By Robert Whyte
Manacles, a novel by Robert Whyte 1972–2020
Dad had watched the morning with increasing concern. Even before the day had begun, the waters had been writhing. Strange images occurred on the hydrosphere, resembling mimeographs of the moon, seeming to be composed of knees, seen from below. Dad had taken certain measures to minimize the morning frost, but Ted had been right in his prediction that the temperature would be uncontrollable. The day, when it had arrived, had been ferocious and soon became white hot. As a result the darkness, which was normally allowed some time to withdraw, was forced to flee the scene in panic and even so, shreds caught under the doors or beneath the bed-quilts emitted tiny shrieks of pain. Not knowing what else to do, Dad decided to send up the balloon, to collect data from the upper atmosphere.
Taking a flask of miniaturized air molecules, he went to the balloon chamber. The silk was already quivering in its cocoon, as though it had known that today they would be required. Dad fastened the glass tarpaulins above the wings and adjusted the aperture selector of the vascular aureoles which opened the pores of the balloon to the drinking winds. According to this theory of flight — which had very little to do with the Wright brothers — anything could fly, so long as the air was drunk.
The sea, one of the only entities able to thrive in thisshanty-world, was slowly sinking into itself, to get away from the aimless imbecilities occurring above ground. Underwater was far superior, in every way. This was the ocean’s avowed opinion, much preferring the darkness of its own depths and going there, as often as it could. It was the ocean itself which had first climbed out onto the land and spawned legs to climb from the trees into the TAB offices. Only in their so-called civilization were humans vain enough to think they were their own creations. Giving these creatures the power of speech was obviously a bad mistake.
Dad removed the headphones. That was heavy shit. The ocean was a wonderful source of doom and gloom crap on the best of days. This was through the roof.
Time for lunch. This sort of shit was hard enough without an empty stomach to boot. He wheeled the pulpit up through the waves until it hovered near the King’s Head Hotel. Even though he could not be present in person he found the atmosphere convivial. Finn McCool and George McIntyre were down one end of the bar. As Dad unwrapped his tuna fish sandwiches, he noticed two almost recognizable shapes, colliding in front of the side entrance.
“You clumsy, great oaf! I don’t see you since sun up and this is the way you treat me! With a head butt to the solar plexus!”
“My dear Charles!” responded James, massaging his flattened proboscis with a bleeding hand. “Solar plexi notwithstanding, what a fortunate coincidence we should meet! I gather, by the look of your stomach you were on your way to see me?”
“You’re right, you didn’t much damage the midriff, but you seem to be hurt.”
“I’m not hurt. This pleading hand is a theatrical device. I have plenty more. Would you like one?” Saying so, James placed his manuscript between his knees and produced more pleading hands and a packet of Gauloises from alternate pockets.
“I’ll say yes to the Gauloises and no to the groping hands, if you don’t mind. We should celebrate. I’ve finished my painting at last. It’s the first one I’ve ever finished.” He laughed. “I’m the world’s littlest painter. One painting a life!”
“Not only the world’s littlest, but in the littlest world, as well,” said James. “Why don’t we enter this establishment, instead of standing out here in the heat like a pair of shags on the proverbial rock.”
“While I’m in complete accord with that, old friend, I wouldn’t be expecting too much top rank product from the bottle shop.”
Finding a table in the dim recesses of the lounge bar, the two friends shared the first drops from a newly-purchased bottle of Blind Ned’s Invalid Port and resumed their conversation, with James taking the initiative.
“It’s not bad, this,” he said, savouring the full nose which snorted out of his glass. “A bit on the sweet side, perhaps, and it’s got an odd fishy smell to it.”
“I’ve heard it’s made with runoff from the mackerel canning factory. But it’s a good drop for the price, all right. How’s the book going?”
“Weird. I’m a bit lost right now. It’s sunrise, the day after, on the beach.”
“The day after what?”
“The day after today. Tomorrow.”
“You’re writing something that hasn’t happened yet. No wonder you’re lost.”
“I feel bad about it.”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Jimmy. It’s only a book. It’s not the end of the world.”
“I’m not so sure about that. Maria is up to something.”
“Maria’s in your book?”
“Of course,” said James. “It’s more or less a documentary.”
“I see,” said Charles, without conviction.
“You’re not upset, are you?”
“Not at all. It’s tomorrow. Where is Maria?”
“On the beach. She left you a note saying she was going to meet you there. Didn’t she?”
