By Robert Whyte
Manacles, a novel by Robert Whyte 1972–2020
“What have you been thinking about?”
It was our favourite thing to say after the drink-management, cushion-plumping business had been taken care of. It meant you had attempted to focus your mind on some knotty, thorny problem you needed to elucidate, explicate and solve, the solution being the philosophical framework for your art.
Charles poked his pipe stem thoughtfully at his canvas. “My ability to understand is greatly enhanced by my ability to misunderstand. I now realise it is possible, in fact desirable, to take no for answer.”
“No?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Furthermore, I have realised with a blinding flash of insight, that John the Baptist and Attila the Hun have the same middle name. “
“It is good thing you are not responsible for baptisms in this town.”
“Indeed,” said Charles. “So what has been your knotty, thorny problem?”
“Not so much a worthwhile cogitative exercise, more a practical and procedural matter. The Literature Board’s writing police are on their way to extract their pound of self reification in return for smothering me with Australian dollars.”
“Who would have thought? The Australian government actually wants something in return for the clover I’ve fallen into.”
“Can’t they just make a statue of you at Parliament House and have done with it? Here be-plinthed is the bust of yet another living treasure supported by our profligate Arts Board unquestionably a genius in the making or we would never have singled him or her out for nest feathering.”
“Apparently not. They have performance evaluations, benchmarks, milestones, yardsticks, proofreading pedants, grammar fascists, worthiness quotients, award greasers, society mentioners, hot-list compilers and bean counters.”
“Shit. You are fucked. How much have you written?”
“Actual output is rather difficult to judge. Most of it is still at what you might call the gestation phase.”
“Actual words on paper?”
“Yes. Keystrokes hitting the platen.”
“Remember the party?”
“The one where we met and you moved into the studio building?”
“I remember it, not really as you wrote it, where I come off looking like Zola’s idiot Cézanne.”
“The problem,” I said, “is the party scene is kind of … well, it’s it, actually.”
“What do you mean it?”
“That’s all there is,” I said.
“Holy fucking shitting shit storms. You are really fucked, with a triple pike and a backwards somersault.”
“Not if I can nobble the guy.”
“Nobble? Are you serious? Do you know a discount Richard ‘The Iceman’ Kuklinski?”
“I’m going to write him out, and you’re going to help.”
“You’re the one who said this is real you know. What has writing got to do with it?”
“What choice do I have? This may be real, but I am not without power or influence. I’m a living fucking treasure, with rays coming out of my eyes, and rays coming out of the tips of my fingers. I can confuse the bastard and forge a letter back to Trudy Splattermess at the Lit Board.”
“You are really, truly, absolutely, basically fucked. Not to mention delusional.”
“Just help me, will you. I’ve got to stall the fucker. It’s worth a shot. I’ll pull the great Australian novel out of my arse and give that to them.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Je ne refuse rien, you said. “Anyway, if I get desperate the characters might begin to suffer unpredictable mood swings, and maybe have suicidal thoughts.”
“Oh, you are a saint. A saint among men. Saint Fucked-in-the-head. What have you got?
“That’s the spirit. His name is Dumbfuck Arsehole, and he’s on the train from Melbourne.”
Charles began typing.
Didn’t you forget something?
Dumbfuck Arsehole stared at the trees moving by the windows of the train, knowing in fact the trees were stationary and he was the one moving, carried along the rolling metal train tracks, accompanied by a soundtrack of clacking rhythm as the Queenslander from Melbourne forged through the farms and towns of New South Wales. They had just passed Nambucca Heads.
A strange feeling came over Dumbfuck as he studied the far-off bark of a forest red gum. Did I leave the iron on? Did I leave the car unlocked? Did I leave any food for the chooks? Shouldn’t I be there for Nan? Beth is getting married. That bloke of hers is the ultimate toolsqueeze.
I remember ironing this collar, he thought, inserting his fingers in the space between the collar and his neck, feeling uncomfortably constricted as the knot of his tie jabbed into his adam’s apple. Now I remember a frayed cable from the rear of the iron snaking out of sight. I always unplug it and wind the cord around the handle before putting it back on the shelf near the ironing board, he thought. I have done it thousands of times, surely I wouldn’t have forgotten just this once. Unless I was interrupted. Did Trudy call me at precisely the wrong time? Surely not. But why can’t I remember putting the iron away? Or locking the car? Or filling up the chook food. I can’t remember anything. What’s wrong with me? He yanked the detailed route map from his inside coat pocket, catching his striped gps tie on the way out and a glimpse of his reflection in the window. A bowler hat? Who wears a fucking bowler hat?
Nambucca Heads. Urunga. Sawtell. Coffs Harbour. I can get off at Coffs. I have to get back. Report to Trudy Splattermess. Fellowship fine. Boy genius on track.
“That should work” said Charles.
