First time I left her home, it was an autumn afternoon or looked like autumn or is autumn in my memory. The next time, it was morning and bright or maybe I thought it was bright because I’d barely slept and so the light seemed sharp, polished, like after rain.
We got talking over drinks at a series of gatherings organised by mutual friends which I only kept going to, really, in the hope of seeing her. First time we met was at a bar on the 36th floor of the Shangri-La Hotel, overlooking the lights of the city and a dark harbour. It was quiet and, at first, we spoke in whispers, leaning in close; I smelt her perfume, tried to place its sweetness. She told me she didn’t come to places like this, that she seemed to be going to parties she didn’t usually go to, that the night before she’d been at one where people were having carefree sex out in front of everyone. ‘Who are these people that can just fuck in the open like that? Do they go home afterwards and brush their teeth and hop into bed? Do they have regular jobs? I’m disgusted, but I’m envious.’ I smiled at this and she liked that I smiled, I could tell. I don’t think we touched on this first occasion, beyond, maybe, a quick handshake, and, anyway, someone else came and joined us and conversations meander and criss-cross and soon we were no longer talking. But I found myself thinking of her later, when I was in the passenger side of a taxi going home, and the way her eyes moved from my eyes to my mouth and back. Before the end of one of these get-togethers, she asked if I wanted to leave with her.
There was a room in her home that could be called a study. It had bookcases filled with books, and on one wall was a framed photograph of a building reflecting the clouds in a distorted sky and on the adjacent wall was a print of dancers by Degas that I remember thinking looked faded, maybe from being in the sun. While she was in the bathroom I took my glass of wine into this room to see what the book spines read as I held the glass by the stem; on one of the shelves was a small ship in a small bottle. She found me in here and I was about to ask about ships in bottles and where the building in the photograph was, but she pulled me into the hallway by the wrist. Next time I was in her home, she said, one of the few things she actually said to me then, that the room and the things in it did not belong to her.
The first time I was at her home, I saw her nude. She undressed in front of me as if I wasn’t there, fixing her glasses after she’d bumped them with her forearm as she let her hair out and leaving them on till the last moment. The second time, she was careful to hide her body.
From the first time we met, he spoke in a kind of harsh whisper.
She said things to me I didn’t quite understand. That was the next time I went to her home; the first few times I spoke to her I understood well, as well as I thought I’d ever understood anybody. That’s what I remember thinking, anyway. It was during the next time that she spoke of things I didn’t quite understand. She spoke about a boy-man, asked, I thought rhetorically, ‘How sure of himself can a boy-man be?’ The boy-man, she said. The boy-man, the boy-man.
She asked me to leave and I would have. Of course, I would have. She didn’t ask me outright, didn’t say those exact words, but that was what was implied, and I would have. But there was what we’d had before. Had we not have had that, I would have left immediately.
So I didn’t leave, I hid. I sat in a leather couch worn soft, I think, through age and use, let myself sink into it, trying to stay out of the way. She began to play music, CDs, none of which I knew or even thought I knew, guitar and drum-heavy music, ambient and nearly voiceless, the rhythmical sound of industry. She spent most of the time going through the albums, turning to me only occasionally, maybe to see if I was still there, seeming to, at one stage, put the CDs in some sort of order.
It grew late and her housemates came home, a couple I thankfully didn’t know. She turned down the music when the front door closed. The guy wore a cap and I barely saw him but the woman was blonde and round-faced, beautiful. She stopped in the doorway and said hi to the both of us and I knew immediately that, yes, the Degas print was hers and the photograph of the building was his. Or they were both hers, or both his.
The next time I saw her room, two or maybe three weeks after the first time, was when she stopped playing music and gestured to me to follow her. She put away the CDs and we moved out of the living room to her bedroom, where I pushed some clothes off the chair in the corner and sat again. The moon was in the part of the sky framed by her window.
This next time I, in her room, asked her, ‘Should I go?’ She came over to me so I stood, but she hit me, slapped me on the arms as I covered myself. I reached out to her, touching her on the shoulder, but she pushed my arm away, thumped a fist on my chest, pushed into me, then turned for her bed.
At one point, briefly, deep in the night and after a long while of sitting in the room together as if the other wasn’t there, I fell asleep. When I woke to shift my weight in the hard seat, I saw her on the bed, still awake. She glanced at me, saw me see her.
The first time I went to her house, I stayed until mid-afternoon. We woke late and she made me a breakfast of olives and tomatoes and cucumber which I watched her carefully slice over the kitchen sink, and bread that she pulled apart with her hands. She made me black tea and we spoke as if we might be friends.
Next time I woke from another short sleep, the bed was empty. I sat up and listened for movement in the house’s halls, listened for the creak of a floorboard or the sound of running water. I stood and peered out the window, into the dawn, as if she would be there.
Three words. Three tiny, banal words that had somehow – among the tens of thousands of others spilt in the cafe that morning – made their way through the clashing of voices, of cups and coffee spoons, and tugged at the sleeve of her thoughts.
‘Are you happy?’
All her instincts were to swing about and look. The voice, a man’s, had come from behind her, somewhere close behind and to her left. The next table perhaps, or the one over from that. She slowly adjusted the angle of her head until two figures – still blurry and amorphous – were trapped in the corner of her eye. She knew she mustn’t turn her head. Not just for the sake of good manners, but because she knew that any further movement would alert the pair of them to the fact that she’d heard. And spoil everything.
She continued to sit, rigid with attention, poised to catch the woman’s response when it came.
While across the table from her, Jane sat equally poised. Having apparently asked some question of her own.
‘I must say,’ Jane said when Charlotte still hadn’t answered, ‘you don’t seem very surprised.’
