After starting to read my umpteenth Australian memoir (Beauty by Bri Lee) I got to wondering what our real story is, and also wondering who are the keepers of that story, of that very important story, that story that not only tells of what happened, but also writes the path of the future. With this in mind, which stories are the ones that matter? Are they they stories told by Bri Lee in Beauty, Matthew Evans in On Eating Meat, Anthony Sharwood in From Snow to Ash? Are they stories told by Tim Winton in Boy Behind the Curtain, by Susan Duncan in Salvation Creek, by Kirsty Everett in Honey Blood? Are these stories the most important, are these the ones that matter the most? Who can tell, I certainly don’t know, but I do wonder…
If you care to delve into the Australian story we’re being told in books like these, you will see that these stories have been chosen, not only for their message, but because there is something particular about the writer that matters to the publisher, and this has nothing to do with the importance of the story. The writer is “connected” in some way to something or someone deemed largely important by Australian society, and definintley by the publishing industry: The Olympics, journalism, glossy magazines, literary fiction. But what is this telling us about the rest of the stories, the ones we don’t get to hear?
This is telling us that our stories aren’t important and don’t matter unless we are “somebody”. I wonder how many memoirs are rejected by publishers not because the writer is bad at the craft of writing or because the story is boring, but because they are simply an everyday person. This is telling us that only people who are important have important stories to tell and everyday people should be quiet and make way for those already in the spotlight. This is saying that suicide, cancer, loss, rape, abuse, disability, addiction, death, destruction, resurrection and success are only meaningful when that path is navigated by a journalist, an Olympic hopeful, someone “important”.
All of our lives matter. All of our stories matter and all of this makes up the collective Australian story and all of this, not just a privileged selection, should write on the wall of our futures. So, I urge you to consider the stories that aren’t being told the next time you pick up an Australian memoir. If your nextdoor neighbour had a great life story to tell, would it be their book you’d be holding in your hand at the library or bookstore? Not likely.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
It shouldn’t be this way.
But, I don’t know what to do about it. Do you? (aside from self publishing, which is an expensive and often unworkable and non-viable option).
Bri Lee has an upcoming book called Who Gets to Be Smart. I wonder if there is any transferable wisdom for consideration when we ask, who gets to be published?
I have a heap of short stories that I’ve written over the years. Here are some excerpts of those.
The Piano and the Glacier
Caring went out into the world. He got up against evil and apathy and decided to take back his place, his future and the dreams that belong to everyone. He rode a platform into the ocean and played his music across the ice. He furrowed, frowned and cast a shadow across all of them, all of us, but still it did nothing to stop the swathe.
Caring was never enough. Playing pianos to buy gifts of inspiration and the ignition of guilt was never going to end deceit. Deceit was a tough monkey because he’d grown faster than Caring. He had to because his brothers were so tough on him. He learnt to stand his ground right from the start and he was never interested in looking back nor did he know how to look forward.
What is it of pianos? A cruel juxtapose? An irony? What? Caring couldn’t tell. It was about feeding egos and showing how one man is smarter than the next because he understands how a pianist’s mind works. Why does that matter? What do ice and pianos have in common? Neither of them have humanity.
Caring can’t win. He can’t because he’s alone. We all have our own Caring, but it’s applied the wrong way and to wrong things. We Care about this, about that, about what they think, but we don’t, nay can’t, Care about what happens next. Ten years is too far and twenty years further. None of it, none of it can mean anything to us now.
Pianos and ice, and the sound of cracking ice. What can Caring do with that? What? There seems such a pointless movement if you watch what Caring does so closely. No shadows, not night, only day. He waits because he knows not what else to do. He’s alone. He’s alone. He’s always been alone because that’s the way all living things die.
It took around 6 months for total uptake of the human chip. People were enamoured by the convenience. I don’t need to carry my wallet anymore, all my medical records kept in one place, no more car keys, my Facebook status gets automatically updated, I love it. We were astounded by our brilliance and experts forecast a future where the chip could offer even greater conveniences than the ones we currently enjoyed because carrying a wallet had been such a burdensome affair and availing us of the need to do so left us with so much more spare time to live a meaningful life.
I had to stop shopping at the big supermarkets. They would no longer accept cash. They became RFID only, so did service stations. A year in and there was pretty much nowhere to go if you were anti-chip. There was no way to pay bills and there was no way to even get a job. I was fired when I refused to become “integrated” as it was called.
