She’s wearing a little black dress and big gates loom around her. I wave from across the street. The intersection squeals and vrooms with traffic, and I have to wait and wait to cross… all the time we’re catching eachother’s eye and smiling so when we say the usual Hows and Greats etc. it seems forced.
We embrace quickly in the radio gaze of passing motorists: asphalt and windows around us, clenched fingers, white concrete monoliths, limbs moving inside a tangle of pedals, valves, gears crunching, powerlines looping and fizzing in the tram lanes — I suddenly realise we are the only organic beings on two legs in the vicinity — and it begins to rain.
Quickly skipping past headstones to a round gazebo shelter — an out-of-place Mediterranean garden party exclamation — the cemetery’s horizontal silence meets us with a trespass feeling.
“Why did we choose to meet outside a cemetery?” I ask.
She laughs at herself “It’s the only place I know in North Carlton.”
“For some gothic reason,” I add, look at her: thick black hair billowing down to skinny shoulders, misshapen Picasso eyes bruised by the busride. Her thin red lips dash out and join mine. I taste coffee. “Its nice to see you again Tobes. I’m glad you wrote. I thought after you moved here you’d… you know.” She looks down at the concrete slab, biting her lip. Miserable puppy, my dark thoughts say, wanting my approval again and again.
“Right, Luce, s’if I’d forget my friends back home. Things look pretty temporary for me here anyway. ‘Snot exactly working out.”
“I was sorry to hear that. Why?”
She knows why but it’s an opportunity for intimacy.
“Let’s see…can’t find a job, got chucked outer a band, living in a dump with holes in the walls, turning thirty next month…”
“O please don’t do the age thing. And you havn’t always lived in dumps on the dole.”
It’s still raining hard, spilling off the gazebo roof, stealing colour from the rosebeds and gravestone bouquets,
“Exactly. I dunno…Luce, if I really like playing anymore, you know. The pubs, the grotty rehearsal rooms, waiting on hold for booking agents, wondering if you’re gonna get a crowd, carting the fucking gear everywhere, putting up all the posters… spending all week organising a racket for a crowd of drunks, so they can get pissed and stoned and fuck someone, or fuck someone over, you know… no-one gives a shit…”
She’s staring at me softly, but I don’t look back. Lucy has always given me a long line. Perhaps so I’ll stay hooked. And I just use her patience to be bitter and complain.
“You used to say that’s why you did it,” she says. “So people can get out of it and escape their meaningless lives…”
“Yeah, and now I gotta escape their boring and meaningless escape.”
She laughs quickly, grimaces. “A-ha.You’ve developed a dark Melbourne cynicism. You need to get back to Freo.”
“This town, I dunno…”
“What did I say before you left?” Her voice is shrill. She’s also had her fling with this vamp city. “Melbourne is its weather — cold and fickle.”
“Yeah well everyone ‘cept you reckons Melbourne’s the greatest city on earth but… yeah it sucks really. Like every person in Australia who’s ever taken themselves too seriously has come here, rented a dump in Fitzroy, and disappeared up their own arse. Let’s face it, how many great artists actually come from Melbourne?”
“Arthur Boyd, and that mob.”
“That’s when Melbourne was like Perth — hick and dull.”
“He hates the place too!”
“From the bush like most Aussie geniuses. Yet everyone here’s convinced this town is the crucible of cool.”
“Fuck knows where he’s from. But the perfect Melbourne soundtrack — scowling, inward-looking, in love with madness…”
“Jesus, are you OK?” She slaps her hand dramatically on my forehead. “He used to be your hero. Soon you’ll be working in a bank listening to ‘N Sync.”
“Well,” she sighs, “as you know I’ve had my fling with this city. At first I loved it but after last year… under it’s cultured face its a moody, tight Victorian place…” She throws out her arm in silence because the rain, the cemetery, say enough. Our eyes meet. Bitten lip, and me… probably a sunken face. She puts her hand on my knee. It shivers there like a bird. Her arms go around my stomach.
“Tobes, listen to us. Iits… I’m glad to see you.” Her body communicates beyond her words. We’re both stiff and untouched. Her thin body slowly falls against mine, like a ladder hitting a wall.
The beach has many rocks and boulders, and a fresh stream running to the sea. It has powerful water — special minerals though something more, like some raw, early life-force, oozing from the rocks, changing their colour, creating stromatolite forms, odd erosions, as if the rock itself is living. Bees buzz in the air, far from flowers. It’s a popular spot — locals come to swim in the tidal pool, drink the water, and watch the spirit tigers.
