Sometimes the deadliest things seem the most harmless. Take the whale shark. On the surface, this fat fish resembles a peace-loving kale-nibbling mammal; peer into its blowhole, though, and you’ll catch a gut-churning glimpse of the real thing: a malevolent predator bursting to bite you in two.
Then there are ‘innocent’ messages like the one I whisked away from a desk today. At first glance, this little note speaks of a simple adhesive slip-up and the chance misplacement of a mug. Sad but insignificant. And yet, when fully decoded, it tells of something infinitely more sinister – of a family ravaged by addiction and, egad, of a civilisation whose innards are being eaten out by moral corruption of the vilest kind.
Frightening plus 1.
To make matters worse, this message was left in the open, totally nude, a veritable spark itching to ignite the imaginations of passing public servants, one which would do them – and society – no end of harm.
Frightening to the power of X.
Luckily, I was on hand to whisk it away, and, as usual, I reproduce it here as a warning to the unwise. Now that’s how you take a message!
What do sausages and civil society have in common? A lot, I reckon, if the following story is anything to go by. Set in a butcher’s shop, this telling tale has a cast of three: Mal, Muir and me…
It’s a Sunday morning, and I’m out shopping for food with my omnivorous offspring, Angus and Eliza. Having gathered groceries from the supermarket, we go hunting fresh meat, tiptoeing across town in the Magna-Carter. The trail ends, unsurprisingly, at the door of our pet butcher, Mal.
I park on the street where the kids can see into the shop. Handing them two super-sized apples, I utter those famous last words: ‘Won’t be long.’
Mal himself is behind the counter.
‘Now I know why I pay my staff extra on Sundays,’ he says, as I pass him a tray of lasagne ($11.95), two packs of dog’s mince ($19.60) and a carton of eggs ($5.20). ‘It’s bloody hard work.’
I glance around at the crush of customers and grin. ‘Looks like it,’ I reply, trying to remember what’s next on my unwritten list.
Mal pauses in the totting up, which buys me more time. ‘Usually I’m such a neat freak,’ he confesses, ‘but it’s been go go go all morning. I wouldn’t normally leave this tray of chops here – I’d have to put it straight back where it belongs. It’s just been that kind of day.’
As he fiddles with the register, I wave at my curious kids, who are watching me intently over their hot-air balloons. A fellow customer almost waves back, out of instinct. Almost.
‘Get you anything else?’
‘Bacon,’ I say smoothly, as if I’d known all along. ‘A pack of your smoked stuff [$4.90]. Oh, and about 300 grams of your ham [$5.25].’
As Mal weighs it out, I notice a sign behind the glass advertising a freebie: one peri-peri chicken burger per customer. An award-winning peri-peri chicken burger, at that.
‘Not happy being National Sausage King?’ I ask him, in jest. ‘You gotta be Burger Baron as well? Talk about greedy.’
He looks a little sheepish and slows down on the ham.
‘Just trying to stay on top,’ he says. ‘Actually, the awards were only the other week. Talk about nervous. There I was taking selfies from under the table and up on stage. Almost dropped my phone, not to mention the trophy. Very happy, though.’
‘Keep this up you’ll need a new shelf for your silverware,’ I joke, looking at the full one above his head.
‘Funny you should say that,’ he replies. ‘I’ve been thinking about making room on the wall over there…’
‘It must make marketing easier,’ I add, perceptively. ‘All these prizes.’
‘Well, that’s it. It’s so competitive these days.’
The only competition I can see is for first place in the queue at the counter. Short-sighted, that’s me.
‘Get you anything else?’
I ask for a dozen beef sausages.
‘Thick or thin,’ Mal wants to know.
And this is where Prof. Muir comes in – figuratively, of course, as befits his theoretical status. ‘Thin,’ the Prof. hisses. ‘Go with the thin.’
So I do. And while Mal is out the back securing the snags, Muir states his case.
