 10c deposit on the tea chest. Next was an empty shop which never had anything in it to sell, but had a shopkeeper who stood all day behind a cash register. James had never been in there. He wanted to finish writing his book first because it seemed unlikely, once you went in, you were ever going to come out, at least not in the same part of the universe.
On the left-hand side further down the arcade there was another record shop which, obviously, he had not bought anything from. It had no name. Right next door was the radical press bookstore for activists. It was run by Peter Styvesant, an ex-white-slaver who had seen the light and looked the other way. He had three girls working in the shop making tea and pastries but he didn’t pay them. The least radical book he had in his shop was The Little Red Schoolbook which was banned in the UK, France, New Zealand and Queensland but not the rest of Australia.
The offices of Radical Times were upstairs. It was a newspaper aimed at an audience of left, far left, extreme left and ultra-extreme left. The last of these were half beings who had forsaken their right sides entirely. James sprang up the bamboo staircase into the sunny press room.
He was favourite of the old commies, who assured him he was a genius. They wouldn’t publish anything he wrote saying it was too good for them.
“It’s the man with bucket,” Styvesant said, “the last hope we have for the sweet thing that is Australian writing. How are you, James?”
“Declamatory,” said James who always made mistake of answering this question truthfully as if people actually wanted to know.
“Are you working on your granny’s opus, then?” said Styvesant.
“Always,” said James.
“Am I in it, tell me?”
“You are now.”
“Be gentle with me, lad, you’ve got a tendency to take strips off your adulatory portraits.”
“I’d probably be more appreciative if you published me,” said James.
“Oh, not this old, lame-duck topic,” said Styvesant, pouring two tankards of Stones Green Ginger Wine and lighting up a Styvesant, offering one of each to James by tapping the packet until a filtered tip protruded from the torn foil, and indicating with a wave of his yellow-stained fingers the tankard nearest. James waved away the cigarette, taking out one of his own Gauloises and lighting it with Styvesant’s match, your face and my arse. He settled into the wicker-man armchair across from Styvesant and gave the editor a shrug.
Styvesant took the shrug and put it in his inside coat pocket with the others.
“Can you write jokes?” he asked.
“What sort of jokes?” James asked.
“What kind are there?” said Styvesant. “Funny ones, obviously. Can you write those?”
“Ah, there you go. Can you write limericks, tell me?”
“Can you write about the death of capitalism and the class system?”
“Can you write a cryptic crossword, now then?”
“Can you explain militant socialism?”
“Have you got a few words about the housing crisis, political prisoners, the right to social justice and equality, and the rise of the proletariat?”
“What about a book review?”
“There you see, fella, what can you write?”
“I write what I write.”
“Oh, and that is the category you have. It is astonishing more people have not cottoned on and given up the other rubbish the papers pay for and just write what James writes.”
“They will,” said James.
“I am sure they will, we all will, myself included. Until then, be on your way, young genius, I’ve got work to do,” said Styvesant. His cigarette had burned down and was now charring the callous between his fingers. He drained his ginger wine and levered the butt out from between his fingers, using it to light another cigarette. James drank his ginger wine with a grimace and washed his tankard at the sink, drying it with a tea towel from before the Russian revolution. He returned it to the editor’s desk. Styvesant was pounding out another timeless tribute to Australian Radical 1887-1889. He didn’t even notice James leaving, fully occupied singing the Red Flag at the top of his voice, tears streaming from his eyes.
in which tiny humans throw giant statues from cliffs at dragonflies and miss the opportunity to create a still life of a gorgonzola cheese and a glass of burgundy
The gardener coughed and muttered to himself, while watching the disappearing red blob of a bucket in a field of blue with one eye, foraging between rakes, spades, shears, pruning forks, pots, pans and sacks of slime with the other. Underneath these, a green plastic bucket. He pulled it clanking through the past. He stepped on the grey stippled electric doormats causing the glass doors of the library to slide into themselves, leaving a threateningly open space, about to be closed.
The gardener placed his grey peaked cap beside the first of the large glazed pots. Rough-stained hands, tipping. Just enough. Gurgle. Next. Wet green weight, water in the bucket. Water channelled over soil. Air with the water. Bubbles.
Girls, swelteringly halter-necked with bright flat tops. Ogling their flattened breasts, the gardener allowed a discoloured tongue to protrude gently between blotchy lips.
James was hungry. Not just hungry, famished. Reamed out and burnished. He had been colonically irrigated from arsehole to breakfast. Now could you play his midriff like a conga drum. He entered the victory hotel by the side door leading to the kitchens. Marge and Mabel were fixing the counter lunches, steak, chicken schnitzel, salad and chips.
“Jimmy, you lovely boy, why aren’t you at work?” said Marge as he kissed and hugged them both.
“I’m writing,” he said.
“Oh, you poor thing,” said Mabel. “Does it hurt?”
“Not as much as starving to death,” he said.
“Are you hungry, then?” said Marge.
“I could eat the crotch out of low-flying duck.”
“Well, you will have to sing for supper, won’t you,” said Marge.
“You know I can’t sing,” he said. “I can’t remember the words, even the ones I write.”
“Thank heavens for small mercies,” said Mabel. “Well, in that case, it will have to be the potatoes, wouldn’t you say?”
“I would,” said James. He put his red bucket on the floor under the potato peeler and took a 20-kilo bag of kennebecs to the bench next to a sink on left side. He emptied five kilos into the sink and scrubbed the dirt off them, before tossing them into the potato peeler, a spinning metal barrel about the size of a milk urn at the widest part with a rough surface on the inside and jets of water spraying the spuds whirling around inside it. The art of the peeler was not to let it go all the way, which would grind off too much of the potato. Just until most of the skin was gone, leaving dints and eyes and other imperfections to be cut off with an apple corer-peeler.
Marge lived in Browns Plains, drove a dirty-white EK Holden, had two grown up daughters, one a primary school teacher in Hughenden, the other a heroin addict in Kings Cross. Her husband Reg worked at evans deakin making Yabby Pumps, not his official job but one encouraged by all keen fishermen. Marge lived in Drewvale, or Browns Plains north, drove a Holden EH Special, had two boys, both unemployed gas fitters and a husband on the war pension with lung cancer. Her husband’s name, as luck would have it, was also Reg. He had been horse trainer and spent a lot of time studying the form guide, but was past the point where he could easily get out to a racetrack or the tab to place a bet.