I moved to the hills where I built a little shanty from scavenged timber and iron. I’d always been good with a slingshot, so I was able to shoot down birds and rabbits and I had a little garden with sweet potatoes and herbs. I only went to the edge of town to keep an eye on things. To watch what was happening , to see if there was any changes, any reversion to the old way of doing things. Two years in and it was just as it was when I left it.
It was on one of these trips that I met Jonas. He only had one arm.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“Oh, you know, I was de-chipped,” he said with a wry smile. “Sometimes they’ll gouge your chip, but if they’re in a hurry, they’ll just cut off your arm or your hand. Thieves that is. The ones who don’t have RFID scanners. They want your money and your ID, so they want your chip and if they don’t have their own scanner, then that means cutting off an arm or hand. Guess I’m lucky the government decided not to embed chips in peoples’ foreheads like was originally planned. I suppose the outcome wouldn’t have been quite so positive for me if things had gone that way. I can still get by without my arm, but life without a head is a little difficult,” he said.
“Jesus, fuck!” I exclaimed.
“Yeah. Jesus, fuck,” he said back. “What are you doing on the periphery anyway? Shit! You’re not an agent are you?”
“What? No, an agent, no, what’s that?”
“You know, one of them. Making sure everyone is integrated. I’m not anymore see, didn’t want to go back to that. They’ve got these roving agents now, walking around with scanners, making sure everyone is integrated. Nearly everywhere now is within range of a high gain antenna, making it easy to track all the integrated and single out anyone who isn’t. The high gain is being built out there on Hammock Hill. Probably won’t be finished for another 6 months, but still, I had to get out before then. Word is, something’s up.”
“Something’s up? What do you mean?”
“Word is that some researchers in America have found a way to access everyone’s DNA through the chips.”
“What would be the point of that?”
“Genocide. Ethnic cleansing. White power. Call it what you like. No one wants to believe it though. It’s too hard to go back to carrying a wallet, keys, having to turn your car on with a set of keys. No one wants that, so they just pretend like everything is OK, even though they’ve just been scanned by five different agents at four different check-points on their way home from the office.”
A bird flew down from the top of the neighbouring building. I watched it alight on the grubby awning. It’s wings drew around it’s body and it gave a shudder as it settled into the smut. The city was unbecoming and ugly. This was nothing new of course. I’d always found it thus. It couldn’t move me the way trees, grass and mountain sides could. I was never at home here.
Oip! Tim’s sharp cry alerted the bird and it took flight. I watched as an errant feather glided down from the space above me. I wondered if it would miss its home too. I didn’t have time to dwell on that because Tim was at my side, shoving me sideways and poking me hard in the ribs. He didn’t mean it, well, at least I don’t think he did. He smiled at me in his oily fashion and I smiled back, not entirely pleased to have my observation of the bird interrupted.
“What now eh? He asked.
“Dunno”, I said. I really hoped he didn’t press me. I felt my shoulders bunch and I tried to prevent my jaw from doing the same. Sometimes I can be too obvious and it gets me in the shit.
“Aw, come on Sel, let’s have it then. You wanna see what the beach is like today don’ cha?” Tim said.
I really didn’t, but I nodded passively and started walking in the direction of my unit.
“Yeah, I knew you’d be in it!” He said, punching me on the arm. It was meant to be friendly punch, but it didn’t feel that way. My mood wouldn’t let it. I had to refrain from punching him back because I knew if I did he wouldn’t get one on the arm. I didn’t like to think what would follow.
I’d been hanging around Tim now for six months. It had been the worst six months of my life. It started when my uncle died. I never knew the guy, but for some reason, he’d left me all of his money. There was a lot of it and that’s where the problems started.
Tim was part of a crew of new wave extortionists. His breed scouring death and probate notices, taking notice of who was who in society circles and worming their way into a target’s circle of confidence. I had been his target because my uncle had been a famous and ridiculously wealthy man. I never realised it before my uncle died, but there are some things that money just can’t buy
I guess that’s not entirely correct. Tim was too stupid on his own to extort anything from anyone. He was what his crew would call The Main Player. He was the guy on the street, the guy in the bar, the guy offering up a parking space. He was the guy always there. He was there so much that in the end, I never even noticed him, taking him for part of the furniture.
We met on a flight to Sydney. Straight off I felt like I knew him from somewhere, but I just couldn’t place it. I told him so and he nodded at me, smiling. We shared a cab to the city and after that he was just there. There all the time.
