Begonning Man

Disturbed by the sudden shaking of the hill, a flock of budgerigars rose, swirling into a wheeling, boomerang formation. The Landcruiser’s driver paused briefly, then went back to watching the track.

Begonning Point, site of future LNG and iron ore terminal.” Butler mumbled to himself. He eased the 4WD and trailer off-track into a good spot, under trees, and popped the annexe tent for some welcome shade.

The flies kept coming, but now he could at least take his hat off to swat and wave.

Butler, originally a mining engineer, now a fixer-of-problems for the resources giant CMG, had a pivotal role in making that terminal a reality: supervising the creation of divisions among First People and other stakeholder groups, devising a few fortuitous accidents, sudden resignations and scandals, and judiciously applying a little seed money where it counted.

The work spanned both sides of legality, in a tensegrity as taut as the 4WD’s annexe. Things were made to run smoothly and quietly with obligation, apprehension and ambition, not to mention a little blood here and there.

The Cruiser and its offroad camper were equipped for the furtherance of that work, rather than a prolonged holiday, despite appearances.

Refreshing his memory on the task at hand, Butler swiped a sweaty finger through the dossier on his touchscreen.

Roger Jeffries – self-described pain in the arse: a mostly-solitary, currently-unemployed, archaeologist.

While Jeffries’ rough nature, ferocious thirst, Tourettes-like vocabulary and sporadic publication history took some of the edge off his reputation, the man had practically gone native, which gave his voice some credibility among the more vocal, and (literally) demonstrative supporters of native title.

He was somewhere in the area, according to sources.

Reports of Jeffries’ interest in Begonning echoed with the potential of controversy: the moaners, lock-on loonies, and abseiling banner-hangers could set developments back considerably if things were left unchecked.

* * *

While Butler was, on-record and ostensibly, visiting a potential CMG site in West Papua, the truth was another thing. A little artistry and some ugly, ill-fitting dentures had brought forth in his place the fictional Paul Mooney, retired teacher and keen photographer of wildlife, registered owner of the Landcruiser.

And late the next day, it was as Mooney that Butler hailed the battered Land Rover that dragged a trailing dust-cloud along the sole, narrow, navigable gap between outcrops and boulders.

What the FUCK are you doing in a place like this on such a bloody day?” yelled the Landie’s equally-battered driver, pulling up on a nearby sandy patch.

A cunt’d have to be mad!”

Butler feigned shock, slipping into the friendly, if a little staid, character of Mooney.

Introductions were made, a meal shared, and a long conversation was embarked upon, continuing from the annexe’s afternoon shade to the fireside under stars.

Butler had unwillingly built up an almost-encyclopedic knowledge of the North-West’s wildlife in his time overseeing the fall of a group of do-gooders. Their self-appointed mission was saving a number of plant and animal species they insisted were unique to the Begonning region. Combined with some impressive camera equipment and a few glossies taken by a passionate naturalist who no longer mattered, the Mooney persona’s narrative was well-stocked.

In turn, as hoped, Jeffries became effusive. He was following up a Garedji legend: a songline involving a number of rock-shelters and the art etched into the local hard stone, and three water-digging sites which led to the place he was seeking.

Pirrlu-nyarti, they call it: All The Dreaming Mother.”

According to what I could make of the story, or as much of the song I was allowed to hear anyway, there’s a womb of the earth, or a stone cunt of some kind, and all of humanity came out into the world through it.”

Not just Garedji, but everyone. If the oral record isn’t contaminated by influence from those trader fuckers up North, then the legend anticipates knowledge of yellow and white men by a few millennia.”

Then the people are supposed to have spread out, and the spirits allowed only the Garedji to stay and preserve the songs.”

With a show of tired disinterest, Butler pressed another beer on Jeffries. Stronger drink had been refused earlier, almost brusquely. The dossier had indicated a man who was often drunk to incapacity: either the report was wrong, or he was dealing with that worst of types, a motivated man.

The night wore on. Despite subtle pressure, Jeffries was not forthcoming with the location of the shelter.

I’ll have to hunt around a bit myself. You know how it is, GPS and radio seem to fuck up round here more than usual.”

Butler thought of the little black tracker he’d placed on the sweary man’s Landie, under cover of taking a piss. It should prove to be enough, but there were other ways.

Wishing Jeffries a good night, and thanking him for his company and stories, Butler gave him a case of Belgian beer from one of the trailer’s storage cabinets. “I’ve gone off this brand a bit, Roger, and I could use the space more than the beer.”

In the morning, both broke camp, and Butler departed first, taking care to raise a little excess dust as he went.

* * *

Roger Jeffries found the three soak sites with relative ease, using cues in the Garedji lore he’d picked up.

You had to take in all the stories to learn little, useful details, even if much of the explanation was spirits and talking animals. University wasn’t all that much different, he mused.

The sun was beginning its slow trudge from zenith to Western horizon by the time he found a likely-looking rock shelter, in a basin obscured by outcrops.

Fuck! Nearly missed this. Next time, I should look at bringing a drone.” He grabbed the driver’s side doorframe and swung down from the 4WD with the ease that frequent repetition brings.

While no painted creatures or stencilled hands decorated the walls, use of a torch highlighted cut-marks, almost certainly human in origin, in the rock-face.

There was no point in bringing too much gear into unknown conditions. Lowering his bags, Roger squeezed through the small gap at ground level on the shelter’s furthest wall, taking only a yardstick, his headtorch, pocket camera, and one cold beer from the tuckerbag.

