Monday, 31 January 2011

Essential anime for theologians

A guest-post by Steve Wright, a PhD student in Sydney – he recently introduced me (and my kids) to the incredibly rich and magical world of anime films, so I asked him for a post on the topic...

Anime is simply Japanese for "animation". These are a far cry from the Warner Bros. cartoons of your childhood. Grab some takoyaki and ramune (maybe some sake), set the language options to Japanese with English subtitles (avoid English dubs at all costs), and prepare to whisper in quiet amazement: "sugoi da na..."

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Some new theology journals

Some new online journals that might be of interest:

And this one's not a theology journal, but it sounds pretty damn cool:
Update: David Miller just alerted me to the best journal of all, the Journal of Universal Rejection. Their motto is hora incerta, reprobatio certa – the hour is uncertain, the rejection certain. I think I'll submit a manuscript right away!

Friday, 28 January 2011

John Milbank's Stanton Lectures

Last week, John Milbank gave the first of the 2011 Stanton Lectures at Cambridge. His lectures are titled "Philosophy: A Theological Critique". There are eight lectures in total, and the text of each one will also be posted on the ABC site – here's the first one. The full series is as follows:

  • 19 January: The Return of Metaphysics in the 21st century
  • 26 January: Immanence and Life
  • 2 February: Immanence and Number
  • 9 February: Transcendence without Participation
  • 16 February: Participated Transcendence Reconceived
  • 23 February: The Habit of Reason
  • 2 March: The Realism of Feeling
  • 9 March: The Surprise of the Imagined
As he says at the close of the first lecture, one of his aims is to "construe language as actual words, phenomena as actual things, mathematics as actual numbers and life as actual transcendence, not virtual immanence."

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

My Life and the Sea: chapter 5



Chapter 5. The Map

I guess I lay there most of the night before he found me. He picked me up off the sand and carried me home. The lamp was still burning inside but my mother wasn’t there, so he hauled me back up the road to his place. They lived at the old abandoned pineapple farm, the old bloke and his wife. I’d seen them around but had never been to their place before, because they were what was known as Abos. At the time I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I knew it must be something dangerous or infectious, since most people didn’t get too close to them.

I'd asked my mother one time, “What’s an Abo?”

She said, “It means dark skin.”

“Oh,” I said, “you mean like Gina,” whose skin was tanned darker than anyone’s on the island.

“No,” she said, “not Gina. She’s White.”

“Oh,” I said. I could see that this whole Abo business was a complicated affair, best left to the grown-ups, so I didn’t ask any more questions after that. But I understood enough to know that you’re not supposed to visit them at home, and so I’d never been. I’d often peered at their place from across the road though, because it was a peculiar residence, even by the eccentric standards of Bite Bay. The pineapple farm had been closed for many years, but you could still make out the original sign through the trees, boasting of the best pineapples in Australia: "Come take a bite!" The whole place had an air of ruined grandeur, like an ancient graveyard or an abandoned carnival. It was overrun by trees, and every once in a while they would chop one down and drag it inside. This usually left half a tree stump sticking out through the front door; sometimes it would even stretch out onto the road, which I suppose must have been quite a hazard for motorists. That's how it was on this night too: as he carried me through the front door, he had to step carefully over the tree trunk that ran right out the doorway and onto the front path.

When he brought me inside, I was able to solve the mystery of the tree all at once: it was firewood, only instead of chopping the wood before burning it, they would put the whole end of the tree trunk directly into the fireplace. I got to see how this ingenious system worked, for as soon as he had set me down on a spring mattress near the fireplace, he heaved a little on the tree stump to bring the fresh wood forwards, then poked around in the coals for a few moments, and soon enough he had a good blaze going.

It was cosy by the fire, and before long my teeth had stopped chattering. But my feet were killing me, and the old bloke sat down beside me and got to work removing my flippers. They were pretty much grafted to my feet, and once he got them off I could see all the bleeding cuts and blisters and the hideous swelling around my ankles. It hurt something shocking, I won’t deny it, but I never cried, I don’t know if this is because I was so brave or because I was so tired.

He brought me a big bottle of water and I guzzled the whole thing down in one go, though I hadn't even realised I was thirsty. He refilled it, and I drank again. Then he got a tin billy and hung it over the fire. All this time he said nothing, but as he was clanking about in the kitchen for some teacups, his wife walked in, rubbing her eyes and yawning and saying, “What’s all the racket?” He didn’t reply, but stuck his thumb out in my direction, and when she saw me the woman said, “Oi, young fella, where you bin at?”

I hesitated a moment, then said, “Swimming.”

“Well, all safe and sound now,” she said. “I spose you'd be Dylan.” I nodded, and she said, “You can call me Auntie Joyce.” Then she looked over at the man with the teacups and added, “That’s Kev.”

“Found im down the beach,” said Kev, and he poured a cup of steaming hot tea, and handed it to me. “Warm you up,” he said.

“I tell you what,” said Auntie Joyce, “everyone bin out lookin for you. Them all over the island lookin.”

“I went swimming,” I said.

“Your mum reckons you bin drowned, she got the p’liceman outta bed and everything. You git lost?”

I sipped the tea, and started to feel a little better. “No,” I said. “I swam round Australia.”

Kev roared with laughter and nearly spilt his tea, his big hand thumping on his thigh. “You swim round ’Stralia? Geez, I reckon that’s a pretty good swim for a little fella.” His face was golden by the firelight, and I had never such a smile, such dazzling white teeth, so broad and free.

“You mean the island, luv?” said Auntie Joyce. “You swim round the island?”

I nodded, and I suppose I looked a little triumphant, notwithstanding my blue cracked lips, my bloodied feet, my soggy wrinkled skin. “Yep. Right round the whole country.”

We heard a car go by, and Kev went out to look. It was the police car, with my mother. I said goodbye to Auntie Joyce, and Kev lifted me from the mattress and carried me outside. When he brought me in his arms to my mother, she gasped and stared at him in horror, as though he’d snatched me up and murdered me in the night, instead of peeling off my flippers and giving me a cuppa. Kev didn’t say anything either, just stood there in the dark, until she'd rushed over and grabbed me from him, wrapping me up in her arms.

Anyway, the copper came over to speak to Kev, and my mother brought me inside and laid me out on the bed, and then she bawled her eyes out so bad it scared me. She was mad as hell of course, I hardly need to tell you that. Half the island had been out looking for me, even a couple of boats had gone out, risking the shallow midnight reefs to scour the water with their spotlights. The copper had come up from Nelly Bay and made her fill out forms, and she’d been driving around with him all night. They all thought I'd drowned, or been taken by a shark, or captured by child molesters, or stung to death by jellyfish. There'd be hell to pay in the morning: but right now my mother clung to me and cried her eyes out, more than I'd ever seen a person cry, until my face and hair were wet all over again from her salty sea of tears.

The cop came back in the morning and asked some questions, “Just to clear everything up,” he said, hitching up his blue shorts with his thumbs. He kept asking about the Abos, I don't know why. I was scared I might get in trouble for drinking their tea, so I left out that part out of the story. When I told him they'd looked after me, and he grunted disapprovingly and scribbled notes in his little book. When I told him how I’d swum around Australia, he went to the car and came back with a map. He unfolded it in front of me. He pointed to the big island, tracing its outline with a stubby, nail-bitten finger, and said, “Y'know what that is mate?”

Now I must confess, until this point in my life I had never once laid eyes on a map of Australia; but I thought it was a pretty safe bet, so I said, “Australia?”

“Right,” the copper said. “And you see this dot, that’s Townsville, over on the mainland.” Then he pointed to something else, nearly invisible – it might only have been a smudge of dirt or a dead mozzie on the page – and he said, “Y’see this? That’s Magnetic Island. Did you swim all the way round the island? Is that what you done?”

I nodded again, but a strange feeling had come over me, cold and lonely. I was staring at the map, at the monstrous size of the country and the offensive little brown smudge beside its coastline. I had always thought that Australia was another name for our island, its official title perhaps, but a synonym all the same. I felt sick in my stomach, and I reeled from the blow of an enormous betrayal. I had not circumnavigated Australia, not even close. My great exploit on the sea was crushed to dust; my swim had been puny and infantile, a humiliation instead of a triumph.

I was sick for a long time after that, and I could hardly walk for several days, partly because the muscles in my legs had turned to jelly, partly because of the huge blisters and the swelling in my feet, partly because of the dehydration that had wracked my body. I couldn't sit or lie comfortably either, on account of the murderous sunburn that had roasted my back and bum. A doctor came over on the ferry to see me, a friend of Gina’s, and he said, “Dear oh dear young man, dear oh deary me,” and made me swallow pills and made my mother rub a frightful cream all over my back. It hurt like billyo, I don’t need to tell you that, but more than anything it was the God-awful smell that got to me, driving me half insane as I writhed about day and night in my bed. (Even to this day, I sometimes awake from nightmares in which all I can recall is the pungent, suffocating stench of sunburn cream.) My mother couldn’t sleep at night either, and as she lay beside me in the dark I told her over and over about the map, about the appalling vastness of the continent and the tiny smudge of the island, about the meaning of the word Australia, about this violent geographical enormity that had forced itself upon me, disfiguring everything and bending all the shapes and forms of my imagination into hideous distortions.