At first I didn’t mind. I’d never really had a lot of mates, so having someone who was so damn interested in every little thing I did or said was kind of nice. Made me feel important. Made it feel like I mattered.
That was why I didn’t balk when Tim asked me for a loan. Sure I’d said, how much.? He only wanted a thousand. Something wrong with his car he claimed. Funny, I thought ,I’d never seen him drive nor had I even stopped to think about how he got around. I pushed it aside and withdrew the money from my account. He was grateful and I was happy that I was able to help him out. After all, he was my mate.
Things got weird after that. Tim started showing up with another guy. He said it was his cousin, but I didn’t believe him. Right from the start I could tell there was something amiss about the new guy. He had a moustache and it set me on edge. The angle of it was wrong, tilted like I felt the situation was becoming. The cousin, Ram, started hanging out with us all the time. I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was watching me, evaluating everything I did. It was more than just the moustache.
Still all the World
Henry watched the sun float through the kitchen window. It sat in his daughter’s hair and seemed a moment to merge with her, making her like itself; intangible and free. She looked up at him from her blocks and smiled a grin filled with little-person teeth. He smiled back and felt his heart nestle down into his chest as though all of the good things in the world had come to live inside him. He loved the world in that moment and never believed another bad thing could happen.
Sarah was born in May. It was cold then. Too cold for May. Early frosts had already eaten the front garden and Henry was aware of the path slippery with melted ice as he carried Sarah towards the house for the first time. “Careful.” Henry said to Sarah’s mother, Nella as she navigated her way through the ruined flowers. “Yes, Henry. You worry too much,” Nella responded.
As it turned out, Henry didn’t worry too much, because as he mounted the steps and went about inserting the key in the door, Nella slipped on a patch of ice yet untouched by the sun. A small noise escaped her lips as she died on the ground.
An autopsy revealed an aneurysm; burst when Nella’s head struck the concrete path or perhaps moments earlier, causing her to lose her footing on the ice. The doctors couldn’t say for certain, but it made no difference to Henry; he knew better. I t was his impatience that had killed Nella.
Why didn’t I hold her arm? Why didn’t we put Sarah in the pram? Why didn’t I wait until the afternoon to pick them up? I shouldn’t have been in such a rush. I should have known. I should have known! If I could just get her back, I’d make everything different. He wanted to bargain with God, but God wasn’t listening and thoughts like these chased Henry through the years. He hated himself for what had happened to Nella, but he hated God too. The image of Nella at the bottom of the stairs hung in his mind’s eye like a tarpaulin covering his world. But if he forced his mind to focus on Sarah he could feel the tarpaulin lifting and he was able to glimpse the edge of happiness once more.
Sarah, blocks and the sun were what mattered now. Henry watched her and his spirit continued to lift until it felt as though he was the ceiling looking down on all things below. He could feel himself rise even further , above the roof and tree tops until he hung over the neighbourhood with the entire street in his view. Sarah below was carved out in beautiful relief and as he hung on the wind he continued to watch her play with the blocks. As always she favoured the blue ones over the rest. She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen and he wanted to touch her face and smell her hair, so he reached out and found himself at once back in the kitchen surrounded by his everyday things.
As Sarah grew Henry found that he could watch her from above, even when he was not physically near her. He could see her working on her sums at her desk in school. He could see her eating her lunch and he one day he watched her push Jayjay Keely over in the mud. He laughed then, but when he saw how upset Jayjay was at the state of his pants, he wished he could take this laughter back.
“No, Sarah, you stupid! Not my school pants, not my school pants!” Jayjay yelled, wiping at his backside in big panicky motions. Fat tears rolled down his cheeks and in that moment Henry glimpsed a wavy, refracted image of a kitchen he didn’t recognise. Angry faces leered forward and he saw Jayjay pressed into a tiny space between cabinets. His hands covered his face. Henry could almost taste Jayjay’s fear. No! Henry wanted to shout, but he found he could say nothing.
Henry couldn’t bring himself to watch Sarah the next day. He was too afraid of what he’d seen in the refracted kitchen. What did it mean? He thought, but he put it aside because he had things to deal with. There were clients coming to the house later and Henry had to tidy his office to make way for their presence. Greif counselling seemed to tether him to reality in the same way that watching Sarah from above was able to.