“A nobble fit for a king. Now we bury the typewriter.”
“Hang on, where’s great Australian novel?”
“Nearly done, check it out!”
Thorn tree of man puddles
Father Ralph, his vows stretching to breaking point, struggled to control the powerful feelings stirreing in his heart and elsewhere by the achingly undespoiled, flaming-haired Meggie of ripening womanhood and swelling bosom as they wandered among the brush box, ghost gum and stringy-barks. Drugheaven sprawled around them, hectare upon hectare of Afghani Pride opium, coca bush as far as the eye could snort, resin-glistening cannabis and minor plots of henbane, khat, sassafras, ephedra, peyote and rye. In his uneven alto-baritone voice, Father Ralph spoke.
“Meggie, I cannot live this life of ambition and celibacy any longer. I will impale my chest on the biggest, longest, most monstrous thorn, till it pierces my throbbing pump organ and lets forth a warbling wail of beauty no thrush or nightingale has ever emitted, a song of beauty out-rivalling all rivals, as I depart this wretched life.”
“No, Father, you shall not plunge the thorn into your bosom for mine is far riper and more ravenous for the thrust of the spike which will send my cries to heaven where even the angels will not surpass their climax.”
“Dearest Meggie, while there is breath in my tall, slender yet wiry-strong, handsome and rather dapper frame, I will extirpate the very life I breathe on the sharpness of the scimitar shaped extrusion, a prick that travels through flesh like a sword, cutting sinew, bone, lung and artery — as I yell ululations sweeter than ambrosia nectar to tickle even the ears of Godalmighty.”
“Sinful priest, I will expire in song upon the thorn, not you,” Meggie wailed.
“I will precede you, there will be no thorn to spare once it is embedded in my flesh,” said the priest.
“You will not, usurper.”
“Will too!” he cried, ripping open the bodice of his soutane.
“Will not! Will not! Will not!” she said, tearing her clothing until she stood before him, naked, her surging breasts adorned by long, firm nipples which she ached for him to take in his mouth.
“Will so! Will so! Will so!” said Father Ralph. The last of his clothes he threw to the winds so he too, apart from his elegant black riding boots, stood before her starkly naked, his manhood wobbling towards her like the front half of a death adder with rigor mortis. Jet black, she noticed. Beneath this torpedo tumescence hung a loose sack containing only one testicle.
“When are we getting to the puddles?” Charles aid.
“What puddles?” I said.
“The man puddles.”
“They are in the title. Surely we get to hear about the puddles soon?”
“Oh that. Thorn tree of man puddles,” I said. “That’s The Thorn Birds, Patrick White’s Tree of Man, and I can Jump Puddles about Alan Marshall, polio kid.”
“Isn’t that a kid’s book?” said Charles.
“No. It’s a book about a kid.”
“Great Australian novel?”
“Well, it’s only in the title. It’s marginal.”
“I think I’d prefer to read about man puddles,” said Charles.
“You’re a pataphysician,” I said, “you would.”
“Are there any Australian pataphysical books?”
“Only this one,” I said.
“The one I’m writing.”
Charles wheezed out a rasping cough that sounded remarkably like bullshit.
“You would be flattering yourself, wouldn’t you?” he said.
“They’re publishing it.”
“Really? The Ouilopo crowd in Paris?”
“There are pataphysicians in Melbourne?” said Charles.
“Of course. Everything is in Melbourne. They’d even have escaped convicts from Sydney only they get turned back at the border by the dress regulations.”
“Not enough black and too toothy-smiley?”
“I still doubt very much the existence of a College de Pataphysics in Melbourne,” he said.
“There will be,” I said.
“Nudge nudge, wink wink,” said Charles. “With an executive of nom de plumes, I’d wager.”
“Go Jimmy! Go you good thing!”
“Shhh! that’s embargoed.”
“Rightly so, chumski,” he said. “So, you think your book is written in a sufficiently mock-scientific manner with undertones of spoofing and quackery?”
“It could be,” I said. “What’s wrong with that?”
“You do realise this is Australia, don’t you?”
“Bit over their heads?
“I love the sound of irrelevance as it goes whoosing past. You’re going to need some Australian tripe in there, classic family dynasty crap with the deadpan drongo, disappeared dad, evil matriarch, forbidden fruit, Irish priests, arch manipulators, baby snatchers, coming of age clichés, spooky nuns, oedipal overload, favoured offspring, neglected children, signature colours, hollow victories, star-crossed lovers, masses of hardly plausible coincidence laid on with a trowel, romantic beach interludes, the secret son revealed and so on.”
“You really know your stuff,” I said.
“What do you think is in The Thorn Birds?”
“I don’t know, never read it.”
“Where did that Meggie, father Ralph shit come from?”
“Canadian cheat notes, not really the same as the real thing. It’s not as bad as you might think, you know.”