After about five metres of knee-crawling and wriggling, the passage abruptly opened on a chamber wide enough for Jeffries to extend both arms, and, at his estimate, five metres high. The walls curved inward as they rose from the floor, receding again before meeting the vault of the roof.

I spy thighs, super-size. Freud would have a field day.”

Roger could make out the far wall, and a central dark opening, located between the narrowing sides.

Pirrlu-nyarti, I presume.” Jeffries examined the surrounding wall: this was a very likely candidate for the focus of Garedji lore.

After a few cursory photos, and before going about the dry work of lugging in the bulkier lights and recording equipment, Roger popped the beer and allowed himself a moment of frothy, thirst-quenching triumph.

After a minute, the chamber was still. Death had come to the place of birth. Butler’s special supplies tended to be one-use-only.

* * *

It was not until the next day Butler found the Land Rover. While the GPS component of the tracker had apparently failed, the UHF beacon pinged as soon as the Landcruiser breasted the rise and came within line of sight.

Butler, no respecter of lore or heritage, drove the now-ownerless Landie as far under the rock overhang as it would fit.

The swarming flies at the cave opening confirmed Jeffries’ whereabouts. There was no need to crawl the final few metres and make sure.

I’ll just leave him under this rock, where I found him”, said Butler, with a dry chuckle.

Butler returned to his trailer and unscrewed a wall panel. Some “insulation”, hardly fit for its nominal purpose, would finally do the job for which it was made. A few additions from the toolkit and various hidey-holes on the Cruiser, and the means to finish the job were at hand.

The Garedji language was dying. Without a significant heritage site, any valid objection to the terminal would fall, just like this shelter when the pillars exploded.

Of all the things Butler’s job required of him, Big Booms were still the most fun; a reminder of simpler days, when dirty work was more literal in nature. The charges were shaped and placed for maximum efficiency.

When the smartphone app indicated no satellites were overhead, he finally pressed the igniter.

* * *

Disturbed by the sudden shaking of the hill, a flock of birds rose, forming a curved shape which had never known a name. The immense, shaggy beasts, briefly vigilant, lowered their heads and resumed grazing.

Klein Bottle

“No, drop it! You don’t know where it’s been, Girl.”

Caution was warranted. The old man knew this creek well. Downstream of a fairly large country town, it held over a hundred years’ worth of throwaways, washaways and runaways, or their remains, in its banks and bed. Even after two decades of shuffling along the same stretch, the old man knew there might be something different.

Floods, and the occasional erosion landslip, laid bare little things. Big things turned up, too: the complete sail of a Southern Cross windmill, the chassis of a Hudson Terraplane from the 1930s, the greenish mystery object that weighed 11 kilograms and turned out to be a huge spigot fitting made of brass, part of a fire mains system from some long-demolished building.

It was probably just as well The Missus didn’t let him bring home the windmill or the car-wreck, really, he thought.

The dog, bounding through Council’s knee-high weeds, held another green thing… it looked like the top of a jar or pot, perhaps the size of a jam-tin. As she came out of the longer grass, the bottle became clearer. It was about the size of the Darwin stubby the old man had retrieved a couple of years ago. As usual, The Missus had made him put it out of the way somewhere. It was beside the shed in a crate, probably collecting redback spiders…

Standing on the dusty ground above the creek, he examined the dog’s find more closely, as she grudgingly let go of her latest plaything.

“Unbroken, really old, looks like poison, maybe sheep dip or some sure-fire bug killer”, he mumbled to the dog beside him.

There was no text on the dark glass, merely some squiggles which may have been a Middle-Eastern script.

All the memories and thoughts dispersed, buzzing, like flies from a dead rabbit, as the old man looked more closely.

“Dirt aside, it’s in pretty good nick, Girl. With that brass lid, it’s got to be something rare. Maybe there’s a few bucks for us at one of the antique places. Otherwise, The Missus will have it out back in the crates.”

He held the object up against the sun. A slight bluish tinge suffused the black, and roiled as if a thick fluid was inside. As he shook it gently, the contents slopped weightily.

“Wonder what’s in there… Lucky my wrists are in better shape than the shoulders, back or legs, eh Girl? It must be from marrying late.”

He removed his leather belt and doubled it back, with the lid in the loop, and applied some leverage. Eventually, after a few grunts and curses, the top unscrewed clockwise.

As the old man was wondering just whose products were so maverick as to be sealed with a left-hand thread, the opening of the bottle began to smoke, and a loud, deep, groan was heard, rising slowly in pitch and loudness.

“Fuck! Nerve gas!” muttered the old man, as he and the brave dog retreated a few yards.

The smoke rose to form a cloud as tall as some of the nearby camphor-laurel trees. Rather than dispersing, it gathered upon itself and thickened.

Looking on, the old man wondered whether he might have uncorked a US military or CIA chemical experiment, because what he was starting to see looked like something from the cartoons, come to life.

The Genie winked one of his family-pizza-sized eyes.

“Sure I’m blue. I have to appear this way, because it’s how your people think of Genies now. I’ve had a lot of time to think and catch the airwaves while I’ve been trapped in that accursed jar.”

The old man shuffled back from his retreat zone. “I’m glad I never saw the movie, or I reckon you’d be talking puns and free-associating nineteen to the dozen by now.”

A blue frown came from above. “I have some standards. I do all my own material, but it’s rather downbeat. After all, I spent the last few years with only a bottle of Djinn for company.”

The old man groaned, for he was no stranger to Dad Jokes. He and the dog inched closer as the Genie continued.

“Anyway, you’ve freed me, and I am obliged by the Code of my kind to grant you a wish. Please let me know your will, and it shall be done.”