‘I’m sorry?’ Charlotte said back. Though in fact her only regret at that moment was at being interrupted. At losing the fleeting echo of the man’s question. She’d been playing his words over inside her head, trying to gauge the source of the strange calm with which he’d spoken. Was it merely a routine question between them, one to which he already knew the answer? Did he even care what it was? Or was it the reverse? Was this the gambler’s ultimate bluff, and his question the most extravagant bid he’d ever made?
‘Are you telling me,’ Jane’s voice and features had sharpened by now, ‘that you knew? That you already knew?’
Jane’s face, normally so pretty, so elfin and blue-eyed, was positively ugly when she was like this. All het-up and inquisitorial like this. Charlotte wondered whether she didn’t actually hate this woman – this lifelong friend who didn’t know when or how to shut up. Because right then, while Jane was carrying on about something that Charlotte, her best friend, was apparently supposed to have known and should have told her, another woman was beginning to speak – but so softly and, like the man, so inexplicably calmly that Charlotte almost missed it.
‘I’m always happy,’ the woman’s voice, much younger than the man’s, claimed, ‘when I’m with you.’
Charlotte did almost turn then, in pure frustration, only at the last moment managing to check the movement of her head and shoulders. She raised a hand instead to signal their waiter for fresh coffee. But the gesture still allowed enough time for first impressions – a young woman’s pale cheek in profile, the redness of her lips, the black office suit, regulation fall of straight blonde hair. And opposite her the man, mid-forties, already greying, white business shirt, immaculately ironed – not by her, Charlotte guessed. Insurance, real estate, banking, retail management, something like that.
As she turned back to Jane, the sketch of an apology on her lips, she found that it was the girl’s voice that now wouldn’t leave her. I’m always happy. That small pause. When I’m with you. So young, and yet so assured, so knowing. Assuming, that is, that the girl was just being playful, just teasing him with these clichés. Because the only other possible explanation, given the uninflected calmness her voice, was that she was perfectly serious. She was speaking from the heart.
‘You knew all along?’ Jane said in disbelief. ‘And you said nothing?’
‘Jane, I’m sorry,’ she said again. ‘I seem to have missed something . . .’
But by then the waiter was already beside them, checking on their order. Which, now that she’d summoned him, Charlotte found that she was incapable of giving. Found she could only refer him with a gesture of her open hand towards Jane, because the words reverberating at that moment in her head would have made no sense to him at all. Do you really mean that? the man had just said, Or are you only saying it to please me?
Which told Charlotte that the girl hadn’t been teasing after all, or not in a way that the man understood as teasing. And that therefore either she was speaking from the heart, or she didn’t care for him at all. And was merely mocking him. And that somehow the man sensed all this, and was desperate to know which it was.
Just as Charlotte – listening in – was.
‘Of course not . . .’ the girl began, but her next words were drowned out by the chatter of the waiter, as he gathered up their plates, their cold coffee cups. By the time he’d gone, the girl had finished. So that all Charlotte was left with were those three words, Of course not, and the mystery of whether it was the first or the second of the man’s questions she was answering.
‘That couple . . .’ Charlotte bent across the table towards Jane and whispered.
Jane looked at her. ‘What?’ she said, as if she hadn’t heard properly. Or had, but could make no sense of it. ‘What couple?’
‘The two just behind me, on my left,’ Charlotte hissed a warning. Hearing, even as she did, the squeak and scuffle of chair legs and shoes on the tile-and-matted floor of the cafe. They were getting ready to leave.
‘What about them?’ Jane whispered back. Obviously missing something herself this time.
‘What do you think?’
‘About what?’ Jane’s attention was having to be dragged. But at least she was now looking. Then looking away.
‘It’s pathetic,’ the words came spitting out. And just as abruptly dried. ‘All this . . .’
Charlotte sensed rather than saw the man and girl leaving. The withdrawal, the sudden empty space at her back.
‘This hole and corner business . . .’ she heard Jane say, and regretted that she’d drawn attention to the couple in the first place. To the girl especially, whom in some odd way she felt she’d let down. Betrayed, even.
Of course you can never be sure, Charlotte was about to say. They could be anything, father and daughter for all we know.
But she didn’t say it, thrown off course by the hissing intensity of Jane’s words, and then by the sudden appearance of the couple in the street outside, framed in the cafe window at Jane’s back. The girl, looking a little older in the sunlight now, thirty at least, the man a little younger, less jowly than in the shadowy cafe, some of the heavy flesh pared from his cheeks by the bright blade of the sun. Almost an ordinary couple, she thought as she watched them pause on the pavement beyond the glass, the girl idly swinging one of the man’s hands between both of hers, the man bending down and kissing her on the lips before stepping out onto the road and making off. The girl stood for a short while perhaps waiting for him to turn and wave, but when he didn’t, turning herself and making her way, head thoughtfully down, off along the pavement towards wherever she was headed.
Not father and daughter anyway, Charlotte was about to smile and say to Jane. But then realised that this would make no sense either.
Besides, Jane herself had something she still wanted to say. And this time Charlotte understood that she really would have to pay attention. In view of what was happening right before her eyes. Jane’s face was crumpling, her lips trembling, the contours of her cheeks folding in on themselves,
‘Was I really . . .’ Her face was brave, smiling one last time through its tears. ‘Am I really the last to find out?’