“If you say so,”
“Sold 33 million copies.”
“That’s why I put it in, that dark Irish handsome priest shit is the shit.”
“You do know it’s set in New Zealand, don’t you?” said Charles.
“No way. Is it?”
“If you’re going to write the great Australian novel, I think you’d better read it, Cholmondeley. Anyway, I thought you were doing the Great Australian novel as a stalling tactic.”
“I am, but I may as well stick it in, wouldn’t want to waste it.”
“I suppose it does the undertones of spoofing and quackery you’re after.”
What about Tree of Man, have you got the Coles Notes version of that too?”
“I wouldn’t read it even if I did, I can’t stand Patrick White’s crap.”
“Patrick White’s Nobel Prize winning crap you mean. For an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature. He won the first ever Miles Franklin Award, too, you know.”
“Miles Franklin? I like her. She was pataphysical. Nobody really likes Patrick White, do they? Even he didn’t like his own stuff. It was just canon fodder for F. R. Leavis. A huge christianity over-reach in yet another god forsaken shitheap.”
“Be careful, now, that’s my shitheap you’re talking about there.”
“Mine too. Anyway, Tree of Man is only in the title to make the man puddles gag. Patrick White said that life was so dreary, ugly and monotonous, there must be a poetry hidden it. There was, a dreary, ugly, monotonous poetry. I like Voss but only because it was about Ludwig Leichhardt, who was a least a bit interesting, being not so pig-headed, racist, misogynist and xenophobic as the British.”
“You are a hard man, but fair. Lay on McDuff, and pick up the pace or we’ll never get to Dunsinane.”
“Not interrupting might help. Okay, from Beneath this torpedo tumescence hung a loose sack containing only one testicle.”
A rasping voice whispered from behind a nearby spruce, followed by a grizzled face and beard as it came into view, attached to a bony pair of shoulders, a waist, trousers, boots and many other items of middle age not visible under trekking gear.
“Excuse me, do you know the way to Kansas City?” The explorer spoke with a thick German accent, a thinly veiled glucklichkeit and a medium-sized lack of companions.
“I afraid you’re a long way from Kansas City, if you are referring to the town in Missouri,” said Meggie. “This is Australia.”
“Dirne! Hure! Du bist nichts mehr als eine unbekannte Spezies. Ich werde dich sammeln und dich in Alkohol bewahren. Sprich nicht von Elend, denn ich bin Voss, König der Könige. Schau auf meine Werke, ihr Nudisten und Verzweiflung!”
“Was ist los, mein Herr?” said Cardinal Ralph, who was a consummating linguist.
“Ich bin. Ist es nicht offensichtlich? Ich bin so lange durch dieses gottverlassene Scheißloch eines Landes gewandert, ich weiß nicht, in welche Richtung mein Arsch geschraubt wird. Ich habe den letzten meiner Gefährten vor einigen Wochen durch einen Billabong in der Nähe eines schwarzen Stumpfes verloren, der mit den Worten “Graben Sie es, Mann?” Beschriftet ist. Aber dort waren keine Vorräte vergraben. Ich bin verloren, hoffnungslos verloren, nicht nur physisch, was sicher nicht gut ausgehen wird, sondern symbolisch, spirituell, intellektuell und metaphysisch. Es gibt zumindest einen Trost. Wenigstens bin ich diesen verrückten Le Mesurier los, zweifellos der schlechteste Dichter, der je ein apokalyptisches Prosa-Gedicht geschrieben hat! Übrigens, wenn sich hier jemand in heroischer Suizidalität aufspießt, werde ich es sein, denn ich bin der Übermensch.”
“You don’t look like a king,” Meggie said. “You look like an author avatar, you know, a mouthpiece for some slouching dickhead with a quill, moaning on about futility and the stupidity of believing in triumph of the will.”
Ralph’s left eyebrow jerked up and flew right off his head.
“Well said, Meggie. I didn’t know you had it in you. I am truly impressed!”
“Darling!” said Meggie, her flaming mane cascading like Godiva’s ponytail. She rushed to his arms as their bodies cleaved in the consummation of four orifices, while from Ralph’s coccyx grew a rather smart forked tail to match the two sharp, pink horns which had grown from his temples.
“Verdammte Hölle, das ist alles was ich brauche”, murmered Voss, “ein öffentlicher Austausch von Körperflüssigkeit. Ich kann mir auch den Kopf abschneiden.”
“Hang on, are you going to translate the fucking Dutch?”
“Deutsch, not Dutch, but sure. When Meggie tells him Kansas City is in Missouri, he says Strumpet! Whore! You are nothing more than an unknown species. I shall collect you and preserve you in alcohol for I am Voss, king of kings. Look upon my works, ye nudists, and despair!
“Nice,” said Charles.