***

The sun was dropping now, toward the silos a few hundred metres the other side of the creek. The old man smiled as he thought of a cup of ginger-honey tea The Missus would be making for him, and how one of his cookies would be broken, so the dog could have a corner.

He’d possibly be a little late this afternoon.

“So, Genie… I hope it’s okay to address you as ‘Genie’…”

“Certainly, old man.”

“Yes, I’m fine with ‘old man’. It’s better than what my father called me. Anyway, Genie, I basically just need to ask, and it will be given to me, or done, then I get to see what changes my choice has brought to be, like in all the cautionary tales. Is that it?”

The Genie settled on a tall stump and sighed.

“Those tales Richard Burton picked up? My people get a lot of bad press. We’re people of our word, and exceptionally kind and ethical for a group of vilified, oppressed magical constructs.

“We can discuss the choosing process if you like. Assume no physical or numerical limit. I could, for example, bring you more gold than the total of matter existing in this Universe. What happens to the Universe afterward is your own liability.

“You could, if you want, pull the old ‘Ten more wishes’ trick, but I have to warn you there’s a subclause in the Code that ensures you don’t enjoy the results of any of that sort of trickery.

“There’s no undoing your wish, and we can discuss it until the sun sets, before you must decide.”

The old man knew he didn’t have quite that long. The Missus wasn’t fierce, but the old man didn’t want to bring her Disappointed Face on. He briefly considered phoning her on what he termed “My Old Man Leash”, but decided against worrying her.

This would need to be quick. Bother! He hadn’t had to make quick decisions with big consequences in over twenty years. At least with the ‘marry me’ one, he’d decided right.

“Well, Genie, I’ve thought about property and money. We’ve got just about enough to see us over the line, and the people who pay the pension would start taking money away as soon as they noticed we had some. I could solve this with a few million, but I can foresee problems from relatives and random robbers. Only the intensity of the attack would vary, and I don’t want Dog put down for defending us.

“We’re kind of settled where we are, and even the dirty bits on the windows are familiar. Anyway, they stop the little birds from smacking into the glass.

“The old car has a few years left in it yet, and who’s to say what will become of petrol, or even civilisation, by then?

“I’m fairly sure your Code would regard it as a cheat if I tried to make The Missus, Dog, and myself a package deal for ‘Restore To Peak Of Health And Youth’… (the Genie nodded affirmation)… and anyway, I don’t think I want to be a teenager again.

“The older and further from it I get, the more fun I think it was, but still I know.”

The old man tapped his age-spotted temple with a large-knuckled forefinger, and continued.

“You’ve been listening to radio in that jar since broadcasting began, so you’ve got to know what I’m talking about here. Life’s like a song. A few verses, a chorus, a catchy middle bit, and if it’s a really good one, a One More Time. The fade’s as important as the intro, though. I wouldn’t want to be one of those bloody endless Yes numbers from the seventies, where even some guys in the band got bored and ate curry while waiting for it to end.

“You don’t want too much of anything, whether it’s wah-wah guitar or a drum solo. What would be really bad is if life got written to some pop-hit formula. It would take your choices away. You’d get bottled up in having to do things, because of the things you have or the things you have to be. Even my dog has a good life, and I don’t think I’d change her routine again. She will be with us till the end, like her old playmate Connie was.”

“What about I wish that I don’t want your wish? I’m not stupid enough to drown the world in an endless supply of chocolate biscuits.”

The Genie winced at that one.

“I am sorry. We must do something to use up the wish. Until we have finished that, I am tied to this accursed bottle, and the Code may require that I avenge myself.”

The old man bent and scratched the dog behind the ear. She had been more than patient, and had been quiet in the face of extraordinary things. Her tail swept to and fro in the dust.

After a few minutes, he straightened as far as he could, and addressed the Genie.

“Is the wish transferable?”

The apparition flickered for a moment, and rippled like a thumped 1950s TV set. Pop culture had a lot to answer for.

With a shower of what might have been blue static, the Genie refocussed.

“The Code has no restraint on altruism. It doesn’t say you can’t hand the wish on, but it must be given, freely, to a sentient being, and from what I see of the sun’s angle, we have half an hour.”

“Very well, Genie. You know a lot about these things, and how to use them. What’s more, you’ve had a harder time with the bottle than my mate, the Mad Blacksmith. The wish is yours, if you’ll take it.”

***

She galloped up from the creek, carrying an empty, black bottle, of surprising ugliness.

“No, drop it! You don’t know where it’s been, Girl. And you, Bluey, come back here, boy. Wait!”

Then the old man and his two dogs walked off toward home, as it might as well have always been.

 

A Word Of Faith

Out of hospital. All these changes to deal with. It’s the price one pays for not dying.

They’d discussed the possibility that my mobility would be reduced. Now at least I could go to costume parties as that Professor from the X Men.

My old flat was out of the question. The lift in that block was usually out of order, and the couple of hops I could manage wouldn’t get me up more than one or two stairs.

I reluctantly moved into the granny flat below Joe’s, the one which had seen the old man through his confused last years.

Joe and Sally made all sorts of promises about “letting me live my own life”, but there was this almost-palpable proviso that gay brothers in wheelchairs don’t need a love life.

If there was one unwelcome guy who was going to be a real issue, it was that particular flavour of Jesus Christ who appealed to my brother and his wife, and their vanload of badly-behaved, sanctimonious kids.

The late Chris Hitchens said religion poisons everything, and when the old man succumbed to Joe and Sally’s nagging and got converted, he’d have made a textbook case.