They were plain, hard-working women, funny and smart and Australian to their toenails. They loved James and they loved to shyack him. He loved Marge and Mabel so much it almost made his heart burst. They were true friends, people who enjoyed his company and didn’t have an agenda. They might see him twice in a week or not at all for a month—it made no difference. When James came, they could take a break while he chopped lettuce, grated carrots or washed potatoes like a demon, whatever needed doing. He then had free run of the sandwich bar, still before the survery opened, where his choice was a white bread square bun with as much lettuce as he could squash into it, with a pushed-in boiled egg and squirt of mayonnaise, a lunch he had to eat out of a plastic sandwich bag or risk wearing the lot.
He finished the potatoes five kilos at a time, then fed the first five kilos lengthways through the slicer, into baskets ready for the deep fryer. He ate his salad roll like a ravenous beast, kissed March and Mabel good bye with a hug and once again hit the road.
1.9 SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS
in which, on the horns of a dilemma, we choose between a rock and a hard place, avoiding Charybdis by passing too close to Scylla in the straits where the rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer while the vessel of state is driven between anarchy and despotism
Glenda could not get at her black handbag carried by its strap over her elbow, lower on that side so that it wouldn’t slip down over her wrist and get in the way. Sunglasses would have helped. In the sun her blouse was as bright as 200 supernovas in a tin can. It made her squint. Squinting made it hard to see and hazardous to negotiate the path from the library towards the eternal traffic lights near where she had found a park in a quiet lane nobody seemed to know about because there was always a park there.
Her slacks were solar collectors with legs. If this kept up she would be able to sell hot blood to vampires from a spigot out the back of her knee. Wouldn’t that be a treat.
Walking and squinting at the same time was like having her head wrapped in a gauze corset. It felt like her hair was about to unravel. Lucky she wasn’t chewing gum. Is it really good for your teeth? Maybe 6,000 year old birch bark tar would be, but that’s not Juicy Fruit. Mayans had chicle, the Greeks chewed mastic and the American Indians had spruce resin. Sugarless gum might be okay but no one sells it.
Who is that creep? Is that the old creep who waters the pots in the library? What happened to the skinny bloke with the red bucket. At least he was nice to look at. What’s with the bucket, though? Nice smile, a pencil hanging off a button hole in his shirt, scraps of paper shuffling in and out of his pockets. This guy looks like he’s on death’s door, except death has already been out to give him a touch up. Blotches on blotches, the rest grey and grimy. What is he doing, perving at her? I won’t be wearing this outfit with perverts like that around. Decrepit old prick. Perving at her tits. You can’t see them buster there are books in the way. Ugh, is that a tongue? I’m staying on this side. Fuck what’s that? A double bill with Alvin Purple and something. Can’t be worse, can it? Oh fucking flannel. Battle of the Planet of the Apes, fifth in a long franchise. What was it anyway, a nature documentary? Goofy blokes with too much hair? What if Shakespeare had written Planet of the Apes? Everyone would say how wonderful it was. What if you said it was utter crap. Furore. A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery. Whoever said that was a fucking arrogant prick. What are volitional errors, anyway? Wilful fuck ups? I know, I’ll just hit my thumb with a hammer really hard on purpose, to gain entry through this portal to discover excruciating ouch.
1.10 WANDERING ROCKS
in which everyone talks at once, represented in a succession of vignettes which would be more authentic if they all took place at the same time, as nature intended
“What are you doing?”
“I’m searching,” he said.
“For the treasure map between your thighs.”
“It’s just a body,” he told her.
“It’s not your body,” she said.
“It is mine. I’m possessing it.”
“A body is not a possession.”
“It can be, if it is possessed by someone else. This is an example.”
“It’s not an example, it’s metempsychosis by force.”
“Possession is nine tenths of the law.”
“What’s the other tenth? Exorcism?”
“If you were in my body you wouldn’t like it,” he said.
“How do you know I’m not?”
“My body died.”
“That’s no excuse for abandoning it.”
“I had no choice,” he said.
“Everybody has a choice and mine chooses not to be inhabited by an evil-smelling, selfish old creep like you.”
“I smell no evil, I smell only goodness. I am beautiful, young and fresh. I smell like rose petals.”
“That’s me you smell. You can’t smell yourself. You’re on the inside. You smell putrid. You smell like death.”
“I am dead, but this body in which I survive is alive.”
“Are you a demon?” she asked.
“No,” he said.
“Are you a god?”
“Do you have magic or super powers?”
“I have no magic or super powers. The only capabilities or powers I have are yours, those of this body.”
“I have no magic or super powers, obviously, or you wouldn’t have been able to possess me,” she said.
“You offered no resistance,” he said.
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“I have feelings too, you know.”
“I doubt that,” she said.
“You have no idea. You don’t realise how sensitive I am.”
“Cut the crap. I have something to tell you.”
“What is it?”
“Forcible possession by another entity doesn’t actually occur. It’s a myth. It’s an impossibility.”
“Then how you do explain me being here?”
“You’re not here, not in a possession sense. Logically, you’re a part of me.”
“I don’t like the sound of this.”
“I didn’t think you would.”
“What are suggesting?”
“You’re going to have to leave. Whoever you are, whatever part of me you represent, you’re no longer wanted. Whatever I was working through, it’s over,” she said.
“What about the boy with the bucket?” he asked.
“James? What’s he got to do with it?”
“He says hello to me, he talks to me, he sings with me, does the funny dance with me, he knows it’s me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. That’s all me.”
“It’s you on the outside, but it’s me on the inside.”
“He doesn’t see the inside. No one does. No one ever does, with anyone.”
“I don’t care, I’m not going.”
“Fine. If you won’t leave, I will,” she said
“You can’t do that, if you leave, this body will die.”
“Not my problem, it stinks in here. Even though it is my body, if I have no say in it, I opt out.”
“You can’t do that. it’s not possible.”
His mind more at ease with something in his belly, his bile pumping and juices flowing, James walked, his eyes on the world while his mind occupied itself with a trailer from the motion picture My Other Life.
Styvesant had his serious face on, his tobacco stained fingers in his mostly white grey-flecked hair, his other hand nursing a top up of Bin 28 from the Radical Times cellar.
“I want you to write something for me,” he said, with a pleading look.
“What sort of something?” said James.
“Something with a bite in it.”
“Something incisive? Something that you can get your teeth into? Something you can chew over? Something not too hard to swallow, nourishing the heart mind and soul?”
“You can do it.”
“I can do it?”
“You can do it. I see it in your face.”