Watch Every Drop: a community service announcement composed for those who survived the Fall (Kirk Marshall)
There’d never come a newly-minted, indignant crimson-kissed day in this place which didn’t evoke some dark, frost-sorry memories to that time when we still had water. I can’t speak for the voiceless million, though I’ll wager in the heady grape-marinaded days of my youth when I was mobilising for political and societal allegiance as a thatch-faced environmentalist, I’d still have believed with penitent fury that it was possible, but now I possess no discord that for most survivors today water’s just some chimerical element of a bygone age. I mean, it’s a spine-decalcifying realisation as bitter as Parisian coffee grounds to yearn for something you know now doesn’t exist. And sometimes when I face the unnavigable lunar-blue badlands with their buffeting vitriolic spray of skin-scorching sand, pocked by the smelters, enrichment plants and innumerable rhinoceros-like vehicular abominations which drink up the land, all cogwheel and corrugated iron salvaged from foresworn farmstead housing, I can only glimpse at recalling what it was like to know the surcease of a parched tongue. But as with all quixotic and unforgivable reveries, I have to relegate such innermost musing to the dry dead carbuncled heart’s omnivorous furnace. Sadness breeds madness, of course.
In the synthetic, flesh-twined fibre of my Vernian hydrosuit I can feel the heat lambasting my haggard shoulders like dreamily punctual vultures, and I have to retreat back to my thirty-six floor InsulFlat to decompress the moisture-free carbon monopolising my lungs and follow it up with a fistful of mean reds. Then perhaps a windwash to rid the yellowcake trapped beneath fingernails and embedding the crow’s feet pinching my eyes, read some more Tennessee Williams, feed the echidna the termites I’d combed for and managed to successfully collect. Maybe masturbate over Cadence. Maybe not. The gloried pirouetting epiphany you’re privy to when you have no-one to count on and nothing to aspire towards is that it doesn’t particularly matter how you while away your remaining hours. Therein is something no system or agent or auspice can take or shake from you. Even after the Reef Bleach of 2024 and the final dead loggerhead turtle was discovered in a disused second-hand car lot seeking the mouth of the sea, you can still go unsung for your efforts. And that’s a freedom I’m glad we won.
I woke at 0300 hours and watched the somnambulist creatures dictating the flipbook of my dreams scuttle away into their sleep-sullied solipsist pages and dart off behind my blearied eyes once more. One of them had looked kind of like Cadence. But others had looked like mutations of carburettor engines, conveyor belts and bird-eating tarantula, so I couldn’t claim to be the swiftest exponent of Freudian analysis in the Brisbane Vertical County.
I knew this, at least, because I knew everyone by their name, face, phosphorescent visor and catalogued sorrow living in my building, and as it was the only building with organic occupants within the establishments of the recovered nation-state, I also had a reasonably comprehensive lore and understanding of each individual’s politics and affectations. Not a great many citizens still dreamed, to be frank, insofar that I was lead to learn, because, as turned out, dreams had an inextricable subconscious relationship with water. Something to do with the humour and temperature of cerebrospinal fluid, not that I can grasp the science of it. Anyway, I guess I hadn’t dreamed about Cadence. I guess it had merely been a signifying example of a strain of human ground-dwelling malaise. The French used to call it tristesse, I’ve heard. The cruelty of the human memory is its tenacious fondness for replaying, in ininhibitive minutiae of detail, all the time, the dagger of heartbreak, the treason of a lost lover, and the forbidden taste of loathsome lips. If the bitch wasn’t dead already, I’d have accursed and willed her to get that way, and fast.
Berate the starless, moonless, dusk-smogged sky above!
I missed her. I missed her like the full complement of my bones had become divisive, like a newborn calf expelled from its foetal sac misses the tonic of night, like a dehydrating turtle misses the roar and sugarwhite seethe of a cascading ocean swell.
Today I was going to embark out to the silica dunes beyond the newly-burgeoning fields of GM meat in their ripening, empurpled fury, picketing the cartographic demarcations of the Brisbane Vertical County. My vellum-bonded foot thongs inscribed their game-legged haikus in the unconquerable white paper trail of the dunes’ unending ranges, and terns turned and wuthered while I set about to digging up her grave.
Toiling away took most of the day — albeit I’m wary that, after the face of the last clock was publicly fractured, such a lineal word is now arbitrary — by which time my spade’s gavelled mean metal head was hitting the ironbark lid to her coffin, and sweat was beading off the septum of my angular Irish nose in a sticky string of malformed pearls.
I slunk to my haunches, permitting the blessed cool of the photovoltaic shade-panels’ deflected breezes near the ore-mining hutment to slake my unquenched, raspy thirst for unrecycled air. This reminded me, somehow, of when I was once corralled into sharing a 4WD hire-car with some fellow freak fundraisers stinking of patchouli and beeswax shampoo, back when I was still handsome and impressionable, and I’d been compelled to endure an air-conditioning unit which regurgitated monstrous vegan farts at me for three pitiless hours while landscape warped and wept outside electric glass windows. We ran down a big red roo later that day. I watched its eyes make vehement persecuting demands of all of us, before its crushed and shallow ribcage rattled its last exhaustive, torturous breath. Its body smelled just like stale vegan farts. I decided to never digest another vegetable again.
The lid of the coffin slid off, unyielding and vacuum-sealed, with little apparent ease. Inside, after the mandrake squeal of brass and wood had subsided, and beyond the miasma of released, pollen-frenzying dust motes lay her frayed, sickly corpse. I placed my swarthy palm against the prickle-steeled green hide of her flesh. She was still warm to touch, surprisingly. The air — what was present of it and not stagnating and pustulant — stunk rich with the pall of her recent vegetative, antediluvian demise.
