Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Sabbatical diary

2 a.m. I wake to the sound of mechanical crickets chirping. I have set the alarm to sound like crickets because it helps to minimise the nausea and shock that I have always felt upon waking. I get up and turn on the lamp and collapse into the red chair at the desk. I strike a match and light the candle. It brings to life the icon of the mother of God on the corner of the desk. I drink some water and start to write. I wish I were dead. I wish I could have coffee. I would trade my soul for one cup of coffee. But if I go down to boil the kettle it will wake the children, and since the beginning of the world nobody has ever written anything with children awake inside a house. I finish my six hundred words, it takes an hour, and then I put out the candle and turn off the lamp and crawl wounded back to bed. The whole time I have barely been awake, more dead than alive. I have always found it easier to write in that state. I would be truly happy if I could figure out how to write books while fully asleep. But this is the next best thing.

5.30 a.m. I wheel the bicycle out on to the street. The road gleams blackly under the yellow lamps. There are no sounds except for two clicks as my shoes engage the pedals, and then the blessed whirring of the wheels. The sudden motion creates a cold wind against my face. It is a good thing to be cold and moving on a bicycle before first light. A thin fog hangs over the water as I wind my way down into the national park. After the first hour, big slabs of sunlight fall across the road and the skin thrills to feel the sudden warmth. I do not know if today will be a blessing or a curse, a mother or a stepmother, as the Greeks used to say. But when I feel the first light on my face I bless the day and my spirits glide like whirling wheels within me.

9 a.m. At a desk in the corner of the library I have been reading Erasmus. A retired scholar left his Erasmus collection to the library. Shelves upon shelves of Erasmus. The collected works of Erasmus are legion. They are handsomely bound in thick white volumes. I picked one up idly one day to thumb through it, and before I knew what I was doing I had read six, seven, eight of the big things. I like Erasmus, he is my kind of author and my kind of human being. He agreed with Luther about a lot of things but he never leaves me feeling pale and claustrophobic the way Luther does. I have no reason to be reading so much Erasmus. But I have never needed reasons before so I don’t see why I should start looking for one now.

1 p.m. At the cafe I find a place out in the sun. I brought a book with me but I don’t read it, I just sit there in the sun. A rumpled newspaper lies abandoned on the table. Every so often it opens in the breeze and the page inside shows Miley Cyrus in full colour, nearly nude in knee-high silver boots, mouth painted red. She undresses for me like this whenever the wind blows back the page. Each time I give her an appreciative glance and then the front sheet falls modestly back to cover her. Near the entrance to the cafe a young couple sit facing one another across a table. They are newlyweds, to judge from their age and the self-conscious gold rings on their fingers. The whole time I am here they sit facing one another, gazing in adoring silence into the screens of their phones.

3.30 p.m. On the train a crazy man is harassing a teenage girl. She looks thin and frightened. He bellows at her about Bob Hawke, the former Australian prime minister who holds the world record for drinking 2.5 pints of beer in 11 seconds. “One of the greatest men who ever lived,” the crazy man says, “if not the greatest. Even if I could beat Bob Hawke’s record I would never try. That’s what my father taught me. He told me, even if you could beat Bob Hawke’s record you would never try, out of sheer respect. Take me for instance,” he shouts confidentially at the girl, “I might seem like just an ordinary guy, but the world needs ordinary guys to make the great men stand out, the men of genius. There can’t be great people unless there are ordinary people too, do you understand? Take Bob Hawke for instance. Could Bob Hawke have existed unless I existed too? Obviously not. You see my point.” We saw his point – the girl, me, and everybody else on the train. In Sydney you are certifiably insane just for opening your mouth to speak to any other person on a train. Let alone sermonising for twenty minutes about Bob Hawke.

8.30 p.m. I have been reading a Russian novel about a gambler. There is a peculiar seductiveness in the thought of losing everything. The gambler is seized by an impulse to shake his fist at fate, to turn losing into an act of spiritual defiance, to fall as Lucifer fell, not out of ignorance and certainly not to gain anything but because standing firm is perceived as an obscure insult against the free spirit. I have never gambled anything in my life. If you never gamble so much as a button, you will never be tempted to gamble your last button either. I have no doubt that many people find gambling (that is, find losing) quite purifying. But for my part I avoid it. Not because I have any pious objection to it but because my own innate belief in fate runs so deep. Why should I give the gods a stick to beat me with? They do a good enough job on their own. If life has taught me anything, it's that you can lose perfectly well without having to gamble.

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