On the third day I found that my wounds felt better when I lay down in the sand. It soothed the constant burning, and the fresh air of the beach was a blessed relief from the stagnant indoor stench of that medicinal horror. So my mother let me lie all day in the sand under the shade of the big coconut palm. I was so comfortable there that she even let me sleep outside at night, though she dragged a mattress out and slept right next to me, afraid, no doubt, that I would creep away by moonlight and slip back into the sea.

One day as I was loitering in the curative shade of my coconut tree, old Kev came by with the flippers. “Left em behind,” he said, looking out at the water as he dropped them on the sand beside me. “How you feelin, young fella,” he asked.

“Okay,” I said.

“Talked to your mum,” he said. “Heard bout that p’liceman’s map.” I shrugged. He was silent a long time, and then he said, “Y’know, I don’t think nobody’s ever swam round Maggie Island before. Not right round Maggie. Not till now.”

Then he gave me something. He was standing with his back to me, looking at the beach, and he casually reached into his back pocket and took something out. Then, turning slightly, he dropped it in my lap and said, “I’ll see you round, young fella, you take care now,” and off he went.

To this day, I have no idea how he found such a fine specimen, or how much trouble it must have cost him to acquire it. But when I unfolded the paper and spread it out on the sand before me, I saw the gigantic shape of Magnetic Island, huge with glossy colour, surrounded on every side by the bright blue majesty of the sea.

*

That was how I discovered that, if you can’t be out swimming with your flippers, looking at maps is the next best thing. Day after day I studied it. I pored over every detail, memorising all the names and the shape of every bay. I kept it open on my lap at dinner time, casting furtive glances at Mount Cook and Alma Bay between mouthfuls. There were so many bays and beaches, so many hills and roads, so many rocks and reefs, and I learned them all, and I drew the whole thing on the sand with my finger, over and over, until I could have drawn it in my sleep, or drawn it without eyes.

On the seventh day, I asked my mother to bring me a pen. Then, with the map spread out before me, I carefully crossed out the words "Horseshoe Bay," and wrote, in my best and neatest handwriting, "Bite Bay." At the top of the map, where it said MAGNETIC ISLAND, I added one more word, in great defiant capital black letters: AUSTRALEA.

Monday, 24 January 2011

My Life and the Sea: chapter 4

Chapter 4. The Decision

I still remember the day, it was my eighth birthday, when I decided to swim around Australia. Of course, I’m exaggerating when I say I decided. It’s not as if I gave it any thought beforehand, it just happened, I suppose because since the day was so fair, the water so clear and calm, such a fine good day for a swim.

We’d gone to Gina’s place that day because it was my birthday. Gina lived over in Balding Bay, a few miles around the point from our place. She was something of a legend on the island, since she’d been to university, and it was rumoured she could even speak French. In all the years I knew her, I never saw her wear anything except bikinis. Her skin was tanned all over as dark as chocolate, and she always wore dark glasses, even indoors, even in the shower for all I know. Before she moved to the island she’d travelled the world, and she’d had a big job lined up on the mainland, something important, I don’t know what, but a week before the start of her career, she’d hopped on the ferry for an afternoon trip to the island, and never went back.

She’d paid three hundred dollars to lease the place at Balding Bay for ten years. It was a cottage with green concrete floors and louvered windows from floor to ceiling, so that you could always see the ocean from wherever you happened to be standing. There were books everywhere, lined up and piled up and leaning on shelves made out of old boxes and those wooden crates that wash up on the beach from time to time. There were big cane chairs, a high table with stools, potted ferns hanging from the ceiling, and a huge cane mat on the floor that you could stretch out and sleep on, as I used to do when we stayed overnight. As a matter of principle I’ve always objected to sleeping. But if you really insist on it, and if you can't do it as the noble dolphin does, snoozing with half his brain while the other half goes on swimming, then I’d recommend a good cane mat on a concrete floor, stripped naked to the waist with all the windows open.

In the middle of the room was a steel pole running up to the ceiling, which was to bolt the place to the ground when the cyclones came. Whenever a cyclone blew in we’d go and stay at Gina’s, since it was widely believed that the Old Train would one day be picked up and blown out to sea, there to be relocated as a haven for crabs and manta rays amid the sand and the seagrass. (That turned out to be true, though not till many years later.)

We went to Gina’s place a lot, and she came to ours a lot, because she read all the same books as my mother, and there’s not much point reading a book unless you can argue about it afterwards. She got books in the mail, loads of them, and my mother was always borrowing them and bringing them back again, just as if it was a lending library. She also brought things for Gina, fruit from our yard, a basket of eggs, a bag of the herbs that we grew down by the creek, or a box of mangoes.

Don’t get me wrong, no one on the island needs to be given mangoes. Mango trees are everywhere, as ubiquitous as the rocks and the green ants. You might live on nothing but mangoes if you could bear it, even though what we eat is merely the leftovers from the bats and the incorrigible possums. But Gina made mango chutney, lots of it, best mango chutney on the island, and people gave her fruit and veg in exchange for chutney, she even sold a few jars at Bob’s grocery in exchange for bread and cheese. (Cheese was one of the many exotic wonders of Gina’s place, an unthinkable luxury for someone who lived in a railway carriage without a fridge.) All year round, her place reeked of mango. In summer, the acrid taste was in your mouth every time you breathed, and you could feel the sap stinging the corners of your eyes and prickling on your skin. How a house constructed almost entirely of concrete and glass could absorb a smell so thoroughly, I confess that remains a mystery to me. But that’s how it was, and I loved it.

My mother and Gina would lie back in the cane chairs drinking wine and arguing over books, work, gender, capitalism, the System, the Movement, the government, whether it was better to organise or to opt out, that sort of thing. The discussions always orbited around one thing, and always returned there in the end. Men. Both of them were agreed on this diagnosis of the fundamental social ill, though what their prescribed remedies were I’ll never know, since by that time I was usually out on the water.

But today being my birthday, we were all seated on Gina’s woven mat while she lit the candles on the cake that had just come out of the oven. I forgot to tell you that Gina was a Vegetarian: that is why she never used unnatural ingredients, and why every year my birthday cake tasted of flour and vegetables, and why the icing was a rich, oozy, leafy green, the colour of crushed spinach, which is what she used for food colouring. It was delicious, we all said so, and after we’d eaten a piece Gina went to her bedroom and came back – “Drum roll,” she said – with a birthday present. When I unwrapped it, it was the biggest pair of shoes I’d ever seen in my life. I was polite, I said thank you, but to tell the truth I was a little disappointed, since in eight long years the tips of my toes had never so much as touched a shoe, nor had they had ever had any reason to. I tried putting on the new shoes but didn’t know how, and Gina had take my foot in her hands and show me. That was when she explained their proper use, and my mother pronounced their name: Flippers.

Having always gone into the water naked, I was sceptical about these rubbery appendages. But I stomped my way down to the beach all the same, and after the first three kicks I understood: the webbed toes were not an alien device, not an artificial extension of the body, but a restoration of the foot to its proper original form. All our ancestors had been swimmers, back when all the land on earth was an inhospitable wasteland of volcanic ash and rock. When our first parents crept out from the primordial waters and began to walk about on land, this sad calamity befell them, that they lost their fins and webbed feet, and instead got fingers, toes, opposable thumbs, all designed, I suppose, for the undignified and unphilosophical purpose of scratching at prehistoric fleas while you’re hanging upside down from the branch of a tree. With webbed feet, you could have drowned all those itching parasites in the course of one good ponderous swim. Yes, nature has failed us here, or maliciously betrayed us, and I saw at once that flippers are the grace that repairs what nature left in ruins.

That is why, when I had swum to the end of the bay, I did not feel like turning around just yet. Nor when I had swum to the end of the next bay. Nor when I had gone around the point to Florence Bay, further than I’d ever been before, gliding like a shark through the shimmering waters. I was silent and swift as death, sweeping my great black fins, the terror of the sea. All things that teem in the deep were my prey. Reef after reef, bay after bay I swam, breathing slow, calm, hypnotic, synchronised to the languid rising and falling of the sea.

It was not until the sky had grown dark that I realised a decision had been made – by whom exactly I couldn’t say – that I would swim all the way around. One minute you’re paddling along, breathing and exhaling, peering down into the murky deep, and the next minute, quick as a stingray, the idea has seized you, stark and white and electric. Once that’s happened, there’s really not much you or anybody else can do about it. You are going to swim around Australia: that’s what you’ll do, plain and simple.