“I might need more of this Bin 28.”
The city sparkled, its roads colossal structures in memory of the god Tarmacadam. The air was so real you could taste it, dismissing, with not so much as a second thought, the subtle after-taste of raw sewage. The humidity was a gift to sweat glands everywhere.
James blustered on through the city, dangling, red. It’s just a larger aquarium, he thought. No, a terrarium. A big glass box with a city in it.
Glenda remembered a conversation with her mother, a conversation which clinched her decision to leave home, get married and have an independent life. A foolish misjudgement that ended poorly, as it turned out.
“One day, Glenda,” her mother had said, “you’ll leave home and make your own way in the world.”
“I won’t be there to guide you, you’ll have to make your own decisions.”
“But if there is one thing I could tell you, from the heart, which might spare you the heartache and misery I have endured, it’s just one thing. One piece of advice.”
Her mother’s voice was barely a whisper.
“Don’t knit,” she said.
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
Glenda looked at her mother’s face. She was serious.
“Don’t knit?” said Glenda.
“Don’t knit darling, that’s all I can tell you,”
“It’s the needles.”
“Careful, even saying those two words together sends shivers up my spine.”
“Knitting needles aren’t the devil, Mum.”
“You think? Not any of them? What if they were made from plutonium? You could die of radiation poisoning.”
“Knitting needles are not made from plutonium.”
“They would be ridiculously expensive.”
“Rich people could buy them.”
“It just wouldn’t happen.”
“Are you saying you can predict the future?”
“I am just saying, there are no plutonium knitting needles now and there never will be.”
“What about wool?”
“You have a problem with wool?”
“If a dog, cat, or even you were to swallow wool it could get stuck in your throat causing you to choke, go into a stage of strangulation, resulting in intestinal problems and almost certain death.”
“I have to go out now. Don’t wait up.”
“Sweet kid,” said Marge. “Good worker.”
“Just as well.” said Mabel. “Not the sharpest knife in the drawer.”
“Do you think he knows?”
“Self-obsessed. Wouldn’t know if his arse was on fire.”
“Reg would eat him for breakfast,” said Marge.
“My Reg would eat him for breakfast and spit his nuts into the Liffey,” said Mabel.
“Such a sweet kid,” said Marge. “Good with the spuds. Cuts a clean chip. I like him.”
“What’s not to like?” said Mabel.
George McIntyre, whose temporal existence was stretched or condensed in ways hard to predict, was in the middle of an acid trip which would normally last eight to ten hours. For George it would be lucky to last eight minutes. Most of the mental states like euphoria, unnatural curiosity, overwhelming disinterest and hallucinatory pseudo-insights were part of George’s daily life, off his tits on drugs or totally sober, a state admittedly rare in his case. For George, as a rule, life seemed beautiful and human interactions were deep and meaningful. Feelings of fear and paranoia, when the world seemed harsh, cold, and ugly, were usually fleeting. Nothing to worry about.
When walls appeared to breathe, George knew he was peaking and if there were no suburbs to subdivide or sewerage plans to sign off, another blotter square was called for. Synaesthesia was not an issue, he saw the smells of shit, piss and perfumes as either distinct colours, problems in algebra, or breeds of penguin-dogs. He was well ahead in the synaesthesia stakes. Not that it was a competition.
Thinking back to Padmavati and the hem of her skirt, below it on one side was an anklet, on the other the ankle was bare, and beneath those she wore espadrilles, one each for her rather bony feet, toenails lacquered to match the fabric, the uppers with ranks of tiny glass beads, alternating in short and long strings, each one ending in a pearl.
The only other time (other than in the snooker room of ill repute with Jody Foster and George Clooney) that John Malkovitch and Hunter S Thomson were present together in the same room at the same time was in the film Red, a Bruce Willis vehicle in which Malkovitch plays Marvin, clearly modelled on the real life Hunter S. Thompson who was on set as a special advisor, lurking in the background wearing a nice off-the-shoulder number shouting instructions and hugging a stuffed pig.
Poseidon was not ecstatic about being referred to as a gobshite, but being god of the sea he had a lot on his mind including an ongoing rivalry with his two brothers—Hades, the god of the underworld and Zeus, a fucking blowhard. Poseidon had just invented seahorses, fish of the subfamily Hippocampina, related to sharks and bony fishes, to the great hilarity of every other god on the block when they discovered these magnificent creatures ranged in size from just under two centimetres to a whopping 37 cm, about the size of a bowling pin. Poseidon’s seahorse was a gift to the people of Athens. They would like it much more than anything Athena could come up with, they would name their city after him, Poseidonville.
The spelling gryphon as opposed to griffin is just wrong. Any self-respecting Griffin wouldn’t be caught dead being called Gryph, Grypho, Gryphmeister or any such other unhistorical abuse of their legend. Nor did griffins peck out the liver of Prometheus, who referred to griffs as the unbarking hounds of Zeus. Those peckers were plain ordinary bog-standard eagles and vultures (really the same thing). Griffins would have cost a fortune. Herodotus, by the way, never saw a griffin (by his own admission) so how did he know about their gold-hoarding habits? Unless he got the story from the one-eyed people of northern Scythia? Loose lips sink ships, you know.
Lucretius was the first to realise all objects have skins like gossamer or gold leaf which slip off and get blown around the world, getting mixed up in unusual combinations. He noted that the outer skins of a horse and Gina Lollobrigida, after they slipped off, could easily come into contact and stick together on the spot—because of the delicacy and flimsiness of their texture—resulting in centaurs. The same thing, obviously, creates griffins from whatever skins they are made of. Unfortunately, Lucretius wasn’t able put his finger on what those animals actually were.
Tom Ryan had no problems with his role as a mcguffin except that unlike a true mcguffin he was of no interest to anyone and his life served only as foil to George McIntyre who was the wandering everyman and the star of the show, really. He gets revealed early on, is invested with some sort of significance, or mysterious purpose, then plays no further part except to be on fire when falling out of a high window of the new Council Chambers. Other than this Tom spent his time trapping lions in the Scottish highlands. Since there were no lions in the Scottish Highlands, it follows there could be no Tom Ryan, except in a state of non-existence, a state closer to existence than you might think, but nevertheless not represented in the material present.
Parrots are not the only talking birds, of course, there are plenty of avian blabbermouths. You might more usefully ask which birds don’t talk? A budgerigar named Puck had a vocabulary of 1,728 words. The hill myna and the common starling are both yaksmiths. Wild cockatoos get worded up by ex-captive birds re-integrated into the flock. Most of them say, “Hello darling!” and “What’s happening?” which can be disconcerting.
