In the Beginning was the Word­ (Joe Nuttall)

Verity La Lies to Live By

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When I was about twelve, I went through a brief but intense love affair with particular words. I used to write them, over and over, in different ways, different colours. I covered everything I owned with them, graffitiing my own possessions with every new word that meant something to me: some black and monolithic, others sporting speed lines or poorly pencilled drop shadows in an attempt to make them jump off the page.
I wrote words like ROCK and METAL, after the music I liked. METAL in silver magic marker, ROCK  drawn with cracks across its surface, supposed to represent granite.
Sometimes I wrote the names of people or places I was enamoured with. AFRICA I wrote with brown and black patterning, like a Zulu shield; ANTARCTICA in a chilly blue-white.
The words became totems for me at an age when everything was changing. Not just my body, but my mind, my way of looking at the world. The words were a way for me to hang on, to fix to things like anchors in a boiling sea.
I used to make up words too, combinations of things I’d read and didn’t understand with things overheard on TV. I loved words with vaguely mystical connotations like LINEAGE, QUEST or RITUAL. I’d pair them up together to make strange, rich sounding phrases that meant nothing but evoked everything—at least to me.
Some words seemed frivolous, light as air; others seemed to me to be very weighty. I would write them on books and the book would (I swear) become heavier. One of those words was FOREST.
I wrote it in dark green felt-tip on the back of an old postcard I found on the bus. The card showed a mass of fir trees on some foggy Canadian hillside. I was entranced by that image, the dark Douglas firs like the masts of ships locked in some seething ocean battle, rearing out of the mist. The back of the card was blank, so I wrote the word in thin strong lines echoing the trees, and pinned it to my wall.
That night I had a very strange dream in which I walked through that forest under the great Douglas firs, smelling the pine sap and the rich black soil, heavy with decay. Occasionally a small animal would sprint out from under cover and run off into the woods, but other than that the silence was complete; just the sound of my footsteps gritting over the fallen needles.
The next morning the postcard was gone from my wall. The small hole left by the thumb tack I’d used to pin it was still there, but no sign of the thing itself remained.
An older boy might have questioned that, or thought to ask his parents if they’d removed it for some cryptic reason, but I didn’t bother. It was just something that had happened.
Of course I wrote the names of pop stars and video game characters on things too, everybody did. But it was those simple, somehow heavy words that occupied my attention. Drawing band logos on your pencil case could help identify you as part of a tribe, or proclaim your adoration for a particular singer, but to understand the relationship between the word itself and what the word meant was special to me, almost a religious act.
I found a copy of New Scientist in my dad’s office. The cover showed the great deserts of Saudi Arabia, the dark skies lit faintly by hundreds of burning oil pipelines.
I wrote DESERT on the inside cover in orange chalk, and that night I lay on the sand feeling the dry, faintly perfumed wind come roaring out of Al Rub El Kali, the empty quarter. In the morning the magazine was missing, and my dad told me off for tracking sand into his office.
A few nights later I went to the Moon. It was cold and dark and I could have sworn that I wasn’t alone up there; the stars in particular stick in my mind, glaring like chips of ice. I woke up with no desire to go back.
Then after a while it stopped happening. I didn’t really notice too much; I had developed an achingly adolescent crush on a girl at school a couple of years older than me. I wrote her name over and over on my ruler, but nothing happened. She never even knew I existed.
Time passed. I grew up, I forged new crushes; some terribly misguided, some almost real. I went to college where I learned to use words to dissect texts and communicate ideas. I learned to annotate, to reference, to footnote.
Then the day before graduation I received a phone call. My mother’s voice, hoarse with tears, informed me down the crackling line that my father had passed away suddenly that night; a massive heart attack had felled him like a tree. An ambulance turned up promptly and whisked him away to casualty where he was pronounced dead at quarter to midnight. My mother commended the paramedics; she said they were extremely professional.
That night I sat in my room surrounded by my satirical college posters and CD collection and thought about how little I ever knew about my dad. The few conversations that we had, that had ever reached beyond hello and good-night I could count on the fingers of one hand. He was simply an entity in the background of my childhood. I realized I had forgotten his middle name.
That was last year. The funeral was quiet, only my mum’s close family and a couple of well wishers showed up. It all seemed very vague and pointless, the echo of a life I was barely involved in; for some reason the minister presiding over the whole thing seemed extremely angry. We drank coffee, ate cucumber sandwiches and then everyone went home.
There is a photo I was given by my mother (she lives with her sister now, still in the same house), it shows me holding hands with my dad, aged maybe four. We are in a park on some sort of picnic or nature ramble, and the trees are dense and tall, filling the upper section of the photograph. We look very small next to those trees, but there is a look of contentment on both our faces; small and subtle, but there.
I used to combine words to make new words, words that meant something tangible to me. I’d write them down on every available surface like talismans; take things that were familiar and make them strange, take things that were strange and make them powerful.
I dreamt a forest once: maybe I can again.
Joe Nuttall is a Tasmanian writer and musician. He is currently lurking somewhere in the shadows of Brunswick, Melbourne.
Among his many obsessions are the horror fiction of Clive Barker and Jack Ketchum, the graphic novels of Alan Moore, and more music than could be listed here. He sometimes taps away an evening writing his food blog, Ugly Dinner and has been published previously in Review of Australian Fiction.
His band, Enola Fall, has received critical success in Australia, Germany, and the US.
He spends his time writing stories that are mostly dreams, cooking dinner and resolutely NOT being a coffee snob.