In the years since Nella’s death Henry had attempted to make peace with himself through the study of grief. He strove for personal forgiveness in his pursuit of understanding. He needed to know how grief came to rest in him like a physical weight that he could not shift, all the while crushing him, driving the spirit from his body more each minute, hour, day year. He had to know how a non-physical condition could become so physical in its effects on the body.
Through four years of harrowing university study Henry began to shift the weight of grief, piece by piece. Afterwards, he almost felt free again, as though every breath he took was laced with a promise of tomorrow. He got nearly all the way to forgiveness, only of himself, but not of God. None of his clients knew this of course. This he kept only to himself.
As Henry watched the last client walk down the path he was struck by a wavering image of Nella. He recognised it as the day he’d brought Nella and Sarah home from hospital. “Nella!” he yelled. But, Nella didn’t notice him in the present, only in the past and she said, “Yes Henry. You worry too much.”
“Nella!” he yelled again.
“Dad?” Sarah asked in a small voice. She was at the gate, school bag slung over one shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
“Sarah! Oh, love, it’s you.” He exclaimed as he rushed down the step to meet her. He picked her up and hugged her and the school bag tightly. He could smell old vegemite sandwiches in her squashed bag and a few strands of her hair brushed against his cheek.
“Dad, put me down. It’s embarrassing when you do this. I’m in grade five now you know. Other kids in my class think I’m weird when you pick me up and hug me like this.”
“Sorry, my sweet. It’s just so good to see you,” he said and he meant it.
“What were you doing anyway?” she asked
“Oh, nothing. Just waiting for you to come home.”
“The cops came to school today, Dad.” Sarah said
“Oh really, what for?”
“They came to our class. Asked us about Jayjay.”
“What about him?”
“He’s gone. Didn’t come to school last week and now no one knows where he is, even his mum and dad.”
Adventure can be anything you like. It doesn’t have to be a massive feat of physical strength and death defying endurance where you freeze your butt off on mountainsides or get chased down by a gang of rabid koalas looking to make even all the wrongs of their past. I mean, if that’s what floats your boat then by all means go for it, but I’m guessing that for most people (me included) the koalas are out and so is the mountain…for the time being that is. Once I build my skills and my self belief and maybe even my own crew I’ll be able to get Zen with that mountain and perhaps convince the koalas that revenge isn’t the best tactic for a peaceful revolution nor for their image. I used to think they were so damn cute before I wrote this. Now I’m not so sure.
Adventure is for all of us. It’s inclusive and is something you can pursue in your everyday life. All it takes is the first tiny step outside of your comfort zone.
Dean Wallace, the Prime Minister of Australia ratified The Ballot. It was difficult to tell from his countenance at the time how he felt about it. He was a master of sham. Chelsea was the only one who could see the truth in him. She watched her father, like she’d done for the 35 years of her life and knew that he was secretly pleased. The heavy scent of his cologne cloyed up her nose as if the very air was made of particles of him.
“What now then Dad?” she asked him with an edge to her voice. “Going to rub out all the um… what did you call them? Ah yes, that’s right, the filth? Going to send them off to where they belong then are you?” Her father didn’t respond, so she paused a moment, the index finger of her right hand tapping a point on her face just below her mouth. “Did you ever wonder who is going to shine your fucking shoes?” she said.
“Chelsea,” The PM sighed. “You know I don’t like it when you swear like that. Besides, I shine my own shoes, you know that.”
“God, Dad! I didn’t mean that literally, you stupid man. I mean who is going to do the everyday things like grow the food, drive the trucks, build the roads and serve your coffee? These are people you’re talking about.”
Wallace waved a hand about dismissively. “The ballot won’t be selective, well, not really. People like you and I will be spared, but everyone else, will be entered. Not everyone who does the things you’re so concerned about will be removed. We’ll retain a large portion of different sections of the global community just by applying the system’s capacity for random selection,” The PM said.
Chelsea’s mouth fell open at his statement. “Gah!” she said. It was a visceral response. Her father was about to kill sixty-five percent of the people on the face of the earth.
The earth was overpopulated, everyone knew that. Policies had come and gone to address the issue, but nothing really worked. No one was prepared to make the changes necessary to secure the future. It was always seen as ‘someone else’s problem’.
“Goodbye Dad. I can’t be around you,” Chelsea said, the heel of her shoe catching in the carpet as she pivoted. She could feel it embedded deep in the pile.
“Oh, come on love, don’t be like that.” Wallace tried to reason with her as she struggled with her shoe.