“Then the priest with the black prick just about to fuck Meggie’s ears off says What, sir, could the matter be? to show off skill as a cunnilinguist, then Voss replies I am. Isn’t it obvious? I have been wandering across this godforsaken shit hole of a country for so long I don’t know which way my arse is screwed on. I lost the last of my companions some weeks back, by a billabong in the vicinity of a black stump inscribed with the words ‘Do you dig it, man?’ But there were no supplies buried there. I am lost, hopelessly lost, not only physically, which I am sure is not going to turn out well, but symbolically, spiritually, intellectually and metaphysically. There is one consolation. At least I am rid of that lunatic Le Mesurier, undoubtedly the worst poet who ever wrote an apocalyptic prose poem! By the way, if anyone around here is going to impale themselves in heroic suicidality it will be me, for I am the ubermensch. Meggie then takes a slice at Patrick White, referring to him as some slouching dickhead with a quill. This impresses Ralph who grows further tumescent, with horns, to fuck her every which way, which disgusts Voss who wanders off saying Fucking hell, that’s all I need, a public exchange of bodily fluid. I may as well cut my own head off. That’s about it for The Thorn Birds, then we get Dante from Malouf’s Johnno, which my book shits all over.”
“Does it, now?” said Charles.
“Keep your eyebrows at sea level matey, and listen to this.”
Voss wandered off, sawing at his neck with his penknife, falling into step with a lean, dark young man mooching along unimpeded except for the strings attached to his arms, legs, internal organs, arsehole and tongue, which were dragging across the lumpy mulga various scenes of Brisbane including the William Jolly Bridge, University of Queensland campus, Valley Pool, a few trams, Spring Hill Baths, Criterion Hotel and the suburb of South Brisbane.
“Will you look at us,” said the lean, dark young man, whose name was Dante. “A couple of wandering, curmudgeonly characters, awash with sunshine, too miserable to lift our wings like Pinkenbah turtles, like grey galahs, like sulphur-crested clouds above green and yellow fields shifting like sparkling surfaces of a reflecting sea. Above the dust, thick on everything except the carmine new growth, soft-tipped slender tongues of muted chlorophyll. You, a dreamer, completely cloudstreet cuckooland in your own noggin full of deep dark desires of conquest — and me the quiet one like me mum, Saint Theresa of our torn household, the rock of Gibraltar of our sprawling migrant family dynasty. Listen! Hear the call of the currawong, the slither of a lizard, the slip of a thing. You could cast a line across this girt land it and catch a dogfish catworm earwig. The fish of the fields are strong ones. Arch your back lad, put your weight into it, rip its fucking head off! You’ve got to let go to hold on, give in to your true inner-soles, mull away your fears. You can wander forever if you never admit you’ve failed, living on the cornhusks of your threadbare dreams.”
“So what’s the answer?” Voss said finally.
“Family sagas. Everyone loves a dynasty. You just chuck in every sick trope you can think of and stick them onto your family members. People turn the pages like maniacs knowing the basic background is the same as their own, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, step sisters. It’s a freak show, featuring the whole extended cast of characters, the deadpan drongo, disappeared dad, evil matriarch, forbidden fruit, Irish priests, arch manipulators, baby snatchers, coming of age clichés, spooky nuns, oedipal overload, favoured offspring, neglected children, signature colours, hollow victories, star-crossed lovers, masses of hardly plausible coincidence laid on with a trowel, romantic beach interludes, the secret son revealed and so on.”
“Is that all?”
“All my own work,” said Dante.
“Bully for you, Stu.”
“Spare me,” said Voss.
“You’re a bit of a grumpy bastard, aren’t you.”
“You should have been here yesterday.”
“I see you’ve purloined my letter on the topic of family sagas there.” said Charles. “Have you no shame?”
“Intellectual property is theft. What’s yours is mine. Don’t worry, I’ll send you a signed copy.”
“Aren’t going to sign the complete print run of fifty?”
“Don’t be cruel. Next up we get Picnic at Hanging Rock.”
Passing them in the evening light came schoolgirls in paper and cane light shades, glowing from within, swarming over the rocks like inflated cotton and lace beetles. A film crew, mounted on giant papier-maché elephants, followed…
“What was that?” said Voss.
“No idea,” said Dante.
“Is that it? That’s all we get for a pivotal moment in Australian cinema history?”
“Pivotal? More like pelvical if you ask me. Petticoat overload with pan pipes. Some septic said it was a film of haunting mystery and buried sexual hysteria. Hot girl-school underwear smut giving up their dark continents to randy spirits. Remember Edith saying she saw the mathematics mistress, I love that, mathematics mistress, Miss McCraw climbing the Rock without her skirt. That was hot stuff for those days. It had a budget of $440,000 and made over five million.
“Enough, enough. What happens next?”
“Miles Franklin, as promised.”
