Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons …
Every Friday night Sebastian comes around for dinner and drinks. Last Friday he asked if he could invite Arjun to call in, late, and join us. I had not met Arjun before. I thought for a moment, trying to recall the name in the Bhagavad Gita. It has been a long time since I read it. A very long time. “Yes… Is it as in ‘Arjuna’?”
Sebastian sent the agreed-upon text message to Arjun’s phone… “Park the elephant anywhere. I’ll come out to show you in.” —As though anyone with a modern Hindu name would turn up for drinks on an elephant.
Arjun arrived later than expected. He had been to an exhibition and the art was ‘experimental’. “I went with an artist who tried to explain it to me. Apparently it starts off being a painting, and then it gets turned into a print, and then it’s projected. There were videos, too.” So, we talked about art.
Every long friendship is a secret place, a bolthole that is also a hall of mirrors where language, laughter and identity reflect on each other. We tell politically incorrect jokes about gays, women, blacks, politics, and then quickly straighten ourselves, pretending to worry that someone might be listening at the window or that there is a microphone hidden under the table. These jokes, to be fair, are often at our own expense. No-one gets out alive.
Blacks call each other ‘nigger’. Gays take back ownership of ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’. But in our colonial outpost at the end of Asia, surrounded on all sides by water, Muslims, Hindus, Maoris and ice, people who look and speak like ‘foreigners’—non-Anglo, non-Euro foreigners—are still having a gruesome time.
It is not difficult to perceive a shrill panic in Australian language in 2015. Online newspapers are stuffed full of (mostly) anonymous complaints about fake refugees. “Surely everyone knows that the countries refugees want to live in are white countries.” “The refugee convention does not guarantee that refugees can only be resettled in the wealthy country of their choosing. Yet, many refugees seem to want only to come to Australia and reject safe harbor in other countries.” And so on. Genuinely racist urges are easily camouflaged with concern that we should not allow refugees to drown at sea.
Australia has developed a heap of festering prejudices. “Why do these people have to come here.” “They’ve spoiled their own countries,” “ruined their own cultures with religious wars.” “We don’t want that sort of thing here.” “There are Muslim countries they can go to. Why don’t they go there?” “The Indian student who faked an attack on himself.” “Oh, God, they’ve taken over the Seven-Eleven stores…” “Asians. I think they’re aliens. I mean really aliens. From outer space.”
I like to think I know a thing or two about art, but the truth is I do not know very much at all. Asian art, for example, is a mystery to me. I think I am not alone. All the Catholic and Christian stuff I have down pat, rehearsing it since childhood. To my deeply prejudicial frame of mind, Muslim art is easy: they don’t like images. What’s next? Ah, the Hindus: statues with many heads and way too many arms. I have no idea what it means.
What does it mean? I acknowledge it simply as a symbol of exotic excess. Those asian artists, you know, they just do not know when to stop. And there appear to be different versions of the same thing: one is a Krishna, the other a Shiva; some of them are dancing and some not. It’s all just too complicated—and alien.
Properly motivated, it does not take long to find out what it means.
With apologies to Hindus who may be offended by a clumsy contraction of several million words into these few paragraphs…
Hindus, like Catholics, believe in a god who transcends everything in time and space. Brahma is the supreme god of creation (alongside Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer—making the Hindu trinity). It is Brahma who is the father of Manu, from whom all human beings descend.
The central, though not by a long way the oldest, texts of Hinduism are the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Composition of both began around 400 BCE, and the texts finalised around 400 CE. The Mahabharata is the great story of the ‘Bharata’ dynasty—a history of the contest for accession between the Pandava princes and the Kaurava princes. At the core of the story is the recounting of the Kurukshetra war in which the armies of the branches of the dynasty fight each other. (In this and all the other Hindu texts, the ‘story’ is accompanied by much philosophical and devotional material.)
The Mahabharata is the longest verse epic in world literature. While the centrepiece of the poem is the description of the eighteen day battle, the Mahabharata also contains, just before the battle begins, one of the key texts of Hinduism—the Bhagavad Gita.