The African Grey Parrot Psittacus timneh, however, is the undisputed world champion talker, capable of reciting Homer’s Odyssey both forwards and backwards, but thankfully not doing so, following Wittgenstein’s dictum Whereof I cannot speak I shall remain silent. Captain Flint, by the way, is Long John Silver’s parrot in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island with a somewhat more modest vocabulary, being restricted to Pieces of eight and Nevermore.
Ajax, before he went mad and topped himself, was particularly tall, extremely strong, famously fearless and known far and wide for his good manners. After duelling all day with Hector, prince of Troy, a duel which was declared a draw by Zeus, Ajax hurled a huge rock at Hector almost killing him, a rare breach of etiquette. Hector in return set Ajax’s favourite canoe on fire.
As parrots talk, so do ducks roast, but not all roast ducks are from Beijing and some of them are boiled, not roasted. This is the case with Nanjing duck, from the southern provincial capital of Jiangsu.
Nanjing duck, after salting and boiling, is traditionally eaten cold with duck-fat pastries, duck-blood soup and duck-meat dumplings. Beijing duck, on the other hand, is a performing duck, submitting itself to questionably entertaining, razzle-dazzle duck-cutting performances. Just serve the bloody thing, will you.
in which James exists out of earshot, his string-theory molecules loosely interwoven with half-dark matter, two of his three ears moving asynchronously in three-four time, two beats of the left to every beat of the right
James was wondering how many tympanists would fit in the inner ear. That’s not a fit that’s a convulsion. Not to mention Schönberg’s atonal response to his wife Mathilde running off with young Austrian painter, Richard Gerstl. This is odd, he thought, after opening his eyes. Overhanging jacarandas spilled green shade through lozenges of light. A paling fence sprawled along the footpath, holding back a garden of tangled vegetation and further back he could see the stone walls of a house partly hidden by the curtailing green.
I don’t think this lane is on any map, he thought, or even possible, since we are in the heart of a bustling metropolis. The lane’s sudden plunge into water-green light was like being immersed in over-penetrating sound. How do you make a million playing jazz, start with two million, how do you fix a broken tuba, with a tuba glue. Give the dog a trombone!
At the far end of the lane, where it ended in a moist bank of earth and vines, a tall blonde woman wearing a yellow blouse and sleek black trousers was lowering books into the boot of a grey-and-pink Morris Minor.
His eyes widened. He thought he heard the clack of a typewriter and the bark of an owl chiming three times midnight. I can’t think straight. Was that me thinking, or the mischievous air molecules in my ears? The soft wind was tugging at him, ribbons of light curling through the shade. The roots of his teeth felt like they were knitting into his head. When he reached the end of the lane the woman looked up. He smiled at her.
“Why are you carrying that bucket?” she asked him.
“It’s so quiet here,” he said. “So quiet. It’s as though we are underwater.”
The woman leaned against the car, looking at him intently.
“That’s not really an answer,” she said.
He walked closer, quite an achievement for someone floating in mid-air. She walked around the car and got in at the driver’s side. He opened the passenger side door and got into the front seat. He felt the car sag slightly on its springs and bounce up again.
So far so good, he thought. What now? He was in the car and only inches away from her. So close he could see the golden hairs on her gleaming arms. She has arms like a cyberman, he though. Schtum. Ixnay on the cybermansnay. That’s not going to go down well, telling someone she looks like a death monster with a cheap electric radiator for a breathing unit and a face like a white rubber glove stretched over the head of a metal koala. Did I really get into a car with a complete stranger who happens to look like an Amazon in a wasp costume? Wasp woman. She’s probably a Viking, he thought. What will I say? I have to say something, surely. But I can’t think of anything. I’m lost for words. Lost forwards. Lose four ways. Lost something. Liver dumplings. Oh shut the fuck up you moron.
“I’m speechless,” he said.
His voice fell from his mouth, into his lap and lay there like a toad fish about to swell up and burst, like a sharp-edged, perfectly square stone on a pebbled beach, or watching a spaghetti western and seeing the hero’s voice coming out of an overhead arch. He looked at her.
“You don’t have to say anything,” she said, “I don’t mind.”
He knew what she was thinking. She was going to lock him in a cage with a bale of mouldy straw and a concrete floor. No digging tunnels out of here. A birdcage with not enough room to lie down or stand up straight. She would feed him liquid through the bars with a dirty funnel. A cage in a cave. A dark cave. Was it darker than before? Could the sun have gone behind a cloud? Or behind her head, which seemed to be growing larger?
Her face, like the full moon, was huge on the horizon, except right here in the car, either the car was enormous or the moon had shrunk, because normally it was about a quarter the size of the earth with a diameter of around 3,500 kilometres. I didn’t realise it was that big. That rules out her face really being the moon or even like the moon. In any case it was wasn’t moon-shaped, more oval, with blonde hair making it look even longer and it really hadn’t moved closer to him, that’s just the magnifying effect of simile. Well not all similes, just this one. It hadn’t moved though it had spoken.
Outside, penetrating blurrily through the green screen of leaves and muffled by distance, came the throbbing noise of the city, sounds of the cavorting buses dancing like gigantic blue cockroaches through the narrow streets. Buildings towering towards each other, looming faceless and blotting out the off-white skies. His words struggled up silver sided struggling through the dense air.
“I think I saw you earlier,” he said.
“You can talk,” she said, raising her eyebrows. James risked a quick glance at his surroundings. Yes, it was a close, grey-blue-green lane under bending branches, moist air, trees dripping sweat. I’m not feeling well, he thought, touching the skin of his throat lightly with his fingertips.
“Can we talk about something else?” he asked.
“What are we talking about?” she asked in reply. “You haven’t even told me your name. Or why you’re carrying that bucket.”
He moved on the lumpy, unholstered bench seat, his hand reaching to the door, still ajar.
“No, don’t go,” she said, putting a hand on his arm. “Tell me. The bucket intrigues me.”
He told her he was a writer.
“What have you written?” she asked him. “Anything I might have read?”
This was always the first question.
“I haven’t finished anything,” he said. “I have some ideas. More like art, not outback bush mystery, more about the imagination, kind of modernist but funny, letting the words get loose, or have the words have their own way, doing whatever they want. The characters can be from other books, like Molly Bloom, Sam Spade. Modernist. I want to write the first Australian modernist novel. There haven’t been any Australian modernist novels.”