Under the tutelage of White Conservative Jesus, Dad had gone from a happy, humorous guy, a friend to people of many countries and creeds, to a white-bread bigot who spent his days, and his newly-learned internet skills, FWDing lame hate memes and those mean, shitty, xenophobic poems that have been going since about 1950, the “more in garden live in tent” kind of rubbish.

To me, he died early. The rest of the world saw him off about ten years later.

Compared to what I was facing as I wheeled into that place where I’d visited Dad once, the past few months were a picnic. My new residence had a wheel-in shower and other devices, but I could see it was going to be the biggest challenge.

The wheelchair stuff? Hah, I could do that sitting on my arse.

***

The kids wouldn’t leave poor bloody Uncle alone.

I was pretty sure Joshua wasn’t really as keen on his church youth group’s play as his repeated invitations in the lead-up to the event would have suggested.

On the other hand, Melinda’s smarmy delight that I’d given up smoking, and “do you remember how, when I was three, I told you that your cigarettes made Jesus cry” – well, that was all pure, undiluted Melinda. I could only hope she’d eventually marry some parasite wannabe pastor, and have lots of kids who inherited her temperament.

The bombardment continued. A succession of Nice Young Women from church came to dinner, which just happened to be held in the very accessible covered patio out back. I couldn’t tell if they were trying to turn me, or they were saving the young men from my gay germs, but it’s very hard to keep finding polite excuses when you live under the same roof.

There didn’t seem to be a crevice in the flat which didn’t have one of those bloody Chick comics in it.

Books and DVDs were offered, or conveniently left nearby. Occasionally Joe or Sally would ask me if I’d read or viewed them, and the conversation would tail off into End Times and that kind of hooey, before I’d suddenly become conveniently tired.

Joe and I have always had a fair amount of tolerance for each other, even if we haven’t been the closest, but I have my limits. One day, after a church invite too many, I was close to losing my cool.

“All right! What if I promise to go to church with you, just once? Will you ease off on the home crusade a bit?”

And that’s how I got to be here.

There was no way I was going to fold the chair and travel to my ordeal in the midst of Joe’s screaming horde. I phoned an accessible cab and got out near the door, to be met by the horde, plus their pastor and his wife.

I didn’t do my homework. The church meets in a rented function room above some squash courts. There’s no lift and no ramps.

Pastor Whatsisname beamed, condescendingly shook my hand, and made some hand signals over my head.

Without any warning, and certainly without permission or any trace of dignity, some clean-cut lads in their twenties grabbed the chair and lifted. Keeping their hands clear of any possible contact with me, they lurched me up the stairs, and swiftly wheeled me into a space in the front row of stackable chairs, where the Tribe Of Joe were seated.

There were songs. There was clappiness. There were announcements, and a big, condescending welcome to Joe’s Prodigal Brother, including some passage from the gospels about a crippled guy’s friends dropping him in through the ceiling, poor bastard. There were more songs.

Then the band guys put their instruments down, and stayed on stage. The very forgettable Pastor fronted the microphone and started some hooey about God pouring out his spirit in the last days, and about some men of God being given great measures, and then he announced their special guest, RAAAAAAAY SCRIVENERRRRRRR!

A blast of recorded music started. It was so close to the theme from Rocky only a copyright lawyer could have told the difference.

Out stepped Scrivener, a dowdy relic in hair-oil and a tan safari suit. The hundred or so faithful hooted and cheered. The annoying woman, who’d been blowing the ram’s horn during all the clappy songs, ventured an especially large bubbly fart noise through her instrument.

I’d heard of Scrivener before. He was a Queensland-born country boy, one of the earliest proponents of holy spirit hucksterism, and for some reason sounded awfully American when he got going.

Scrivener carried on with what I imagine was his usual shtick, sudden bursts of dramatic emphasis, and some phrases repeated three times – Three Times – THREE Times! – with increasing volume, and a whole lot of carny-style crowd warmup.

Of course God had a message or two for him tonight. Cold-reading aside, he would have gotten a lot of background on various potential targets out of Pastor over lunch, and of course Muggins in the wheelchair wasn’t going to escape: the burly lads had pretty well parked me in.

The band started playing that muzacky stuff fundie church bands play behind altar calls and other such theatre. The game of Hooking In The Victims was done with the usual showmanship. “You’ve been troubled with digestion” – to the obviously-anorexic teen, and so on, down to me: Captain Bloody Obvious.

I didn’t respond, and stayed put.

After starting at the other end of the half-dozen poor shills lined up for the congregation’s no-risk amusement, going through his bore-’em-stupid-and-suddenly-SHOUT trick, and letting the victims fall backward into the hands of some of those brawny twerps who’d lugged me up the stairs, Scrivener let the last one drop, wiped his sweaty brow, and suddenly loomed in front of my chair, leaning right into my personal space.

My first temptation was to grab him by the knackers. Perhaps I should have.

“Jesus has a word for you, son. Jesus says – RESTORE!” and a hair-oily hand tapped me on the shoulder.

At first I thought it was my mind reacting, despite my conscious reluctance, to the showground psychology. No, darn it, I could FEEL things happening.

The power returned to my tingling legs, like I hadn’t felt it since before hospital. The way things felt, with my back against the rest of the chair, confirmed my suspicion.

I stood and walked, under my own power, relatively firmly, to the mike where Scrivener stood mumbling in tongues.

He looked up, and with the loudest of Hallelujahs, asked me what I had to say.

Exactly then, the old pain hit, and I puked yellow down the tan polyester jacket and pants.

What else could I say but the bleeding obvious?