“If you say so,” said Charles. “Do go on.”
“If I didn’t know better I’d think she was going try to find a way out of the book and take you with her.”
“Just what is this based on?”
“Reality,” said James.
“OK,” said Charles.“Go on.”
“Essentially it’s a threesome thing, a love triangle, like Jules and Jim. Two hopeless romantics in love with the same woman.”
Charles half closed his eyes.
“Jules and Jim didn’t end well,” he said.
“I missed the ending,” said James. “I must have fallen asleep. They had such a great time in Paris. What happened?”
“They grew up.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Jules married Catherine. Their marriage was not happy. She and Jim then get together, that doesn’t work either. They all end up in Paris and Catherine makes Jules watch helplessly while she and Jim crash through the bridge railing into the river and drown.”
“I really should have stayed awake. What about L’Ecume des jours?”
“That’s not a love triangle, really. It doesn’t end well either.”
“You’re kidding. What went wrong?”
“Colin gives his money to Chick who wastes it all on Jean-Paul Sartre memorabilia while Chloe is dying because a water lily is growing in her lung. Same thing. Idealistic romantic love, then they grow up.”
“I’m sensing a theme here.”
“Yeah. You can be crazy in love when you’re young, but sooner or later you’d better wise up and get with the program.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Getting with the program?”
“Oh sure. Now that I’ve done a painting, I’m going to teach. Maria and I are moving to Sydney so I can get a PhD and a decent job.”
“What about painting and writing? What about me?”
“It’s your life, bozo. Wake up and smell the shit storm.”
“Speaking of which, this potent brew is burning a swift path to the bladder. I’ll be right back.”
James got up, nearly fell over, then stabilised his stride, walking deeper into the dark interior of the hotel, reaching a side door which led across the car park to the urinal. Once there, he directed a stream of urine at his reflection in the mirror. His reflections always took him by surprise at times like these. He felt the spray on his toes but he did not look down to see whether or not he was wearing shoes today. The stream of the piss pattered against the glass, with increasing and diminishing intensity, depending on the angle of his lean-to as he swayed in the wind. Buttoning himself, he wondered if he had finished pissing. He looked down. He was in luck, this time. He recrossed the car park, thinking about what Charles had said. Before he reached the side door a tongue of flame coiled around him and burnt the shirt off his back. It was a relief, now he could evaporate. He walked inside.
Charles had already strapped the bottle to his back and was prepared to set out.
“Come on,” he said, “you can tell me the rest of the story on the run. I want you to see my painting. I feel like I’m getting the short end of the stick in this story of yours.”
“It’s fairly hot out there,” James warned.
Charles grunted acknowledgement, as they stepped out into the fierce sunlight. Almost immediately, a soft rain of fire commenced, showering the surrounding buildings with flame as the two friends picked their way over broken glass.
“Where were we?” James said. “Oh yeah. I remember. You know James, my character, was writing a story set in the city, all of which happens on one day, which is my version of The Odyssey and Ulysses kind of mashed together. My idea is, if this James writer guy is himself in a book, it would be autobiographical, and it would seem real to him. But what if he and Charles and Maria start to get the idea that they aren’t real and they are also in a book. That’s where I come in, because actually I wrote both books, and this world is the real one, but now I’m not so sure. Have you noticed it’s on fire?”
Charles looked through his pockets. Nothing there. Meet me by the sea, she said. Be sure you’re wearing a white horse.
He watched his ossified feet treading gingerly on the road. In the end, there’ll always be jealousy between the writer and the characters. It’s naturally going to be worse in a writer’s first book. Luckily, one is protected, more or less, from an author stepping out of line. They’re very sensitive to textual discomfort. They have to have a very good reason for getting rid of you. On the other hand if it all goes to shit I don’t want to go down with the ship, that’s the captain’s job. Good luck, sailor. He seems to have underestimated Maria. Typical writer. In love with the first person. Hmmm. I wonder if this might not be the time to gracefully exit.
Walking slowly, with limbs all to one side, Maria had spread her golden skirts with the solemn grace of carpet snakes. It was her way of predicting the weather by explosion.
Carrying three quart bottles of nitro-gasoline, she snuck from tree to tree over the uneven terrain towards the distant chlorination works. To prevent them failing, she was going to blow them up. It seemed the only sensible approach for the annihilation of a small, fictive world, so long as you could get out of there before it went kapow.