“What about Patrick White?” she said.
“Turgid crap,” said James.
“But turgid modernist crap, surely? Shifting narrative vantage points and a stream-of-consciousness technique, surely that’s modernist?”
“Voss, for example.”
“Reeks of religion,” he said.
“Not spiritual, rather than religious?”
“Nah, well, maybe, it’s just as bad.”
“He won the Nobel Prize,” she reminded him.
“Yeah I know. Joyce didn’t.”
“Maybe he didn’t deserve to?”
“Maybe he didn’t have any Scandinavian friends. Riders in the Chariot? Fucking aliens,” said James.
“I think you’re thinking of Chariots of the Gods, by Erik Von Daniken. Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot is about four people who have visions from the Book of Ezekiel, the climax is a crucifixion of a Jewish refugee in the courtyard of the factory where he works. I know because we are studying it. It’s in the boot.”
“Really?” he said.
“Haven’t you read it?”
“No,” he admitted.
“Have you actually read any Patrick White?”
“I tried to read the first short story in The Cockatoos, couldn’t get through it.”
She looked distantly up through the trees at the blurred city beyond. The silence in the car now that they were no longer talking was weird. James swallowed. The skin on his throat felt irritated, as though birds had been pecking at his flesh.
“Can I drive you somewhere?” she asked him.
“Anywhere,” he replied, too quickly. He was beginning to panic. Loud bells were ringing inside his head. A fire engine, angry and red, rushed across his face. Say something. Do something. Leave.
She closed the door on her side of the car. He closed the passenger door. What little sound had penetrated the lane was now obliterated by the sound of the engine starting. The car moved forward out of the lane into the stream of traffic.
What am I doing? she asked herself. Did I really just pick up an idiot with a bucket?
She urged the car into the traffic, looking left and right before charging across an intersection, seeming to plough through the thick air. Christ it’s hot out there. Pedestrians on either side of the car were being swallowed by pits of boiling tar. That seems extreme.
James tried to shut his eyes and found he couldn’t.
She wound down her window. It made no difference.
The heat is getting to me, he thought. It feels like being squashed inside a huge mouth by a huge tongue. Spit me out, please. He tried to wind down his window. It stuck halfway. He fell back against the seat.
“Is it unusually hot out here?” he gasped.
She said nothing.
Words at the end of his throat turned tail and scampered back. Summer frocks and business suits, dungarees and starched collars were being swallowed pits of tar. Can this be real? he thought. It’s not whimsical, that’s for sure. Whimsy. That’s my shtick. This isn’t it, or if it is, my bearings are seriously askew.
The red bucket was resting on his lap. Tentatively, he put it down on the floor of the car between his feet. He straightened in the seat, taking out a packet of cigarettes. Shook one out. Looked at it from end to end wondering why it looked like a vicar on his Sunday walk after church wondering why before he put it into his mouth. He concentrated very hard on looking out of the window next to him until it became quite obvious that his eyes were outside the glass looking back at his eyeless face. At this point he stopped trying to look outside. What time is it, he thought. Nobody nose. The cigarette in his mouth began to wake, writhing and squirming between his lips. Carbuncles bulging tender round his neck began to burst in a frenzy of cartwheeling feathers and streamers, like a steamer leaving for overseas. Pink, mauve, violet, oranges and lemons say the bells of St Cuntfart. Don’t start, hypermart.
The cigarette was gathering strength, bumping, struggling, fighting against his lips. With a burning match he lit the end. Flame and its smoke travelled down its down its body, killing it swiftly. Dead and white and green rotting, only a little green the smell not so bad, just a whiff. He was feeling quite calm again. He looked out of the window. His eyes were no longer staring back at him. The streamers had wrapped around his head and blinded him. Yet he could still see red angry machines and people bursting into flame.
“Can I have one of those?” she asked him.
He shook out a cigarette so it projected from the pack and held the packet out to her, watching his arm stretch over miles and miles over canyons and giraffes and zebras and white hunters turning pink and pink hunters having a drink in green pegged tents beside the ocean on television, in the ocean, thousands of fish, little fish running from bigger fish running from themselves, everything falling off the edge of the world into a red bucket, falling. She took a cigarette. He stubbed out his own and lit another, without giving it a chance to wake. A taste you cannot taste, transmitting messages to someone’s mind. Perhaps he was beginning to wake up. This was a dream surely. Don’t call me surely. Clouds, as though they were in his mind, were fringed with denim and lace. Forecast hot, with possibility of an afternoon…
in which nobody hid in a cave, nobody watched humans being eaten alive, nobody plunged a red-hot poker into a giant’s eye, nobody hid in the fleece of a ram, nobody yelled abuse at an angry giant bleeding from the eye socket
George McIntyre ploughed along the street, walking like a herd of two legged rhinos tied together with string. He carried his massive head on his behemoth shoulders like a mound of fused rubble, medical waste and week-old porridge. He resembled an upside-down hydra sprouting from the Serengeti, carving the red sea of seething humanity. The sea parted before him, not always volitionally.
Gusts of hot wind were gathering momentum. Fires had broken out in the lofts of warehouses along the wharves. Electrical discharges spanned the sky, crackling angrily, spitting blue flames into the steel and glass canyons.
George McIntyre walked on, mopping his face with a large white handkerchief which wriggled then escaped from his hand into the superheated air above, raining itself away in a shrivelling wet burst. A tram rattled past, its wire tongue sucking electricity from above. Shoppers seem glued to the street, unable to lift their feet but still moving, carried along in a lava-like stream. Store dummies stared. Mushrooming clouds hissed steam. High windows popped out, screamed in flight, before shattering in the street. Patches of sunlight, floating too high like Icarus dolls, were toasted brown by the sun, shrivelling like papadams, charred to cinder ash.
Pushing in the doors of the Port Office Hotel, George appeared in the doorway, his selves splitting off from the multiplicity of himself, each the size of George the man, moving like broken juggernaughts to hide in the shadows, being swallowed by the dark to the sound of munching gristle and splintering bones. True George McIntyre appeared, gleaming black and deadly, his rawhide face whipping the quiet air in front of his eyes. With legs bowed and a lowering swagger, he lurched towards the bar, his spurs spinning concentric comets, his arsenal bristling from a thousand holsters around his waist, bullets rustling in their magazines like impatient rats. Finn McCool, a hero of old Ireland, turned from his frothing pail of porter to regard the newcomer.
