By Robert Whyte
Manacles, a novel by Robert Whyte 1972–2020
We all know there is no incontrovertible evidence that existence, itself, actually exists. Plato (and there’s a bloke with idea or two) said we are but shadows cast on the wall of a cave by the light of a fire, our lives no more than wisps of smoke drifting in the wind, our hearts hot coals in the night, the soles of our feet poking from the mouth of the cave into the cold morning, being nibbled by hungry wombats.
But if there is no such thing as existence, what is this place, how did we get here and is there a way out? To answer this question, we have devised a practical experiment.
Take a pencil and draw an imaginary animal that resembles yourself. It doesn’t matter how long it takes or how many times you have to erase it and start again. Remember, there are plenty more pencils, erasers and sketchbooks in the cupboard.
Everyone finished? All right then, let’s have a look. Hmmm. You were asked to draw an imaginary animal. Everyone produced a real drawing which is neither an animal nor imaginary. Don’t take this personally, but if you can’t do this one simple thing properly, how can you be trusted with the universe?
Fortunately, it’s not you we are interested in, it is your mind that’s important. As they say, free your mind, and the body will follow, which isn’t exactly true, but it sounds nice. Your mind can be a fractious bugger, uncooperative, grumpy, and needlessly sardonic. It won’t say yes to every wild assertion that comes along, but fortunately it can be fooled.
We fool the mind with logic, by making statements which sound sensible but which in reality are utter crap. For example, take the statement arguing that to accept the possibility of existence, the mind must first demand the existence of possibility. Everything, including nothing, existence, dark matter, light matter, heavy matter, skepticism, belief, particles, strings, knots, and those stains in the carpet you can’t seem to get rid of no matter how hard you scrub, depends on the existence of possibility. Total bollocks. But you have to admit, it does sound super deep and mighty meaningful. It just goes to show, when you build an argument on the premises next door, rather than your own address at no fixed abode, you can say just about anything and get away with it.
Before we go on, let us warn you, time is not on our side and space is bad juju. Time has become, through no fault of its own and by means of the consistent modernization of history, a sort of museum, to which very few can afford the price of admission. Space, as we mentioned, is bad juju. Really bad juju. Time is the foundation of the material universe but space is the bits in between everything else, including not only pins and needles, but also that spongey, gooey muck known as dark matter which does nothing more than make it obvious you need new prescription for your reading glasses.
At this point we have to bring in one last player to rattle your cage, a nasty bugger with a pogo stick and an ugly smirk, otherwise known as language. Enlightenment isn’t free you know. There’s the electricity bill, for a start.
Language, which became fully developed somewhere around the time of Gallus gallus domesticus, is a magical playground where, more often than not, humans are able to escape the space-time continuum. That’s okay, everyone needs to take a break now and then. But before you start thinking you might take up a quill and move around in space and time at will, we have to point out that writing isn’t always like falling off a log, sometimes it involves falling off the face of the earth. Try it, and you will soon see why life is so much more popular.
It would indeed be a truism, and we would be lying down if we denied it, to point out that the purpose of all this is riddled with doubt. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Doubt, as opposed to tomcat spray, or the top of a mountain, is in fact the underlying force which controls your existence. If properly handled, can be built into the particular thing that interests you most, the pursuit of love, for example, or one of the numerous other delusions behind visible things. If you engage in pursuits of this kind you will soon realise there is, after all, a world in which words are more than black and white dots on a frayed curtain.
James was flying. Charles, a floor below, was watching him fly past. Both were young men in their early twenties, James the taller, for the moment more horizontally aligned, a body more likely than a camel to fit through the eye of a needle and a parched, sandy complexion badly in need of rain. Even at this early stage in their relationship they resembled Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo in reverse.
Charles wore a casually boyish expression, black eyes, red cheeks, curly black hair and a friendly smile. He could crush a raw potato in his bare hand. Hundreds of children could play paddy whack against his backside if he was inclined to let them, which he was not. Having the Scots-Irish charm of a Gaul in Germanic clothing, he was somewhat over-dressed in a large, tan-coloured coat, the inside of which was lined with lambswool. There were clothes beneath it suitable for insulating oneself against a frosty Brisbane morning, but a little on the warm side for this time of night. He carried a sketch pad in his pocket and in his head something unheard of these days, a brain capable of original thought.