“I always hated these bloody shoes!” she screamed as she yanked it and several cords of carpet free. She let the shoe fly at her father, but the throw was wild and the fine leather shoe hit the book case off to his left. She reached the door and holding the remaining shoe she looked back and said, “I don’t even know who you are.”
The ballot system was developed by epidemiologist Belinda Haesp as a tool for global diagnostics. Originally called FreePan It was meant to track and monitor disease outbreaks on a global scale so health care could be provided when and where it was most needed. Fundamentally it was about preventing pandemics, about providing treatment, cures and relief from illness. It was about stopping diseases like HIV and COVID in their tracks. It was about making the world a better place, not about marking people for destruction.
Cancer claimed Haesp just after the launch of her invention and the program was cancelled. Haesp’s boss, Chad Smith, himself an investor, not a scientist took control of FreePan, seeing it as a mechanism for global control. Through underworld connections and collaboration with Dean Wallace, the Ballot System was born. The collaborators knew little about the medical technology behind the system, caring only that they could hijack its original purpose for their own: to socially reconstruct the global community through a randomised cull.
FreePan consisted of 24 satellites that were launched into orbit from a location in the Australian desert. Half of the satellites were trackers and half were inoculators. The trackers went into high orbit and the inoculators fell back to earth not long after separation from the rest of the mechanism. During the fall they spread a formulation based on human DNA into the atmosphere, where it mutated and became bio-active, homing in on its earth-based targets: every single human on earth. The bioactive components migrated down to earth and bonded with human DNA, altering certain atomic orbits within the human DNA structure. It provided real time tracking signals to the tracking satellites. For the first time in the earth’s history, every single human was accounted for and it only took around 24 hours.
Haesp had envisaged that FreePan would deliver cures from a central location by remotely altering the structure of endogenous retroviruses, present in all human DNA, liberating active anti-viral agents, capable of eliminating all disease causing viral agents on earth. Smallpox had been eradicated, why not HIV? Haesp was truly visionary and she embedded within FreePan the capability for randomly selecting DNA, a provision for medical research. It was an effective way to recruit geographically and genetically isolated participants in trials and studies. It was this capability that the collaborators wished to exploit.
Chelsea knew there was nothing she could do about the inoculation. That had already occurred, but as she stomped down the hallway a plan began forming in her mind. If she couldn’t stop her father from pulling the plug on humanity, she had to find out who was on the Safe List and feed their details back into The Ballot. “Bite me,” Chelsea said to herself as she pushed open the door to the data room. The faint smell of ozone rushed out to meet her and determination gripped her bones as she locked the door and set about accessing The Ballot’s databases.
Back in his office, the PM contacted Smith. “Time to proceed my friend,” he said.
“Are you sure the Safe List is secure?” Smith asked.
“It’s water tight,” Wallace responded. “I’m looking forward to… what was it they called that book? Ah yes, I’m looking forward to A Brave New World,” he said and hung up the phone.
Chelsea punched away at the keyboard. She had no trouble gaining access to the main database, but it took some deciphering to locate the genetic information for each country. Strings of meaningless looking code ran down page after page and she didn’t know how much time she had to find what she was looking for. Sweat was starting to stand out on her forehead. “Come on! She shouted. It had to be there somewhere. Tears of frustration stung her eyes, until the code became a smear of green. It was then she saw it. A few lines of code contained a red letter instead of being entirely green. She didn’t know what program they had used to identify individuals, but one of these lines represented her own existence. She worked quickly to change all the red letters in each country’s database back to green, and then prepared a reboot to apply the changes.
Just as the system had started to close down the PM hit the enter key on his own computer to execute The Ballot. Everything scrambled and the screen he was watching became a blur of green. “What happened?” he asked the empty room. He pushed back from the desk he was sitting at and marched out into the hall. As he strode towards the dataroom he saw Chelsea’s discarded shoe sitting at the door. “Chelsea!” he yelled and began to run. In his haste he failed to notice the silence that weighted the air.
The door was locked of course, but he shoved against it wildly until the lock sprang free. It was gloomy in the dataroom, but he could see a screen illuminated in the far corner. It too was a jumble of green. “Chelsea, are you in here?’ he asked, taking a few small steps towards the green glow. He could smell her perfume: L’air Du Temps.
He arrived at the desk and saw his daughter. She had tumbled off the chair in a pose that made her look wooden. He bent to shake her, but as his hand touched the skin of her upper arm he jerked it back in shock. She was smooth and solid, like plastic, like steel. Even though dead for less than a minute her body had turned hard. She had become a sculpture of the very recent past.