George McIntyre drew his stomach in three notches which immediately appeared on the barrel of his trusty Winchester rocket launcher.
Finn McCool resembled a cross between a megaton bomb-blast, a Rhodesian colossus with love handles the size of burial mounds, a scarecrow and a bonfire combined. He was dressed in 1300 sheep carcasses sewn together into an overcoat, trousers made from iron filings held together in a magnetic array and no shoes, which revealed the luxuriant covering of hair on his feet, a thicket so impressive it took a while to realise the rest of his body, insofar as one could see the surface of his skin, was also presenting this fine, thick covering of long fur.
“George,” Finn McCool said warmly. “Come on in and sit down here beside me so I can introduce you to my new-found friends who have ridden into town from the wild western plains to slake their thirst at the faucet of the miracle that is beer.”
Unable to see anything more than the giant in the gloom, George McIntyre moved forward and lowered his considerable bulk, allowing it to completely swallow the bar-stool beside the gigantic Irish legend with the sweet voice of honey words. An open-ended vat of fresh beer with a foaming head, tie and collar slid over to him as if by magic, begging him to immerse his face in it, which he did, inhaling its contents and transferring them to his oesophagus and then to the Kubla Khan cavern of his large stomach by means of a double-breathing swallowing method he had learned playing the didgeridoo. At the far end of the saloon the air thickened with storm clouds, dark and pulsating with the longing to rain. Outside, the heat storm still raged. As cool and dark as the interior was, here and there brittle apertures were tonguing flames.
In order to conduct himself in a presentable manner as soon as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness in the saloon, George contracted his cheek muscles, causing pressure to build up in his mouth, ejecting the result of his mouth’s reactions in a spit which sailed freely through the air, a liquid glob pursuing itself along its course from his pursing lips to a waiting riverbed of dry sand in a spittoon. Brought up well, the spit behaved impeccably, just as a well-brought-up spit was expectorated to behave, plunging into the spittoon, striking the bed of sand, then rolling and gathering, as it rolled, a spit-saturated mass of sand, whose colour, through the action of that wetness, was transformed from gold to grey. George, a nearfarious spitter, was humbled by a warm flush of pride at having spat so accurately.
Unfortunately, the spittoon was not a spittoon, it was the cheek of a cow puncher floundering on the floor, having lost his way back to the bar after visiting the conveniences in the rear.
George was about to apologise as profusely as possible, when a tongue of flame snaked across the room from a fissure in the wall, wrapped itself around the floundering cowboy and dragged him off screaming to some as yet unknown location beyond the establishment’s wall.
“Oh dear,” said Finn McCool in his honeyed tones. “I think that might have been Slug Willard, one of me new friends. Never mind, there are plenty more, it’s like the whole cow-punching circus has come here to seek refuge. There to your left is Shorty Andrews, a fine lad with a prodigious thirst for the amber fluid.”
The only item of perhaps living matter George could see to his left was a clump of spinifex, yellow and resinous with the unmistakable smell of the desert. From somewhere inside this clump, came an arm with a rough-hewn, sunburnt hand at its end, offering itself in a friendly greeting. George clasped the offered object of palmistry, fingers and thumb, pleased to feel a warm response in its hearty shake. Nothing beyond the protruding arm gave any indication of further humanity.
Another tub of beverage had replaced the empty one, George lowering to the occasion by snorting down a gallon and a half before turning back to his gargantuan Irish friend.
“I can sense in your voice, Finn McCool, as much as you try to conceal it, a note of worry behind the amiable jocularity of your traditional song of ages, a delight to the ears as always.”
“You are a perspicacious and insightful man, George McIntyre,” said Finn McCool. “Not one in a thousand men, a Rosie Bognor, or a Merle Thornton, here in this dark saloon would have had the ear to hear the concern in my troubled tones, you are a great captain of dysentery to be sure.”
“There are entrails to wisdom and you are one, Finn McCool,” said George McIntyre. “What troubles you, galoot of enormity?”
“Galoot I am,” said Finn McCool, “and enormity is me, as they say, and I cannot conceal it. You have penetrated the pit of my anxiety and my troth runneth over, as plight I must.”
“And what is the matter troubling your plighted troth, pray tell me, kahuna of my inestimable dreams.”
“Well George, to be very clear, and leaving no room for any doubt which sneaks between the scales of liberty’s underwear at the slightest hint of peregrination, outside this sanctuary, as dark and quiet as it might be, a raging fire storm is consuming the city, of which, as I understand it, you are a custodian and elected representative official.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say elected or representative, it’s all stitched up well before it comes to anything so meaningless and pedestrian as a vote, but I catch your drift. In fact I noticed the situation you described on my way here. Your description is remarkably accurate for a mythical giant inside a saloon who has, on the face of it, no direct sensory data to analyse.”
“Don’t you worry about that, my good man, I have my eyes and ears everywhere, spying on the troublesome blacks, the reds under the beds, the ululating unionists, their commie-pinko masters and overlords, the anti-nuclear lot, the friends of the dirt, the disgusting gays, greens, blacks and reds, misfits and malcontents. I sometimes pick up on the general weather conditions as a by-catch, so to speak, if you get what I’m saying and cottoning on to the general angle of my dangle.”
“Indeed I do, my good giant,” said George McIntyre. “A raging fire storm is consuming the city as we speak.”
Finn McCool dilated the aureoles of his gill flaps and said nothing.
George was happy to leave it at that.
Unfortunately, the mythic enormity wasn’t.
“Well, George,” said Finn McCool, “We can’t have this sort of conflagration on my sweet green island bathed in kelp. What are you going to do about it?”
“If you have your finger on the pulse of the quotidian reality, my venerable monstrosity, you will have seen the extent of the force-fed furnace out there. I don’t see there’s much that I can do.”
“Sweet man, gentleman of words caramelised and sprinkled with hundreds and thousands of colourful carcinogens, far be it for me to remind you of such a thing as your duty to cast off Blake’s mind forg’d manacles, the artistic, cultural, and philosophical baggage, the stultifying unreflective assumptions, biases, blinkers, filters, and protocols that thoroughly enslave us, but I fear I must.”
George rubbed his face with his hands.
“When you put it like that, my leviathan, brobdingnagian friend, you leave me very little wriggle room, and like it or not it seems at the very least I should be going through the motions as the city’s saviour or at least the saviour of myself.”
“Jolly good, George,” said Finn McCool. “I’ll be here when you get back.”
“If I get back,” said George McIntyre.