“Boo, hoo! Ow, ow; Oh! oh! Me’ll die. Boo, hoo. The pain, the pain! Boo, hoo!”
On the top of a huge pyre of bibles, each page torn out and scrunched up, covers slit into strips and shoved into every pocket of space in the wickerwork bonfire of tinder dry casuarina, wattle, bloodwood and grey gum, Sybylla Melvyn was hopping from foot to foot as the flames of her recently lit, irreligious, pyromaniacle monstrosity darted between her bare toes, licking her heels like a famished foot fetishist.
“Hey, skinny guy and Wolf-man, catch!” she yelled, launching herself into the air towards them. She tucked her knees up under her chin, forming the tight ball shape used for bomb-diving off the ten-metre board at Centenary Pool. Both Dante and Voss had turned towards the sound of her voice with dopey looks on their faces. The impact scattered them like nine pins, except there were only two of them, not nine, flying off in separate directions into the spinifex while Sybylla bounced back and landed on her feet, unharmed. She grinned at them as they climbed to their hands and knees, attempting to flee the scene by crawling away, falling over, then giving up, rubbing their sore heads as they scrabbled fitfully like dung beetles in the sand.
Sybylla walked over to them and sat between them, taking each man by the hand.
“My name is Sybylla Melvyn,” she said. “Isn’t this just peachy. We can sit here holding hands, telling yarns around the fire, perhaps even have a sing along. What do you say, chaps?”
“Why do you keep shifting in and out of focus?” asked Dante.
“I’m autobiographical,” said Sybylla, “in an unusually truthful book about myself, My Brilliant Career, published in London under my pen name, Miles Franklin. My body keeps trying to morph into my author self, but I’m having too much fun. What about you chaps?”
“I’m autobiographical,” said Dante. “But my author is too boring looking to be worth changing into. He didn’t endow me with any great charms either.”
“I’ll say,” said Sybylla, having done so. “What about you, Wolf-man?”
“Please don’t call me that, I’m supposed to look like Ludwig Leichhardt, or some archetypal mad German explorer.”
“You look like the arse end of an archetypal Wolf-man to me. Never mind. What do you write?”
“I don’t write. I am a naturalist. Rocks, trees, bugs, that sort of thing. My author’s a writer. I think he’s going to get some blacks to cut my head off with a pen knife, which is unfair on them and not much to look forward to for me, so I’m trying to beat him to it.”
“I can see you’ve been sawing away at your neck there, do you want some help?”
“No thanks, I can manage.”
“How old are you Sybylla?” Dante asked.
“Sweet sixteen in this young maiden’s ripening body, but who knows how old and saggy I’ll be when my author finally manages to take over. Anyway chaps, I have to say both of you together are about as interesting as bucket of guano, so I’ll be off. There’s plenty more fun to be had out there destabilising the patriarchy and all of its fiddle faddle and mawkish sentiment.”
She got to her feet, clicked her bare heels together and diva-like, dived down a nearby rabbit hole.
“What do you think of that?” I said.
“I love it,” said Charles, beaming. “An absolute hoot. This will win you the plaudits my friend. I will be unworthy to hang by your coat tails. While I am still allowed into your presence, let us toast your great Australian novel by cracking a Grange, and when we have dispatched that muck, we will douse ourselves liberally with a bucket each of the incomparable Para Vintage Tawny Port.”
“You really do like it,” said, each of my eyelashes quivering in synchronised pleasure.
“Either that or I am desperately in need of a drink,” he said. “Read on while I replenish my hepatic well being with fine libations to match your leonine vibrations.”
I turned the page and continued.
Dante and Voss brushed themselves down and continued walking aimlessly in no particular direction.
“I’m beginning to feel like Dante Alghieri,” said Dante. “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
“You look a bit like him,” said Voss. “That would mean I’m Virgil and these are the Elysian Fields. No such luck, I’m afraid. I am still a partly beheaded German and you’re a runt without a litter. I’m starting to get hungry, myself. Do you think there’s any food up at the house?”
“Sure to be,” said Dante. “The old harridan was as rich as Croesus. If not we can drag her down and throw her on the bonfire and eat her still twitching corpse.”
“Excellent,” said Voss, picking up the pace in the direction of the homestead.
Instead of the large country homestead they had expected, Dante and Voss opened the front doors to some rather challenging elements, the space, the period, the comma, and twenty-six letters of the alphabet. Other than these, which glowed somehow with an eerie light, it appeared dark. Coming from the harsh Australian light under the blue vault of the southern skies, their eyes were taking time to adjust. A gaggingly powerful stench, however, was immediate. The close, foetid air smelled of human sweat, shit, skin, burnt hair, tuberculosis, semen, syphilis, saliva and rotting flesh gnawed by rats swimming through seas of their own droppings. The searing ammonia of concentrated urine made their eyes water. They became aware of the ship’s heaving motion, the snores of sleeping men and goats, the grunting squeals of pigs and the groaning of the timbers. There was not enough head room to even stand crouched. They were forced to crawl through the dark, over shit-and-blood smeared boards, emaciated hands and arms reaching from the dark on all sides, towards a distant pool of light on a set of stairs. Voss had stopped trying to cut his own head off in order to poke his penknife at the reaching hands. Dante was using a broken Tristram Aerated Waters and Brewed Beverages soft-drink bottle he had yanked from his memories of Brisbane.