I unsheathed my patented Swiss Army blade and cut deep and merciless into the mescaline pulp of her acrid cadaver. After ten minutes of industrious and sadistic surgery I’d divined my redemption, I’d found it. At the dark brackish hollow of her cacti centre had collected a diaphanous pool of secreted dew, as true and unadulterated as the cobalt pummel of my rotten salad days. I lowered myself to my knees and submerged my head into Cadence’s ruptured innards. I don’t remember what happened next. The most beneficial and virtuous thing about days of blazing, unfaltering sunlight is that there’s no longer any watch that exists to record moments in seconds. I held my breath for centuries, millennia, night.
I got him second-hand.
His first owners had called him Kafka, which I had to change: an ennobling name for a dog, but demeaning for the great Prague writer. I suppose that, because he was a German Shepherd they had wanted to give him a German name, assuming that Kafka, who wrote in German, had been a Hun himself. But, for me, Kafka was completely inappropriate. Foreigners should always be assimilated into our culture, even foreign dogs. So, I opened a can of Pal and re-baptised him Rin-Tin-Tin.
Well, yes, I know, Rin-Tin-Tin was a Yanky dog working for the US Cavalry, but I did Aussify it to Rinnie. Nevertheless, the ex-Kafka responded in a most disdainful way to this new name, and whenever I yelled ‘Come Rinnie!’ he would turn his tail to me and stroll away in the exact opposite direction as if he were hunting imaginary Indians.
Assuming that I had insulted the mutt, who must have assumed himself to be a great writer, I decided to give him another name and, maintaining the literary theme whilst updating the nationality, I called him Henry Lawson. This seemed to stir his curiosity, but not in a definitive man’s-best-friend way. In fact, all it really did was inspire a tilt of the head and a kind of ironic doggy pant whenever he was ordered to fetch. Not even when we encountered a mongrel bitch in the park called Louisa did he show any affinity to his roots. He sniffed under her shaggy tail and then turned away. Didn’t even wag his own. Which made me have to think again about what I should call him.
Experiments were carried out with Peter Carey (growl), Gerald Murnane (woof) and finally Patrick White. But when he was Paddy he bit me on the hand and I needed a tetanus shot and a rabies injection and seven stitches.
It was then I sensed that there might be another solution for my literary dog: I decided to make him a character from a book. The first try was Frodo, then Bilbo Baggins. When they didn’t work I experimented with Heathcliff and Raskolnikov. Yes, I know, I’d gone foreign again. Unconsciously so, but the problem was that no great Australian character came to my mind. Well I did try Snowy for a while, as an abbreviation of The Man From… but it was totally wrong for that German Shepherd.
The final solution eventually came in a most unexpected way. We were at home watching telly. The dog was still awkwardly being Raskolnikov. Channel 9 were showing that film about D-Day with Henry Fonda and when a sudden da-da-da-daaaaa rang out, Rasky pricked up his ears. The da-da-da-daaaaa was repeated and Rasky barked.
‘Beethoven!’ I cried, and the dog jumped up, his front paws in my lap digging into my balls as he licked my face. ‘Beethoven,’ I repeated. And he panted Pal all over me. The music in the film: the opening bars of Beethoven’s fifth.
‘Beethoven! You’re Beethoven! Ludwig Van, man!’
And we ran to the park with his squeaky rubber bone to celebrate the finding of a name.
While zapping her routine Thursday-night Lamb Rogan Josh, Susan noticed a flicker from inside the microwave. With two minutes left of defrosting, Susan peered into the machine’s food-splattered eye and received an affirming wink. Susan’s heart began to buzz and the microwave beeped with approval. She would heat up her boredom, roast it from the inside.
The spark of the lighter thrilled Susan, giving her a jolt she hadn’t felt since her second husband left five years previously. Susan sucked back the smoke of her inaugural cigarette and she was born again, in a porch-lit moment.
Now following a new routine, each morning Susan dressed herself in her gown, toileted, woke up the kettle and began her act of amendment. Good morning, clicked the lighter. Good morning, crooned Susan.
Susan’s children had long forgotten her, and with cigarette in hand she decided to forget about them. She now concentrated on her recital of coughing up her boredom – of spitting it down the drain along with her recently developed phlegm.
Empty packets of cigarettes soon lined Susan’s hallway and armies of them marched into her midnight dreams. Susan’s lust for nicotine regenerated the feeling of what it felt to be alive and she now craved for a further purpose.
Susan watched as her ashtray overflowed, allowing the disheveled butts to become an extension of her burning body. Looking up at the sun, Susan felt herself become a transitory cloud of suburban smoke and the cinders of her body lay down amongst the cigarette ash – a cheap, yet effective cremation, just in time for the cleaners she had scheduled.
Her parents had named her Dale. Dale Bailey Collins, but at home they called her Bailey, each claiming it was the other one that had wanted Dale. And so, Bailey she was for most of her childhood. She liked it, especially when, at around twelve years old, she decided she wanted to be a boy: no need to change her name at all. Confusingly, though, her parents reverted to Dale, to discourage her crossing gender. No matter, Bailey thought, she’d answer to both. It was easy being a boy at that age: jeans, sneakers, baggy t-shirt, short hair. This trans-gender thing was a cinch, she thought, though the boys all thought she wasn’t really tough enough. And of course, one thing was missing. She didn’t care about that. A tom-boy, her grandparents said. She’ll grow out of it, you see.
And she did. Or, she became a little less boyish and a tiny bit more girlish, and was perfectly happy like that. Bailey grew tall and slim, and kept her hair cut close to her head. It was a striking appearance, smooth and taut, like a close-feathered bird. Seeing a documentary one evening on the birds of South America, Bailey’s best friend Frances declared that Bailey was the red-legged mercer, a rare and endangered species of flamingo. Sighted by only a few devoted naturalists, it was estimated that only two hundred of the elegant birds populated the inland jungles. Bailey was delighted with the comparison and from that day, chose the bird and the name as her own. Mercer now wore either red stockings or red stovepipe jeans.