And that’s what I did. By this time, I’d already gone past Picnic Bay, past the jetty, around the southern point and out onto the wide teeming reef along the western rim of the island. I’d never swum at night before; my mother didn’t let me out after sunset, because of the sharks. But in the darkness, the reef was alive with a million phosphorescent lights and colours. I was swimming in the stars, and I was not frightened, and I did not lose my way.

It was many hours later, though it might as well have been years, that I saw the ghostly moonlit figure of the White Lady, the rock up on the promontory that looks like a woman dressed in white, the rock I saw each morning when I swam out on the bay. Then I saw the distant gleaming windows of the railway carriage, and when I’d come in close I found that my legs didn’t work, that I couldn’t stand or crawl, so I lay there in the shallows until the waves had washed me up like a dead sailor on the shore.

A new typology of the atonement: Bruce McCormack's Croall Lectures

If you're lucky enough to be in Edinburgh, you've probably been going to hear Bruce McCormack's 2011 Croall Lectures over the past week at the University of Edinburgh. McCormack has developed a new typology of atonement theories, probably the most robust alternative to Gustaf Aulén's much-discussed (and overwhelmingly influential) typology in Christus Victor. Aulén's typology was (1) satisfaction, (2) moral influence, and (3) Christus victor. McCormack's typology centres on the concepts of the person and work of Christ, and his three categories are: (1) theories that order the work to the person, (2) theories that sever person and work, and (3) theories that order the person to the work. Another point of special interest is McCormack's challenge to non-violent atonement theories.

The lecture series is titled "Abandoned by God: The Death of Christ in Systematic, Historical, and Exegetical Perspective", and the six lectures are as follows:
  • The Decline of Protestantism and the Perils of Penal Substitution
  • The Incarnation as Saving Event: Theories Which Order the Work of Christ to a Metaphysical Conception of His Person
  • Let Justice and Peace Reign: Theories Which Fail Adequately to Integrate the Person and Work of Christ
  • After Metaphysics: Theories Which Order the Person of Christ to His Work
  • The Cry of Dereliction: The Death of Jesus in Eschatological Perspective
  • The Lord of Glory was Crucified: Reformed Kenoticism and Death in God
There's some detailed reporting on the first lecture over at Via Crucis.

My Life and the Sea: chapter 3b

Chapter 3b – sorry, I had to add some material to the last chapter, so here’s the new second half of chapter 3:

The place had running water but no phone or electricity; it wasn’t on the grid, which was the thing my mother liked best about it. Strictly speaking, it didn’t even have an address. Although all the locals knew it as the Old Train, it had no lot number, no letterbox, and there was no need for one, since no mail ever came. “As far as anybody knows,” my mother said once, teeth gleaming, “we don’t even exist.”

We had one of those old gramophones with the wind-up handle on the front, and every night after the sun had gone down behind the hills, my mother would light the kero lamp, sometimes a mosquito coil too to keep the mozzies out, and I would get to work winding the gramophone. Then, once we’d planted our bums comfortably on the floor, she’d ask me, “What’ll it be tonight,” and I would think for a while, turning them over in my mind, Freewheelin’ or Highway 61 or Blonde on Blonde, we had them all, and when I'd chosen one she’d slip the vinyl from its cover and slide it into place on the turntable. Then the needle would go down, that first pregnant moment of crackling silence, and for the next hour we’d sit in the soft glow of the lamp, looking out through the open front door across the bay while the songs poured over us, sad and lonely as the trees or howling black as summer storms. When the first side ended you could hear the wash of waves on the beach, a sound that had been there all along, seeping like ink into every line of every song, permeating it all with the the sea's secret, imperceptible whisper. Then my mother would light her smoke, turn the record over, and we’d lean back together, drowsy in the coils of smoke and music that hung in the room, and when the last song had ended I would clamber up to bed, or sometimes, already sleeping with my head on her lap, or pretending to sleep, she would lift me and carry me to bed and tuck in the sheet, right up high under my chin.

Once, a person she'd known from Sydney wrote her a letter.

“What’s Sydney,” I asked.

“It’s nothing,” she said.

The envelope had a ten cent stamp and three words were scrawled across the front, like this:

       JESSICA
      Magnetic Island


The island’s postmaster was Bob, who ran the grocery store down in Nelly Bay. He’d lived on the island forever, even during the war when he’d learned Morse code and kept lookout in the stone fort because they thought the Japs would come this way when they invaded. He lived in the shack behind the grocery, and he was starting to go blind, which is why people tended to pay less than they should for their groceries, and to get the wrong mail delivered to their letterboxes. All the mail would come in a bag on the ferry once a week, and on Friday afternoons Bob would do the mail run in his yellow Mini Moke, a jeep-like machine with low open sides, ten-inch wheels, deckchair seats, canvas top, and plastic grab-handles for safety. People generally kept off the roads on Fridays, since you never knew which side of the road Bob would be driving on, or how fast he’d be going around those cliff-edge corners, or how much he'd had to drink that morning. Anyway, on this particular Friday my mother was reading in the hammock when she heard Bob pull up out front – you always knew it was him, since his Moke sounded like a lawnmower. Then he hollered, “Oi, Jess,” and as he drove away she saw the letter there by the roadside, sticking up from the sand like a ship’s sail, wreathed in the black fumes of Bob’s Moke.

She looked at the letter for a long time. She brought it inside and put it on the table, and we both looked at it. It was still there the following day, and she kept watching it out of the corner of her eye as though it was going to get up and walk away. Then suddenly, as we were eating our lunch, she tore it open, read it, stuffed it in the bin, drank a big glass of water, and never spoke of it again.

That was the day I realised we weren’t just living at Bite Bay. We were hiding.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

My Life and the Sea: chapter 3

Chapter 3. Bite Bay


By the time I was five, I could swim the length of the bay; at six, I was swimming out as far as the fishing trawlers that anchored on the reef just before it drops away into the darkness of the open sea. From there you could take in the whole bay at one glance.

It is the biggest beach on the island, a golden arc of sand that curves around for three or four miles, and on account of this shape it is known as Horseshoe Bay. I suppose Captain Cook gave it that name when he was sailing past the island; the name evokes summer afternoons in a genteel English garden, pitching horseshoes and drinking tea while the ladies bat their eyelids beneath the shade of lily-white umbrellas. But with all due respect to the good Captain, I think this is altogether too romantic and too tame a designation, a name pronounced from the comfort of a ship’s quarterdeck in fair weather. Take my word for it, if he had seen the bay from its natural vantage point, treading water three miles out, suspended naked above the reef where the giants move in the shadows, the white shark and the black trevally – if he had seen it as I saw it, every morning of my life since I was six years old – then in hushed reverential tones he would have uttered its true and proper name: he would have called it Bite Bay. For once you have acquired the right perspective, you see that the bay resembles nothing so much as a gigantic bite, as though long ago Job’s leviathan, riding the boiling sea in the dead of night, had turned his great black eye and opened the doors of his face and bitten off a piece of our island for a midnight snack. So wide a bay from so small a bite! One day he might return at meal time, and then there will be nothing left of us but the crumbs from his table, tree stumps and grey boulders scattered idly about the ocean floor. When I speak of our bay, therefore, I will not talk as the British do of horseshoes, but I will call it by its proper title, its ancient and primeval, that is to say its Australian, name.

At both ends of Bite Bay, the sands vanish into those enormous granite rocks which you see everywhere on the island, or rather, which constitute the island, since this whole body of land is nothing but a disordered heap of granite casually thrown up by the capricious sea; rock is the island’s essential nature, trees and grass and people the mere adornments, tacked on per accidens as the philosophers say. Behind towering hoop pines and the lazy slouch of coconut palms, a half-finished gravel road runs along the beach. The sign says Pacific Drive, because that road marks the last fragile boundary between human artifice and the elemental anarchy of the planet’s vastest ocean. That is where I lived, that is where I grew up, that is where I passed the time when I wasn’t in the water.

A couple of dozen people lived on this part of the island, and from out on the water you could see all their precarious habitations, the leaning weatherboard cottages, the rusted caravans sinking into sand, the blue fibro beach shack with no front door, the decrepit majesty of the old abandoned pineapple farm, shrouded in trees. Our place was the converted railway carriage, mottled red and black like the skin of an overripe mango, the windows misted over with salty grime, tilting there in the sand the way everything seemed to tilt on those lethargic shores, nestled in the shade of pawpaw trees that leaned against it, drooping sad and lovely with fruit.