“That too,” said Finn McCool.
in which George McIntyre and a bus disagree, the Town Clerk losing the argument convincingly, given such a thumping he almost misses the end of the story
Above the bulging buildings, the clock perching in the town hall tower began to beat arrhythmically in the wind. George McIntyre stepped from the saloon into the heat. The jungle of flesh in the streets was blacker now, burnt crisp. Lighter elongated torches drifted, tugged apart by the wind. George planted his feet firmly, one after the other. None of this nonsense, he thought.
A flock of red waves flushed past very close to him. He began to feel the prickling sweat under his three-ply suit. He stepped off the footpath. Breath of wind. He looked up at the sky.
In the west, the heat was continuing to increase. On the other horizon a bank of angry black storm clouds arose, soaked with rain and charged with electricity.
George stared up at the gathering cloud as he stepped off the footpath onto the road and into the path of a blue bus. The bus barely slowed in its flight. It seemed to rear up in front of the Town Clerk before striking him. There was a slightly crumpled sound as George McIntyre bounced off the fender, rolled down the road some way and came to rest with the back of his head thudding into a telegraph pole.
In the sky, black stallions of whipped wind tossed down the first drops of rain.
1.14 OXEN OF THE SUN
in which we see results of the foregoing, whereby George McIntyre miraculously survives a full-frontal assault of a mad bus attack and begins to notice, in a dream, things are never what they seem.
Struggling to wake, George McIntyre found only fugitive reminders of the georgraphy of his mcintyrescape. Fire was raging rampant through the streets, fuelled by flaming figures who fought to flee themselves, only to burst into more flames. Bats, roosting in lift wells, were flying out into the face of the fire, massing in black clouds, colliding in the sky with angry owls. Drops of black blood, fiercely leaping towards the earth with more than thirty-two feet per second squared, dashed against his neck.
He looked up. A wheelchair fell screaming into the inferno. Shrieks tore the air to fragments as the wheelchair convulsed in the flames. Now, he reflected, would be a good time to make an investigation of the sewers.
While on the subject of the city, while we’re here, why don’t we wander around? To tell you the truth, sights were very sore in this city of ours, since by a process of incineration, certain members of the public were in the process of ceasing to be. Filled with voices of fire, these furtive innocents perished, exploding in a downpour of words. A killer bus, sliding through the streets, was gouging ruts in the road with an improbable undercarriage of limbs, scrabbling like a gigantic cockroach. If people can write books what about the words? Do words really desire the writhings of a wheelchair, or a bus burning down a boulevard? Is that what this is all about?
Finn McCool in the meanwhile was in the saloon and therefore safe. But sanctuaries such as the saloon, while they might withstand the sieges of the fire, could hardly fight off what was to follow. The sea was already licking its lips. Finn McCool was looking into his glass. Something seemed to be swimming in its golden yellow light. He leaned forward and scrutinized more closely, what appeared to be a surfacing sun. Pudgy yellow early morning shapes appeared to be beaching themselves on golden yellow sands. So much for tomorrow’s future, he thought, you haven’t got a fart’s chance of finding your way out of here unless you’re a fish. I’m fucked if I’ll be a fish, Finn McCool thought, they’ll have to fight me first.
in which an omniscient narrator exaggerates the weather until the reader suspects the plan is to develop a semiotic desert to emphasise the incredible, existential angst authors need in order to get out of bed in the mornings
James floated above the landscape as it rushed by. Flames had consumed everything, leaving behind a yawning discontinuity of tonsils, monks, vultures, drought, dust, fingers, feathers, chisels, perspex, ice cream and windows all of which were not there because nothing went on forever in all directions.
Where am I? James wondered.
He wasn’t expecting an answer, so he was surprised when one came from a narrator having no paid work at the moment and nothing better to do than answer the questions of characters wandering aimlessly in search of themselves.
You are alone in a desert, in the aftermath of a fire, into which you had flung your shoes which turned out to be flammable, like everything else.
My shoes burned?
The world turns, and as it turns it burns. It turns shoes into burnt shoes. Specifically, foot odour erupted from the innersoles and ignited the twelve-tone, blue-suede, crepe-leather ligament of your foot garments.
Where is the little dog?
I don’t remember a little dog. Incinerated, I presume.
Where is the tiny T-shirt?
I don’t know what that means but I think we can safely say, not here.
Why are there no trees?
You are familiar with the desert concept, aren’t you? It’s everything else after everything that once was is no more. It is on the fringes of anywhere which is not desert, characterised by silver crystals of black sunlight, waves of heat, nostalgia, desiccated calcites and atmospheric salt.
Is there any water?
Of course not. You really are not up with this desert thing, are you.
Why can’t I see the horizon?
Not my problem.
Will vultures come from the skies like unkemptstar signs and pick at my liver?
You are getting into the swing of things, but sorry, no.
Why are there no vultures?
You’ve asked about vultures already. Ask about something else.
Anything at all, caterpillar bull ants for example. Centipede bulldozers, for another. The signature of a lost civilization written in deadly pellets of invisibility.
I can ask about anything at all, but not vultures?
We are done with the vultures. Over. Gone. Bust.
What about my liver?
No longer on the table.
What is on the table? Not that I can see this table anywhere.
It’s an expression. It’s not meant literally. An example of something on the table which might be worth knowing is why multi-coloured streamers are pouring from your neck.
There are multi-coloured streamers pouring from my neck?
Yes, but you neglected to ask why, so there’s your chance with the neck streamers gone.
Is any of this real?
The bucket is real. Otherwise you would be tending to plummet with unforeseen consequences, probably not good ones.
Sinking gently, with his bucket like a parachute above him slowing his descent, James landed.
in which we learn that a pogy is a sort of sea fish of the herring family, a cubic kilometre of water weighs a lot, and deserts are not as featureless and barren as you might think, except those few examples which really are
James, a man without hooves, found sand difficult going. It wasn’t as though he could just hoove off, like Tinkerbell. Each plunge of his work boots, one at a time of course, caused a sharp squeaking sound, something not mentioned by Epicurious in his diatomic theory of matter, which suggested that in one grain of sand there were more grain of sands than there were stars in the sky, or molecules in a glass of water, which would be handy since there was no obvious to way to ease the aching of his parched throat. Each breath was sucked dry by the crests of the sand dunes populated by slithering sand-fish, long-flat-red grog monsters and Pygmalion shoes. Tiny steroids, the size of granulated bleeps used to bleep out swearwords in the seven-second delay, were abounding in mobile barracks of silica torrents, stolen minks and pre-packaged sandboxes of glassy stares. Trails led off into Tarkovsky zones, where withering waves of white wedges, saffron sunshine, ochre unconsciousness, sleeplessness, paranoia and no-drugs-in-the-cupboard were too far off to be seen.