He jumped up shaking his head. “No, no, no, no!” he repeated as he ran from the room, down the stairs and out onto the street. The still air enveloped him and solid bodies were everywhere. “Anyone!” He yelled it over and over again until something tore in the back of his throat and he tasted his own blood.
Jackie pushed Clay along the footpath. She regretted now the decision to leave the car at home. Some of the rubber had come loose from the front wheel of his wheel chair, making it difficult to push. She stopped a moment to see if she could apply a quick fix, but when she saw the problem she knew that it wasn’t something a quick fix would take care of. The whole wheel needed replacing. “Bugger,” she said, but immediately felt bad that she was leaning so close to Clay’s ear when she said it. “Sorry Clay, Mum is having a bad day.” Clay looked off to the left, the way he always did, his head lolling on the headrest.
Clay was trapped inside himself somewhere. He’d been like that since birth. Jackie couldn’t see the point in labelling Clay’s condition. She’d heard so many names for it over the years and none of them mattered anyway, because it didn’t change anything for Clay. It didn’t change anything for her, or her husband, Tim either. They were never angry at Clay, but were often angry at each other. Sometimes anger was all they had.
While his mother inspected the wheel, Clay looked at the grass growing out of the cracks in the footpath. There’s a beetle in there. I can see his legs wheeling and burrowing. I wonder what he feels like? he thought. His mind-voice was loud and clear. It sounded to him as though it cut the air the same way everyone else’s real voice did. He often wondered what it was like to have the two voices: the one inside your head and the one outside. Was it hard to tell the difference?
Fighting with the wheelchair, Jackie continued pushing Clay up the hill. It wasn‘t a particularly steep slope, but the wonky wheel made the going difficult. She thought about all the things she had to do back at the house and a feeling of vast overwhelm migrated through her. Tears stung her eyes and the footpath swam in her vision. “Almost there,” she said to herself as much as to Clay. “Almost there, almost there, almost there,” she repeated. Jackie’s lips barely moved, making the sentence a string of meaningless sounds as she built a barrier out of it through repetition.
Clay hated it when his mother was upset. Mum, don’t cry. Please Mum, I love you. Everything will be ok, I just know it, his mind-voice said, and his mind’s eye saw himself smiling up at her and stroking her arm.
Tim was working on the chook pen when they got back to the house. The chooks were arriving that afternoon and Clay was looking forward to it. He’d never had a pet before. The neighbour’s cat, Rasters used to jump into the back yard sometimes and Clay’s heart would skip a beat when he saw it there, stalking through the marigolds, but his dad shooed it away with a big broom a few times and after a while Rasters never came back.
“Why are you so upset?” Tim asked Jackie, the annoyance in his voice barely disguised.
“The wheel, the front wheel is stuffed,” she replied.
“Oh, come on! We only just had that bloody thing fixed,” Tim said.
Don’t get mad Dad, please, it’s not Mum’s fault, Clay’s mind-voice pleaded. His mind’s eye saw himself crouching down by the wheel to see if it was something he could fix. When he saw it wasn’t, his mind-voice said, Dad, just call the tech shop. They’ve got one of these old wheels sitting on their shelf. I saw it last time we went past there. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than this one and it will do until we go back to Sydney.
“Don’t shout,” Jackie said. “It upsets Clay.”
“Nothing upsets Clay,” Tim replied, and stalked out to stand in the yard.
Clay’s mind-voice said, Yes it does Dad! I hate it when you and Mum argue. That makes me upset. It makes me upset that you never listen to her when she’s sad and that you are just so angry all the time. Clay couldn’t understand the point of anger. It rubbed away the goodness in everything, yet people seemed to relish the way it took control of them and made them say and do hateful things.
The chooks arrived later that afternoon. Tim’s mate, Robbo brought them around in a big cardboard box. He let them loose in the pen and they immediately set about pecking and scratching their new surroundings. Clay watched from his chair and in his mind’s eye he was holding a chook and stroking its shiny black feathers. The chook turned to look into his face and said, “Hi Clay. How’s things? We’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” Clay’s mind’s eye saw himself drop the chook and take a step back. “Don’t be scared Clay,” said the brown chook. “We’re your friends.”
“Yeah Clay,” said the white one. “Everyone knows about you.” Clay was all at once excited and alarmed. He’d never heard another mind-voice inside his head before.