She took up work as a gardener in the estate of Josiah Fleming, a millionaire who had inherited his wealth and was bored. Bored by everything: the day, the night, his money, his food, his clothes, his cars, his garden. His doctor gave him pills but nothing worked, for Josiah’s problem was that disease of the nineteenth-century toff: ennui. With no solution to his langour, Josiah simply waited, lying on his couch in front of a large flashing screen, for the universe to offer him a solution.
And the universe obliged, in the form of Mercer Dale Bailey Collins, cropped hair, long red legs, the new gardener.
Mercer had tried life alone in a cabin in the Tasmanian wilderness, but unlike her namesakes, she was not suited to the reclusive life. She had imagined herself a writer of the silent, broody type, composing sparse, simple stories heavy with subtext, but it was not to be. She tried observing the birds around her, and writing poems about them, but she realised that there were no words for the feelings they evoked. Instead of writing, she gathered sticks and moss and constructed nests on the ground around her hut large enough for her to curl up her long red legs and rest. This was, she felt, her own form of poem. With that new knowledge, Mercer headed back toward civilisation, but not too close: ‘Flemington Lodge’, Josiah’s grand house flanked by acres of garden.
Kyle, the head gardener, had been uneasy about this lanky girl, but Josiah, startled into life by her long red legs, was clear: she would have the job. Collecting flowers for the huge vases scattered around the house, planning designs for the flowerbeds, arranging evening parties on the back lawn, Mercer’s job was a mixture of whimsy and practicality. While Kyle sweated and built his muscles digging and planting, Mercer thumbed through design magazines, dreamed up theme parties, exotic settings, fantastic arrangements for food and clothes. Her birds’ nests became her trademark feature, built from willow, wool, cotton, rich silks and silver threads, sequins, feathers and leaves. Guests were at first bemused and suspicious, then curious and playful. By the end of the evening each nest held someone or several, asleep, satiated with sex, play, fantasy and the secret comfort of returning to the womb.
Josiah found all this stirring in ways that he could not quite understand. One clear midnight, when the guests had snuggled up for the night, he coaxed Mercer into a nest lined with swan down and made nervous love to her. Mercer was kind, though unmoved by him, a rejection that Josiah reluctantly accepted.
As the nest theme began to weary, Mercer turned to thoughts of an evening party where light would be the feature. She thought of lighting up the trees, but that was already done; lights in the ponds, lights from the roof of the house, lights lining the paths, the maze, the labyrinth — it was pretty, but not what they needed. After days strolling through the grounds, peering at trees, flowers and bushes, watching birds and lizards, and even more days hunting through books, magazines and the internet, Mercer came upon someone who could help her design and project lights onto the grand expanse of the house, transforming it into a Tibetan mountain, an iceberg slowly fracturing, a swarm of bees, an underground cavern, a moonscape, a sky filled with plump white clouds, anything she could dream up. Ainsley Crimson was the light expert with a studio in the city, but she would be leaving in five days to spend a year meditating in Uzbekistan. Determined to meet with her, however briefly, Mercer left the next morning for the six-hour journey. It should have been a simple trip in Josiah’s Saab, but strange things can happen on the open road.
She was sitting on her backpack by the side of the road, thumb in the air, legs stretched out in front, her hair pulled into two tight plaits. Mercer stopped, of course. Her name was Casey, Casey Drew, and she was wandering really, with no real plans, though she hoped that her journeys would turn eventually into a novel. Mercer smiled and opened the passenger door.
An hour later, on a long straight ribbon of road, the car broke down. What happened next seemed like a dream, and perhaps it was. They climbed out and walked away from the car to consider, leaning on the tight, twanging wires of a fence. They found the paddock of wheat, yellow and vast, irresistible. Running, rolling, jumping and laughing, they made tracks, corn circles, faces, stick figures and finally, weary, a nest big enough for both of them. Casey’s face above her, her body warm and close, Mercer saw the sky darken almost to black and laughed. This was what she had been waiting for: the storm, the deluge, the lightning of flesh that would wash her away. For a time, it felt that the world with its colours and sounds and smells had tunneled down into this wheat field and the two bodies at its centre.
Casey decided to stay in the nest and begin writing her novel about an endangered bird. With a long kiss, Mercer walked back to the road and hitch-hiked into the city.
When she rang the doorbell there was no answer. A neighbour opened her door enough to whisper that Ainsley had left only that morning, just like that, off to some strange exotic country. Then the door on the other side opened wide and a man with silver hair announced that Ainsley was indeed at home, but not to be disturbed while she worked on her latest light project. Mercer sat at the door and waited, her long red legs crossed in front of her; even without sticks or feathers she could make a nest of a doorway.
The flash woke her from sleep. At first she thought she was blind, but the weak glimmer of moonlight in the window showed her that the lights were out all over the city. Strangely, though, blue light shone beneath Ainsley’s door, and from inside, the sound of whooping and laughing. Abandoning manners, Mercer pushed through the front door only to find herself awash in an ocean, waves of blue light lapping against the walls, splashing at doors and chairs in wet white lace. She waded in and swam toward Ainsley who was laughing, spinning and tossing the light into phosphorescent bubbles above her head.
It would not last, they both knew, but that was not the point. For the next hour they dived deep, swam like mermaids, coiled and flipped and glided, came together in the brief ecstatic touch of dolphins, knowing the pleasure of water, flesh and light to be one.
As the city lights came on, one by one, the blue ocean of light faded, and with it, the two women.