‘You wanna live in a civil society? Of course you do. Well, here’s the thing: it’s not your relationships with friends and relatives that matter so much. Nope, it’s the interactions you have with your acquaintances that really count.’
‘Okay…’ I mumble, thinking back to the journal article in which I’d first encountered this idea.
The Prof. snorts, and charges on.
‘It’s not okay, you ninny, unless you work on the “thin trust” you share with others. By that I mean the relationships you have with virtual strangers. Forget the “thick” stuff – the bonds you form with those you know and love. They’ll tend to be civil anyway. Always go with the thin. Got it?’
‘I think so. Try to empathise with the people you meet, and society will be all the better for it.’
‘Something like that,’ Muir says, disappearing into thin air – yes, thin air – as Mal returns.
‘That the lot?’ he asks, weighing the sausages ($8.40).
I respond with my customary closing rejoinder. ‘Yeah, I’d better stop there.’
‘That comes to sixty-one,’ he says, bagging me my free peri-peri chicken burger while I’m fishing for the cash.
‘Thanks, Mal,’ I say, taking the bag from him. It’s the closest we come to shaking hands, our exchange having come to an end.
‘Enjoy,’ he says. ‘Now, who was next?’
Back in the car, the kids have given up on their apples. ‘That took a long time,’ Angus points out.
‘It did, didn’t it,’ I say, rather proudly.
I sit for a moment and ponder the thick and the thin. Thing is, I think I believe all that stuff. Why? Probably because, for me, ‘thick’ relationships have always been a bit thin on the ground. Connecting with strangers – that, I muse, is more my cup of tea. After all, it’s only when we face the unfamiliar that our moral mettle is truly tested.
Sixty-one dollars? I reach into the bag for my receipt and, closing my ears to the chorus of protests from behind, I do the sums.
They don’t add up.
What price a civil society? Oh, about six dollars.
Cheap at half the price, I tell myself as I drive away. Mal and me, we’re as thin as thieves, and I’m going to do my best to keep it that way, even if it leads to a miscalculation or two. Our future might just depend on it.
Halfway home, I remember my free peri-peri chicken burger, which puts the icing on the cake. I’m hungry too. Saving civilisation – or even simply shopping – sure gives a bloke an appetite.
The last time this happened I managed to grind out five lines of verse.
When the curtain descends
the performance ends.
Strutting player becomes
emptied of itself.
Sounds like the show’s over, doesn’t it? Not so. It’s merely intermission – as the rest of the poem was supposed to reveal.
That was a month or two ago. This time, though, I’ve got nothing, which is more normal. No ideas, no emotions, no energy; no patience, no confidence, no hope. Okay, I’ve got plenty of self-pity, but we all know lots of a negative doesn’t amount to much.
Depression’ll do that to you.
Churchill called it his ‘black dog’, yet the metaphor doesn’t work for me. Mild concussion – that’s how I think of my condition. Many of the symptoms are the same: confusion, sluggishness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, slowed reactions. And like concussion, depression passes.
I remember reading an essay about mental illness and writing. Its author tried to dispel the notion that the first is good for the second, that depression is a creative force. She argued that it ain’t good for anything, really, since it stops things happening.
That’s my experience, I’ve got to say. Usually, I can’t write a thing. Can’t even think a thing. Can read and listen, though, which means I try to drown my sorrows in novels and classical music during my ‘downtimes’. I used to, at least. I’ve got a job and a family now.
Having started this post with bad poetry, I’ll end it with something good. Here’s an excerpt from The Merchant of Venice which, somewhat perversely, makes me happy. Hope it does the same for you, especially if you’re feeling blue. Take it away, Antonio…
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.
Sounds like intermission is over.
The past. We’re more used to seeing it on the walls of museums and ancient ruins than on the walls of our homes. And yet you’ll find it there too, if you scrape hard enough.