Arjuna, the Pandava prince, arrives in a chariot to the place where the Kurukshetra war is to start. Krishna, in human form (he is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu), is Arjuna’s charioteer. Arjuna looks at the army opposing him and is paralysed by the thought that many of the people there are beloved members of his family and his teachers.
Arjuna asks Krishna for his advice. Krishna does not hold back. He tells Arjuna his duty and reminds him that there is no point delaying taking action. The fate of the Kaurava princes is already determined—by Krishna himself.
To prove his point, Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna. This is the moment (chapter 11, verses 10 and 11) we see depicted in the paintings of the (often blue) deity with many heads and many arms. Krishna sees everywhere, and his hands guide everything in the universe.
Arjuna’s dialogue with Krishna is crucially important to Hindus—personally, culturally and politically. It is a narrative about fate, courage, the necessity for action, and the role of heroism in personal and social life. Its influence runs deep in Hindu culture. Political leaders, past and present, including Mohandas Gandhi, interpreted the narrative of the Bhagavad Gita to clarify their own ideas and actions.
Careful readers will have noted that Arjuna does not arrive on an elephant.
I understand there are many Australians who believe there is an imperative to preserve life; to keep straight the lines and the lengthening queues of people wanting to come here; and perhaps even to sort through those queues for the kinds of people we would prefer.
Australia is filling up with believers who are concerned to do the right thing.
Speaking only for myself, I have decided that it is not necessary to pretend to judge whether someone is actually a refugee. I do not believe we should pretend it is moral to punish someone who seeks a better life with alienation, abuse and rape; and to promise it will be punishment without relief.
I cannot promise it will make any sense to you because I hardly understand it myself: the story of Arjuna is about how to act, and the need to act, even though we are quite certain that no matter what we do we will cause suffering. These ideas are permanent and universal. They were the same in Asia two thousand years ago as they are now in Greece or Italy.
At around the same time that the Mahabharata was being composed, on the other side of the world, a bronze statue of a boxer was being created. This statue was unearthed on the Quirinal Hill in Rome in 1885 by the archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani. The bronze has copper inlays that make the flesh of the boxer look bruised. When the figure was cast the sculptor took a chisel to his work and gouged scars in its face.
The creators of the Mahabharata and the statue of the seated boxer were both trying to tell us something about human suffering and heroic action.
The first thing I want to say is that everything I’m going to write down here is true. Obviously I’m going to lie a little here and there because you can’t tell everything you know about someone unless you’re trying to hurt them and I don’t want to do that. But as far as all the things that matter are concerned I’m going to tell the truth.
The notebook’s first page is a collection of titles. Most of them are crossed out lightly, or struck through; some have been obliterated by several layers of ink. Two of the titles are written in an unusually neat hand. They were the first and last choices. One of these two has been rejected because of its coincidental reference to a novel by Patrick White. Throughout the notebook the titles are repeated above versions of the same story or different parts of the same story. Everything in the notebook is unfinished.
There are two versions of the beginning: the first is a half-hearted claim to write nothing but the truth, and the second, in the middle of the notebook, is an attempt to begin at the beginning. He has decided this second attempt to open the story was too important to take the place it would naturally have in the record of a person’s life, and therefore adds the note, End—explanation?
The story is there, in the notebook, but, as it stands, it is little more than a record of the author’s failure to write it. “Story”, though, doesn’t describe it properly: some parts are like a diary, some actually a diary, some nothing more than notes on conversations. How much of it is true, how much fiction, doesn’t seem to matter.
I’ve been reading bits and pieces of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. —For years. I have to admit I don’t like Ezra Pound. There are others I don’t like, which is only natural, but with Pound I feel like I should apologise, like it’s a sin. Father, forgive me my sins. It has been years since my last confession, father, and these are my sins: I don’t like Ezra Pound. It’s nothing about the writing. I think it’s something personal. Something to do with the ‘hieratic head’, the arrogance of it. Something about the way his poems are treated like holy relics. But now I’m not so sure, because there’s this ‘Portrait d’une Femme’, and it makes me cry. I slobber over it. It’s not a terribly sad poem — at least, I don’t think it’s supposed to be.
“Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea.” No need to look at the note to understand what it means. My aunt is my family’s sea, beautiful and dangerous. So much depends on her.
Her life stinks and, unlike Job, she hates god for it. There’s no point in thinking that god might not exist—someone has to be responsible. Her bravery in cursing him during thunderstorms frightens friends who happen to be visiting.
All references to religion have been deleted, except a kind of prayer which I will show later.
In the next passage, not really part of the story, there is the reason for the writing.
More than a year ago my aunt left her home and moved into a flat to live by herself. She left her husband and son. Everyone in my family was shocked by this and couldn’t understand it at all. I include myself, of course. I heard about it second hand, from my mother when she visited me one day, hunting for clues. She didn’t tell me the whole story because she didn’t know it all herself. She didn’t say, for example, that some people in my family had been saying my aunt was a lesbian. “That’s the reason she’s done it. It couldn’t be anything else.” All I knew was my own disbelief.
When mum kicked me out of her house because she wanted to get on with her life, I left quite happily because I wanted to get on with mine. Kids run away just because they’re growing up, or because they think they’re growing up, which is the same thing. It’s about independence. A year ago independence was the only reason I could find for my aunt’s flight. I’d forgotten—not even thought, because it had never been necessary for me—it could also be about survival. Women know this other explanation deeply. Men don’t seem able to think it.
After the titles are four photographs, one to a page, pasted to the lined paper with art cement. The aunt is first. She is cutting a cake (a birthday cake?) and there is a Christmas tree in the background. The uncle is second. He is holding up a glass of beer in the gesture of ‘Skoal!’ and grinning broadly. Grandparents are third. It is a portrait taken with a diffusing lens-filter. A window off to the left of the couple throws light into a dark room. The tan on the face of the sun-loving husband and the flowers on the wife’s dress look painted. I am the fourth. My appearance, as a photograph in the notebook, is puzzling: the only other reference to me I can find is the letter “M” underneath the picture. It would have been more appropriate to include a photograph of the cousin, Robby.
Then there are two pages of scribbling. Two addresses, doodles, and a figuring of dates which arrives at the answer “1953?” The best, but still inadequate, version of this year is written like a report; the rest are only notes.
When she was thirteen everyone called her a tomboy. She used to box with a boy who lived down the street where she lived in Richmond. His name was Johnny Famechon and he went on to make a living beating young men to a pulp in the ring. When he was a kid, though, he used to come out second best against my aunt. In the same year, 1953 I think, there was a hot December night and nothing very important was happening. Anyone who was moving was moving slowly. Maybe half the women in the street were sitting out on their patios drinking beer. One of my aunt’s cousins, older than her but not by much, started talking about sex. It was a subject my aunt had not given much thought to. What was said—something crude and, in fact, a lie about my aunt’s mother—doesn’t matter in the long run. I’ve no intention of bringing it to life by repeating it here. It’s more important to tell how I was told of it.
My aunt was trying to remember how she felt. She said very clearly, very directly, “I hated her.” As she said this I remember seeing this hate as though all the years which separated her present self from that former one were suddenly transparent and irrelevant, and I could see the core of what she was that night her cousin told her the lie. Now I don’t know whether she was referring to her cousin, her mother, or both of them.
That hate lasted eleven years, from the night in December, 1953, to the day she gave birth to her baby. What happened during these eleven years is difficult to explain, and I don’t pretend to understand it at all. She says that this hateful “thing” which had formed inside her was alive, but also silent, like a place where light and sound could enter but not leave, a listening, lizardy thing, cold-blooded, not human. She became ill, and refused to carry on conversations even with people she had known for years. There was going to be a place no one else would know about, where she could be alone; and since there was no place in the real world she could make that happen, she created a place inside herself for that purpose. This place could be infinitely large, insatiably hungry.