Charles made a last-minute attempt to catch the flying body, hoping to prevent it from crashing into a group of young women dancing at the foot of the stairs to Marvin Gaye’s Let’s get it on. Oh for sure, they were more likely to cuddle up with each other than get it on with Marvin Gaye, Kris Kristoffersen, Mick Jagger or any of the many thick-necked pillocks at the party whose beer goggles made them think otherwise. But hormones will out.
Charles, like a dilapidated weightlifter, was entirely unsuccessful with the snatch and grab, not even getting hold of an ankle, perhaps for the best.
James came to an abrupt halt in a crumpled heap on the floor, his arrival greeted with silvery shrieks of laughter, to which he responded with a charming smile. The young women, who had seen him coming, had drawn back like a school of startled baitfish, avoiding a fate worse than the one which had actually come to pass. He managed to stand, buoyed by a cloud of alcoholic vapour. Leaving the grove of discontinued dancers with the impression he would be engaging each one alone in deep and meaningful sympathetic listening upon his return from his lofty quest, he extracted himself from the pleasure of their larrikin interrogations and headed once more up the stairs.
Charles had been watching all this while fishing around in a torn pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes rescued from a nearby table groaning under its burden of alcohol. James crawled past him and entered a smoky room at the top of the stairs, still on his hands and knees.
Charles looked around. On one side of the room there was a large upholstered bench seat, a leftover from the Ottoman empire. He manoeuvred this to the bottom of the stairs.
A few moments later the door at the top of the stairs burst open and James again flew out, sailing in more or less the same trajectory as before and therefore landing, with surprising comfort, on the soft cushions of the Ottoman. He sat up, rubbed his face with astonishment and then looked at the stairs.
Charles sidled over, sat beside James and offered him a Lucky Strike cigarette, whistling the tune I’d walk a mile for a Camel, one hump or two? James set fire to it with the flame from a gas lighter in the shape of a miniature pistol which Charles held up to his nose. The cigarette failed to ignite properly because of a gaping hole in the paper, James inhaling air from the wide world between the butt and the tip. He took the remnant out of his mouth, knocked off the charred end and put the remainder behind his ear, taking from his pocket as he did so a packet of Gauloises one of which he offered Charles, another of which he lit and puffed angrily.
Charles accepted the cigarette with thanks and manoeuvred himself into James’ line of vision, obscuring the tall Belmondo’s view of the upstairs doorway.
“It looks like a private party,” he said. “Is there something you you left up there?”
James allowed his eyes to focus on the red-cheeked face.
“My drink,” he said.
“What was it? We are awash with the booze of all nations down here. I’ll get you another,” said Charles.
“I’m sure it was a Methuselah, but it might have been a Jeroboam. I can never remember those bottle sizes.”
“A voluminous bottle and a fair bit more than a magnum,” said Charles. “What brand, may I ask?”
“Veuve Clicquot,” said James
“Sacré bleu! It must have cost a fortune.”
“You’d think so, but I grabbed the bottle second hand in a Bastille Day boot sale at the French embassy.”
“Full?” said Charles
James laughed, “No, empty. I filled it up with Seaview Brut, topped up with half a bottle of Staggers brandy and rewired the cork. Party trick.”
Charles savoured the Caporal punishment of the Gauloises, the closest he had got to fond memories of Paris for several weeks, reminding him of Matisse bleu and Gainsborough serge.
“Staggers,” he said. “I know it well. Angoves St Agnes brand. Not very superior, old or pale, but a nice palate cleanser with a kick like a mullet.”
“That’s the one.”
One thing led to another and the conversation rambled, weaving in and out of intoxicants, dress regulations, false impressionism and good pointillism.
Distraction being the better part of attention deficit disorder, Charles convinced James to forget the prospect of retrieving the champagne from the fifteen or so rugby players who were upstairs and instead partake of the evening air.
Together they walked towards the front door and the world beyond, negotiating a path between couples in lip-lock and unconscious bodies, some on the furniture, some on the floor. Leaving behind them the warp of young hormones and the weft of fresh vomit, they were greeted by the night air ruffling its feathers in the darkness under trees. James paused and bent over, cycling the alcohol he had already drunk twice through his liver for detoxification before straightening up, refreshed by the cold wind on his face.
It transpired Charles owned a mobile wine cellar in the form of a light-blue 1963 Volkswagen beetle, to which he now invited James for a drink. Gladly, James accepted.