Ancient ruins? Yeah, like those of Pompeii, with all their candid graffiti. ‘I screwed the barmaid,’ scrawls one Roman. ‘O walls,’ writes another, ‘you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.’ And then there’s ‘Nothing ever happens in this shitty little city,’ which, sadly, I had to make up.
Anyway, that’s what this budding novelist has been doing for the past week: scraping old paint off the walls of his house. Stripping away the past, as it were, layer by colourful layer. Brown, blue, purple, orange – it’s as if I’ve been living under a rainbow.
A toxic rainbow, of course, which explains why my family has decamped for the duration, and why for a week my noble visage has been half-hidden by a mask. Weep, ladies, weep! It’s the lead, you see, it’s dleadly.
In ancient Rome, people put this highly malleable metal in water pipes; in the nineteenth century, they put it in wine (to sweeten it); in the twentieth century, they put it in paint. That’s progress for you. Now paint comes free from artificial sweeteners, which makes it harder to swallow but supposedly much safer. Goody.
So there I am, perched on a stepladder, laying bare the history of my house with a hand-scraper, stroke by wearisome stroke, as if I’m turning the pages of a book. And I’m thinking, why does old stuff always seem so dangerous; I mean, that’s what Freud was essentially on about, right? Buried stuff coming back to bite us.
That’s when I get to the woody flesh beneath the sickly skin. Pure, unadulterated timber that once formed part of a wholesome, harmless tree, one that would never drop a branch on your head or try to trip you up with a rearing root. O, I cry (metaphorically), why did we ever exchange nature for culture? Then I put my blade through a rotten board and immediately I know. Like the present, the past is as much enemy as ally.
And, yes, that’s pretty profound.
But wait – there’s more. A lot more, alas, because this post was supposed to save me work by featuring something I wrote in the past, about the past. Something from another blog I once kept. Something called ‘Little Chicago’.
What’s in a hat? Memories, of course.
Over Easter, Queen Jane and I were whisked away by Dennis Potter’s redolent rendering of the Mayor of Casterbridge to Upper Wessex, where we followed the fall of a man undone, like Achilles, by unassuageable anger. Afterwards, we made our own descent: into the heart of our local hamlet, where Jane browsed wares while I sat reading in the sun.
‘There’s a bluebeardy look about ’en,’ Nance Mockridge said, of the aforementioned Mayor. ‘Stuff – he’s well enough!’ replied Christopher Coney. ‘Some folk want their luck buttered.’
Before long I was approached by a nuggety old bloke, who drew me out of Casterbridge (for, having finished the screenplay, I had started the book) and into conversation. Like townsfolk from Hardy’s tale, we parleyed in High Street.
My companion spoke, in thick English, of various things: of his heart’s fatal flaw and his decision to stay the surgeon’s hand; of his native country, Poland, and his arrival in this, his chosen land; and then, remarkably, of my own adopted home, the suburb of Springfield. It, he said, had been a Polish place, like another, in America, only smaller. Little Chicago, they called it.
Finally, he said he liked my hat.
I own two hats. One came to me from a market stall; the other, from my grandfather. As usual, I was wearing the first, for, unlike the second, which is heavy with age, it is young and lightweight.
My companion added to its store of memories. More importantly, though, he wore his own dusky thin-brimmed cap as if it were more ballast than burden. History, he showed, has a steadying hand.
So, you see, it’s not all bad.
I don’t care. The rain having stopped, I’m now going to go and do my bit to poison and preserve humankind. I’m going to go and paint over the past.
It’s a new year but has anything changed? Of course not. The fate of civilisation still hangs in the balance, thanks to the pig-headed ham-fistedness of bureaucats and dogs everywhere.
Why, no sooner had I returned to my post at the elbow of power (or thereabouts) than I chanced upon the following scrap of paper, left smouldering on a desk by some incautious ignoramus. Fortunately I was on hand to whisk it away, thereby protecting the privacy – not to mention the welfare – of all concerned.