There are more lies in here than are necessary to protect the people the writing refers to.
That first rule, Write about what you know, is not very helpful tonight. What I know tonight is that I have forgotten a great deal it would be useful to remember. There are only threads of conversations and stories left, which I pick up, trying to put them together. So, they’re together. How many lies will make a pattern visible?
My aunt used to listen to doctors, friends, and family talking to her, asking her what was wrong, and it would seem she wasn’t listening at all. Nothing seemed to get through. That was a mistake. In fact, she heard everything and let everything in. In her secret place she would be listening and speaking all the time, saying things like, “You’re all idiots! You’re never going to get in here!” Doctors can be idiots, too, of course. “It’s stupid to claim you know something when you don’t”, is her explanation of the work of psychiatrists. She does admit that one of her doctors came close to her.
He gave her paints and clean, white paper to work with. She liked painting, and still does, though she never paints people because she believes there is too much in people which can’t be seen. She paints only landscapes and houses. In Mont Park, the mental hospital, she painted what she saw and used only two of the colors in her set of paints, black and red. The whole surface of the white paper she’d been given would be covered with black, except for a thin, rectangular sliver of white right in the middle. At the end of this white sliver she put a red dot.
It was a cigarette. My aunt was certain that no one “in the whole world” would understand what it meant, but the doctor who’d given her the paints looked at it and said, “Well, there’s some hope for you yet. I’m glad you think there’s still some white to look at. It’s a window, yes?”
Less subtle, not-so-clever psychiatrists had already tried electric shocks to relieve her depression. The idea is that, if you shoot a certain number of volts through someone’s brain, the poor bugger’s going to feel as though he’s died, first, and then feel like he’s been born again, which gives him a new start in life. It certainly gives him a start. It wasn’t electricity which shocked my aunt out of her private place but the desire for light and the surprise of a real birth.
The notebook, its leaning toward an always incomplete story, seems to skirt the issue of a scandal in the family, providing the motive to write, but surfacing only in phrases delaying its appearance—“until recently … ”.
By 1959 my aunt had already married. I don’t have the foggiest idea how this happened. The details of this part of her life have never interested me very much, but now that I get around to this part they seem important and I’m pissed off that I can’t record it properly. I do know that her husband is a good man and loves her. I know that most of the time they sleep in separate beds. I know that until recently her marriage was the happiest in my whole family. I know there was a baby, my cousin.
After a few years she was still not considered to be really well or, at least, “normal”, and there was a lot of talk about whether she would be able to cope with a baby. For a while into the pregnancy her doctors continued to ask questions, mainly about sex. Neither my aunt nor her husband seemed to be very comfortable with it, but then you could say that about a lot of people, including most of the doctors, I suppose. She got fat. It was the first time in her life she looked like her bulging, robust sisters, and she thought it was wonderful. It was wonderful being fat; she wasn’t yet sure about the baby. If you could see her grand, muscular son now when he stands beside his tiny mother you’d probably laugh at the miracle of it. At some point she discovered the baby was protecting her. The doctors stopped asking questions. Occasionally she heard people say things like “It could go either way”, which she supposed was a comment on her mental state. She got fatter. She became two people. And then one afternoon, after complaining to the nurses of the women’s hospital for more than an hour, her son’s leg “popped out.”
I think it was a leg but it might have been his arm. She remembers travelling in an elevator with one or other of the baby’s limbs sticking out from between her legs and a nurse saying “You’re not being very helpful” as she wheeled my aunt’s bed into the delivery room.
After that there was nothing real, only a dream.
There are two dreams in the notebook: one recording a birth and the other a death.
Over the next few days the same dream kept coming back. She was being beaten cruelly by people who wanted to get inside her, and the baby wasn’t safe. Every night she had to fight these people off until her baby emerged with bruises on its face. The staff at the hospital and all the visitors recited a prepared speech when my aunt asked them why she could not see her baby. “Everything is all right. You must rest a few more days.” Robby did have bruises on his head, caused by the large clamp which had been used to assist his appearance in the world.