The stairs led up to another deck where British officers were corn-holing each other and female convicts, while gargling rum straight from the bottle. This deck smelled even worse, with the vomitous smell of stupidity, prejudice, entitlement, senseless obedience, ambition, self-satisfied smugness, superiority, inferiority and the all-pervading sickening odour of religion.
They clambered further up the stairs onto the deck, where a group of men had gathered around another who was lashed to a mast being flogged with a cat swung by its nine tails, its long claws flaying the flesh of the man’s back, cutting so deep ribs, liver and lungs were exposed. When the man being flogged lost consciousness he was cut down and revived, his back smeared with tar, so he could take his turn swinging the cat to flay the back of the man who had just flayed his. The remainder urged the man swinging the cat to go harder, seemingly oblivious to the fact they would soon have their turn being flogged, as they rotated through the group.
Dante and Voss scrambled across the deck away from this pretty scene until they were some way distant, then stood up to take a breather and get their bearings. The deck was gleaming. There was a ridiculous amount of rope tied to everything in sight. All neat, but ridiculous. Absurdly tall masts were covered with sails and rigging, more ropes and wooden cleat gizmos to tighten them. The deck sloped up slightly to the rear of the boat and at the rail leaning out over the stern they could see it was more or less square ended. On the deck, a number of officers lolled about, wearing fanciful costumes with white stockings, tri-cornered hats, gold braid, oversize buttons, silk waistcoats, rinky-dink navy-blue coats, flouncy sleeves and powdered wigs, the whole outfit about as useful on a sea voyage as a bicycle is to a fish. The officers occasionally took up a musket and shot randomly, injuring or wounding fatally pacific gulls, dolphins, other officers or themselves. Men of few words, they were mostly silent, occasionally barking out one-word statements like “Snatch” “Crutch” “Bosh” “Bunkum” “Balderdash” “Nonsense” “Moshpit” “Snivel” and “Church.” Or so it seemed to Dante and Voss who couldn’t make any sense of what they were saying, probably because they were forced to take cover every time one of the addled officers swivelled in their direction with a loaded musket.
The silly clothing must have caused selective restriction of blood supply to the brain, for despite excellent navigational and charting skills, the officers seemed oblivious of thousands of Aboriginal people swarming over the land nearby their anchorage, coming and going, laughing at them, some listlessly throwing spears, having much the same effect as the random musket shooting yet with fewer fatalities, but mostly going about their ordinary lives harvesting ship-worm-cobra from the piled logs of she-oaks in the clear blue-green water over the sand and gravel river bottom, plucking large mullet from the shallows, spearing dugong, cultivating bungwall fern, gathering shellfish and mud crabs, netting eels, gathering dianella, midyim fruit and native yam, catching snake, lizard, goanna, wallaby and echidna, dancing in gatherings of thousands with warriors fighting in ceremonies on large cleared grounds, tending to their dwellings, celebrating births deaths and marriages, abiding by Aboriginal customary law, fire-farming the large grassy plains along the creeks, signalling from hilltop lookouts, initiating the kippas, welcoming ambassadors from far away tribes, weaving baskets and floral wreaths, sculpting stone or wood weapons for hunting and fishing, preparing food or tending to the injured. On both sides of the river were patches of superb old-growth rainforest, large lianas climbing the giant figs, tamarind and cedar trees, filled to overflowing with birds, butterflies, mammals, frogs and reptiles.
“I think this is Brisbane, in the early 1800s,” said Dante. “We would be very wise to get ashore. I don’t give us much chance of getting back out the way we came.”
Voss needed no convincing. He was off and running, shimmying down the anchor rope, hitting the clear salty water with a splash, striking out towards shore with a surprisingly effective dog paddle. Years of accumulated desert dust left a trail behind him. Dante leapt from the deck in a swan dive, almost breaking his neck hitting the gravel in the shallow water, then powering after Voss with a swimming style reminiscent of the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil in full vortex, arriving at the shore just as Voss was threading his way through the mangroves up to higher ground. When they both reached the clear area where TJ Ryan would one day provide pigeons a perch and the opportunity of shitting on both his head and that of Queen Victoria, the Aboriginal people greeted them like long-lost relatives, preparing the scene for feasting and fun.