“Fuck this, my tumour’s back!”

An Open Letter To The Reader Who Goes Before Me

Dear Whoever,

Hi. I’m the guy who comes to the library after you: the bloke who takes home the books upon which you expend such painstaking effort.

I really appreciate the time you put into grammatical correction, especially the delicate way you obliterate the last three letters of the word “gotten”, or substitute an alternate phrase of your own making where “got” or “gotten” occur. May the Flying Spaghetti Monster preserve the King James Bible from your hen-scratchy ballpoint, as the “begat” verses in Numbers would certainly overtax your mind.

My respect for you is immense: your unerring ability to correct dialogue, even the colloquial dialect of characters, in story settings spanning the entire width of my fiction and nonfiction interests, leaves me in search of a preposition to beat you with with which to beat you.

I am grateful for the marginal notes supporting your elite hypotheses on any and every tangential scientific and philosophical notion. The large, clumsy “Bull! Another piece of Zionist claptrap!” and similar axiomatic (to you) statements are balanced by your wavering red double-underlines of phrases or paragraphs that coincide with your views.

You are obviously a person of distinguished appetites: only the best chocolate, cake, curry, cigars, red wine, coffee and cookies will do to fuel your efforts. I could probably even discover your distinguished pedigree from the various DNA samples you have left when a difficult text proves to be a real head-scratcher, or from those occasions when, despite a bad cold, you have persevered in Making Literature Safe For Humanity.

And while we’re on the subject of effluvia, bearing the aforegoing in mind, I’m very glad I don’t read the Romances With Rearing Horses On The Cover!

And, oh, don’t you make it safe? I presume that’s where some of the pictures from the art reference books went, to protect the Youth Of Our Nation from prurient interest. And your protection saved me, too, from seeing the colour plates of the Gibson ES-335 or the Rickenbacker 370/12 in that Bacon and Day guitar book. I must salute you on that: Herself is very understanding about guitar pr0n, but it was a close call.

You are very unassuming for one whose work touches so many so deeply; still, I hope one day to visit you at the library and discover you going about your work. I’d like to shake you firmly by the neck.

Cornerstoned

https://www.flickr.com/photos/queenslandstatearchives/
The picture is from the Flickr photostream of Queensland State Archives, and is in the public domain.

“Worshipping today, Euey?” Doug’s grin was especially cheeky.

“Devoutly, if you’ve got the sacraments.” I wasn’t equipped today.

So it was, that the Lunchtime Mob walked out of the cool, paper-lice-infested, government office, into the heavy, palpable sweat of a December Brisbane noontime.

It wasn’t far to St John’s Cathedral. Thanks to the way the southerly (altar) end overlooked Adelaide Street, via a steep, rocky slope scattered with yucca plants, bamboo and small trees, it was relatively easy to dive around the corner and find a sanctuary of quite a different sort.

There was never any foot traffic down that end.

There’s a pic on Flickr that shows the altar end of St John’s in 1927. We’d have been in the corner behind the first pointy tower thingy on the left.

There were four of us: almost-interchangeable, junior public service droids. Our work was all paper forms, filing and archiving – there’s probably no modern equivalent.

If there’s a machine that now does our semi-mindless tasks. It’s no doubt faster, and it certainly doesn’t take lunch breaks and smoke drugs, before coming back to complete a very slow afternoon’s work.

The lunchtime smoke came from a wide range of sources. Early 70s Brisbane was a minefield of social randomness, and none of us were smooth operators, although Doug was generally good at scoring low-to-medium-grade weed.

My social connections weren’t all the best, and certainly not up to shopping for illicit fun, but I got invited because I was generally good for a loan when money got a bit short before fortnightly paydays.

Doug’s fortunes had been especially good, from what we could see in the crumpled Alfoil. This dope was mostly heads, and tied to a thin bamboo stick with a double helix of bamboo fibre, like a leg strapped into a Hercules sandal.

“Thai stuff, eh?” grunted Wallaby. He was a good roller, who mixed just the right amount of tobacco for a good burn, and always seemed to make joints just thick enough for the occasion.

Doug kicked off, inhaling, nearly exploding with a repressed cough, and eventually dribbling smoke out his nostrils as his eyes streamed freely. He’d already passed to Wallaby, who drew on the jay a little more warily and handed it on to Reggie, whose pale face reddened rapidly, as always.

Then it was my turn.

The smoke was a little more acrid than I expected, but I’d gone through a period of smoking Dutch dark shag rollies. I held back a cough and kept the smoke in as long as I could, like a druggie freediver.

When the rush crept up on me, it was a little more intense than usual. There was a touch of that cold feeling I’d experienced before herfing up a pizza with unexpected traces of crab meat.

We were normally not terribly chatty little stoners. There’d be a bit of a joke here, a lame, random thought there, and long, long silences in between, then somebody would look at their watch and mumble that we’d better get back before Clockboy started checking for late lunchers.

Not to be content with inhaling THC, the quartet ate whatever food they’d brought, and each took on board the caffeine plus thirteen teaspoons of white refined sugar in his can of Coke.

A second little number rolled out under Wallaby’s nimble fingers, and we smoked that down to roaching off a repurposed Government paperclip. The Commonwealth wasn’t going to get much value for money in the coming afternoon.

The cathedral was a real bounty to our straggling stoner coterie. Its vastness and coloured windows were perfect for the “Aaah!” phase, if added awe was needed. And the church had provided for more of our needs, with a handy, secluded stand of big bamboo, a godsend for urination.

