Big orchestra

What we need is a big orchestra of at least one hundred players. We should make a surreal painting of our lives and be able to say, as though it were the only true utterance that ever stuttered off our lips: this is what life is like: a briefcase, a glove-box, stuffed full with an enormous orchestra of violinists, cellists, flautists, pianists, organists, trombonists, french-horn-players, clarinetists, timpanists, cymbalists, the whole-bang-lot, that we could open up like a magic box in those quiet moments for which our language has no words. You know the moments I mean, don’t you? You could be sitting at a table just looking out the window, or reading a book, or a friend may have just decided that it’s time to go home and leaves you, or the music from the record-player may have just stopped, and the room is suddenly quiet, and you then look up from your book or your dinner, or have stopped at an intersection waiting for the lights to change, and then, as though your eyes had been pulled out of your head and taken ten feet away and pointed at you, you see yourself, your whole self, and you wait for something, for anything. A car may pass on the street outside, or someone may make a little sound in the next room, or a fluorescent lamp in a shop window may be flickering on and off, or the books in your room may stare out at you, a company of objects full of meaning no-one entirely understands. And standing there, or sitting there, just waiting there, you become an object. You are the object that arranges for the kettle to boil each morning, the fastidious object that periodically puts other objects back in their proper places, the object that, because it is not entirely without pity, sometimes almost spontaneously, acts with compassion toward some other object, a dog, a cat, a person, and sometime afterwards wonders whether it acted selflessly, and if so, Why? For what reason? That mad, suffering, ridiculous object which each day opens up its head and tears its brain apart, atom from atom, then throws them into the air, into the darkness. The atoms are like stars; the space between them the sum of all unanswerable questions. Or else, they are something more humble: specks of dust suspended in a beam of daylight. Whichever, you are the object standing there, watching, with its arms open to them as they fall. Coming through each day is a miracle: the atoms, the stars, the dust falling into your arms. It’s a miracle how nothing is lost. Each memory persists: the dust and the stars falling into your hands, and all the atoms combining to make you whole again, the complete object, the perfectly still object with not a single word in its head. Words could not explain what it is like to be just a thing, an object. No language has words for such a terrible idea. It is a moment like that when you need a big orchestra; not just a radio or a record-player, but a real orchestra, made of real people and real instruments. You need to have it straight away. There’s no time to go out and look for it; it has to be there, ready for you. And then you would want it to start playing slowly and quietly, there at the street corner, or at your table, or in your room: a single violin, or a piano beginning to play so quietly that you tilt and turn your head toward it, before all the others join in, making the music louder and faster, but even then only by slow degrees. It must be slowly, painfully slowly, because something terrible and unforgettable is happening to you. You had lost something and now it is being given back to you.

This ‘prose poem’ was first published in a radio broadcast (5UV, Adelaide) in 1984, and then in A crowd of voices. It is included among dream reports because it was originally a dream. In later years I abandoned attempts to turn dreams into stories and concentrated, instead, on finding a way of writing dreams that allowed them to remain, more obviously, what they were.

The king of hate

Years the beast spends
dining on his own flesh,
inexhaustible passions
coming from who knows where
beyond the breach.
My arms outstretched
find a way through
glowing darkness back
to where the hate began
a life of forgetting,
bandaged head, a mask.
Come in. Come in.
He says, this dark house
is larger than love,
your heart unwired
will warm to knowledge
of superb pain,
will grow to fill
its infinite rooms.
He crowns me king
of beasts, winds me
in red fields and war,
promises all the void
will sing my name;
if only I would stay.

The breach

Hide and seek is the game
we play, alternating
parts, clinging to walls
just beyond reach.
Who can live with me?
he says, mocking.
Come out. Come out.
He says hands on head,
to your knees. He says
shout, then says die.
He gives the lie to
harmless thoughts,
then settles down
in the dark house,
corrupt little animal
gnawing at the heart
and baring teeth
that cut up memory.
Sleeping and dreaming
he’s more alive,
feeds on each hurting
image, gorged and lying
safe beyond the breach.