Charles produced a jar of black olives, some cabanossi sausage and a bottle of Metala. This red wine was the colour of old sump oil and from the moment James sampled a liquid inhalation of its inky depths in a chipped apple-green enamel mug offered without apology by his new friend and provider, his voice began slipping fluidly about in his wine-dark mouth with a sense of hatless intrigue, causing him to wonder why he felt unencumbered by headgear in a midget spy novel when he hadn’t been wearing any anyway.
It had become obvious by now these two sort-of knew of each other through a serious series of incidental mutual friends and foes. James mentioned he was thinking of writing a novel. Charles admitted he too was seriously interested in all forms of literary experiment, including painting and music. He proposed they celebrate this remarkable coincidence with the consumption of more of the Metala which called for banging together the enamel in a toast to the grapes of the Ostrogoths, whoever they were. James began expounding his theories of poetic images and wilful hallucinations, illustrating his theory by saying, perhaps entranced by the apple-green of his enamel, “what if the car was filled with apples, the green ones, you know, Granny Smiths?”
He slapped his face to stop the buzzing of the ideas swarming in his head like mental insects, then stopped hitting himself, realising the ideas, of course, were on the inside. He confessed to Charles, who he as yet hardly knew but trusted implicitly, that he was constantly obsessed with the image of the night as a black cat, not a black cat running around at night, but the whole of the night having an animus, or abacus, or calculus, you know, like an actual identity, the way cats are aloof, kind of disapproving, sort of snooty, not the night though, which is a combination of stealth and disinterest, but always there, watching, it might be just its eyes like the Cheshire cat except the Cheshire cat wasn’t black.
Charles nodded and said he thought James was definitely getting in touch with his felines and apropos of nothing at all why not sample some of the prosciutto he had found maturing under the back seat.
“Delicious,” said James. “No sign of independent movement, always a good sign in a vintage cold cut. Green eyes, that cat.” His open eyes were now wet. “This wine is giving me liquid Tourette’s. Loquacity. That’s a word. Fishy.” He laughed. “Filled to the bream.”
James was well versed in tumble-skinned bromances and this was not the first time amphibious éclairs and other inhabitants of stagnant waters had commenced to devour his liver, a liver of great availability, truth be told. His voice filled the air around him and while he was delighted to be ensconced within its arena, he felt he was about to say something stupid. He drew into his moulded lungs a breath of the apple-green air swirling within the small blue car.
Charles wound down the window. The resulting rush of cold air sobered them both. The apples evaporated in a mathematical formula derived from the fractal rhythms of Spanish Dancers, marine gastropod molluscs with no shells and naked gills. James quite earnestly began explaining in detail his plans for a literary composition. Several strings of consecutive moments were pleasantly tied up with the resulting conversation.
The next break came when James and Charles made a foray together into the ruins of the party in search of more drink. In amongst the wreckage and bodies they found and bagged up four bottles of overproof Bundaberg rum, a bottle of Dimple scotch. They left all the white rum, bourbon, wine and beer, six bottles of Vickers gin, two bottles of Johnnie Walker and four bottles of various after-dinner liqueurs topped up with the remains of a bottle of Advocaat for the sake of neatness.
In a coffee shop deep in the suburbs, where the cutlery and crockery was made of soft plastic so as not to disturb sleeping schoolchildren and their grandparents, James and Charles began to discuss the dentistry of lungs, which Charles asserted were the imprints of the body in the mind. James said he felt completely toothless. He had no sense of touch in his legs.
“Lungs I mean,” he corrected quickly.
The addition of rum to the pale coffee diverted their discussion into the areas of all-seeing eye-teeth and ghastly x-ray portraits of stone circles, which they both assumed were the strewn thoughts dentists left after removing teeth.
“Stonehenge is a tooth circle,” said James. “It was all done with Velcro you know.”
“Which had the hooky bits and which had the woolly bits?” asked Charles.
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” said James. “Tooth-wise, my favourites are the incisors.”
“Good points,” said Charles. “Cutting edge.”
“Tongue gets in the way.”
“Always. What’s it good for?”
Hugging himself and biting down on his bottom lip to stop from laughing aloud, James felt like he was going to explode, which would surely set off the decibelliphone and get them kicked out of the coffee shop.
Charles maintained superior control, hiding his face in a handkerchief the size of a doona, mopping up the sniggers as they snorted from his nostrils. Composing himself, something he usually only did when alone, he wiped his face dry and rearranged his cherubic features, forming the mournful frown of an undertaker’s horse.