We rented the place from old Mrs Lloyd over in Florence Bay; my mother paid eight dollars a week in rent, plus a couple of pawpaws or some eggs from the chooks. Before my mother came to the island, our carriage was rented by a Canadian who used to sail up and down the coast in his twenty-foot sloop, sometimes disappearing for weeks or months at a time. Then one day he sailed east, and when two years had passed and there was still no sign of him, Mrs Lloyd decided it was time for a new tenant. So she gave the place a good clean with her dustpan and broom, removed the things the Canadian had left behind (two shirts, a piece of fishing line, half a bottle of rancid wine, a D. H. Lawrence paperback, and a Monopoly board game), and raised the rent to eight dollars. The next day my mother turned up in her green sarong and her a bag full of books, and, after four cups of tea and three games of Monopoly, she was handed the keys and told how to jiggle the door to get it open.

The place had running water but no phone or electricity; it wasn’t on the grid, which was the thing my mother liked best about it. Strictly speaking, it didn’t even have an address. Although all the locals knew it as the Old Train, it had no lot number, no letterbox, and there was no need for one, since no mail ever came. “As far as anybody knows,” my mother said once with a gleaming smile, “we don’t even exist.”

Once, a person she'd known from Sydney – “What’s Sydney,” I asked, “It’s nothing,” she said – wrote her a letter. The envelope had a ten cent stamp and three words were scrawled across the front, like this:

        JESSICA
        Magnetic Island


The island’s postmaster was Bob, who ran the grocery store down in Nelly Bay. He’d lived on the island forever, even during the war when he’d learned Morse code and kept lookout in the stone fort because they thought the Japs would come this way when they invaded. He lived in the shack behind the grocery, and he was starting to go blind, which is why people tended to pay less than they should for their groceries, and to get the wrong mail delivered to their letterboxes. All the mail would come in a bag on the ferry once a week, and on Friday afternoons Bob would do the mail run in his yellow Mini Moke, a jeep-like machine with low open sides, ten-inch wheels, deckchair seats, canvas top, and plastic grab-handles for safety. People generally kept off the roads on Fridays, since you never knew which side of the road Bob would be driving on, or how fast he’d be going around those cliff-edge corners, or how much he'd had to drink that morning. Anyway, on this particular Friday my mother was reading in the hammock when she heard Bob pull up out front – you always knew it was him, since his Moke sounded like a lawnmower. Then he hollered, “Oi, Jess,” and as he drove away she saw the letter there by the roadside, sticking up from the sand like a ship’s sail, wreathed in the black fumes of Bob’s Moke.

She looked at the letter for a long time. She brought it inside and put it on the table, and we both looked at it. It was still there the following day, and she kept watching it out of the corner of her eye as though it was going to get up and walk away. Then suddenly, as we were eating our lunch, she tore it open, read it, stuffed it in the bin, drank a big glass of water, and never spoke of it again.

That was the day I realised we weren’t just living at Bite Bay. We were hiding.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

My Life and the Sea: chapter 2

Chapter 2. Restrained


The first time I tried to drown myself, I was six months old. My mother had taken me to a barbecue at a friend’s place, and while everyone stood around talking I crawled off on my own and found the swimming pool. I wriggled free of my damp cotton nappy, I approached the edge of the pool, I dangled my fingers idly in the water, lost in silent reverie.

Then I plunged in. For good measure I kicked out with both legs, propelling myself away from the wall, out into the middle where it was deep and cool. Down the other end of the yard, two things happened at the same time: they heard the splash and they saw that I was missing. Then they ran. There is nothing more comically satisfying than the sight of several self-respecting adults, many of them with mouths half full of barbecued sausage, breaking into a mad stampede: I wish I’d been there to see it, but at that moment I was occupied in more sublime matters, contemplating a patch of oily green scum on the bottom of the pool, the way thousands of tiny drifting particles hang suspended in a shaft of sunlight, the way the water pushes against your fingers when you wiggle them back and forth, the way big bubbles slip from your nostrils like a fat person squeezing through a small door, the way the sounds outside become loud and thick, whether the chirping of the birds in the treetops or the distant bark of a dog or the panic-stricken shouts of your mother.

When they reached the pool they all thought I was a goner, since I wasn’t thrashing or flailing or whipping the calm surface into foam. I lay facedown, as still as death, eyes open, arms outspread in that delicious drowsy sparkling blue. Then someone rudely leapt in, breaking my shafts of sunlight and scattering the leaves on the bottom. I was plucked from the water, and it wasn’t till I’d been laid out by the side of the pool like a corpse awaiting burial that they saw how my chubby little waterlogged jaws were beaming smiles, and how my hands kept waving gently as though swimming. When my mother reached for me I kicked out at her, not out of malice or ill will, as she thought at the time, but simply in the hope that her body, a good firm platform if ever there was one, might launch me back into the pool.

The second time I nearly drowned was on my first trip to the mainland. I was two years old by this time, and had long since outgrown all my clothes – my mother had been modifying my outfits by making small incisions along the seams with her scissors, but there’s a fine line between making incisions in a piece of clothing and performing a dissection, and when my last shirt peeled off my back like a trail of ribbons, she decided that the time had come to take me shopping. So that morning we went out to the shed, scraped away the dirt from the secret trapdoor, opened the lid, took some money from one of the big wads of dollar bills – in our house, this was called Going to the Bank – and then we replaced the latch on the trapdoor, swept the dirt back into place, and made our way down to the jetty.

It was a calm day. Even when the ferry was a long way out you could still see right to the bottom, the shadows of big rocks and the silver flash of fish and long stretches of brightly coloured coral. As the boat glided across these gentle waters, I waited till my mother was absorbed in the book she was reading – something to do with French existentialism, gender stereotypes and social hierarchy – and I slid quietly from her lap. Shifting my feet in time to the rhythm of the deck, I shuffled slowly, it was more a waltz than a walk, towards the handrail. For what seemed like forever I stood there looking down. There were splashes of white and gold and vermilion from the reef below. The boat made little trails of rippling waves that splintered the sunlight into a million shining pieces. The water sounded like laughter as it softly slapped the hull beneath my toes.

The weather being fine and hot, and my last shirt having disintegrated the day before, I was wearing nothing but some tight pants with long incisions running up the seams. After a few moments I had struggled free of them, perceiving, by an acute and infallible instinct, that a person ought to meet the ocean skin-to-skin, without the cumbersome mediation of cotton or polyester. (How I abominate the swimsuit, and most especially the wetsuit, will be told in a later chapter.)

Then everything happened quickly. I climbed the railing, balanced myself carefully on the edge, and filled my lungs with that clean salty sky. Then someone cried out, my mother shrieked, there was a scramble of feet on the deck behind me, and, without so much as a backwards glance, I stretched my arms wide as a crucifixion and flung myself down into the deep, squealing with glee the way some children squeal when they are running about stupidly on land or bouncing idiotically on a trampoline.

Afterwards, there were different theories as to how and why my life had been spared. Some attributed it to the courageous quick thinking of the fellow passenger who risked his own life (so the newspaper said) to dive in after me. Others put it down to the unnatural calm of the sea that day, which otherwise might have buried me all at once in its rising swell. Others (the captain was of this view) said I owed my life to the uncommon slow speed of the ferry. A swifter vessel would have left me floundering in its wake; but if a person fell overboard from the bow of the Magnetic Island Ferry, a passenger stretching his legs down near the stern might have time to unlace his shoes, fold his socks, remove his watch, strip down to his underwear, even put the kettle on for a cup of tea, before diving in to apprehend the hapless victim as the boat inched past him in the water.

I was, at any rate, alive. In fact, when my rescuer brought me alongside and they heaved me up and plonked me on the deck, I straightaway made for the railing again – everyone knows the appetite of children for games of repetition, especially when the game involves getting nice and wet and making your mother scream. But before I could take another step she had seized me, fierce with humiliation and fright – after all it was, poor woman, not the first time she’d had to grab my slippery naked body to stop me going overboard – and she made me sit there on her lap all the way to dock, even when I tried to outsmart her by crying loudly and kicking my legs and writhing about like a great sea snake.

And so we came at last to town, and I was subjected to the horrible calamity of stiff new clothes, and, as a precaution against my suicidal tendencies, my mother bought a stiff leather belt – a Men’s belt – to fasten me to the seat on the journey home. I need hardly tell you of my state of mind, immobile in those new clothes whose scraping itchy tags could have driven the strongest mind mad, restrained a whole hour in those inflexible masculine bonds, the thick hot hated leather that kept me from the sea.

Faith in the World essay prize

Any aspiring theologians in your home? People who annoy you with hard questions and get bored easily by bad sermons? This week Rowan Williams launched the Faith in the World writing prize, which invites young people, aged 13-21, to submit an essay exploring faith in our world.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

My Life and the Sea: chapter 1

Yesterday I started another story, this time a short novella. I don’t really intend to finish it, but I’ll try to post a few more chapters over the next week or so.