That’s how you take a message!
Two years changed my life. The first was 1984, the year I lost my voice. I was twelve at the time, and on the cusp of adolescence. Things were going well. My family had moved to a small country town, where for the first time in my life I had enough freedom to flourish. My father was often away, so as his eldest son I grew in stature. I was popular at school and captain of my cricket team, and I even had a girlfriend of sorts.
Ironically, I also became one of the ‘voices’ of my school that year, being chosen to speak on some kind of recording – I can’t remember what. Boy, I wish I had that tape. Why? Because my fall soon followed, and I didn’t talk again for thirty years. Not freely, that is, not as ‘me’.
It was my own fault, I suppose. Instead of creating an imaginary world, as we usually did, a friend and I set about ‘reshaping’ a real one: a sewage works on the edge of town. Into the open tanks went sprinklers and rocks, on more than one occasion. Thus did we become vandals; thus were we caught and disgraced. Thus was I stripped of my new-found liberty and life, and of the town I loved. Thus did I drag myself back to that devil’s playground and try to drown myself in the muck. Thus did I fall silent, smothered by shit and shame.
Years later, I fictionalised my downfall in a story called ‘Adam and His Other’. It starts like this:
We begin and end with an image. A boy crouched on the edge of a tall concrete tank, staring at a face in the filthy water. His face. Overhead, the sky, faded and flat; close by, skirting the high chain-metal fence, a dusty track fringed by scrub. And silence, too, for nothing moves, not even the figure in the water. Yes, the boy above is no Narcissus; the face he beholds is not a reflection, but solid and real. Look closer. Study the looks on the faces. Are they not identical, like their features? There, around the eyes, shock and dismay; there, in the eyes, sadness and a shadow of hope. Now look down. Yes, the boy has his hands in the muck; yes, his hands are on the shoulders of the other. Effortlessly, the boy holds him under; effortlessly, one boy holds the other boy up.
2014. The second year that changed my life. Or will. Because a few months ago my voice came back, bursting up from below with astonishing clarity and force, like the unitary yowl of a newborn and its labouring host. How did it happen? Not through trying, oddly enough, but by letting go.
Since high school, I’ve been obsessed by two things: writing and singing. Both have been about recovery – I know that now. About recalling my voice and with it ‘me’. Thus I began book after book and took lesson after lesson; always, though, my voice – real or written – came out ugly and weak. The harder I tried, the worse it became, until something inside me gave up and gave. Only then did I let myself go.
Twelve years my recovery took. It started when I allowed myself be led to a quieter place, to live and work amongst people who like to listen. As I let myself speak, I found that my written voice grew louder. I produced articles, posters and displays at work, and I wrote children’s stories for magazines at home. I started to study again and, despite having failed before, I finally wrote my way through. Reflection, research and a receptive readership – all three things encouraged me to speak up. I graduated in April, a straight-A student.
This year, too, I ‘came out’ as a writer; I laid bare my literary persona by starting this blog, and I conceived a small writing business-to-be, my first. Slowly but steadily, I climbed out of the muck.
At the same time, my real voice grew stronger; by letting myself go, I grew into a man as well as a maker. The past eight years have seen me become a husband and father, and respect and responsibility have given me voice. Sure, arguing with my wife and yelling at the kids have loosened the cords, but only singing to and around my children has brought me release. The emotions my offspring invoke – all that agony and ecstasy – have filled me so full that I’ve come rushing to the surface, borne back to life on a sudden upsurge of song. Miraculously, my voice has regained its upper register, and with it me my higher self.
Of the songs that have served me well, ‘The Starting Line’ by Keane is special. I find the first two lines of its soaring chorus particularly ‘uplifting’:
Drag your heart up to the starting line
Forget the ghosts that make you old before your time
So, you see – 2014 has been a big year for me. By putting the ghosts behind me, I’ve made it back to the starting line. Now, of course, I’ve ‘got to get underway’, but that’s another story. What about you? What kind of year have you had? Go on – get in touch. Let yourself go.