Dear Mr Collector,
I am sending you this unsolicited package containing my latest work, with the hope that you will deem it worthy for display in your museum.
That you will I have very little doubt for I have been following your personal career with great interest and I think we have very much in common. I admire your initiative and your extremist art-culture philosophy greatly, and I know that the erection of your private museum will play a tremendous role in the permanent establishment of radical art in this conservative country. Perhaps one day its opening will be regarded amongst the most significant events in our history, along side Eureka, the Ned Kelly hanging, the massacre at Gallipoli, and the Lindy Chamberlain case.
But more than anything I was inspired by what you have been saying in your interviews about your passion for contemporary art and your conviction for opening up the intellectual debate that lies around it. Your idea that all art is about ‘either sex or a fear of dying’, or about a combination of the two, opened my eyes to the very depths of my own being. In those words you have described my motives in a nutshell.
I am a combination artist. When I create I do so in a sympathetic-magical way, for in a sense I create destruction so that I myself may achieve immortality and my passion is for destruction manifested through the basically always violent act of love. When you open the package you will see exactly what I mean.
You will be the first person, beside myself, to see any of this. Of course that is significant.
The first thing you will notice in the sculpture is its use of natural forms. Touch the hair, it is real, real human hair. And no, I didn’t get it from a barber-shop floor. There are long strands and some very short strands. The long strands you can stroke, the shorter ones have been used as a substitute for paint, having been glued on with PVC and then lacquered. Of course they are just clippings. Yes, it is pubic hair. I clipped it myself from around her vulva. I was very fond of her and lived with her for a week after I picked her up hitch-hiking. The brown hair is also feminine. I took her home from school one day. The blond hair is from a man. Waxed, or laser dilapidated he was, no body hair at all below the Adam’s apple. I had sex with him as well and quite enjoyed it, though I don’t practice homosexuality usually. He solicited me under a streetlamp in the park.
I spent a lot of time concentrating on the gravity of the piece. Although each piece is connected by impaling them and traversing them with wire, the floating feeling and its altitude are achieved through a complicated balancing act, although some of the body parts had to be reinforced at their connecting seams with superglue.
I have all the names of my contributors and if you need those names to be revealed for copyright reasons they will be provided. There are photos and video recordings of the entire work in progress and I can make them available if you believe that it will help public comprehension of the work. It was a messy process, but then all art is a messy process, isn’t it? I also made a record of all the dates and precise times that the work I did on each subject took place. I will be quite happy to pass all these or any other technical details to you.
The intellectual form and philosophical system that was applied will also be of great interest to your visitors. All in all there are twenty-one different body parts in the exhibition, chosen from an esoteric perspective. Twenty-one is the number of Major Arcana cards in the Tarot set, and so of course I am talking about climbing the tree of life, the tree of experience, through sex and death. Each collaborator thus represents a rung on the golden ladder. The little school-girl represents innocence and The Fool in the Tarot. I enjoyed working with her immensely and I am thinking of doing a special theme on children and submitting it to UNICEF to hang in the United Nations building. Children and education, such a violent theme. Sex and the fear of death is so ingrained in our education system.
The real positivism in the work will be found in Section VI of the model, the part that is labelled The Lovers. They were twins. A boy and a girl. They were the only two I didn’t have sex with, but they have been captured on video making love to each other.
In all my work you will find a true commitment to contemporary art, its unabashed extremism and its tremendous conviction. I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that our role is to shape society by revealing all of its ridiculous limitations and pathetic fragility. My work is designed to help the public overcome its fear of dying, and its fear of sex. Yes, I know you’ve never mentioned a fear of sex, but a fear of dying is innately linked to a fear of sex, isn’t it? Through this work I have come to terms with these crippling phobias in my own life. I want it to be seen as a kind of healing for our own perverted society with all its hang-ups and hypocrisy. Art is such a cleansing force. So necessary. But I don’t need to tell you these things.
Well, I’ll leave you now to open the package and enjoy the masterpiece I have prepared for you. It is dedicated to you, Mr Collector, with all my love (and hate).
I hope you enjoy inspecting it as much as I did making it.
An accountant – call him Accountant A – occupied a modest office in a modest accountancy firm. Even though Accountant A’s office was one of the smaller offices, the Boss asked him if he wouldn’t mind allowing the new photocopier to be housed there.
‘Why does it have to go in my office?’ asked Accountant A.
The Boss explained that the new photocopier was too big to fit behind the reception desk.
‘You’d be doing us all a big favour,’ he said.
The large, bulky machine was placed in the corner of Accountant A’s office. Now, whenever he wanted to leave the room, he either had to go to the right of his desk and squeeze between the desk and the filing cabinet, or go to the left and walk between his desk and the machine. The latter route was easier, except when the one of the two receptionists – it was always the younger of the two – came in to use the photocopier; then there was even less room to move on the photocopier side than the filing-cabinet side. So if Accountant A wanted to leave the room when the receptionist was photocopying, he was, effectively, forced to go to the right. This might happen up to six times a day.
He could tolerate the physical discomfort of having to take the alternative route when the receptionist was in the room. What he found more troubling was the inexplicable tension between them. She hadn’t been with the company long, but she seemed to dislike him. She barely said a word to him, unless he asked her to post a letter or perform some other small task. Then she sighed and said, ‘Sure.’