The living room

You see, it is just like walking through the door of a city hospital; the doors slide back automatically. With beautiful music in the background, you could almost be a film star on the set of a well produced American soap opera; but you have not quite decided yet whether you are doctor or patient. A directory on the wall reads: Surgery — 4th Floor. You take the elevator. Stepping out, a thin, red line guides you into a stunning steel room.

Sinks line the walls, and canisters of fragrant antiseptic soap are attached to them; it is just like home: harmless, clean. Walking into the well lit living room (that is what doctors like to call it), a comrade of many years motions you closer to the operation, and says:

“Would you hold this for me? I won’t be long.”

It’s disturbing. The meaning of this episode strikes you suddenly: you are just a visitor here; you came to wish a sick friend well; you didn’t expect to be given his heart.

This ‘story’ was first published in Meanjin (as Peter Kein, pseudonym) in 1982, and then in A crowd of voices. It is included among dream reports because it was originally a dream. In later years I abandoned attempts to turn dreams into stories and concentrated, instead, on finding a way of writing dreams that allowed them to remain, more obviously, what they were.

Egg

Something about them
is difficult to touch
with their bloody insides
awesome and fragile

treat lovers delicately

their skin is strong
but thin
as they move from room to room
with their soft soft edges
like shadows
and internal affairs of eggs

that at the slightest jolt
display their dark insides
rich with confusion

On the uncertainty of finding a place to call home

[Note on this story.]
The beginning of the end

When not giving demonstrations of black boxes to new salesmen in country towns, I sell the boxes door-to-door in the city. Black boxes provide relief from all the 156 boring chores associated with day-to-day living. There are 156 different boxes to do 156 different jobs. Visitors to my house cannot understand why it hums. All the boxes are at work. My house must be the only one in Australia with all 156 boxes installed and working. A showcase of modern technology it hums, contented, and I hum with it. When the children were younger, in the days when Marjorie could still remember my name, we all used to sit in the living room together and listen to the house hum its merry work-a-day melody, and we used to hum along with it. The novelty of my new job was still fresh then, and it was a time for humming and singing and being happy.

If Marjorie is home when I return to Melbourne, she will say that she has been waiting for me.
—Peter (she will say), I’ve been waiting for you.
—You shouldn’t have (I will reply. Then 1 will give Marjorie a kiss).
—Are you tired from driving, Simon, darling? (she will ask).
—No, I’m fine (I will answer, not at all surprised that she cannot remember my name).
—John, the children will be home from school soon. They’ve missed you terribly.
—Yes. Marjorie. I’ll have to spend more time with them, I know. Perhaps this weekend we could all go to the beach?
—David, I think that’s a wonderful idea. I’d like that a lot.

Only one thing puzzles me—why Marjorie forgot my name in the first place. Apart from the tension this causes between us sometimes, our marriage is perfectly normal, and I am happy.

The children may be home of course. If they are sick today, they will be home lying in front of the television set, which is the only medicine Marjorie knows to relieve their hyperactivity.

The color of the dust has changed noticeably during the past hour’s driving, from pale and red to grey.

I don’t believe country people when they say living in the city is unhealthy, that it causes cancer. The sky is still blue, and the grass green. Though I must admit the sky looks a little frayed around the edges sometimes, maybe from overuse.

Not one car has passed me coming out of the city in nearly two hours. This is strange, even for January. There are two huge trucks cruising behind me—loadless, uncovered, semi-trailers. I think that if I stop or slow down they will push me on. I have no choice. But I will have to stop soon, because I am running out of petrol.

I stop.
I get out of the car.
I look at the signs. It is a self-service. It is what I deserve.
I look at the directions on the pump, then try to operate it.
I succeed. I have a knack for this sort of thing.
Replacing the nozzle on its rest, I notice the attendant is watching me.

The attendant’s head is propped up by the attendant’s hand.
His elbow is on the desk.
And the desk is on the floor.
The floor is a concrete slab lying on the ground.
The ground has always been there.
The attendant will not take his head off his hand.
He doesn’t want to disturb the natural order of things.