Voss looked happy at last. He was positively beaming as he discussed Schopenhauer with a couple of friendly medicine men from visiting tribes. He no longer felt the need to saw at his neck with his penknife or in any danger of others doing it for him, as he tucked into some delicious kangaroo tail. A few other guests were passing around a brew of infused grevillea flowers and lemon myrtle leaves. Dante had found a young Aboriginal couple who had read Remembering Babylon, another of his author’s books. They had formed an unusual thesis as to its significance and the resulting discussion looked like being a long one.
“Gloomy truth, begorrah,” said Charles. “They’ll cut all that pro-blackfella crap, of course, and you won’t get away with lampooning our fine British navy, but still a mighty effort.”
“I wish you had cracked this ’67 Grange when I was writing that,” I said. “You could have told me then and saved me the trouble. It all goes very grunge after this, I’m afraid.”
“As long as you don’t have a bootboy from Claridges come in squeezing his pimples.”
“Great idea, give me a minute and I’ll slip him in between Nora and Javo.”
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” said Charles, his ventriloquising voice coming from the neck of the empty Grange Bottle, while he poured us a generous slug of the tawny into our tin mugs.
“Why not. It’s good stuff.”
“Yes, but not yours. Read away, lad, and let the sky be a vessel for your honeycombed vocalisations.”
“I’m not sure what that means, but okay.”
Nora looked up from her book, her long brown arms painfully thin against the irreparably yellowed sheets.
“Javo, I get the feeling I’ve read this before,” she said.
Javo stood in the doorway, hunched a little, holding himself in his gnawed hands. His face was hollow and white. His fingertips were infected and his skin was erupting geysers of pus. His blue eyes shone in his battered face.
“How could you have?” he said. “I only just wrote it.”
“It doesn’t sound like you. Why would you write about Germans and Aborigines and David Malouf characters? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Have you ever actually seen me shoot junk?” he asked.
“Not that I can remember. I sprung you trying but left before you found a vein.”
Javo made an expressionless face.
“Help me, Javo, I’m losing it,” said Nora
“I lost it a long time ago. Don’t lean on me, when you’re not strong, I can’t be your friend, I can’t help you carry on.”
“Will you share your junk at least?”
“No, I broke my fit and buried it in the back yard. I’m going to grow a syringe tree.”
“At least it rhymes with orange tree.”
“I’m fucking John Birmingham,” said Nora.
“The falafel guy?”
“Yes. Do you mind?”
“Really? I thought he was in Brisbane.”
“No, not the author, the character John Birmingham in the falafel book.”
“You can fuck with anyone you want Nora. Will you fuck with me?”
“When you’re better and I’m not bleeding.”
The room was bleak, but clean. It was Nora’s room, but it was also a spare room. The floorboards were bare and the window brought in back-yard light, tinged with green. The sheets were beyond white no matter how much bleach was thrown at them. There were half a dozen places around the room where Javo had stashed his junk and another half a dozen places where Nora had stashed hers. She had a miserly pile of coke, some hash, speed and some pain shit. No liquor.
Behind Javo appeared Cynthia and Gordon from Andrew McGahan’s first novel, which was weirdly a sequel to his second novel, go figure.
A skinny guy was trailing behind. Not Dante from Johnno back again, but a different skinny guy, Rick from Zig Zag Street by Nick Earls. Writing was a great weight-loss regime. It worked really well for the ‘idealised youth’ characters. The trick would be to get it to work for authors as well.
Rick was making up for being skinny by carrying several extra kilos of sexual tension, all of it involving Rachel who said, “I’m right fucking here, creampuff, and you’re no dermatologist. You’re not even that skinny, ha ha get it? Dermatologist, skinny?”
“I should be skinny, after vomiting and shitting all night from eating the salmon mousse at your place.”
“It could have been the mango daiquiris, which you made up to feed nine,” said Rachel.
“I couldn’t let them go to waste,” said Rick.
“You let them go your waist instead,” said Rachel.
“And anyway it wasn’t my salmon mousse it was Ashley’s.”
“A brilliant idea, just whip up a bit left over salmonella for a party where you’re the penis police there to measure up the wannabe boyfriend when he whips out his whang, which one always does in front an obvious Rottweiler chaperone on a first date.”
“She’s my best friend, she wants the best for me.”
“You mean she wants you, with your head in her merkin and her doing the moans and squeals and the ankle earrings.”
“Moans and squeals are good,” said Rachel.
“I can do moans and squeals. I made a tape.”
“I pray to Aphrodite you didn’t just say that and I didn’t hear it and you didn’t even think it. Aphrodite, oh great redacter, please expunge it from my memory forever. I will sacrifice to you my first 25 orgasms.”
“Speaking of orgasms, didn’t Ashley take away the salmon mousse? She could be having some on toast right now.”
“I think she did. Should I call her?”