Chapter 1. My Debut

I was born on the sea, in the teeth of a storm. That’s where all the trouble started, at least that’s what my mother used to say. She was a fierce stern-faced woman who read a lot of books and grew the hair in her armpits and never owned a bra in all her life. One night she was riding the ferry back to the island – she’d been at another meeting on the mainland, plotting to bring down the System – when a storm blew in, one of those wild ones that swell the sea and send the boat pitching so hard that the side railing looms beneath you like the edge of a cliff, and you know at any moment you could slip directly from your seat into the abyss. When I call it a ferry, you mustn’t think of one of these newer types, a luxury vessel with padded seats and a roof and glass windows – no fancy catamaran for my mother. Instead you must picture a charming, cheerful old rustbucket named Paluma, painted orange once upon a time but now the colour of old nails, cruising at eight knots while the six or seven passengers perch on plastic chairs bolted to the deck, with nothing between them and the wrath of God but a single low handrail and a strip of canvas overhead for shade. That was the noble vessel that pitched so wildly on the waves that night, while the captain wrestled with the wheel and the passengers clung to their seats for dear life, looking out with horror at the great black rolling hills each time the lightning lit the sea as bright as day.

Then halfway to the island, my mother went down on the floor and gave a startled cry that you could hear even above the howling tempest, and that was when I made my grand debut, slipping out onto the wet wooden planks, the warm amniotic fluids mingling with the cold white spray of the sea that swept the deck. Thank God for umbilical cords or I would have shot overboard in an instant, but as the ferry pitched me towards the starboard railing my mother caught me midair, clutching my slippery little self under one arm the way Americans hold the football as they’re running flat-out down the field. Then she put me on the breast and wrapped her knees around the chair legs, securing us both to the deck. That is how we made our safe passage home to the island, my white-faced mother sliding wetly side to side across the deck, the other passengers crossing themselves and vomiting and looking on in disbelief, the captain’s one good eye wild with panic, and me grinning from ear to ear, happy as a lark, slurping my mother’s milk and farting blissfully and looking up at her with my black adoring eyes, watching in joy and wonder as each new crash of lightning lit her face up like a beacon on a dark sea.

I was never baptised in a Christian church, and some have blamed my later troubles, my crimes and triumphs, on that omission. But what need had I for a second baptism? I, who was christened the hour of my birth not by any priest or by the rites of younger gods, but by gods or devils more ancient than earth and sky. And not by some paltry liturgic sprinkling, bland and saltless, but by the full-faced salty spray of the boundless deep. It was the baptism of the sea that washed my mother’s blood from off my face before I’d ever drawn a breath.

So it was that, when the ferry docked at the grey and barnacled Magnetic Island jetty, my mother wiped the seaweed from my brow, cursed me under her breath, and named me Dylan Jackson Jones.

Why she invoked the name of Jackson, after my father, that mongrel dog (as she often said) who’d knocked her up then run off back to Lismore, well, that’s another story. But I received the holy name of Dylan because of an American folksinger whose records my mother knew by heart (the Voice of the People, she used to call him), and because someone once told her that the word meant sea, and she reckoned a name like that was just the thing for a little bastard born as I was, in the maternity ward of the Magnetic Island Ferry during a storm at night at sea.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

His Lucky Day: a short story

OK, I know it’s time to get back to some theology here at F&T. But first, here’s one more story – admittedly a bit long for a blog post, sorry about that. Some people said they found the last story too depressing, so I thought I’d write one with a happy ending. This one's called “His Lucky Day.”

1.
In a white house with a red roof, in the quiet suburb of Clear Lake on the outskirts of Houston, shortly after sunrise an alarm clock rang, and he was awake. He shaved and showered, checked his shoes for scuff marks, buttoned his neatly pressed shirt, selected a tie, the blue one with the stripes, and went downstairs. He sat at the little round table and had a bowl of Toasted Honey Crunch cereal, a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, and a tall cup of steaming black coffee. Then he went upstairs, cleaned his teeth, made the bed, took the dark blue sports bag from under the bed, opened it, put in two bottles of water, a clean shirt, the Smith & Wesson .38 Special and four boxes of ammunition, and closed the bag. On the way out he checked his tie knot in the mirror, straightened it a little. He drove fifty minutes to work. In the car he wore dark glasses and listened to 88.7 FM, where he heard Beethoven and Chopin and Shostakovich and the morning news.

2.
The camera panned across the scene, the big glass doors at the front of the building, the cars and flashing lights, the white news vans, the officers with rifles and black helmets, the crowd of bystanders behind the police barricade, the helicopters circling above. It panned back to the front door of the bank, and to the woman who had begun to read the teleprompter as she paced slowly forwards. She recapped the story, the investment banker who opened fire on his co-workers earlier today, reports from cell phones inside the bank confirming at least six dead and many wounded, police have surrounded the building and the entire block here in downtown Houston has been cordoned off, the gunman is still at large, just moments ago – here she left the teleprompter and began to ad lib – we heard gunshots from the second floor of the bank, police snipers have occupied the adjacent buildings. As she mentioned the police snipers (the last thing she would ever say in front of a news camera), two things happened at the same time: there was another series of gunshots in the background, and the heel of her Gucci shoe slipped into a sidewalk grate. At that moment, the most important and exhilarating moment of her life, her first appearance on live television, the heel snapped, her ankle twisted, and she fell. Her hip was broken, she would walk with a slight limp for the rest of her life, and her career in live television was finished, though the video achieved considerable celebrity on YouTube, where it was viewed nearly a million times in the first week, and later won a satirical award as the most dramatic and riveting news blooper of all time.

3.
In Alice Springs, a woman known to everyone in those parts as Auntie Joy was making her cup of tea and watching the live update on the Texas Bank Shooter. She held the cup in one hand and dunked the Dilmah teabag with the other, and had been doing this for exactly two minutes when, right before her eyes, there were gunshots and the reporter on the tellie dropped like a stone to the ground. On three occasions Auntie Joy had seen people fall like that: the shooting accident with little Billy when they were camping out by the Rock as children; the morning at the train station when that young fellow, a blow-in from up north, had thrown himself on the tracks, and Auntie Joy had seen the whole thing and had not spoken for three days afterwards; and the night her husband, Lord rest him, had gone down with a stroke while they were brushing their teeth and making jokes together in the bathroom. That is why, when the girl on the tellie fell, Auntie Joy’s eyes stung with tears, the cup clattered across the kitchen floor, the teabag went sliding under the fridge (where it would remain for several years), and her foot was slapped by scalding hot Dilmah tea. When Auntie Joy cried out, you couldn’t have said for sure whether it was for the stab of pain in her foot, or for the TV reporter, or for her husband or the boy on the tracks, or for dear little Billy.

4.
Three doors down, an old cattle dog heard a woman bellowing from her kitchen, and he put down the shoe and lifted his grizzled head and barked twice. He had a weakness for shoes, a tremendous weakness, it was true. He had killed a six-foot brown snake, had braved the great housefire back in 98, had split the ear of a Rottweiler in a fight, but against shoes he was powerless. Once when the people went away for the weekend, he had jumped the fence and prowled the streets all night, quiet as a thief, eyes glinting in the moonlight. When they returned two days later, they found him sleeping in the backyard, innocent as a baby, with thirty-one unmatched shoes spread out around him, shoes lovingly appropriated from the doorsteps of thirty-one houses in Alice Springs, all beautifully, assiduously chewed. After he heard the woman’s cry and performed the obligatory barks, he resumed his work upon the shoe; around the corner and down the road, six more dogs, one of them a black Rottweiler with a torn ear, began to bark.

5.
He had been reading on the front veranda, sprawled across the big cane chair, and had fallen asleep. He woke with a start, sat bolt upright, said bloody dogs. The book, still lying open on his stomach, was a Penguin paperback, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, he was up to the part where they go to Lyme, just before Louisa Musgrove has her fall. Nobody knew of his guilty secret, his taste for literature. His friends didn’t know it, certainly the blokes at work would never know it. Some guys looked at dirty pictures or dressed in women’s clothes, he read English novels of the nineteenth century. The bedroom cupboard was full of them, crinkly old black paperbacks nearly worn to death, Hardy, Thackeray, Trollope, Collins, George Eliot, the Brontës, all of Dickens and Austen. He could have recited from memory the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice, though he never would have admitted it, and you’d never see him do it, not in a million years. This was how he passed the time on the long night shifts at Toddy’s Resort, when the cleaning was finished, when there were still a couple hours to spare, he’d go out to the backroom, make himself comfortable, crack open a Penguin paperback, read till dawn. He’d even written a few stories himself on those nightshifts, mysteries after the manner of Wilkie Collins, though he’d always destroyed them afterwards, running the pages through the shredder at work so that no one would ever find out. When he woke that afternoon to the barking of the dogs, he looked up just in time to see a rickety circus bus coughing and spluttering its way up Mulara Street towards the Stuart Highway. The words MISTER BONG BONG AND THE BANANA REPUBLIC were painted in bright rainbow colours down the side, and in the front beside the driver was a woman he recognised at once, though he had not seen her in nearly fifteen years. For several seconds he did not breathe. Then he jumped to his feet, stuffed the book in his back pocket, and ran to get his keys.