After a couple of hours sneaking from tree to tree Maria realised she wasn’t getting any closer to her target. The furtive approach wasn’t working. It was probably too subtle. She decided to simplify things and walk straight towards it.
As she understood it, walking was a mechanical biosis, an extended version of the kiss of life, consisting, to the surprise of some, of scratching the earth with nervous fingers and doodling the manuscript with the water-based grandeur of blackness.
So Maria walked. Her face was a desert, with luminous green islands swimming in the sands between fringing crescents of eyelash palm trees. It was a bridge for the iconic, mutual waters of mind. She thought of herself not as a terrorist, but as a freedom fighter, a resistance leader with plausible deniability. Gaseous dogs barked octorunic angloid utterances while Maria drank the frenzied clamour of silence. She was looking forward to pouring the night-urine from her writhing, humiliated futilities. Wouldn’t it be nice!
Mumbling sub-vocalisations along the bare-skinned beach, through the sands of time, in a state of half-distress where erosion ravished Trojans, her second wind had blown away. Soft rhythmic tides of land surged around her. Green clouds of darkness ripened yellow and orange, bathing the black silk in menthol. She felt underwritten, as if her life was on hold, waiting for the right time in which to be described.
There were only three or four hundred steps to the chlorination works. The nitro-gasoline sludged like lava in the jerry-cans. It was high grade stuff, with tallow from an emu farm. Each step reduced the number of steps remaining by one. Through repetition of this process she reached the entrance. Settling the tankard inside the door in the dust, Maria lit the fuse, stepped back outside and closed the door. A low explosion resounded through the fabric of the universe. Settling her insteps into her stirrups more firmly, she tested the door. As planned, it was jammed against thousands of tons of rubble, electrical pathways and hair.
Life would go on as normal for some time, while the dominatrix effect did its work, causing a tumbling sequence of circus performers to knock each other unconscious, thus rendering the controls inoperable.
The evening tide, produced by silk and lace-worms living in the bay, drew its veil across the foreshore, across the soon-to-be bandaged, splintered remains of the landscape.
Trellises of ideals hung in the foaming air, glued together with the ad hoc cement of mortification. The night cried aloud and often, as the caustic needles of short-fuse jocularity were discarded from the side windows of passing caravans. This was all perfectly normal. The results of the explosion would come later. Maria felt a pang of remorse, wondering whether she had done the right thing, but took consolation from the fact the Fire Chief had been warned. She watched light rieslings of vinous morning light whisper up past the horizon as she approached the beach. Sandy ground faded under the banksias and gums. She looked out over the waves, hypnotic as flames. The foam was as white as alabaster moons. Gathering her pleated garments around her waist, she skipped gaily off towards the wharf to meet Charles.
2.21 TOM RYAN
Shuffling uneasily in his upside-down, crisply burnt chair de wheels Lord Mayor Tom Ryan wondered whether he should finish this ceremonial toast to death’s stinging victory by tossing a little earth over himself with an undertaker’s trowel. That’s weird, he thought, pretty sure I haven’t done that before. Had a thought, that is, let alone an amusing musing.
This strange development had come about due to flickerings of intelligence, sparks of thought after death, now emerging in the Lord Mayor’s charred, well-grilled brain. As luck would have it he had not needed the services of his mind while alive. It was the mental equivalent of putting the car up on blocks. His mental machinery, after a life of bonhomie, vacuous political machinations and civil affairs, was in perfect working order. If only the rest of him was alive, he could have been someone.
George McIntyre found the going difficult, severely handicapped by the lack of wall-maps in the sewer system, something he would remember to attend to if he ever got out of here. Don’t forget to remind me. After some hours of aimless wandering, he had reached a junction offering him three ways forward. A fourth, going back the way he had come, lay behind him. He opted for a fifth, which was to lie down in the shallow water and think things over.
Staring at nothing in the dark, his mind began picking through his memories, loitering around a particular scene in which an over exertion with his Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension course had caused his body to multiply into a throng of skinny weaklings which then merged into the monster he had now become. It was a nice memory, lingering in his thoughts like a broken-down melody with no hubcaps. His head settled more softly into the sweet-smelling sludge of composting brown leaves.
Reasoning further from this point, it occurred to George the presence of fallen foliage in the tunnel was a sign that the tubular conveyance he now occupied must have been a through-way for storm water destined for the outdoors and not the turd-processing pit he had been expecting. Reassured he could find his way out of the labyrinth without having to confront the fecal minotaur, he felt entitled to a nap before continuing his journey. His snores reverberated along the tunnels, a pleasant counterpoint to the point he had forgotten to remember — that age-old adage, where there is a storm water drain there is storm water, sooner or later. It came in a rush, picking him up and carrying him out into the bay where it took 37 bronze whaler sharks, a moray eel and a starving stone fish to rip him apart and consume the remains.
