I disappear at work; I pupate. Cocooned in my little desk, my little screen, my orderly task list, I develop a nearly impenetrable atmosphere of purposiveness. No-one interrupts me without a sheepish apologetic grin, which I adore, but of course they cannot truly interrupt me because they are integral to the arbitrary stream of activity that enwraps and bears me on, exchange to transaction, transaction to exchange. I see myself as an electron gate in the world wide work, or rather, I do not see myself at all. This is the unique character of our civilization: the absorption of individuals into a productivity utterly alien to their motives.
Into this dreamless happiness crashes a phone call from Evan’s school. The Deputy Principal speaks tightly: Evan has “gone right off”, sworn at the teacher, and thrown a chair through the window (You little bastard, I think). He is now hiding under the stairs, deaf to remonstration. She wishes him collected at once. They cannot leave him or afford to monitor him there. You bitch, I think. I say I am sorry, meaning that I do not know what to say. One never gets used to the things you hope will never happen again. He will be expelled this time, I feel sure. Looking back and forwards, I see myself speaking to Evan and Evan refusing to speak, his face like teak. I see me talking myself into a fury. No. I must rally. I ask brightly whether the window was open when he threw the chair. Yes. That’s lucky, isn’t it? The Deputy Principal tightly demurs.
It is only ten in the morning, for christ’s sake. Without thinking, I switch off my computer. I feel an immediate panicky sense of loss. I cannot face Piers, so I tell Annabel that I have to leave. I wobble in the face of her sympathy, close to tears, foolish and fragile as an egg, absurd, a worried father.
One never meets a philosopher with children. Some states of foolishness do not intersect. The emptiness of some questions is swamped by children, while doubts and certainties become mountainous. I must get to Evan before something else happens. I will catch a taxi; there are always some coming from Star City.
Outside, the sun is callously springy and cheerful. I wish I could retreat and write a memo. I feel deep resentful anger. Why can’t Evan sit in a classroom? I do not understand. He is not like his mother. He is not like his grandparents, aunts or uncles. He is not like his brother and sister. I have three children, I like to joke: one of each. It is as though our random shake of the genes had collected all the seeds of madness from the family tree together in him. Of course, everyone says that he is like me. Well, I have my unfortunate characteristics but I am not like that. He might be like a dark projection from my being. I feel immensely sorry and guilty. I suppose we all do, when our productions do not match our intentions.
Hammadi will pay you first thing, because you threaten not to drive otherwise. He will see how it is, shrug and pull a roll out of his jacket. You will watch his fat fingers count out eighteen hundred, and in your head you will be promising all of it for Joya. There will be the rent, right there, the electricity, food, maybe something for the kids. But his greasy fingers will make you sick, and you won’t like to think of Joya touching that dirty money. Then you will think: but Hammadi paid, that is a lucky sign — and when you drive out of the depot, the traffic will part immediately to let you onto Foveaux, another sign. And seeing that the lights are green you will think if I get straight onto Eddy Avenue, that’s it for sure. And when the lights stay green you drive across town to the casino because you know you are going to win.
You will change all eighteen hundred into chips, but only so that you can give Joya clean money. For your plan you only need one hundred, because you will double your money every ten minutes: over six grand in an hour! You will pay down your debts, offer Joya whatever she wants, dinner, a dress, anything. As you approach the craps table, you will think you are doing it for her and the girls. Imagine Joya’s surprise when you return early. You will not drive the cab after all, there will be no need. You will shower her with money.
You will go to the craps table and make hardways bets, bang bang bang. The first ten will go, so you will double up, it will go, four and three when you wanted four and four, you will double again, you will lose again. Seventy down, but you know what to do. You will double again, you will continue absolutely sure — but you will not win on the next throw, or the next. It is a test, you will realise then. And you will not fail. Then you will not win when you are betting three-twenty. You will pause before you bet six-forty, because you know that you cannot double again. But you know it is a test of faith.
You will lose six-forty on a single bet. You will scream, you will swear. You will be warned. You will apologise. You can’t leave now. You know exactly what you have left and you realise that your strategy was wrong. You will bet ten, ten, ten, ten, ten … ten …one more daring ten, yes! You will lose triumphantly each time and then, on the eighth bet, you will bet your last five hundred on 8 hardways for sure this time.
You will lose it all. You will drive away from Star City flat broke, less than an hour after watching Hammadi’s greasy thumb on your cash. And you will not understand. You were going to win. You will not understand how you got it wrong. No, you will only know that something very bad has happened to you, and that everything bad will be getting much worse. A hand will wave. You will pull over, automatically.