“It’s a toss up. On the one hand, you could be saving your best friend from death by Monty Python. On the other you could cause an agonising attack of embarrassment when you tell her she was responsible for the Mighty Whang spending the night convulsing daiquiris from both ends, not to mention green curry with sultanas, 24 oysters, 12 truffles and a mandrake root.”
“Sorry to interrupt, guys,” said Cynthia who was playing how wet can you get? with her left hand and milk the boom gate with the other. “Shouldn’t you be getting a room?”
“What’s wrong with this one?” said Rachel.
“It’s fine if you want to do it with a dead guy,” said Cynthia.
“Holy fuck, Cynthia,” said Gordon, who was only half undressed, progress being slowed by active drug abuse. “You didn’t say anything about a dead guy.”
“He just turned up,” she said. “Not my fault.”
“You know him, don’t you?” said Charles.
“Who?” I asked, looking up and seeing two Charles and four Para Port bottles.
“Nick Earls. The guy who wrote the skinny dude, Rick, with the smart mouth.”
“Oh yeah, I’ve seen him heaps.”
“So he’ll be cool about you stealing his characters, and the falafel guy, and the monkey.”
“Oh sure. I know them all,” I said waving down his worries with my four hands. I was glad I had thought to make two copies of my manuscript, but which one should I read from? Maybe I should put the other one somewhere safe.
“How can you be sure? How well do you know them?”
“Not intimate, but well enough. On talking terms.”
“You’re talked to all of them?” said Charles.
“Well, they were talking,” I said.
“Where were you while they were talking?”
“In the audience. Row 37. Still good vision.”
“So you don’t know them.”
“Of course I do, I bought the poster of Bachelor Kisses that was banned in the UK. The one with the nude guy with a text book on his dick. At a fundraiser. It was signed.”
“I don’t think that is really the same as on talking terms,” said Charles.
“Of course it is, I can talk to him any time. I could just ring him up.”
“Have you got his number?”
“Not to hand, but I could get it like that.” I snapped my fingers. There was no snap unfortunately, because my thumb and second finger kept missing each other. “Don’t fret it, man. It’s nearly at the end. I’ll read the last bit and we can finish off with a cleansing cognac.”
Charles looked me through four narrowed, suspicious eyes, or minds, or kind-of-mind-eyes, but seemed at least partially mollified, or mortified, or crucified or discombustimasticated, settling back in listening mode. I read on.
Gordon, Cynthia, Rick, Rachel and Max, the dead drummer in the coffin, were all now in a more-or-less dishevelled state of undress, not completely nude, but not well covered where it usually matters. Cynthia’s huge clitoris was painfully obvious. It was hard to say how undressed Max the dead drummer was in his coffin although they could have just asked Venero Armanno, who was in there with him, the two of them snug as two buggers playing rugger. Except that Venero was alive.
Without really looking to see who they were, Javo walked past them and off somewhere. The new chums trooped into an adjoining room, Rick and Gordon carrying Max’s coffin.
Gordon and Cynthia collapsed on the bed with Nora and continued masturbating intermittently without any particular zeal, lotions or mechanical aids. Gordon and Nora shared some cones, while Rick and Rachel, somewhat enclosed in their own bubble, sat on the floor, back to back, leaning their heads back on each others shoulders to whisper in each other’s ears. Max just lay there dreaming about drumming.
“How are we going to finish this?” said Cynthia. Her skin was entirely covered in tiny bleeding scabs. She smelled of blood, soothing lotion, cheap wine and a two day growth.
“It needs a smooth finish,” said Rachel, squinching her black eyes, “you don’t want to see the brush strokes.”
“Hey, is your name Rachel?” said Gordon.
“I’m not your Rachel,” she said, “so don’t go fantasising any cunt-munching on my account.”
“I’m depressed,” Gordon said. “I couldn’t be arsed fantasising anything.”
“Quelle surprise,” said Cynthia, “and you such a sack of laughs, usually. Camus’ Stranger is bubbly compared to you. Depressed. Fucking morbidly abject would be more like it.”
“At least I’m not grunge,” said Gordon.
“Hey guys,” said Nora, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
“Now who’s little Miss Sunshine?” said Rachel.
“It’s four cones back to back with your cunt-muncher,” Nora said. “I’m mellow.”
Rick farted, like a startled goose. Everyone laughed.
“Everyone loves a fart joke,” Rick said, letting out another acrid bum-hoot. His eyes were streaming either from the nitrous pong or from laughing so hard, or both.
“Oh shit,” he said, “I followed through on that one.”
“A mud slide for your crabs,” said Nora.
That set them all off again and farts pinged back and forth like pinballs off flippers on steroids.
“Three free balls,” Rick shouted. “Hitler only had one.”
“Gordon, don’t strike that match for fuck’s sake!” Max dreamed.
But it was too late.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 327
Mr Nemo, Y, X, Y, & Z, Thursday 19 September 2019
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