James lurched through the streets, his shirt burned off his back. Only now, after an hour or two blinded by Blind Ned’s, did he realise the city around him was seriously engulfed in flames and that this wasn’t likely to be a good thing.
Despite things looking ridiculous and far away, it was obvious some people, tearing their faces off, screaming inferno and throwing them into seething flames, were not enjoying themselves.
Two large, blue ink-stains had appeared on his body, one on his shoulder and another on his hip. Hard on the heels on that observation, came another. He was no longer lurching, since he was lying down, looking at the sky through the smoke and fire, which seemed to be clouding over. The first propellers of rain whirled down from the clouds. In a few moments soot-caked beads of moisture, frazzled to the aroma of stale coffee, began to explode on the sizzling footpath. If it weren’t so obvious, he would have remembered Fire and Rain, James Taylor’s song about dead friends, drug addiction and depression. Or maybe not. Bit of a downer.
As evening turned to night Dad and Ted began searching for survivors, but finding only corpses, which they were hauling onto their boat to take back and bury. The water, silver-blue and green, gleamed in the light of the full moon, hanging over the scene like a huge, distended eye. Insects whistled in perpetual motion. Bright costumes were swarming by the shore, preparing to hold back an exceptionally high tide. Ash and soot, the result of the sun setting fire to the edges of the horizon, blackened the silver edges of the sky, covered everything.
“What’s that on the beach, Dad?” called Ted.
“It’s not moving. But we’d better pick it up anyway.”
His figure cast a wavering shadow on the waves. A fog drifted in. The boat bumped into something. A body, bloated and blue, surfaced, venting bad-smelling air.
“Here’s something,” Dad said. “Fuck me. It’s the bottom half of the balloon. The force of the fire must have made it take human form.” Dad put his grappling hook into the bulging side of the floating object and hauled it on board. He called to Ted.
“Throw your hook into the one on the beach and then we’ll call it quits for the night.”
As they motored back to the wharf, Ted looked up into the liquid sky. It was larger than expected, this book, he thought. He had expected it to crush him like a moth against a screen. It was now obvious there was a certain amount of room to move. Above him the dark mist increased and arrows of rain enveloped him in a stinging spray. The pores of his skin, aqueous and ductile, screamed as tiny squirts of pleasure were channelled into the pooling reservoirs of his blood. I could get to like it here, he thought.
2.25 MARIA AND CHARLES
It was tomorrow, bright and early. Vague currents of high tide eddied, soon to be pulled away towards the sea by invisible lunar forces. At world’s end, the weather was idyllic, the sun beaming down like the face of a happy child. Islands, dotted the bay like freckles on the sea.
Charles dipped his hand into the water, seized a rope to a dinghy and reeled it in while Maria watched on, thinking of what it would be like to have shells instead of the teeth in her mouth, a sea creature with seaweed hair, many arms waving from the deep.
The dinghy thudded into the pier, newly painted blue. The dinghy was painted yellow. They got in, unhooked the rope and stored it. As if by magic the boat turned and slid across the sea. Maria steered towards the large island offshore.
The sun was high overhead when they reached a cove on the far side of the island, the sea glittering blue as they rode the shorebreak, the dingy fetching up high on the exposed sand. Charles and Maria stepped out. Maria dragged the boat to a sandy gorge lined with caves, well above high tide mark, out of the weather when it came. They walked along the beach gathering shellfish, firewood and grabbing sleeping fish from the shallows. They made a fire in the gorge, ate, then slept through the afternoon as leaves rustled, flowers crumpled, boughs of trees encircling big chunks of sky, squeezing them until they squealed. In the deeper currents off shore turtles, dolphins and whales played cribbage in groups of four, not without skill and certainly never cheating, scoring on waterproof cribbage boards with pegs made from driftwood. Because they played under water, the dealer dealt the cards face up against the sky, the players beneath them.
Gulls squabbled along the shore, trying to disrupt the marching drills of the soldier crabs. When it rained, it rained gold coins in concentrated piles, sometimes topping them off with silver buckets. It was a place where nothing much happened, luckily.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 342
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Sunday 3 November 2019
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