He has tried to assess Ezra Pound’s poem against his aunt’s life. There are lines in the poem which made him think of her, but others apparently did not sit comfortably with his ideas about her. Two pages of the notebook are devoted to this strange assessment, most of it unintelligible, referring to things and events not appearing elsewhere.
“No! there is nothing! In the whole world and all, nothing
that’s quite yr own.”
Anyone? What rubbish!
These are the only three parts of the poem clearly connected with parts of the notebook text.
It’s now about thirty years since the first time my aunt died. I’ve promised her the next time she dies, which will probably be from lung cancer at the rate she smokes, I will arrange for her favorite pillow, cigarettes and a box of matches to be buried with her. She says these are the only things she couldn’t bear to live without—or die without, depending on how you look at it.
After Robby was born my aunt started pulling things apart to find out what was wrong with them. Wherever she’s lived she’s become famous (locally) for being able to pull broken things apart and put them back together again fixed. Neighbors bring toasters, radios, tape-recorders, hair-dryers and children’s toys and puzzles for my aunt to work her magic. This is the way my aunt set about trying to repair the world and understand it, one thing at a time. Watches and clocks are her speciality.
One afternoon I went to visit her there were tiny pieces of metal scattered in what might have been an orderly fashion all over the kitchen table. She asked me whether I thought time was inside or outside a clock and I had to admit I didn’t have the faintest idea; so we just had another cup of tea while she put the clock back together again.
The meaning of the word ‘Body’ in the group “Oddments of all things” is not clear. The implication may be that the aunt’s peculiar mechanical abilities, her desire to “pull things apart”, were a substitute for a deeper interest in the workings of human bodies.
How can only three people be afflicted with so many unpronounceable names? ‘Von Recklinghausen.’ ‘Dupuytren.’ And so on. I imagine there are many like her, who live among the rest of us without ever telling us their special knowledge because they do not understand themselves it is something worth knowing. I imagine they have special powers given to them by their experience. And I imagine their numbers are growing.
I wish I were one of those know all authors who write stories where everything just falls into place, who make their characters do things like it was obvious what was going to happen all along.
In all the years I have known him I can only remember my uncle saying about a dozen things to me. Sometimes a few will come in combination: “Hi, how are you?” “It’s been a long time.” “What have you been doing?” I have a photo of him, glass of beer in his left hand and his mouth stretched to form an astonishing smile. It is really a picture of the mouth.
And then, the same thing over again …
Another Christmas has been accomplished. My aunt, her husband and son were absent this year. If they had said nothing, which would not be unusual, the rest of the family could easily have thought the three of them were staging a protest. It was not a protest. They went to meet Ken’s father halfway between the present and the past.
My aunt’s family seems to spend a lot of time not speaking. That’s not quite right: they speak, but do not tell. In all the years I have known him, before the last year, I can remember Ken saying only about a dozen things to me. Sometimes a few would come in combination: “Hi, how are you?” “It’s been a long time”, and, “What have you been doing?” I have a photo of him, glass of beer in his left hand, and his mouth stretched to form an astonishing smile. It is really a picture of a mouth. The mouth that doesn’t talk, at least not to me. It’s no less a friendly mouth just because few words come out of it.
I called her today to find out what had been going on. She didn’t come to Christmas lunch this year because she, Ken and Robby went up to the mountains to see Ken’s father. It’s been forty-four years. Father and son sat on the grass up there for hours, crying and talking, talking and crying, while the others, eating cold chicken, watched from a distance. My aunt couldn’t hear what was going on because her hearing aid was pointing into the wind. All she got was a roaring hiss. On the phone she kept calling the whole thing “pathetic”—“It was so sad, pathetic.”
He is relieved, at last, of the burden of having no past. Now, he looks there, seeing something solid, a grey face, old, not very impressive as far as faces go—but a face, life in its contours, a real death and loss in its future, something to know, touch, and kiss, or to hate and to blame. With this relief there will also be change. That must happen.