6.
When the circus troupe arrived in Eumundi they headed straight for the markets. She spent the first couple of hours walking on stilts, then stood on a corner juggling, collecting coins in her huge checkered top hat, while a hand-drawn sign announced that the Banana Republic Circus Troupe would be performing tomorrow avo in the Eumundi showground. Then Little Jim brought the balloons and the gas tank, and for the rest of the morning she made balloon animals, not only poodles and giraffes and elephants, but also penguins and crocodiles and lobsters and bouquets of flowers and centipedes and redback spiders and fairies with movable wings. She had once spent an entire day on a single balloon sculpture, two big fish swimming above a brightly coloured coral reef in a shaft of sunlight. A bookshop owner in Dubbo had given her fifty bucks for it, and she’d been happy when she saw it there, exhibited like a work of art in the shop window. That what was she was doing, inflating and tying and twisting balloons, making a pirate for a piratical little boy with his grandmother, when she saw him standing there. He stood a whole hour, said nothing, watched her twist the balloons as the children lined up and watched and went away. When the markets were closing and the crowds had thinned out, he approached her at last, timidly, like a little boy, said hello Penny. He bought roasted macadamia nuts and two cups of ginger beer and they sat on a bench in the shade, talking for the first time in thirteen years. He’d seen the bus in Alice Springs and followed them (he still had dad’s old Ford) for four days, all the way through Port Augusta, Broken Hill, Bourke, Goondiwindi, Brisbane, finally to Eumundi. He’d followed them to servos and diners along the way, he’d seen their act in Port Augusta, but he didn’t have the guts to come talk to her, not till now, not till Eumundi. Dad’s dead Penny, he said at last. Come home.

7.
The markets were starting to close, she had decided to call it a day, when her last customer came to the booth. She was a pretty young thing, Aboriginal girl, mid 20s she guessed, dressed up like a clown with a canvas bag on her shoulder and a catastrophe painted on her face. Come in luv, come in, she said to the girl, have a seat. How much, asked the girl doubtfully without sitting down, and the woman patted her arm and said sit down luv, it’s on me. Then, seeing she had embarrassed the girl, she added with a wink and a gesture to the huge top hat the girl was holding, I mean a woman like me would pay to read the fortune of a girl like you, and besides, you’re my last for the day. The girl smiled then, and the woman saw that she’d been crying, her clown’s cheeks were smudged with tears. She sat down and the woman laid out five cards on the table. She looked at them a long time. That was when her hands began to tremble and the big silver earrings started to wobble and her face went all pale, as white as the High Priestess on the card in the middle of the table. She leaned forwards a moment, clasped the girl’s hands violently, and whispered something so faintly that I do not know whether the girl ever heard it, the dark and fatal prophecy that she’d seen there written in the cards. Then she tumbled backwards from the chair, quite dead, as the girl gasped and the table turned on its side and all the cards were scattered on the ground.

8.
He was in his office cubicle on the eleventh floor of the redbrick Parramatta building, behind towers of printed pages and handwritten receipts, doing the tax for a little Chinese restaurant down on Phillip Street, punching numbers on the keyboard and hitting the tab key, over and over, honest to God a monkey could do it, he’d often thought so. He’d just decided to get another Diet Coke – it was nearly 3.00 – when he got the phone call. There was complete silence in his cubicle for two minutes. When he hung up the phone, a pile of receipts tottered over the edge, fluttering like greasy confetti around his feet. When he stood up, he could not remember what he had done with his keys, and had to stand there a moment, staring at his desk like a fool. On his way to the lift, when someone asked if he was feeling alright, he said with a small apologetic smile, I think my wife has died. In the car, he tried calling his daughter’s mobile but it was turned off, he’d have to go home and wait for her. How could he tell her? What could he say? She would blame him, she’d say it was all his fault, he could see that. Was it his fault she left the way she did? Was it his fault she’d been too bloody selfish to stick it out? Christ, when other people have a midlife crisis they buy a boat or screw the secretary or take up landscape painting. But she goes and runs off with her good-for-nothing hippie friends, at the age of fifty-five, thinking she’s a psychic, selling fortunes to morons up in Queensland. Was it his fault she’d never come back, never even bothered to call? They’d had to drive up there, him and his daughter, and beg her to come home, and she’d just looked at them, calm and smiling, like it was all a dream or a big bloody private joke. The man on the phone said she’d died there, right there, in her booth in the middle of the markets. He wiped his eyes furiously. God how he hated that fucking woman, God how he loved her.

9.
The boy had left school early that day, slipping out before his last English class. He had walked to the bus stop on Pennant Hills Road, where Marie was already waiting. On the bus to Beecroft they talked about her new CDs, a box set of Beethoven’s nine symphonies by the Berlin Philharmonic; Cluytens is sublime, she said, and the boy agreed with all his heart. They walked to her house on Blackwood Close. As always, they left their shoes and schoolbags by the front door, got a drink from the kitchen, then went down the hall to her room, rummaged for a few minutes among the CDs, put on the music, and took off their clothes. That is how he came to be wearing nothing but his school socks when, twenty minutes later, while the speakers throbbed out the propulsive rhythms of Beethoven’s Ninth (it was the second movement), the door crashed open and Marie’s father stood inside the room. He was home early. He looked like he’d been crying, but instantly his face went the colour of beetroot and his eyes turned murderous red. He stammered as if to speak. The boy tumbled headfirst to the floor, still half tangled in the sheets and Marie’s milk-white thighs. The man in the doorway flailed about for something to hold on to, and the nearest object was a tall glass vase, which he plucked and brandished above them like a club. Somehow the boy found his feet and, quick as a thunderclap, launched himself across the bed and out the open window. Running in nothing but the skin God gave him and his high blue school socks, he tore across the backyard and catapulted over the fence, he could hear behind him the drums of Beethoven and the crash of furniture and profanities being hurled across the room and, above that, something else, a single, unbroken note, a sound so strange that he did not recognise it until he had already cleared the next fence. It was the long, wild, wailing shriek of the girl he loved.

10.
Jen had been studying all day for tomorrow’s big chemistry exam, she was tired as hell, making another pot of coffee, rubbing her eyes and yawning at the kitchen sink, when, looking up, she saw this guy, stark naked, sprinting across the backyard, his enormous half-erect member springing from side to side as he ran. From the sound of it, he was running away from someone, a woman who’d started screaming like a banshee next door. Before the naked sprinter had made it past the garden shed, she’d whipped out her phone and taken a picture. (It would later become famous on social networking sites, and would lead to the boy’s eventual expulsion from his elite private school: that was how his promising career as a concert violinist was aborted.) A moment later, the streaker had bounded over the fence and disappeared into Mrs Walcott’s vegetable garden. While the coffee brewed, Jen sent a text message to her best friend – OMG, you’ll never guess what I just saw from the kitchen window, lol – and attached the photo. She took the coffee and went back to her bedroom, back to the chemistry textbooks that were lying in ambush on the floor, plastered in frantic pink and yellow stickynotes. But after seeing the backyard streaker she found she couldn’t concentrate, she texted the pic to a few more friends, uploaded it on Facebook, replied to comments from her friends, checked her email, and next morning sat her CHEM311 exam at the University of Sydney, which she failed.

11.
Two seconds after Jen had sent the text message, a young woman in a tight dress and dark glasses reached for her phone and read the message, smiling. She clicked to open the attached photo. She waited for it to load. But she would never get to see the backyard streaker with his shock of red hair, his improbably high blue socks, his lanky bent knees, his soon-to-be-famous airborne penis, for at that moment the front wheel clipped the curb and her car began to spin. In the next three-and-a-half seconds, her thoughts became clear and precise. She solved the problem of quantum gravity; she realised that her friends and lovers had never meant more to her than the love of her father; she recalled the lessons from Sunday school, and discovered that she had believed in God all along, had always believed, though secretly; and she saw that she would miss her 3.30 appointment at the King Street Hair Salon in Newtown, and wondered if she’d ever be able to get another appointment in time for the ceremony. For tonight she was graduating from her Masters in physics, her father was flying in from Seoul, he would arrive in two hours in a new suit, face shining, bearing gifts.