My can of Coke had joined forces with the ten o’clock cup of Intentional Rust from the guvvy tea-trolley: the tide was in, and I had to stand and find my wobbly sea-legs for a voyage to the Grove of Empiddlement.

I don’t really think it took me a minute of realtime to stand up. Reality was a mite distorted, as could be expected.

Other things were more clearly noticable than usual. The stones of the church, the light through the bamboo and the trees, the way my lips felt tingly and wanted to make orangutan faces of their own accord.

I peed, as surely no mortal had peed before in all known history. Looking down, I was surprised to see only a trickle, where I expected a sizable, muddy torrent.

This weed was clearly fucking epic stuff.

But, no! Things had maybe reached the point of no return. I had seen what could only have been a full-fledged hallucination. This wasn’t supposed to happen, and I could only think in dark, horrid fantasies of locked psych wards, or me thinking I could fly and taking a more direct route down to Adelaide Street.

Choking back my euphoria, I stumbled around the curve of the apse and sat down with the others, silently looking at my knees.

Time passed. The real stuff and the subjective stuff used different lanes. Eventually Reggie went round the corner.

When he returned, our token redhead was more pallid than usual. I’d swear even his freckles were white. The Horror was upon him too.

With company in my unease, I could be brave.

“Donkey?” I said.

He nodded affirmation.

We recovered, and went on to lead happy lives, apart from Doug, who became a traffic statistic a couple of years later.

The Dean of St John’s apparently wowed the kiddies with his lunchtime Nativity act.

We didn’t see the show, but we did meet one of the cast.

Select Pickup

He stole that first Les Paul.

The way Travis told the story, years later, he was sorry, and went back with his first gig money to pay the store owner, only to find that whole row of shops had burned down.

There’s probably a grain of truth in there somewhere, but you’ve got to remember Travis was a guy whose whole life centred around improvising and making it sound good.

Like that “Me and Sunburst Betty” album from last year – that “one guitar all my career” stuff was utter bullshit, but the fans lapped it up. They weren’t there, seeing the nicks and scratches applied to a succession of Betty replacements and spares. There was a “damage template”,  for fuck’s sake, and that dark tobacco sunburst conveniently hid the swap from all but a few conspiracy dweebs.

It’s been more than one guitar. It’s been at least a few dozen, all Gibsons, as identical as my Dad could make them.

I know. I know too much, and I wish I didn’t.

The only thing I know for sure is that all those Bettys used the same three-position switch when Travis played them.

One of the reasons Dad, Dave Stringer, worked so long as Travis’s personal tech was that he could replace a broken G on the current Betty in the time it took for the drummer to tell one of his guaranteed-to-get-a-groan jokes.There was a book of those, and all the drummers had to have one ready.

Another reason was Dad’s reticence. That switch was the Coca-Cola Formula at the core of the Travis T Poesen machine, and there were other secrets too, damn my father.

Like the black drink’s logo changed, a succession of drummers and bassists came to Travis from obscurity, eventually fading back into obscurity. That magazine which eventually tracked me down couldn’t find one of them.

Dave Stringer was a Betty, too, or maybe a patsy. We were never close, and I don’t look like him.

If I was the gambling type, I’d put money on Travis being responsible for a lot of things, including Mom’s troubles, and me.

That’s going to remain a moot question now, though. Mom’s been gone nearly twenty years.

Travis won’t be talking. Who knows what the motivation was, leaving Betty with Dad, and going out with one of those digital modelling guitars on a solo tour called “Playing My Own Way”?

Travis used to joke that Betty “had all the talent”.

The tour flopped. He either suicided, hung himself on purpose, or slipped during one of those half-choked masturbation sessions some jaded dudes try.

Perhaps he was feeling a scar where his conscience used to be. I mean, those “private guitar lessons” that were supposed to be a secret, even if everybody else on the bus knew. Your own daughter, dammit!

Magazine didn’t get more than a “Go away!” out of me either. I hope Jan wasn’t too displeased.

I’d left Lucille Stringer behind years ago, anyhow. It was that or take Mom’s way out, the big sleep.

Sure, Lucille couldn’t go on. I mean, fuck – named for a guitar, with the last name of a spineless lackey whose job was his title?

Yeah, even down to the liberties lords take with the peasantry.  Mom didn’t say much, but I think I understand now.

Maybe I should have come up with a better name, but I had to think quick. It was Lucienne Stronger who got the first job, and it was easy to change the papers I had just a little bit, in those days before everything was cross-checked.

I’m Lucienne Stronger on the papers of my apartment and the bar I run. I’m Luce to those I know.

After I got off the tour bus that last time, I told a lot of lies, but I left the big lie, and its liars behind. I was hoping it was for good.

I’ve put a lot of truth back into life in those years. I eventually admitted that nobody could live up to my trust issues forever, and that my life was a solo gig.

The job doesn’t mean I sacrifice my principles, either. My workers do okay before tips, and nobody stays long if they pull any dick moves.

Ruth doesn’t work for me, but her name opens doors if you ask at the bar. There’s a back entrance, and cab drivers I know, for anyone who has trouble they’d rather leave without.

I don’t know what happened to that guy who tried to slip roofies into that girl’s drink a few months ago, and I’m not sorry the newsreader named the bar on air when they searched for him. My place is safe, unless you’re a danger.

And if anybody on that tiny stage played Travis T Poesen numbers, up to now, I just counted my luck and the years I’d been free.

But I wasn’t, fuck it. I wasn’t.

I keep busy with my present, and try to make sure I have a future. There’s a few kids on staff, and in my neighborhood, who I’d like to see get a future too.