The night was still young. They were both in a fine mood. James was all the more surprised when he walked into the wall instead of through the door when leaving the coffee shop. He managed to find the portal on his second attempt. Something must have anaesthetised his brain muscles at this point for we are lacking his point of view for the time being, while Charles drove out of the city, James snoring in the back seat, the grey clouds of the morning drifting up from behind the horizon.
James became aware, gradually, of the susurrous sound of swimming. His elbows were sore. His mouth felt like an armpit after a night of arm wrestling. His tongue was trying hard to find somewhere to lie down between prickly cushions re-stuffed with cactus plants and gramophone needles. He hitched up his legs and looked out of the car window. Casuarinas and bottlebrush lined a lake above a weir with floodgates. He felt his throat. Thick-skinned. No sense, no feeling. He tried to yell out “Cooee!” but it came out Hoot! like the squawk of a sick duck. Charles, floating on buoyancy, looked up.
James managed to get to the water’s edge by marching his legs in six-eight time, a remarkable feat for limbs suffering from arrhythmia. He wasn’t entirely hung over. It was true he had a good headful of angry wasps fighting it out with monstrous, metallic grasshoppers, but there were pleasant parts of his mental apparatus which were singing Van Morrison songs, obviously still drunk. He picked up speed, took a tablet, running along the weir until half way, springing spread-eagled into the air over the deep dark water.
Breaking free of the surface, his eyes were clear and instantly sober. He kicked off the stone wall, launching himself strokelessly backwards across the water, looking at the rippled surface left behind him, thinking of a wrinkling iron.
That afternoon Charles drove into an ex-industrial wasteland and stopped outside a three storey building which had a for sale sign stuck over a to let notice in the window.
“I pay rent here,” said Charles. “Very little, but it gets me a key.”
The building had been a milliner’s, now bankrupt. The new owner was thinking of turning it into a brothel if people ever got brave enough to re-enter the precinct. In the meantime Charles had rented the roof as a studio. So far he had done nothing with the rest of it. “I haven’t explored the place very thoroughly,” said Charles. “There’s a café next door. Do you want to share the rent?”
“I’m expecting some pay from two week’s work I did at the medical school last Christmas holidays. I could collect it. But it’s only seventy-five dollars.”
He moved in that afternoon. Hats, yards of raw yellow silk, black wool and dust half an inch thick lay on top of the cupboards and along the shelves. James plunged in, emerging about six hours later, more than two-thirds of the top floor habitable. Charles got back from his night job cleaning at the hospital with six bottles of Guinness, 20 kilos of shiny red potatoes, a litre of white wine vinegar and four litres of golden Greek olive oil.
“We won’t starve,” he said. “We might have to eat possum for protein, but there’s enough starch here to start up a laundry. Plenty of vitamin B in the stout.”
Machines, left by dear departed milliners, were now covered with yellow coloured cloth in dubiously tasteful arrays. A white stove stood in the corner winking conspiratorially. Odd grilles, probably for weaving thread, were stacked up one on top of the other like mating echidnas.
Charles boiled in salty water a couple of kilos of potatoes cut into quarters, drained them, then poured them into a large, blue-black Moroccan serving bowl decorated with white lightning bolts. He added a handful of cracked pepper, a cup of olive oil and a big splash of vinegar, garnishing the lot with torn parsley leaves from the plants growing rampant in pots on the windowsill. It smelled so good James could feel his stomach growing hands and reaching out of his throat.
They ate well that night, talking and listening to Traffic albums. At about half past one in the morning James fell asleep in his bed reading Flann O’Brien and dreamed of a Joycean stream-of-consciousness character to be, his Leopoldian Bloomsday boy. A man mountain resembling a gargantuan potato, kind of warty and shiny at the same time, deep red, eight eyes, a gigantic, knobbly pontiac potato with legs. This seems unlikely but that’s dream logic for you. Maybe it’s only his head and chest that looks like a potato. No, the whole man, a potato in a three-piece suit, no neck, a monster, highly appropriate for a man who is wandering his whole life in a single day around Brisbane’s burning streets and ultimately boiled alive.
He woke and wrote on the inside cover of O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds:
Huge character, Finn McCoolish, Bloom the Wanderer, Brobdignagian, more potato than man, the scourge and salvation of Irish feast and famine, dug from the earth fresh this very morning begorra, the only day of his life, at the age of 55.
Then immediately went back to sleep.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 275
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 21 May 2019
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