They are beautiful, peaceful creatures, like guardians. Not everyone can see them, but I can, so I know they are actually tiger cubs, and have no stripes. They sun themselves on the sand, lap the stream, slide in and out of visibility.
Three town buskers come down to the beach, dressed in clown garb and tophats. A crowd gathers. “Hey!” One picks me out as a volunteer, thrusts me a mask a megaphone. “Take this! Abuse me!” He shouts, arms wide. I lift the mask and point the phone at him. “Arsehole!!” The crowd sniggers. “Louder!” He beckons. “You fucken ARSEHOLE!!” I scream, genuinely annoyed. Everyone laughs and applauds.
Back at my house I know what’s expected but can’t. We’re slumped, both half-dressed, on the bed. We’ve smooched, groped, rubbed, its been a whole three months — perhaps it’s the atmosphere; the finger-marked walls, the skirting board daylight, the motocross stickers on the window, the floorboards bending underfoot — it all sucks. The room cramped by a mattress, my drums and her travel bags, there’s a constant draft, the heater burns. She reaches down and fingers my cock. “Its beautiful, Toby.” I just stare down there, beginning to spiral. She bends down and kisses it. I can tell she’s been hoping for a week of sex, for old times sake, now we’re clear of the past… I lift my knees, shuffle away.
“I dunno… its just… I didn’t expect this I spose…” I lie. She straightens up, gives a little whine of frustration, then laughs. “Don’t worry. We probably shouldn’t anyway.”
I decide to offer something better. It doesn’t matter, she’s talked about it before… I light the foil, suck, hear her stop and gasp, hold the pipe out to her. She’s backing up the wall, as if I’m a ghost clutching her father’s hacked-off head.
“Toby you don’t…”
“Just sometimes. You know, special occasions, like this…come on.”
“I can’t…” Yet she’s nodding, that typical hypocritical nod: so that’s why you’re nowhere, so this is why you can’t get it up, so that’s why you’re a loser… smoking grass is OK, do ekkie when you can, but this… is a problem.
The van is loaded to the roof with amps drums guitars and the Hume Highway stretches out through rumpled hills and dry wheat plains. Littering the floor: takeaway boxes, coke bottles, bags of pot, old socks, empty cigarette packets. Overloaded and eight hours to go; on tour with an album out next month.
Black coils on the road like shredded truck tires.
Shimmering, glistening, uncoiling across the road.
“Fuck!” Steve shouts — a glistening rope of flesh, a monster emerges from a silver mirage. Everything slows but we’re still going too fast, overloaded, the brakes grab and lurch. Just hitting this thing could be lethal. Steve twists the wheel. The load shifts — the serpent rears like a cobra and actually strikes the car — and we start to screech sideways. Then a giant hand from the wheatbelt clouds grabs the van like a tiny toy and sets it right.
We cover the next 40 k’s at 40k’s an hour, jolted out of our dope highs. “We shoulda squashed that fucker,” someone opines. Behind us sick brown smoke stops trucks. There are burning tyres, crushed speaker stacks and drumheads spread over 300 metres of flaming highway.
I’m fishing from a warehouse balcony in Southbank, my line dangling for hours in the grey water, arty marble department stores and casino neon contrasting deeply with any idea of fish, primitive and full of mud. Then — TUG! — I hook one and the line goes tight, shivers and out it leaps — giant as a man! Heavy as a horse! I drag it onto the wharf, it’s… a Fish-Cow! A three-hooved beasty with the face of an octopus and maybe a coupla scaly arms, which it waves cos it’s pissed off.
“Not now!” It telepathically squeaks. “I can’t be caught today, don’t you know? I’m due at the Festival!”
O shit that’s right it’s The fucking Deity! The city’s Divine Symbol! Whoops!
“You’re double-hooked!” I shout and push it back in. I cross my fingers and hope the correct balance of subatomic forces will be maintained.
I’m standing on the street waiting for a tram. Its dusk and the moon looks cold and sick above the office towers, which are just a little bit too black and sharp to be serene. I’m surprised its dusk, — I only rise these days for weekly rehearsal, the toilet, toasted sandwiches or acts like this — it could be 2am or noon — my father’s visiting town, I’m going to meet him in a city restaurant — I sense the sun has sunk too soon, my head is heavy from too long in bed — it’s an eclipse, the stars are imposters, glinting like teeth in an evil grin and soon a crescent of white sun will puncture the sky above me.
I’ve been imagining myself a starving prisoner, the outside world personified a cruel jailer plonking down chocolate cakes and platters of meat outside the bars, laughing as I stretch and claw. I’ve been composing a poem slowly in my head:
What mason of tricks built a place such as this?
Who would claim such an abyss?