I can’t win ’em all, but I owe karma because I dodged the bus.

Now I’m only here because Dave Stringer somehow kept tabs on me, and I’m the listed contact they called when the ambulance took him away from where he’d fallen, right at this workshop bench.

The paramedics say, basically, that Dave is now deaf, blind and speechless. I don’t know about his financial arrangements, but the medical bills can have the house. I’m admitting nothing, and I won’t be back.

The last thing he would have seen or heard is Betty #144, or whatever. It’s still on the bench, and the back’s off the switch cavity at the top.

The old, battered road case is nearby. From the look of it, that thing’s been working since Betty #1. It has a few papers inside. Among them is a Canadian birth certificate for a Lucille Mae Poesen, which I tuck away in my jacket.

That might come in handy some day.

As for the rest, I’m taking the guitar and a few bottles of vodka into the backyard, to the outdoor grill.

Time for a real sunburst finish.

Checking Out

(Inspired by the Untouchable Shopper in Don’t Fear The Beeper.)

Tuesday 28 April.

* Lemongrass

* Coconut Cream

I don’t use this diary much, but it’s handy for reminders and it fits my pocket. Had to comment on something I heard in the supermarket though. The voice on the intercom calls some guy named Jarred to the freezer, and then cuts back to the music, just in time for “…Something inside has died, and I just can’t hide, and I just can’t face it, oh no…” – major LOL!

Cooking Beef Rendang tonight. I hope Lisa and Michael appreciate it. I mean, a kitchenhand’s almost a chef, or something…

Tuesday May 12.

Argh. It’s all gloom and doom in the supermarket music again. “Gimme money, that’s what I want…” – heh! Tell me about it.

Asked Ray why my pay was late, only to get payslip and the news that I’ve got just one shift next week, and that’s a short one.

NOTE – Tell Lisa rent will be late.

Wednesday May 20.

NOTE – Copy more resumes.

NOTE – Ask around shopping centre to see if anybody’s got an opening.

NOTE – Ask Ray for my knives when I take back uniform, or is that prick still busy backstabbing me?

And now for the shopping list:

* Extra Virgin Olive Oil

* Tuna in Brine

* Rocket

* Red Kale

* 1kg Porterhouse Steak

* Tomatoes (Roma)

And a bitchy remark on the whiteboard from Lisa about “not getting cheap generic shit”. I wish I had rich parents too!

Invisible Supermarket Deejay has it in for me too… here I am, walking up and down the aisles spending the last few dollars I have on credit, and the speakers in the roof are telling me “You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby, you’re no good”.

Can’t you play “Walking On Sunshine”, or some song about me getting a winning scratchie worth a few thousand?

Just for fun, ask at the front desk about a job in the supermarket, playing the background music. Serious Supervisor Bitch tells me it’s a feed from head office, so I cash-out the last twenty bucks and head over to the newsagent to see if I can luck out.

Friday, May 22.

In early to grab some of that liquid breakfast mush. I’m not eating at home today: Michael’s dirty look, when he found the muesli empty, was enough to curdle milk. Haha, not that there was any milk, sucka!

Phoned Mum yesterday, to see if there was any chance of a loan. She hasn’t got back to me yet.

Stupid supermarket music plays “Lady Madonna, baby at your breast, wonders how you manage to feed the rest…” – yeah, food for thought in that, even if it’s as bad as the breakfast mush!

I guess she and Rob don’t have a lot to start with, and the Spawn is so much younger than me I hardly even think of him as a young brother. I think I might be well and truly weaned.

Card declined, thanks ever so fucking much, and my phone credit runs out as I try to ring and raise my limit.

Wednesday May 27.

NOTE – Put guitar up for sale on Gumtree.

NOTE – See Rob and Mum about selling car with their phone number. Should get $900 without rego or roadworthy.

Lisa’s really pissed off at me for pulling out of the grocery kitty. On top of the late rent, I hardly dare show my face in the flat. Michael’s not keen on me either. No more borrowing smokes, he says.

Bonus: Couch and Lounge Chair Mining Company reports $22.47 profit – I get to eat!

Shit, I hope the supermarket music doesn’t keep coming true. Some song about “You’re Moving Out Today”. Old depressing music while I shop for whatever’s cheap, and all this crap’s just ready to pounce on me.

Thursday May 28.

Shit. Just shit. I can forget selling the guitar. My lovely ex-flatmates have made it clear I’m getting the clothes they left on the back stairs and that’s all. Michael did leave me a half-packet of smokes on the windowsill, because finders keepers. Screw them.

Glad my name’s not on the lease.

Rob says I can stay a few days with him and Mum. He really grinds out the “few days” bit. That guy scares me.

Monday June 15.

Rob changed the locks. Clothes in nice black garbage bag on porch. Thanks to Mum for the food, smokes and money. I hope that bastard doesn’t find out. I’m sure I heard him hurting her the other night.

I can’t come over to use their phone any more, and I’ll need to find some kind of home address to use for Centrelink mail. My phone seems to have gotten lost, not that I’ve got any credit.

Over to the shops to borrow a trolley for my clothes. For once the background music has something useful to offer me: “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)”. That’s an inspiration.

Behind the trolley bay is a plant room and a little storage for the cleaners. At the back there’s a few loose cement blocks. I’ve got a place to keep my stuff now, and it’s just about big enough to stretch out the sleeping bag. Long as I’m in and out when the stores are closed, it’s good.

Thursday, June 18.

My new multimillion-dollar home has it all, once you get past the odd spider in my crawlspace hideout. I was just nipping upstairs to buy some mush for breakfast, and maybe something that needs no cooking for later, when the Deejay In The Roof came through for me again.