A tribe of mice were playing bagpipes in his ears, composing cosmic soufflés of malicious gossip and pasteurised brandy. Otiose clumps of sweet vegetation, normally found here and there in even the harshest desert, were absent here. James had no way of charting his course, if it could be called that, other than by following the pogies.
Stiff upper lip, he said to himself, thinking a stainless-steel mesh might help with that. Other people might consider growing a moustache or a paving stone, but no matter which way you dressed it, shit like that always ended up looking cheap skates, utterly useless in a desert.
James thought of his footsteps, each sending up a puff of desert, unable to remember whether he had put his best foot forward or the other one, which was important since it hinged on the issue of the number of steps he had taken, since evil is even, while truth is an odd number, so it mattered. Numbers ought not to have such influence on the moral compass, he thought, there are enough troubles to face in the world as it is, without being oppressed by arithmetic.
in which James finds his way back to the beginning, experiencing his transformation and renewal as a sort of foreign recurrency which leads him through life’s version of a bureau de change
As the desert morphed under the influence of gathering clouds the everywhere else was gradually subdued in a deeper arrangement of colours. A soft wind fell into step beside James, apparently in need of company. As the darkness grew and the first few drops or rain began to condense and fall, he observed the desert had retracted and in its place the perimeters of the city had appeared. Buildings and other habitations lay jumbled in the distance, awakening conflicting images of gramophone trumpets, ash trays, picture frames, striped ties, twin-shade wall lamps, skis, mantelpiece clocks, fireplaces, bearded ladies, men with two heads, doorbells, abstract paintings, jug-lamps, baskets of fruit, geothermic power plants sprawling with factory smoke and a commotion of commuters as he passed by the university into the gardens. It began to rain hard, visibility decreasing his trousers which he had starched and ironed this morning.
He placed the red bucket in its nest behind the row of ferns, heading from there towards the office to sign off. Thunder rumbled and lighting cracked the darkness.
No summer storm lasts forever, no matter how much damage the hailstones want to inflict on car yards with no overhead protection. The rain stopped and the clouds dispersed, chasing their charioteers across the sky. The bright sky after the rain was clear with the sharp intake of breath one always remembers, an air-tonguing stillness. Trees threw long, soft shadows, fringed with red and gold. Pigeons in City Square wheeled up, dawdy blue.
in which all the fun has been squeezed out of the funsters and all the laughs wrung from the liquids, yes it’s time to be tucked up tight in bed, ready, ears alive for your bedtime story before your eyes close and you transcend, all wise, all knowing, yes, yes, yes
In the saloon the publican, going about his business, was sweeping up and evicting shadows.
“Get out of here,” he said, “there’s enough of your kind all day without more of you lurking in the dark trying to cadge another drink off a poor bastard like me. Leave an open door before you know it cats are in pissing in the piano. Always work to do and we know what bastards are at the back of all that, bastards like that Finn McCool who’ve got nothing better to do than park their bums on that stool, be buggered if I’ll wipe up after them, Jesus Joseph and the white hairy, I’d give my right to vote for a good night’s…”
What do I do now? thought James as he passed the hotel, hearing the soft mumble of the publican sweeping up. I could go home, except there is nothing I can recall about where such a home might be. Or people, for that matter. Apart from a retired war hero, fleeting glimpses of Jodie Foster, that fucking grump Poseidon who I had to whack with a bucketful of pine cones, Post Viral Neurasthenia on the lookout in case Poseidon wants to sink my boat, Peter Styvesant, the fucking no hoper, Marge and Mabel, some ungracious Austlit student who gives me a lift to nowhere, dumps me then drives off. She wasn’t so tall without the platform soles, though I never did see her standing up without them, then she was gone like a prairie in the mist disappearing like those other names that mean nothing to me Finn McCool, Shorty Andrews and the potato, whose name I can’t recall just now. Not what you would call a cast of thousands.
I have a feeling I need to feed the cat, but what cat, where? Wherever it was, it wasn’t getting any fish for dinner, if there was no way I could navigate to something resembling a place where the fucking cat lived. The cat could probably survive on sparrows and lizards, good enough for the cat but not so good for the wildlife. What about me? Do I have any food? I have a book with food in it. What about family and friends? Do I have a book with family and friends in it, and if so what were they like? Refined, snooty, caring? Or a low sort of people, stealing potatoes and oysters? High functioning dipsomaniacs? Probably. Do I drink? I would think so, I can taste the lack of red wine like a desert in my mouth. That reminds me of something. Have I ever fallen in love? Kissed someone so long I couldn’t stand steady, saying I’d really like to get to know you? I can’t think of anyone. A total blank. No girlfriend, boyfriend, father, mother, uncle, aunt, brother or sister, this seems unlikely.
Now it’s good and dark, like the black notes on the piano. Since there are no sharps or flats in the key of C does that mean all the black notes are sharp or flat? That would be logical. Where are all the people? Shops? James trudged along a road heading nowhere, having forgotten an epiphany he once had when he felt he was no more than words on a page with a bit of punctuation, not too much, just scattered here and there. A pity because some awareness of his true identity, the manner of his existence, or pretence, if you like, might have helped him avoid his fate which was heading his way at speed. Or then again, not. That’s the thing about fate. It’s what happens and nothing can change it, even temporal anomalies you might be able to sneak into the book when no one is looking, if you can get away with. So he simply walked, thinking perhaps he would end up somewhere, as clouds of mosquitoes descended on him, feeding on every point of bare flesh. He slapped at them with his hands killing seventeen with one blow. Hardly a gap in their attack, others were dislodged but they were soon back in increasing numbers to suck the blood from his arms and legs, ears and cheeks. I could die of blood loss or malaria he thought, but it might take some time. He began to walk faster, hoping he could shake them off, hitting them as they continued harvesting blood from his face, neck, knees, elbows, leaving a trail of dead in a meandering line of mosquito corpses. Behind him, out of the blackness, came a bus speeding almost silently through the night, only audible because the whispering of scything legs, which he could not hear because he was slapping his face and ears. The bus was upon him, rearing up and pulling him into the rotating knives. There was a brief munching sound and then the bus was gone, leaving the road glistening clean.
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