Accountant A had sat behind that same desk in that same office with that same dull green filing cabinet for years, and now this enormous piece of hardware was taking up even more space. For years he’d worked patiently, not complaining, because he knew that the accountant who occupied the office at the end of the corridor – call him Accountant B – would be retiring before long. Accountant A had assumed that when Accountant B retired, he would get Accountant B’s office, which was significantly larger than his own. Having put in so many years of faithful service, Accountant A felt that the graduation to a more spacious office was no more than he deserved. He never complained when the Boss allocated him so much extra work that he had to spend evenings and weekends with spreadsheets instead of his wife and children. He didn’t protest when the Boss overlooked him for promotions. He barely questioned the decision to put the new photocopier in his office. Accountant A went about his work quietly and doggedly. Ultimately I’ll be rewarded, he said to himself; and if not in this life, then in the next.
But when Accountant B finally retired, the Boss didn’t offer Accountant A the larger office at the end of the corridor. Instead, he gave it to the retired man’s young replacement – Accountant C – who’d all but demanded the larger office even though he’d only just joined the firm.
So, not only was Accountant A denied the roomier office, but now the space in his existing office had been further diminished by the new photocopier.
‘Why can’t you put the photocopier in the bigger office?’ he asked the Boss.
‘Because yours is much closer. We can’t have the girls at Reception walking all the way to the end of the corridor every time they want to photocopy something. That’s patently ridiculous.’
Accountant A said nothing more. He knew it was too late anyway, because Accountant C was already ensconced in the larger office. They’d have to drag him out kicking and screaming. Accountant A decided that perhaps now would be a good time to look for a job in a firm where he’d be more appreciated.
In the meantime, he tried to make friends with Accountant C. They got on all right at first, but then Accountant A said something about God, which made Accountant C uncomfortable.
‘I’d better get back to work.’ Accountant C retreated to the generous dimensions of his office at the end of the corridor.
Even this, Accountant A could accommodate, but he desperately wished for an easing of the tension between him and the younger receptionist. It seemed to be getting worse. He sat at his desk. She stood at the photocopier. The room was cramped but they were miles apart.
He wondered why she disliked him. He was nothing but courteous and considerate, always taking the difficult, uncomfortable route from behind his desk to the door when she was using the photocopier. He squeezed himself between the desk and the filing cabinet, inhaling deeply so he could fit through the narrow space, all to spare her the inconvenience of having to move out of the way. He smiled at her when they passed each other in the corridor. She smiled back, but it looked more like a caricature of a smile than the real thing.
Once as he walked past the kitchenette, he overheard her talking with the older receptionist.
‘He’s all right,’ the latter was saying. ‘Just a bit quiet, that’s all.’
‘No matter how rudely I talk to him, he just takes it. Never gets angry.’
‘I think he might be religious.’
‘I feel sorry for his wife. Imagine being married to such a drip!’
‘You could do worse.’
‘I already have, believe me. Things are pretty rough at home right now.’
Accountant A crept back to his office.
Later that afternoon the younger receptionist was using the photocopier. Accountant A could no longer bear the silence.
‘If there’s anything you’d like to talk about,’ he said. ‘I’m… quite happy to listen.’
‘No, thank you.’
After a few more minutes had passed, he said, ‘I turn to God in times of difficulty.’
‘Please don’t impose your beliefs on me.’
A few days after that, Accountant A was at his desk, wrestling with a tax return. Nearby, the younger receptionist was leaning over the photocopier, mutely inserting documents into the plastic feeder. The machine tugged each sheet down into its guts, whirring and buzzing as it faithfully reproduced every page. It was giving Accountant A a headache. He laid his pen on his desk and waited, but the younger receptionist had a lot of photocopying to do that afternoon.
He decided to go outside for some air. But this time he chose not to go between the desk and the filing cabinet. Right now he didn’t feel like putting himself out for her benefit. He stood up, turned to the left and attempted to go between the desk and the younger receptionist, who was still leaning over the photocopier, feeding it paper.
‘Excuse me please,’ he said.
She sighed and straightened up slightly, but there still wasn’t enough room, and even though he pushed himself back as far as possible against the edge of the desk, his body brushed against hers as he passed. He left the building and went for a walk to clear his head. When Accountant A returned to his desk, she was gone.
Later that afternoon, the Boss phoned.
‘Would you mind coming by my office?’
‘Now would be good.’
As Accountant A entered, the Boss said: ‘We’ve got a bit of a… situation.’
Accountant A paused between the door and the chair near the Boss’s desk.
‘Mm. Mrs Ryan – Angela – has made a complaint. About you.’
‘Please take a seat. She claims you… behaved inappropriately. Touched her.’ The Boss cleared his throat and poured himself a glass of water from a jug sitting on his desk. ‘Water?’
‘No, thank you,’ said Accountant A. He suddenly felt cold.
The Boss sipped the water. ‘She says that earlier today when she was using the photocopier, you squeezed behind her, and as you did so you, er, rubbed against her.’
‘What? No, no. I was just trying to get past. There’s no room, you see, because of the photocopier. I had to squeeze past.’
‘Yes, well, be that as it may, she’s made this complaint and we have to take it seriously. So I think it’s best if you take some time off until… you know.’
‘But how long will that be?’
‘We’ll deal with it as quickly as possible, believe me.’
‘But… what am I supposed to tell my wife?’ Accountant A looked directly at the Boss and held out his right hand, as if begging for alms. ‘What am I supposed to tell my children?’
The Boss adjusted a framed photograph on his desk. ‘It’s not really my place to advise you on that.’ He looked at Accountant A. ‘This is the first time this has ever happened. Fifteen years and it’s never happened once! Fuck! Excuse me, I’m sorry.’
Accountant A shrugged, wondering what he was supposed to say.
‘Why did you have to squeeze past her? Why couldn’t you have gone the other way?’ The Boss passed a hand through his sparse hair. ‘This is all I need right now.’
‘She could have moved in a bit and let me pass.’