The door was opened, the passenger was aboard, and the taxi was moving again without a word. As if each one were carried in a bubble, passenger and driver did not meet but sat in separate thought. A destination nominated by the passenger went unrecognised by the driver. The taxi continued on its own way, leadership being provided by the traffic. A short silence thick with sighs intervened. The world jigged by the windows unobserved by two pairs of too despairing eyes. The passenger’s lip was pinched twixt tense fingertips. Suddenly the driver’s steering wheel was pummelled by thick fists. The passenger’s briefcase started from his lap and crashed into the dash. The driver was shaken to rediscover he had a fare.
Terse apologies were exchanged. The question of destination was briefly renegotiated. The effort of so much civility drove the driver to fresh outbursts of despair. Are you all right? the passenger felt compelled to ask, forcing the driver to admit that all his money had been lost in the casino. Thousands. In half an hour. They were both silenced and conjoined by this enormity.
The despatcher’s voice crackled on the radio, like a farewell from a fallout shelter. Were they given their choices again, the driver would not have been flagged down, the passenger would not have been picked up. They were rigid with resentment of the chance intrusion of the other.
The words I don’t understand: I was going to win were addressed to the wheel in a hoarse persistent whisper. This filled the passenger with deep misgivings. He would have preferred to be transported by an automaton than a lunatic. The words How could you know that? It’s all chance were addressed in tense politeness to the windscreen. It was clear in the corner of the driver’s eye that the passenger was affected by some unspoken crisis. The anachronic superstition pierced the driver that his bad luck had originated here.
A turn was missed. We should have gone right there. The taxi reared and plunged. I was going to win. I can’t understand it. The door handle gleamed. What can’t you understand? It’s just maths. It’s only reasonable to expect to lose. The driver’s teeth ground on the words No, I knew. The driver’s foolishness empowered the passenger’s scorn. You don’t know when you’re going to win. You just think you do. It’s a delusion. The wheel spun. What the fuck are you doing in my cab? They were both scared. I think you’d better let me out here. Knuckles were white on the wheel. No, tell me: why’d you say that to me? Knuckles white on the door handle. I’m not your problem, mate. Brakes squealed. Fuck you, get out. A door opened. A foot left the brake. A foot touched the street. As if they were carried in a bubble, the two men were held at the last moment together in regret, half-in and half-out.
We come upon the situation in media res, which is Latin for after the best bit. That is always the way. It does not prevent us assuming command. Get those gawkers out of here. Erect barricades. Give priority to the paramedics. Get somebody conducting traffic before that intersection locks up completely. Somebody get that dog off! Who says they saw what happened? Make them sit down. Don’t talk to them. Don’t contaminate them. We will talk to them. In three minutes more, who knows what they will have seen?
We see at once what has happened. All our nervous instincts are engaged by the sight of blood and crumpled things. The truck was turning from the side street. A guy on the median flags a taxi, which chucks an ill-considered uuey, and boum! No? Well, we will talk to the witnesses. Photograph everything: the position of the sun on impact, the sound of diesel on warm bitumen, the colour of wailing, the smell of a spilled briefcase. Calibrate the shit smear on the truckie’s undies against his glitter of relief. We want it all.
Tell those towies to back right off right now, they disgust us. We have observed in countless observations that the observations of witnesses are not reliable. In this instance, we note the following. One (pedestrian, female, shocked) reports that a man, business suit, briefcase, leapt out of a truck to catch a taxi and was then collected between taxi, truck and traffic pole. Two (pedestrian, male, inebriated), says he saw two men arguing in a car stuck in traffic, that the passenger got out, that he saw no more until he heard the bang. Three (car driver, male, shocked): that he saw a taxi driver reverse over a man on the median strip before colliding with a truck. Four (car driver, woman, flat affect): that someone ran away. Six (car driver, male, irate): that he didn’t really see but it was all the truckie’s fault, the bastard cut him off et cetera. Seven (pedestrian, male child, crying): that the man was scared. What? We were coming to that. Five (bus driver, male, superior point of view, a hardened peak hour navigator): that a passenger absconded from the taxi, that the driver jumped out, that the truck swerved to miss the runner and collected the driver and taxi instead. We observe, however, the taxi driver seated in the gutter, silent, glaring, and intact. So there we are. The usual story. Res ipsa non sequitur: the facts demand a holiday.
Think: if by chance we had been the meat in this sandwich, we would give anything not to be involved. But it seems we are never that intimate with events. We feel that life passes us by. So we feel we must know, or if not know, we feel we must express an interest. We do not much admire a similar quality in others. In ourselves, however, we recognise the imperious call of duty. We assume command. You there: move along.