12.
He was walking down Carillon Avenue with his backpack and guitar case, just past the Missenden Road lights, when a little red two-door car came spinning towards him. It looked, he thought, like one of the whirligigs he had played with as a boy. He stood quite still, and knew that he was going to die. He wondered if the guitar would be damaged, he hoped not. He flinched as the car spun closer. But both he and the guitar were saved by a telephone pole which brought the car to a sudden, miraculous halt, just a few feet from where he stood. His ears still ringing from the shriek of twisted metal, he put down the guitar and let the backpack slide to the footpath. He took four steps to the wreck and bent down at the thin squashed window. There was only one person in the car, an Asian girl with dark glasses. She was perfectly still, except for her lips, which were moving soundlessly, as though searching for the right words. Blood streamed from lacerations on her face. Carefully he removed the glasses, out of habit he folded them, even though they were smeared in blood and one of the lenses was already broken, and put them on the road. Then he took off his shirt and pressed it to the place beside her ear, trying to staunch the bleeding. He tried to find something to say to her, something reassuring, and he was still trying to find the right thing to say when the ambulance arrived, and someone in uniform took his bloodied hands and led him away from the girl, saying sorry mate, she’s gone, come sit down here, sorry mate, nothing you can do. He sat on the curb a long time, he accepted a cup of water from the ambulance driver, he watched the police directing traffic and the firemen cleaning oil from the road, someone came with wet towels and cleaned his hands and face, how did he get so much blood on his face, he was surprised to see the red wet towels in front of him. When he had given his statement to the police, he opened the backpack and dug out a clean shirt, a white T-shirt that had “429 FM, Living It” across the front. He shouldered his backpack and picked up the guitar case and kept walking.

13.
Khalid Rashid Hassan, whose English was poor and who had come to Sydney two years ago, who had once lived in the biggest house on the street but now slummed with his wife and two children in a damp one-bedroom flat with a broken doorknob and the constant noise of traffic and, God protect them, the biggest cockroaches they had ever seen in their lives, an electrical engineer with degrees from three European universities, whose passions were French literature, old maps, and the way his wife’s neck leaned ever so slightly to one side as she was speaking: here he is, Khalid Rashid Hassan, and it is his lucky day, though he does not know it yet. After another week of fourteen-hour shifts, he had woken that morning, his day off, with a cold. Perhaps we must blame the cold for his uncharacteristic actions that day, his lapse in judgment, his moral torpitude, but in any case, whatever the reasons, at 4.00 that afternoon Khalid Rashid Hassan found himself standing at a newsagent on King Street, blushing from ear to ear, and handing over money, may God forgive him, for a lottery ticket. The man behind the counter showed him how to fill out the ticket, you just choose five numbers from this table, put a cross over your numbers, any numbers you like. He stood a while holding the pencil stub, looking at the numbers. First he selected the 3 and the 8 (his wife’s birthday was the third of August), but after that he was stuck, he could not think of another three numbers. He looked out on the footpath, a man with a sad face and dirty long hair was walking up the road, smoking a cigarette and carrying a guitar. His shirt had three numbers on the front, big and red, and without further ado these numbers were marked down on the lottery ticket, 4-2-9. Two days later, Khalid Rashid Hassan won ten million dollars in the Saturday night Powerball, and that is how he came to be proprietor of Hassan Antiquarian Maps on King Street, the country’s finest trader of maps and navigational literature. Each morning he would kiss his wife and children and leave their quiet street to set out for the shop. When it was not busy, he would recline in one of the small brown armchairs by the window reading French literature, Stendhal and Mallarmé and Rimbaud, and from time to time his wife would visit him at the shop, and as she talked her neck would crane to one side, ever so slightly, beneath the fine smooth silk of her hijab.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The horses

Here's another attempt at a one-paragraph short story:

She complains that he is always distracted, always off in his own world, emotionally distant, that he doesn’t understand her anymore, doesn’t really listen, it's as though you're not even here she said. When she told him one night that she wanted a divorce, he worried for weeks afterwards, wondering why she wanted the horse, wondering how they could afford it, how they would feed and groom it, where they would ride it and how often, where it would sleep on the cold nights, whether it would need to be vaccinated, and whether she really wanted the horse, or if the horse signified something deeper, some repressed need, whether perhaps she was unhappy, whether she lacked companionship, whether he was no longer satisfying her, whether she had found someone else or was starting to dream of a new life without him, free and unbridled. They never spoke of the horse again, but from that day on he spent more time with her, went on long rambling walks with her, looked and listened attentively, bought her ice cream in the park, and, once, on her birthday, presented her with a large lavish illustrated book on the history of artistic representations of the horse. She turned the book over in her hands, mystified, and asked him why horses, what did it signify, what did it mean, but he only gave her a small knowing smile, and kissed her brow, and asked if she would like to go out for ice cream.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The nightmare

Inspired by Lydia Davis, here's an attempt at a one-paragraph short story:

Once I dreamed my whole life. I dreamed my childhood, the easy early years in the shade of mango trees and frangipanis, the joys of solitude and reading, the boredom of high school in a boring town, the humiliations of puberty, the happiness of friendship, the perplexing misery of teen romance. I dreamed I loved a girl on my street with small brown curls, but then I moved away, I met someone else and we were married, we made a home, we made children, we shared all the tenderness and drudgery of married life. But as the years passed we grew apart, our closeness became an intolerable burden, a slow suffocation, until one day I knew, with a breathless, terrifying certainty, that I had married the wrong person. I saw that the only one in the world I needed was the girl on my street, the girl with the small brown curls whom I had loved all those years ago. But she had long since gone away, she no longer knew me or remembered my name. When I woke from the dream, I lay in my bed beneath a suffocating blanket of despair. The truth of the dream was acute and unbearable: my whole life had been a mistake, one immense and sickening catastrophe, and nothing now could ever make it right. I heard the breathing of my wife next to me, and, choked by grief, I knew she was wrong, a mistake, the reef on which all my life was shipwrecked. Then she turned in her sleep, and I saw a single dark curl slide from her naked shoulder, and saw that she was not the wife of my dream, but the other one, the girl from my street whom I had loved as a child, whom I had longed for, desolate and unrequited, in my dream.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Happiest Moment: Lydia Davis

Yesterday I was reading the The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (Picador 2010). She has some exquisite stories, including some that are no more than a single paragraph. Here's one of my favourites – a tiny, perfect, intricate little story titled "Happiest Moment":

If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The Shakespearean Death: a short story

I've been writing a bunch of short stories to unwind over the holiday break. Here's another one:

Many years later, he would be found dead in the university courtyard beneath a high open window, a single sheet of paper clutched in his lifeless hand. But long before that fatal accident or suicide or murder, before his life and career came to ruin, B was a promising young Shakespeare scholar, serving a tenure-track appointment as Assistant Professor of English at Ithaca College, New York. He published his Yale dissertation, a study of metaphors of revenge in Titus Adronicus; he attended conferences and presented papers; he read the latest books and wrote reviews; he stayed up late into the night preparing classes; he began a second book on Shakespeare’s early comedies; he sat on committees and learned to drink coffee and cultivated all the right collegial relationships.

One day Ithaca advertised for another associate professor, and B found himself on the selection panel. Scouring the morass of CVs, he noticed that N, a specialist in English Renaissance drama, had applied. N seemed a capable and industrious scholar: B had met him twice at conferences, had heard his paper at last year's MLA convention, had even reviewed his book on the early works of Christopher Marlowe. He had not, admittedly, found the book altogether convincing; but how marvellous, B thought, to have another Renaissance man on faculty! In several sittings of the selection panel, he argued eloquently and methodically in favour of N’s appointment.

In the first two years of his position at Ithaca, N published a book on the comedies of Ben Jonson as well as several journal articles on Shakespeare. He collaborated with B on the revision of the introductory course on early modern literature. He had encouraging suggestions for B’s book (which would never be completed) on early Shakespearean comedy. He was invited to B’s home for family dinner. B’s wife (she was still alive at the time) got on well with him; B’s son played baseball with him in the backyard; even the family dog took a shine to him.

N’s performance at Ithaca was so outstanding that he was given early tenure, a full year before B himself came up for tenure review. By this time the two were fast friends, and B was delighted with N’s success. A year later, N sat on B’s tenure review committee.

To everyone's surprise, however, B was denied tenure. He had a year left on his contract with Ithaca, and he resolutely kept on writing and publishing. He completed another chapter of his book, thanks largely to animated lunchtime discussions with N. Every Wednesday N came to his home for dinner, where B's wife joined in their Shakespearean discussions. B applied for numerous jobs, but though his CV was impressive and his referees distinguished (including N, who was becoming a noted authority in the field), he remained without prospects. When the teaching year ended, he found himself suddenly, startlingly, unemployed.

For several months he sank into a depression. He took Prozac, he grew a scraggly beard, he watched daytime television. N visited often and tried to keep his spirits up.