‘All I need.’
So Accountant A found himself driving home at three-thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. He could not recall having left work early before. As he drove, he thought to himself: if I was going to molest any woman, any woman at all, she’d be the last one I’d choose – the last one on earth.
Having permitted himself this moment of unkindness, Accountant A began to think about what he was going to tell his wife and children.
The street below is a canyon, carved from the grimy concrete that rises in every direction. Cracks radiate like spider-webs across the sidewalk, which rises and falls as it yields to tree roots. Every so often, the paving falls away completely at the edge. Without warning it morphs into downward sloping ramps, leading to airless basement parking-lots. Pedestrians are forced onto the road.
Buildings are stacked like egg-cartons along the lane, in all sizes, slapped with tiled facades and fancy balustrades. Illegal air-conditioning units jut from almost every window frame, clinging to their casually installed brackets as they hang over the street. Every surface wears a wash of the weather and smog; nothing stays clean or bright for long.
An old lady is muttering and tossing wads of ghost money into a brazier on the curb, and the orange flames leap and burst towards the sky. Deep trenches cleave her face into neat sections, with smaller fault-lines running parallel before splintering off in all directions. Her eyes are buried in the gaps between her brow and cheekbones, peering out brightly through lash-less rims. But her hair is so shiny – so lusciously black, pulled into a bun that probably unfurled to her hips.
I couldn’t possibly guess her age.
As her mouth opens and closes she offers a flash of her ruby-stained teeth. I know it comes from chewing betel nuts, yet every time I see those teeth – on anyone – an irrational but unshakeable dread takes root, and all I can think of is blood.
She could be a murderous witch conjuring demons out of the smoke from her cauldron, but her house-slippers give her away – I know she is just someone’s superstitious mother.
Bai-bai. But to foreign ears it just sounds like ‘bye-bye.
She does this every week. How many vengeful ancestors could she be indebted to?
Smoke swells up towards the fourth floor: growing, vine-like, with tendrils weaving through the iron railing and up towards my face. Incense smoke is usually so gorgeous – hanging from the ceilings of temples and convenience stores with the lightness of a floating veil. But this smoke is different. The silky scent of burnt jasmine is fleeting, and swiftly overtaken by something blacker. It catches in your throat and suddenly your tongue is a lump of charred wood. The hack-cough-spit routine of moped riders at red lights makes more sense to me now.
I have heard the garbage truck in a neighbouring suburb for hours now, steadily moving closer. It is equipped with loudspeakers, blasting the same simplified classical piano tune at all hours of the day and night. I can’t know for sure whether it is their recording, or just the particular acoustic qualities of the city – the song is flat.
Unbearably flat. Like a children’s toy, running out of batteries. I cringe and hum the correct pitch – side by side, the combination is even more painful.
The old lady leaves her fire and disappears into one of the buildings. And then she returns, accompanied by an army of clones, emerging from the many stairwells with their shining hair and house-slippers, bearing rubbish bins for the musical truck.
It was in the summer of 1995 and my father was working in a top-secret IBM water lab off the coast of Wollongong. Thanks to classic films like Deep Blue Sea, we now know that sharks are fishy geniuses, can cure Alzheimer’s Disease and take Samuel L Jackson unawares. In the 1990s IBM was conducting research into whether or not it was possible to power computers with the super intelligent brain of a shark.
Due to his confidentiality agreement my father was never able to disclose to me the success or failure of this research. However, I grew up using IBM computers and I can report that they are suspiciously water resistant. And they have regrowable teeth.
My father’s job in the lab was to teach the sharks mathematical equations while their brains were hooked up to the computers. He was in charge of three nurse sharks: C1, C2 and C3. Each day my father would join the sharks in their tank and teach them Pythagorus’ theorem on a blackboard using waterproof chalk. My father is a strong believer in holistic teaching and coloured his lessons with interesting facts about the life and times of the ancient Greek mathematician. As a consequence, and because sharks are naturally inclined towards the humanities over the sciences, the sessions quickly degenerated into lengthy examinations of ancient culture. C1, C2 and C3 each went on to contribute several ground-breaking papers to historical journals (although scholars agree that the work of C3 on Cretan pottery in the 4th century BC is somewhat derivative). However, their ability to power computers was found to be lacking. My father was removed from the project.
Dad went back to his job tenderising floppy discs in the basement at HQ. It wasn’t until several years later that he visited the facility again. It had been a hard few years for the shark lab. After a series of disagreements over the validity of Cantor’s theory of infinite sets, the shark T9 had turned against his trainer and viciously bitten off his hand. The trainer, Albrecht, had retaliated by ripping into T9’s fin with his teeth. Albrecht succeeded in biting off and digesting a large portion of T9’s pectoral fin before the other trainers managed to pull him off. He later died of an allergic reaction to irony.
Whilst there had been no further violence since the T9 incident the sharks in the facility had become restless and uncooperative. The only sharks that seemed unaffected by the moody outbreak were C1, C2 and C3. Thus, in a desperate act to save billions of dollars of research, facility management made the decision to introduce a history curriculum into the training program. They hoped this might calm the shark population.
The program was first to be trialled upon the vicious and now one-finned T9. Although first instinct had been to put T9 down after the attack, it was generally agreed that this would only enrage the other sharks. And, god damn it, he was right about Cantor’s theory.
The first thing my father noticed about T9 as he entered the tank was that the shark bore a striking resemblance to Christopher Walken. He had tiny eyes, a giant forehead and a wristwatch stuck up its arse. The watch, my father had been informed, had been Albrecht’s and no one had been able to get close enough to the shark to dislodge it. It would be my father’s task to try.