Put colour to mud? Bridge pain to bliss?
And there in the middle of the street, as the tram sparks and shudders through the last intersection, it all turns upside down, literally goes vertical — the tram is high above, plunging down at me deliberately, perhaps held by a giant hand. Instead of god up there, or some spirit of the cosmos, whirling peacefully in the soft light, dwarfing this petty city, a baleful red eye and a sharp tail swings through the universe, impaling bodies randomly. It’s a veil of tears I think, except no-one is innocent, just amnesiac. We dream of freedom but can’t remember why we were put here. And suddenly it all makes perfect sense. The Biblical Fall, Life is Suffering, Pleasure v. Reality, Ego v. Self divided, all the Big Ones start to add up. Christ screaming on the Cross? Ergo Sum: a soul suffering in Hell. And who is the Boss? That bearded guy in the sunset? The father of Jesus? Ha! It’s a grand trick, a supertrap, and I laugh — eureka! — at its brilliance.
I meet my father standing on my head, and gawk sunken eyed through a rich meal: goblets of purple wine spilling on thick white cloth, little boiled animals stuck in honey sauce — such a pretty mask for Hell. I compose the final couplet.
Which Spirit inhabits Knowledge’s tree?
What monster the image of are we?
“Hello, ABC home help line. How can I help you?” The number on my phone display changes and I’ve reached my quota for the hour. Another customer immediately slides into my queue.
“G’day. I wanna know if I can gedda loan.”
“Was that a housing loan sir, or business.” I flick the computer screen and hover over B or H.
“Housing, housing. I wanna buy a flat for midawda. She’s goinna uni.”
“And where do you live sir.” The big tinted squares of glass let in grey light from another stack of tinted windows outside. One square window of grey square booths where temporary squares like me stare into green square monitors.
“Which state is that?”
“Well, Queensland. Where the hell are you?” A squall hits the windows outside. A hand drops a file full of photocopies with red and yellow highlights on my desk.
“Aw my gawd. Thought I was callin’ the local branch!”
“This is a National Call Centre sir. Where is the property you wish to purchase.” The babble of several dozen calls crosses the room like a wave.
“And how much does it cost?”
“Well I dunno yet do I? How much will ya give me?”
“It depends on different states have arrange for your another property as interest rate may discuss great opportunity fixed terms are branch manager can just a moment your income.”
“Toby! Phone call.”
“Hi its me.” She’s calling from a public phone — I can hear some amplified voice in the background.
“Hi how was the conference?”
“Well… finished. It was OK. Some of it… wasn’t too boring.”
“I was half-expecting to see you last night.”
“… there was a big party.”
“Oh! How was it?”
“It was… pretty good.”
“Anyway I’m here at the bus station. I’m sorry I can’t see you but I’m going back to Perth now. So… goodbye I guess…”
“No that’s fine… we saw eachother for a few days and that was great… so yeah see ya soon… hope you enjoyed yourself.”
It wasn’t. She didn’t. O well. Keep to the script.
“I’ll miss you.”
“Really? But I was such a pain in the arse. It hasn’t been a great time to visit…”
“Tobes I am pissed off with you. Always. But… just look after yourself OK? I care.”
“Yeah? Thanks…” Long silence.
“I met someone last night.” So what?
“Like… a guy?”
“Erm…yeah.” Why is she telling me this?
“Great. Did you fuck him?”
“Toby. OK. Yes I did, OK?”
“Was it good?” What does she expect me to say?
“Yes…it, he was!” She growls in frustration. “Ok I’ve got to got to go now. So… goodbye.”
“Bye Luce. Take care.”
“Look after yourself Toby.”
We lug the gear up three flights of stairs to a tiny room with eight bunks. There’s a wasted guy asleep in one, pissed off at having to share his itinerant space — the only people likely to rent this room other than musos are junkies and parolees, so we all have to watch eachother. Dizzy, roadblind, we’ve had too much tarmac dragged through us. The cash remaining comes up short for a slab of beer. This is when my savings disappear, I say, and Steve lashes out — whinger, miser, sick of it. Jack is already at the downstairs bar, keeping his beer and cash close. Steve and I lock arms, push eachother round the room, tilting speaker boxes, bruising our skulls on the bunks. The junkie uses a fatherly tone — hey! hey! hey! — to pull us apart. Steve storms downstairs, hails a cab to the Cross. I wander aimlessly, the dark turrets and warehouses of Broadway looming around me, seedy pubs surrounded by vomit.