“What do you mean, everyone knows about me?” Clay asked.
“The trees, the birds, the soil, the flowers. All of it. It all knows about you,” said Whitey. Clay wasn’t sure what the chook meant. “How can you talk to me like this? Animals can’t talk to humans. I’m stuck in a chair, but I’m not stupid.”
“We know you’re not stupid, Clay. That’s why we’re here. Chooks have a different way of seeing the world. You’re more than that chair, Clay. Everything is more than it seems because everything can talk to each other, it’s just that humans don’t want to hear the voices anymore. They’re no longer interested in the voice of the earth. They don’t have time for it and they think it isn’t important, but they’re wrong. They’ve forgotten what truth is,” said Browny.
“Truth?” Clay asked. “What do you mean?”
“You know what truth is, Clay. You know in a way that isn’t obvious to others.” said Blacky.
“Do you mean the way my heart feels when I hear my mum sing?”
“Yes, it’s that and a lot of other things. It’s about how you understand what is important when other people left the idea of that behind many years ago. They leave it in their childhood. They set it aside with the things that made them happy because they tell themselves that it’s time to grow up, to move on and to leave the past behind. They forget about the things that matter, but those things never leave them, not really. What matters stays there, deep inside them, nestled out of reach, existing as ghosts that are impossible to glimpse. The idea that something isn’t quite as it should be wafts and wains in the depths of their subconscious, but because they lost their truths, they are bound to a life of emptiness and longing where they never get to turn their corner,” Blacky explained.
“I know what you mean,” Clay sighed. He’d seen the emptiness in the faces of people that his mum pushed him past on the footpath; he’d heard it in other’s voices and smelled it in the air. His mind’s eye saw himself rolling down a street filled with people who all looked the same. They rushed along the footpath, all of them together, yet all of them apart, apart from each other and apart from everything else. He stretched his hand out to grasp the sleeve of a passer-by, but she wrenched it free and kept walking. Clay knew it wasn’t meant to be this way. He knew it because none of them smiled. Sadness wormed into his heart, but when he looked up and saw his new friends his melancholy was at once forgotten.
“Beer o’clock, eh Robbo?” Tim asked.
“Oh sorry, mate, not today. Gotta get going. Gotta pick the boys up from soccer and take Katie to ballet after that. It’s never bloody ending I tell ya!” Robbo smiled good naturedly.” Seeya later Tacker,” he said to Clay.
Bye Robbo. Thanks so much for the best chooks in the world, Clay’s mind-voice said and his mind’s eye saw himself smiling and shaking Robbo’s hand.
Tim went inside to get himself a beer. Jackie was standing in the kitchen where she had a good view of Clay at the chook pen. “Sorry about before, love.” Tim said. “I just get so bloody annoyed. You know, everything’s an effort. It feels like all we ever do is chase our tails.”
“I know,” Jackie responded.
“I have no idea where we’re meant to get the money to pay the rego on the car and then there’s the appointment in Sydney next month,” Tim said, “ Sometimes I wish we were just a normal family.”
“Don’t say that!” Jackie said. “We are a normal family. Clay will hear you, he’s just out there. It’s not his fault we’re like this,” she hissed.
“I know it’s not his fault, and Jackie, I wish you’d stop going on about how Clay can hear or how Clay feels. Clay isn’t there, not the way the rest of us are. You know that. There’s no point going on about some fantasy land where Clay can hear, see or feel. It’s all bullshit. We need to start living in the real world. The world where we need to man up and get on with things,” Tim said, his apologetic tone evaporating.
Jackie burst into tears. “Why are you like this?” She yelled. “Why don’t you care?”
“I do care!” Tim yelled back at her.
“It doesn’t feel like it, Tim. You don’t care about me, you never ask how I am, you barely even acknowledge Clay. All you care about is getting pissed with your stupid mates. I’m sick of it. Things are hard for me too, Tim. I know you think Clay can’t hear you, but a kind word towards your own son wouldn’t go astray occasionally. At the very least it would make me feel better. Don’t you care about that?” She cried at him, leaning forward and punching her fists into her thighs in frustration.
“Stop it Jackie!” Tim yelled at her and grabbed her arms.
“Leave me alone Tim.” She spat. Twisting out of his grip she ran into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Clay and the chooks looked at each other. I hate that. I hate it, Clay’s mind-voice said and his mind’s eye saw himself writing a note to his parents telling them that if they could just find their truth, everything would be as it should be.
“We can help them, Clay,” said Whitey.