But, as for me, I am unchanged. The photographs prove it. I stare into the lens, my lips closed tight, not in the pose of a man who will not tell, but like one who has nothing to say. The one photograph which is most telling shows me clothed in black, in a solidly dark room. A light to one side of my face half lights me, and appears to freeze me in a world without its own features. The other half is completely black, and this is the place where I dream, and where, I suppose, my aunt lived. Who knows if there is any change or life there, or whether it is just a slow accumulation of junk and memory, where we might, if we were brave enough, go to find all our other selves, and write.
O God, who made us, who knows us, who knows our future
Who causes all our pain, and leaves us bewildered and helpless,
And free to die, and without hope, I know you are the God
Who is not God, who is our unfeeling, unthinking emptiness—
I know you are the God my aunt married, the dull, cold-blooded,
Blue-blooded lizard, and the dark, sticky resin where memory
Is planted, and where our feet stick. I know that I must fear You
As I fear the grave, and fear madness, because that is what you are.
I know that I must have you in my house and in everything I do
Because you are the living God who is dead in everyone,
Who sleeps and dreams with us, who arrives at breakfast
Stoney-faced, formal, in a black suit, like forgetting, and
Whose cruel, unbroken years of silence waits to break us.
Last night I dreamt I had fallen to the ground. I could see faces coming toward me, the familiar faces of the people I work with coming toward me. Arms reach out to touch me. Just at this moment I realise I am about to die. There is nothing these people can do to help. Someone calls for an ambulance. Since there is nothing I can do I watch my self dissolve; the faces looking at me disappear as I might seem to be disappearing to them. Then I am in a deep darkness. There is no sound and I can feel nothing. My mind is alive inside a black box. At this point—it has only taken a few seconds—I understand I have dreamt my own death, or I have actually died and that I understand nothing. What do I do now?
“What is there left for me to do? My first death left me with a choice I could not avoid, to live forever in that black cave I made, with my own voice, or … I remember the moment Robby was born, as though he were punching his way free of the place where he had been confined with me. I knew then that I was not alone, and never had been. This small thing had been with me all along, even from before I was married. He had been with me for as long as I have been here. I emerged, too, along with my boy, and found the other place outside not much worth living in. Every now and then I discover some thing, or a small area to live in, flooded with light, things or places where nothing is hidden from anyone who cares to look. —A clock or a watch, for example, inside which nothing can be secret, and where, because of that, there can be no real darkness or misunderstanding. The closed box of a jigsaw puzzle, too, is a place always containing some perfect picture; it only needs opening and patience. On the other hand, people are completely mysterious, and hopelessly dark. It is impossible to paint them. They are all odd numbers. My husband, whom I love, I have lived with all these years and I still do not understand him. I cannot explain the bad time we went through. The bruises, the drink, everything obvious about that time … I know I have not been the easiest person to get along with. He saved me once. I think it must have been he who saved me. At some point I can no longer remember I must have willingly come out of my madness and loved him. This must be true. I am here, after all. And we have survived all this. We are no longer alone together, but together. Something deeper has saved us all, and continues to save us. When I was young, very young, my parents already knew I was to be the odd one out, and odd even among all the odd in the world. I was the last of four sisters. My father was going to the War, taking a ship to the Middle East. It would be a struggle with four kids at home. The wartime censors pretended to keep secret where the men had gone. I still have a letter which dad sent home that has a square in the top right hand corner neatly removed. But there is also a yellow-brown postcard with the word JERUSALEM boldly printed at the bottom. On the docks, before he left, mum told me later, was where I was conceived, in the last ten minutes before all those years of silence. I can’t imagine where they found a quiet place to make me, or if they were worried about that. It was a quick job, but one well done, mum says. They never loved each other more than in that moment just before leaving, which was a kind of death, and never hoped more for the life that was promised after death. That is the reason I am here, and the meaning of everything that has happened to me …”
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 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?
—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. please talk to me.
Please take your head out of the bowl.
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?
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,
Take me with you,
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
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.
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