It’s a Japanese performance art gig — the guy onstage is trapped inside a cage of brightly-coloured pipes and wires. On closer inspection it becomes a mangled Subaru scooter, hooked up to sound pedals and an amp. He revs the handlebars and a howling cacophony of roars and whistles echoes through the warehouse. A girl with a toaster on her head, dressed in strips of cloth, suddenly runs out, wailing something, perhaps an ancient shamanistic curse. Suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, toast pops up, ready and steaming. She butters it, offers it to the audience. An actress from the earlier play jumps down, eats the bread. The screaming scooter amp stops. That’s it.
Small waves slap down on the steep beach and foam up through the smooth black stones, then draw a round of applause as the ocean sucks them back. Dad and I walk down the boardwalk that clambers through eroding dunes. My face is probably a permanent wince. My unbottled demiurge is expanding in this new world, howling happily in the chill southern sky, gnawing at the shattered legs of the giant headland, sharkattacking every thought or memory I have, dragging my father’s face into aghast shapes.
“I have to say I’m very concerned Toby,” he says. “Since I came on this visit I’ve found my abilities as a father… challenged.” This has been rehearsed, perhaps all day or week. “To be honest if I wasn’t your father I wouldn’t bother with you. I want to tell you to pull your bloody head in and get on with your life. But its not the first time that… I’ve seen you struggling for years now and I ask what can I do? Apart from say I’m here? Is there anything I can do?”
“No.” My lines are ready too. “Perhaps your support is half the problem.” I’m thinking: sympathy is a mother’s job. Come on, be harder. “I don’t mean to be…y’know, you’ve always supported me in some way. Usually financial… your ritzy restaurant lunches, its like charity, all the from-high advice… I feel like a cripple, a patient when I’m around you.”
These blows are stinging like a salt wind but have the sharp relief of the truth. He nods, gazes out so see, trying to maintain goodwill.
“And you act like one.”
A tiger walks up with a tiny smudge in its mouth, drops it in my palm. “It is yours,” the tiger declares, “but it’s not yet born, so care for it well.” It sits in my palm, pulsing like a clam removed from the shell. Its tiny head looks bent, misshapen, its mouth opens in pain. “Its… how can I…” I stammer. “I can’t…” I protest. “I have no womb.”
“O yes you do,” she scolds, “you know the place.”
“Is it… OK? It looks… handicapped.”
“Handicapped by you maybe, but if you can learn from the past it will grow well again. Its nothing less than the second half of your life.”
“Maybe you can’t help me then,” I reply. “I need to do this alone.”
“I’ll think you’ll cope Peter. You always have. But people who just cope have a miserable life.”
My demiurge shrieks louder, revels in this revelation — yes, it’s fated, pre-ordained, these wings of black, this pain, watching the colours of a fully-lived life from far away.
“Sorry for coping.”
“You’re nothing special son,” he says, perhaps detecting the single pride I still feel. “You see similar people every day in this city, dragging themselves down, crap jobs, crap relationships, crap habits, maybe just crap genes, who knows, it even runs in this family. But there are better ways than ‘doing it alone’. There are… there are new therapies now… that work.”
I wince deeper and turn on him, realising this is what I’ve been waiting for him to say.
“No fucking way! There you go again. I’m a fucking patient.”
I walk down to the black weeping rocks, clapping in their beds. A dead stiff penguin lies in some kelp.
“They could help,” he shouts behind me, “to put your life onto the next stage. You’re smart enough to know they’re not the solution.”
Nothing. Water. Rock. Nothing.
“I knew you’d… perhaps I’m suggesting this because its the last thing I have to offer.”
We clump back up the wooden boards, talking about a rock’n’roll tap-dance show we saw last night. Back to educated irony, half-arse analysis of modern Australian culture. I don’t need drugs. I think of the foil, the sooty glass pipe back home and kick a rock from the boardwalk.
It whimpers, it cries. I take it to the place of bees, the sharp bright sand, drop my palm into the sun-warmed water. The tiny baby sinks, bobs, waves its tiny arms, opens its eyes, and floats. The spirit tigers prowl and stretch, growl through whiskered jaws, pleasurably settle on the bright sand to guard their tiny charge.
From above, the South China Sea looks like a tarnished silver mirror. For centuries pirates, explorers, fearless fishermen in outriggers, golden armies have crossed these waters, carrying stolen cargo, legends of lost isles, dreams of wealth to unscalable shores where only ritual magic reigns. The plane hums and jumps, swings around billowing thunderheads, brings me tiny cans of Kirin. The green cartoon map on the screen edges closer to the islands of Japan. There’s just blue sky, blue water, a purple halo above with a star or two… the plane could be vertical, we could be flying through space toward a cloudy drop steaming in a lost sun’s ray. I cross my fingers and hope the dots below contain breathable air.