It’s a rare sight these days, someone smoking a pipe. If you’d been sitting on my shoulder a few weeks ago, though, that’s exactly what you’d have seen. A drifting dome of smoke and, somewhere underneath, a bedraggled young bloke chugging away at a churchwarden.
And it wasn’t one of your blunt, British-bomber-squadron kind of briars either; rather something resembling half a handlebar moustache gone wrong. Bent to buggery, it was, like a saxophone. Boy, that cat was burning up the scales.
Pretty wild vision, huh? So wild, perhaps, that it might simply have been a pipe dream – is that what you’re suggesting? Well, as I was office-ensconced at the time, anything’s possible. I do one-handed work, you see, which leaves a lobe free to roam the busy street below or, if things come to a pretty pass, to romp like a rabbit through time and space.
Too wild, as my four-year-old son would say.
Real or otherwise, that bloke and his briar took me back to my own pipe-sucking days. The past, it seemed, was sending up smoke signals, drawing me back. Years ago, in high school, I’d had big plans. First, I was going to buy an old car, rip off its roof, fill its back seat with soil, and grow flowers. Then, presumably, I was going to cruise the streets, the proud captain of some kind of vehicular vase.
I’d do things differently now, of course. I’d grow vegetables instead of blooms. Form follows function these days.
Later, after washing my hands, I was going to get me a pipe. Oh, yeah.
Pipes denote personality, you see, and personality is something I’ve always wanted. Motorcycles are the same, but I never got a bike much more than I never got a pipe. I blame my parents for this, of course, since they threatened to insert such devilish devices into a pipe of a different kind – my exhaust pipe – if I was ever caught in possession. Thus did my quest for a pipe-driven personality go up in smoke.
I’ll leave you with a lame lament about women’s skirts, because these groin-concealing garments are something else I’m seeing a lot of through my work window at the moment, it being summer and all. Or not seeing a lot of, to be more precise. And that’s my point: hemlines seem to be scaling new heights.
Soon I won’t have to exercise my imagination at all in public, and that’s a bit of a bummer. For what we’re witnessing here is – yes, you guessed it – a reprehensible race to the bottom.
Fat is back! Well, not fat but fat. Whoa, boy – I think you’d better start again.
Fat is back! On your fork, that is, and not on your figure.
I saw something on the telly the other day that has all but saved my life: a ‘science’ show about fat. Guess what? We’ve had it all wrong. That food thing we’ve been calling ‘fat’ really isn’t – it’s ‘thin’.
Hearing this, I almost choked on my skinny latte, whatever that is.
I’ve been worried about my health for years, you see, ever since I first realised that ‘success’ was taking its sweet time coming. Hence the need to hang around indefinitely, by keeping myself healthy and rude. In rude health, I mean.
Science has stepped in to help. Not that my diet has ever been low in fat – buttered cheese triangles are a staple of mine and I won’t touch yoghurt unless it comes laced with double cream. It’s just that my menu was missing the best fat-bearing food there is.
To think I might have perished prematurely – all because I eschewed cured pig. Oh, the horror of it all, the horror!
Now, though, my diet is truly complete. Any day that doesn’t begin with a dose of bacon – ‘fatback’, of course, because there ain’t no other cut – lacks something special: a porcine slimming pill. I mean, look at pigs themselves. If we didn’t have to rend them into rashers, the poor swine would probably live for ever. How? They’re made of bacon. Think about it.
Because when it comes to being healthy, it pays to make a pig of yourself.
In the ideal office, each and every drone would take messages. As it is, most simply leave them lying around, thus endangering the safety and security of all.
Not me. I safeguard civilisation by collecting, from desktops and drawers, these incendiary scraps of paper, which I publish on the internet as a service to society.
Here, then, is a message I removed from a desk today. Brace yourself…
Now that’s how you take a message!