Some high-pitched West Indian dude was singing “You can get it if you really want”. He was right! If you’re looking at a different shelf and you hold your arm in close as you bend, things are possible. I’ve got a selection of sliced ham, a couple of kranskys and some cheese slices to see me through the day and night.

Just gotta be careful now. I don’t want to be in the shop if Deejay Guy gets all Triple J on me and plays “Been Caught Stealing”.

Friday, June 19.

Bugger! The radio in the cleaner’s room was left on, and I was listening in. My guard was down, because it was Hunters & Collectors’ “Do You See What I See”, and that’s a favourite of Mum’s.

Bugger late night trading. Bugger security guards chatting up cleaners instead of being on their rounds, and bugger me for being spotted as I came out of my hideyhole. Do you see what I see, indeed. At least he let me get my clothes before he booted me out, and didn’t call the cops. Probably too lazy to write the incident up.

Tonight, I’m sharing my bed with bits of chewy, cigarette ends and the occasional Mackers wrapper. The address on my card, if I had a card, would be “Between the pencil cypresses and the rough cement wall, just outside the carpark, Concentric Multiplex Shopping & Cinemas”.

Unfortunately, I have found out that the fast-foodies lock their bins. The security guys have golf-carts, though: noisy little two-stroke jobbies with flashing lights! I may be un-fed, but I’ll probably go undetected.

As a bonus, I managed to get most of a wash in the men’s room near the flicks. It’s a good thing, because I was starting to make my own eyes water. Shit, that hand-soap is not hair-soap though. If I still had the phone, I could make such a selfie. I’ve got kind of a permanent shampoo-horn. Maybe I can pretend I’m Tintin out of the comics.

Monday June 22.

I’m starving. Somebody found my clothes, and PISSED ON THEM. Thanks a lot, arsehole! I’m sitting outside the supermarket on the brown vinyl chairs, and even the weird, old people are leaving me alone. I’ve probably got five minutes before the fat mall cops can get their well-fed bums out of the golf-cart seats, and waddle down the escalator with that urgent, hostile wobble that gets sweat stains breaking out all over the brown polyester wherever limbs meet body.

That’s about all the time I need. Can’t rush this, or things could get violent.

The Supermarket Deejay’s on the case, and he’s lined up some inspiration from above: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”…

I’ll be somewhere in the middle of the store, unwrapping stuff and eating my fill for the first time in ages.

What are they going to do, lock me up with a roof over my head and feed me?

Don’t Fear The Beeper

I go to the shops because I must.

We don’t get much to live on, and I shop expired codes, buy discontinued lines, and compare prices, making sure my family gets the best I can obtain cheaply.

The same memory and pattern recognition skills that once helped me earn money, now help stretch the pension. There’s a fine difference between strategic poverty and desperate poverty.

People, especially in large numbers, have never been my element. I can deal with individuals, one at a time, for a while, but crowded places leave me feeling tired quite quickly. Regardless of the strain, there’s something to be learned, and one or two friendly faces to meet, on every trip.

Some strangers look like they need a smile, or a bit of help. I make sure, especially since the latest, Government-assisted, wave of paranoia began, to smile or say hello to people who fit the profile of xenophobe targets.

There are people who are outsiders by circumstance. Easily identified as different due to disability or other factors, they move among the shoppers and staff, who mostly ignore them, but go “Tchhh!” and dodge when they can’t.

When you take profit offshoring, industry lobbying and labour relations into account, even shopping is a political act.

While I can’t afford to boycott the major chains, I try to at least help preserve a few jobs. I was reluctantly putting some groceries through the DIY checkout, because there were considerable queues at the staffed registers, and I had perishables from another store in the car.

The woman at the next DIY scanner was quite disheveled, even by the low standard of our shopping centre, where a footy jumper without holes or stains is relatively dapper. Her hair had the frayed, weathered appearance of a length of sisal twine that has spent most of a year tied to a stake in the garden.

She stepped closer, to bag a few articles. Her personal aura, with dominant notes of wet bed, cat litter and football sock, hit me like a soggy, mildewed towel, and I involuntarily stepped back.

The woman was apparently having a few problems with the scanner. I was haplessly observing, waiting for a price check that would save my family four badly-needed dollars. The self-service checkout attendant had to step in three times, and each intervention further delayed me from paying and leaving.

So it was that I saw my fellow shopper depart first. She left the checkout area, passing between a pair of those bollards that beep and flash when contraband with RFID tags passes within range.

The lights blinked. The beepers sounded. She continued unfazed, pushing her trolley, and not a voice or a finger was raised. I can only conclude nobody wanted to stop and search her.

There’s some sort of lesson in this, I’m sure. Just as the Ruperts, Ginas and Twiggies of the world can do as they please due to status, this woman could rise above the rules unchallenged.

If things go the way they seem to be heading, there will inevitably be more of her. At least the drive for survival doesn’t seem to be buckling under.

Hundred Word Shortie

The white hair and beard, I can’t help. The round belly, perhaps. The red shirt, I admit, was a mistake.

I didn’t know my new neighbour had moved in, and worse yet…

“Look, Mummy! Santa!” screeched thirty pounds of unrestrained, dirty boy. I noticed most of my plants were shredded wherever he’d reached through the fence.

From bad beginnings, it’s escalated. Ignore him as I might, Kid’s taunted, thrown things, and damaged my garden whenever he can.

Okay. I guess I can be Santa if I must. This paint set has a big tube of red that doesn’t wash out…