How much did you know about your father? Were you aware how much he lied to your mother? Did you know he stole money? That he stole the food from your mouths? Or was he the daddy who brought sweets from the city when you were hungry? When your parents argued in the kitchen, wasn’t it your mother who was always the loudest, harsh as a crow? Were you sorry for him? Did you wish that she would leave him alone? Would he come to you afterwards? Did he stroke your heads? Did he carry you together, one on each arm? Did he tell you he loved you very much? Did he call you lambkin and sweet buttons?
Were you scared of your mother? Was she always angry, or was she sometimes sad? Did she ever have time to say sweet things? Did you hate her when she tugged the brush through the knots of your hair? Did you know why she was so busy, always rushing from one task to another? What did you do, day after day, for those hours when she left you locked in your room? Later, when you understood why, could you forgive her? Both of you were good to your mother, but did you forgive her? Did you blame yourselves?
Was it when your father came home after the accident that you discovered him? When he sat in the chair and snivelled? When he confessed and your mother made no move to push you from the room? How many years did it take to understand what you heard then? Did your mother change in front of your eyes? Did you know at once that it would never be the same again? How many days did it take her to pack? Did you both give up your father at once, or did one of you hold onto him a little longer? When he recovered his fatal optimism, were you tempted to believe him? What did you think he was doing, dressed in a suit and tie? Did he give you anything before he went to court? Did you keep it? Do you have it now?
Do you think she would have left him eventually, even without the accident? Do you think it was because of you? Have you come to understand that it was for the best, even if it only made things worse for him, even if it was too late to save herself, even if it is doubtful that she saved you from anything, for anything? Have you imagined the alternative, your lives dragging on in that little flat forever?
How did your mother survive on her own in a new city, not speaking the language? Who helped her? Are you glad now that she sent you to kindergarten? Were you bullied at school? How old were you when you realised that you had to look after your mother? Have you always looked after each other? Has it been enough? Why didn’t you get married? Was it your mother? Have you seen your father in all these years? Can you bear to think of him? When did you realise that your mother loved you? Was it before she died?
In the story of the Moonchild, a chance encounter with the dragon Snoutrage leads to an unlikely friendship. Snoutrage rescues the boy from torture at the hands of Prince Yahoon, exploding into the court like a fireball and carrying the boy away to the cave of Post Ictal Calm, where he leaves him safe. The cave is deep within the steep valleys of Admin, and even though its opening is nigh unto the goblin highway, the entrance is enchanted against all but the boy. The goblins scent his imminence, yet they cannot find the way towards him. The cave is narrow. Its cold roof presses aslant upon his neck. A dim but sufficient light whispers around him.
The boy enters a trance which allows him to see his enemies wherever they are, and even, if he concentrates with sufficient force, to rob them of their spirit. He uses the technique of the Dark Tempters, which he discovered in the Adventure of the Hollow Ghouls: the Tempter psychs his way into the mind of his target and awakens a vision of the soul’s most evil dream. This vision dissolves the victim’s will to act, leaving him drifting in wrapt contemplation of the worst, whether that be seeing himself beheaded in the village square, dragged down by coils into the maelstrom, stripped and whipped in the presence of lords and ladies, or devoured seriatim by winged Assyrian lions. The boy has acquired a shaky facility with Tempting. It is a two-edged sword, always threatening to turn against him. Nevertheless, he concentrates upon the witch Blah-Blahblah, driving the steel of his thought beneath the pulsing vein of her powdered temple. At first her psychic space is an impenetrable molluscan ooze, but gradually the boy detects the wandering orange fibres of a fear, which he follows to their terminal ganglion. It is himself. He laughs aloud, and the magic shatters, but he has seen enough. To defeat the witch Blah-BlahBlah he has only to endure. He laughs again, but stifles himself when he hears the goblins hearing him.
He presses himself deeper into the stony angles of the cave and turns his mind’s eye to the court. The lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses, Prince Yahoon and the Princesses Cassie, Jazmin and Debra fizz and bubble in a passable imitation of their usual vacuity, but he sees Jazmin sneaks her hand into her mouth to chew her precious nails. Cassie’s kohl-lined eyes are wide as those of a nervous horse. Yahoon is afflicted with the hiccups, and Debra shrieks at him to stop. The stench of Snoutrage still catches in their throats. The air inside the chamber has the edginess of glass. The lords and ladies lick their lips. They sense the hole he has torn in space and time promises nothing but trouble. The boy smiles and drops his gaze.
There is no way that enemies can reach him here. He remains inviolate in the dark, essentially a secret.
© 2010 Craig Bingham
First published in I can see my house from here
[UTS Writers Anthology, Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney 2010]
Read something similar:
Read something different:
Real hope (review of ‘Curing Affluenza’) [non-fiction]
Nuking the world [non-fiction]