One evening B’s wife announced that she was leaving him. She was in love with N, she said, and would move in with him. And our son? B asked, and the dog? His wife took their son to live at N’s place; B was allowed to keep the dog. His son’s fourteenth birthday party was held in N’s backyard. B brought two books, all he could afford, lovingly gift-wrapped. N gave the boy a laptop and a one-year subscription to World of Warcraft (a sort of videogame, N explained). It was the first time B had seen N in several months, and he was relieved to talk with his friend again, in spite of everything. B’s wife seemed happy. She drank wine all afternoon, though she never used to drink, and she asked about the dog. They talked amicably, N sauntered up and refilled her glass, the three of them talked together, just like old times.

By now B had remortgaged the house. At some point he had stopped applying for academic jobs (in fact, he would set foot on a college campus only one more time in his life, and that was the day of his death). He ate microwave dinners alone, in his pyjamas, standing in the kitchen or sitting on one of the kitchen stools or slumped on the kitchen floor with the dog's head in his lap. He began selling off the furniture, then the kitchen appliances, then his library, to settle the late mortgage payments and pay off the credit cards. He was tired all day but could not sleep at night.

Finally, bleary from Prozac and insomnia and harassed by letters from the bank, he walked one morning to the newspaper stand, stood there a few minutes in his pyjamas and slippers, trying to remember why he had come, then shuffled home again with three newspapers under his arm. He opened the first classifieds page and circled the first job at the top of the first column, and dialled the number. He found a clean shirt in the closet and went to an interview the same afternoon, and that is how he became caretaker at the South Hill Town Caravan Park in Ithaca, New York.

At first it was only weekends and Thursday mornings. He mowed the grass, swept the paths, emptied the trash, cleaned the barbecues. After two months he was entrusted with the keys and taught to manage the office; after three months he was promoted to fulltime caretaker, and he sold the house and moved permanently to an old 1950s Greyhound bus conversion, euphemistically known as Caretaker’s Lodge, in the middle of the campground. He brought with him the dog, the dog’s dish, some kitchen utensils, a cardboard suitcase filled with clothes, a razor and toothbrush, and one small box of books, all that what was left of his Shakespeare library. Everything else had gone to the divorce settlement and his debts. The converted Greyhound smelled of mould and stale tobacco. The heater was broken, the water from the sink tasted strange, the flyscreen door was crumbling, weeds grew up around the chassis, and the wheels had long ago rusted into the ground. But the afternoon light was good, and at the end of a day’s work B would sit out front on an old wooden deckchair, with the dog beside him, and would read Coriolanus or Measure for Measure or Othello, and in those moments, at least, it would not have been true to say that he was unhappy.

During those prosaic days at the South Hill Town Caravan Park, B’s friendship with N was renewed. N came to visit him several times a year, and they would sit in the bus in the yellow-green polyester armchairs and talk about N’s new book or love affair and about university politics and Shakespeare and tragedy and love and revenge. The dog would sleep at their feet or sit up and rest its head on B’s lap while the two friends talked.

N’s affair with B’s wife had not lasted long. After the breakup, she wiped the mascara from her cheeks, bundled up her clothes and her regrets, and bought a one-way bus ticket back to Topeka, Kansas, and moved in with her parents. B never saw her again. It was rumoured that she eked out her remaining years in a haze of short-term jobs, short-term lovers, and perpetual drinking. Her life ended one Christmas eve in a handful of sleeping pills and half a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. There was no note.

Shortly after the death of B’s wife, N came once more to the South Hill Town Caravan Park. He brought a gift, two bottles of Laphroaig scotch, and stayed for two hours, talking and drinking. It was dark by the time he left, and as his car reversed away from Caretaker's Lodge there was a terrible yelp, and when he stopped the car they heard the small sad whimpers and found the broken body of the dog. B buried the dog out front, at the place where it used to sit beside the deckchair in the afternoon sun, listening to B's voice and the aching words of Shakespeare.

B’s son had remained in Ithaca. By the age of fifteen he had discovered his purpose in life, by sixteen he was a level 70 mage in World of Warcraft, and by seventeen he had dropped out of school to devote himself single-mindedly to online gaming. He lived on Domino’s Pizza and Dr Pepper and unemployment benefits until his early 30s, when he got his first job working at the video store in Brooktondale. He lost the job at age 38 (disabled by morbid obesity) and his virginity at 39 (a prostitute from Lansing with tired middle-aged breasts, not at all like the pictures he had seen on the internet). When he died two years later, they found delicate charcoal sketches, hundreds of them, of his mother, his father, the remembered home of his childhood, the streets and houses of Ithaca, the street seen from his bedroom window, the street on Brooktondale where he had worked. No one had ever seen him drawing, nor had he ever mentioned it. He had seen his father only twice in all those years. When his mother died, he did not attend the funeral but stayed on the sofa and ate twenty-seven Domino’s buffalo chicken pizzas over a period of five days.

With his wife and son dead and the dog buried beside the deckchair, B spent his remaining years in a sedentary solitude, as full of grief as age. The campground succumbed to weeds and decay, and one summer the gates were closed and the signs taken down, and nobody even noticed that someone was still living inside the ruined carcass of a Greyhound bus. B himself scarcely noticed that he was still there. One day he glanced up from the bathroom sink and saw himself in the mirror, and for a second he was frightened, thinking that someone else, an older man, a stranger with sad wide frightened eyes, was in the room. After that he broke the mirror and took the pieces down and spread them carefully like compost among the weeds.

In all those years, B had no visitors except N. Even after his appointment to the chair of Shakespeare Studies at Columbia University, N had kept on visiting the campground every year or two. Each time he brought news of the wider world and scotch (B found he had a weakness for it) and small gifts, usually a copy of his latest book. Once, he took B to a horse race and gave him fifty dollars and showed him how to bet. That was the first time B had gambled, though it was not to be the last. As the infirmity of age crept upon him, he spent more and more time at the track, gambling his meagre pension and whatever he could pawn from Caretaker's Lodge or the ruins of the campground. One black afternoon – he must have been nearly 70 by then – he parted with his last edition of the works of Shakespeare, promising himself to buy it back from the pawnbroker, and lost it on a chestnut thoroughbred named Kansas Jack.

That is how, with no money and nothing to eat or read, he found himself the following day hitchhiking to New York City, and making the long walk down Amsterdam Avenue, and at last to Columbia University. In all the world there was only one person to whom he could go for help, the same one who had come to visit him all those years, the one true friend he had ever had. He found his way to the Department of English and Comparative Literature, six floors up. A woman behind a glass reception window stood and looked at him nervously and asked if he needed help. He told her he was looking for the office of N, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies, a former colleague he added reassuringly, but her eyes only widened and her fingers fidgeted with the beads around her neck. He walked the corridor to N’s office, he saw the name on the door, he knocked twice, but N was not there. He went in.

It was a long opulent study, lined with shelves that climbed like ladders up to the white neo-Renaissance ceiling. A locked glass cabinet displayed early editions and small sealed boxes and strange collected artifacts of Elizabethan theatre. A mahogany desk looked out across the courtyard towards the imposing granite dome of the library. The tall windows were thrown open and a warm breeze stirred the room.

Beneath the windowsill a single shelf displayed copies of N’s own writings, bathed in afternoon light – books on Jonson, Middleton, Marlowe, Webster, plus his six thick books on Shakespeare and his Norton anthology. (B had received many of these as gifts over the years, though his own unread copies had been lost to the damp or the horses.) At the end of the shelf was a deep wooden tray filled with loose pages. B leaned closer and saw that they were photocopied reviews of N’s books. He leafed through the pile. London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Harper’s, New York Times Book Review, PMLA, Shakespeare Quarterly. Here and there, N had underlined words and phrases or jotted questions or witty rejoinders in the margins. It was at this moment that B realised, for the first time, that his friend was famous, a celebrated literary critic, “our greatest reader of Shakespeare,” as one reviewer for the New Yorker had said in October 1998 (the words were neatly underlined in blue pen).

B was returning the pages to the tray when he noticed the sheet right at the bottom, a single page, older than the rest, yellowing and crumbling around the edges, a photocopy from a decades-old issue of the Sixteenth Century Journal. It was a review of N’s first book, published nearly forty years ago, even before N's appointment at Ithaca College. B began to read. It was a typical book review, bland in description and exaggerated in criticism, yet something about it seemed familiar, like the distant echo of something he had once known. He skipped to the end. The final sentence had been underlined: “In sum, although the author has furnished his study with a formidable armoury of historical minutiae, one cannot help feeling that the result is a discouragingly superficial analysis of a disappointingly trivial theme.”

In the margin beside this acerbic judgment, written in faded blue ink in N’s meticulous cursive hand, were four lines:

The sight of any of the house of York
Is as a fury to torment my soul;
And till I root out their accursed line
And leave not one alive, I live in hell.


B had read the chilling inscription three times, slowly, before he recognised the name at the bottom of the page. It was his own name, printed in capital letters beneath the review, neatly underlined, twice, in pale ghostly ink.

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