—How much do I owe?
No answer.
—How much does the petrol cost?

His eyes move and look at the meter on the desk. It shows the amount that I owe. I put the exact money on the desk and turn to leave. I get the impression that he doesn’t like me. I have disturbed the natural order of his loneliness. He jumps up, and rushes to the door ahead of me, running around to the side of the station, falling to his knees near the old oil barrels, where he spews up the morning’s breakfast and beer. When he is finished, he looks up at me. He wants me to go away. I go away.

Closer to Melbourne, driving through the suburbs, I find more semi trailers. They are not alone now. Each semi-trailer is accompanied by a big, red fire-truck. Inside the fire-trucks are men in rubber suits. They get out of the trucks sometimes, looking like frogmen.

I stop my car to watch them.
The frogmen get out of the big, red trucks, and hose their rubber suits with a kind of detergent that even from a hundred yards away I can smell is very sweet and flowery. They wait for a semi-trailer to arrive. When one arrives, they start picking up the bodies. Some of the bodies are very stiff and dry from being left in the sun too long.

The frogmen see me watching them. I don’t try to hide. They seem harmless enough. I notice that they do not talk. I don’t know why.

Approaching them, they ignore me. They seem intent on ignoring me.

The middle of the end

I think maybe the communists have taken over, and everyone is not really sure what to do about it. The shop-owners seem to have caught onto the idea really well. All the stores are left open 24 hours a day. You don’t have to pay for anything. It’s there for the taking. Though I suspect a lot of shop assistants are out of jobs, as self-service seems to be the trend. I don’t know how they will pay their bills if they refuse to take any money from me. Maybe there won’t be bills to pay any more. The communists have taken care of everything very nicely.

Apathy is still a problem. Marjorie still will not talk to me. Neither will anyone else. Three days after I arrived home, Marjorie is still slumped across the kitchen table, fascinated by her soggy weetbix and milk. I think she is conducting an experiment, and wants to be left alone. She is watching the milk curdle, and waiting for the weet-bix to turn mouldy. But I don’t know how this could have commanded her attention for so long. The children are still lying in front of the television set. And my house still hums. At the very least, my house is contented. I find the behavior of my family most disturbing. They should be grateful for all that I have done for them, and at least talk to me now and then.

The fourth day after my return, Marjorie is still in the kitchen conducting her experiments.

I take a seat beside her at the kitchen table, and I insist that she talks to me. She doesn’t. I put my arms around her shoulders, kissing and hugging her, but she is cold and unfeeling.

—Marjorie?
Marjorie. please talk to me.
Please take your head out of the bowl.
Marjorie.
Marjorie?
Marjorie, please.
Pretty please.
Pretty please, with sugar on top. Marjorie?
Marjorie. if you keep on acting this way. our marriage is sure to deteriorate. Think of the children, Marjorie. Marjorie?

These five days of solitude have made me lose my faith in human nature.

Finally. It ends.

Marjorie and I have separated. She is retaining custody of the children.

Today, I don’t feel like going to work.

I have gotten into the habit now of actively seeking out and following the frogmen in their big, red trucks.

The frogmen will not talk to me, but I plead with them to take me.

—Will you take me with you?
Please?
Will you take me, please?
I’m bored and lonely and if I stay here much longer, I’ll go insane.
Take me with you,
pretty please.
Take me with you,
pretty please,
with sugar on top.

One of the frogmen takes me by the arm, and helps me onto the back of the trailer. It is nearly full. I am lucky to get a place. He points to the spot where the next body should go, and I climb up.

And in the end,
among these bodies.
I sense I am no longer here
waiting
but here
dying.

I dare not disturb the natural order of things.

The frogmen spray me with their balmy lotion,
so I smell of flowers and honey.
They take me to the mountains,
and I lie there forever,
refusing to talk.


Originally published in Meanjin, number 3, 1980.
meanjin-3-1980
Cover of Meanjin, number 3, 1980.