“How? Clay asked. “They seem so hopeless, afraid and just so very sad,” he added.
“There’s a way for you to come with us,” said Browny.
“We can show you how to be free. You can be free of that chair and you can free your parents from the longing. We can let them turn their corner,” said Blacky.
“We came to bring you home, Clay,” Browny said. By virtue of evolution their gazes were piercing and unemotional, but the tones in which they spoke belied their appearance.
“What do you mean? I am home. This is my home,” Clay said.
“Do you really think this is where you belong, Clay? Stuck in this useless body? Never able to achieve a single thing? We know you can read, but do you ever get to do that? Remember War and Peace, Clay?” asked Blacky.
Clay did remember War and Peace. He remembered it too well. His mind’s eye saw himself squirm at the memory of the book sitting open on the floor by the kitchen table. It sat there everyday for a week and as Jackie ate her breakfast Clay read and reread the same two pages over and over again until he knew them off by heart . He was devastated when his mother eventually took the book up off the floor and threw it into the bin. He couldn’t imagine how she could throw Natasha and Princess Marya away like that. No Mum! I need that book! His mind-voice shouted, but of course she didn’t hear him and went about cleaning up the rest of the kitchen. The day the garbage truck came was the worst one of his life. He could almost feel the crush of the universe on his soul as the truck heaved to compress its load. He hadn’t stopped thinking about War and Peace for two years after that. It almost ate him alive.
“I don’t really like what you’re saying and I don’t really think that going away with you somewhere will change anything. Have you considered that maybe I don’t want to leave this chair, that I’m happy the way I am? This is all I’ve ever known and I don’t want to be cured. Sure, things are hard for my family, but from what I can tell, things are hard for nearly all families. It’s not my fault they’re like this,” Clay said.
“Have you ever thought about what it might feel like to be everywhere at once?” asked Browny.without acknowledging what Clay had just said.
“Chooks have that power, Clay. We can set you free. You can be with all of us and you can be all of us. You can be the beetle, the soil he digs in and the grass in the cracks. You can be the voice in your mother’s heart when she sings of compassion. You can make things better, better than they are.” Blacky said.
Clay’s mind’s eye saw himself closing his eyes. He sat that way for a long time, breathing slowly, imagining the breath coming in and going out of each part of his body. His legs could breathe, then his arms, then the top of his head. He saw the three chooks jump onto his lap and he saw himself stroke each one in turn and as he did so each chook nestled down onto his lap. Clay felt the warmth of the chooks bodies pressed into his and he felt his own warmth merging with theirs. He became aware of different sounds and smells and could hear a faint whisper of voices in the distance. He saw his body dissolve and become like a breeze that is part of all things simultaneously. Stretching across unfathomable distances he was able to see through all of time and he could see that the truths that govern existence had been unchanging since the beginning.
“This is beautiful, and I know you’re trying to help me, but I don’t want to leave. I like my life. I know I’m more than this chair. You say I can change things, and I do. I do it already, just by being who I am. Things were different in the past. People like me weren’t taken seriously. We were ignored, but things are different now, or at least they’re better and getting better all the time. Mum doesn’t know I’m in here, but one day she might. I’ll wait until then, so please take me back, take me back!”
All at once he was back, but not in his chair and he let the sensation of being so close to the earth fill him completely while his head lolled, as always to the left. Chooks scratched and pecked around Clay’s legs. Minute clouds of dust wafted around each bird as its longing to uncover tasty soil-borne morsels intensified. With the timber of the chook pen at his back and soil rising up to meet his fingertips,Clay could smell rain on the breeze, even though there wasn’t a hint of cloud in the sky.
Jackie emerged from the bathroom. “Tim, where’s Clay?” she asked with a hint of panic in her voice.
“What?” Tim responded, immediately jumping up to face the chook pen where he’d left Clay only ten minutes earlier. They both rushed outside to find Clay sitting in the chook pen with the chooks scratching and pecking around him.
“Honey! How did you get in here?” his mum cried.
One by one the chooks jumped into Clay’s lap and nestled down.
“What the…?” Tim said in a ridiculous whisper.
“Are you ok?” Jackie asked, and Clay’s head lolled.
“We’re always here if you change your mind, Clay,” the chooks said in unison.
“Thanks, but I’ll wait it out here if that’s OK. If you scratch over there in the left of the pen, there’s some big grubs just under the surface. I can hear them chewing on the roots of the grass.”