Here’s something my biographers don’t tell you: sleep used to keep me awake at night. For a time there in my twenties I’d sit up half the night reading books about the stuff and about all the sweetness and light it sheds on human life. The experts would tell me that –
Happily, I can’t remember what they told me, if anything. I seem to recall, though, that their texts were dotted with cautionary tales from history, just to give me nightmares. Titanic tales, you might call them. For if that iceberg hadn’t been asleep at the seal, then the ship of the century might never have sailed into the movies. Yes, that’s the kind of ‘experts’ they were.
I was worried, you see, because I seemed to be sleep-walking through life, unable to awaken. Something was wrong, I knew – I’m perceptive like that – but rather than blame my misfortunes on, say, me, I decided the problem was sheep.
Not sheep, but sleep. It’s funny, though, how often one concept invokes the other. Trust me, the link is more than linguistic.
Sleep. Opium of the masses, drug of the nation. Sleep. Superfine wool you pull over your own eyes. (That sounds pretty sheepish, doesn’t it.) Sleep. An alluring apparition you can have but not hold, and which shows itself only when your back is turned. Sleep. The word I keep repeating.
Shut-eye. Clearly, I was short of it. But how much did I need? In the end I came to a radical conclusion: none was enough – nay, more than enough. Sleep, I decided, was a waste of precious time, time I’d be better off wasting myself. Impressed by my logic, I wrote ‘Think like a bull’ on a piece of paper, pinning it to the wall with my horns. Then, in one extended sitting, I set out to finish the novel I was writing.
The sound I’m making now is the sound my brain made when it broke. Did I tell you my brain broke? Good, because it’s a secret.
Okay, it was a bad idea – having since heard about Operation Sandman, I now know that sleep deprivation is a form of torture, a fate worse than tickling. So, yes, I made an ass of myself, and, yes, my thinking was a load of bull. (My ‘novel’ was nothing to write home about either.) Verily, I had sinned against sleep and paid the price, my ship-like cerebellum being brained by the immovable iceberg that is science, or nature, or something. Unlike the Titanic, though, I got a second shot at going under…
Fast forward to the future, to the here and the now. My life is wide awake and fully dressed, even if my fly is undone. I’m a homemaker, a father, a husband; I’m the owner of a lonely blog. I am living, it would seem, at the coal-face of life. And yet (he writes in hushed tones) I’m still not completely sold on this sleep thing.
Fact is, I’ve had a bellyful of the whole palaver. Chased from the matrimonial couch by the late-season fruit of that union (a real little peach), I’m lucky to fit in twenty-two winks a night, let alone the full forty. Then there are bumptious beagles that bay, nocturnally, and an inner writer that mercilessly wags the dog – the Timm who tumbles me from my makeshift mattress in the early hours, so I can pen piffle like this. The wee early hours.
Sometimes, I’m just too damned tired to sleep. And, yes, I have tried counting to sheep, but, gee, they’re slow learners.
There’s a lamb nearby now, as it happens, in a neighbouring yard. A real one, I think, and not just an ethereal ewe sent to mock me. The little nitwit bleats mournfully at any hour of the day or night, weighed down, no doubt, by its woolly woes. Like me, the poor thing seems to struggle with sleep. Would some simple mathematical task help it nod off? Counting people, perhaps, as they jump through hoops? After all, what works for worn-out public servants ought to do for Ewe too…
See what I mean about sleep and sheep?
Chop, chop, I hear you say. My point, if you insist on hearing it half-baked, is this: the Sandman has feet of clay and the experts are dreaming – sleep just ain’t the holy grail it’s made out to be. Look at me. Six hours’ shut-eye and I feel terrific: I’m at one with the world and, best of all, the words are flowing, every one a winner. Enough said?
So here’s my advice if you’re thinking of bowing to the god of nod by going to bed early. Sleep on it, for heaven’s sake.