Which isn’t surprising, as my book sounds crazy too. Here’s a great write-up of ‘Unmade Lists’ from Ben Millar at the Maribyrnong Weekly.
The free local paper gives me a bit of a write up.
As seen at Readings Carlton. Such a strange feeling…
My first novel, “A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists” will be launched on June 6, at 6.30pm, at the Sun Bookshop/Theatre in Yarraville. Come along!
More info here.
‘Did I tell you about the time everyone on my train was reading the same book?’ I said, but Steve wasn’t listening.
‘I said,’ I said, and he told me he heard what I said but that there was never a time when everyone on my train was reading the same book, and he was sick of hearing about my imaginary stories.
‘Can you just pass me the next pile of letters,’ he said, ‘and shut up for a second?’
But I couldn’t.
‘We could talk about footy,’ I said.
And he said, ‘Alright, what about it?’
‘I wrote to the AFL,’ I said, ‘with some of my ideas.’
‘What now?’ He wanted to know. ‘And this had better not be some stupid thing you just made up.’ It was, so I sat quiet instead.
‘What?’ said Steve.
‘Nuthin’,’ I licked another envelope and put it on the pile.
‘You are such an idiot,’ he told me. And he was right, but I wanted to tell him that on Anzac Day when the third quarter starts I think there should be a machine gunner, maybe up high behind the back pocket, one on each side, and three-and-a-half minutes in they should start to fire. An old-fashioned machine gun. Authentic. For Anzac Day. And that I wrote to tell the AFL that, but they didn’t write back.
And there were the other things I wrote about too, but I didn’t tell him those either – that I wrote to a professor at Melbourne Uni and asked him if there was ever anyone who studied prehistoric smells and other smells from the French Revolution or the Spanish Inquisition or when Cortes first stepped off his boat and put his foot down in the place they’d call Mexico. I asked because I wanted to know when there were the most smells because I was guessing that it would be about 1780. Don’t you think? I asked my mum this once and she said she thought with all the artificial smells they make now for air fresheners and so on that it would be now, but I think she’s wrong. Anyway, so I wrote to ask this professor and I really wanted an answer, I wanted there to be some person who studied smells. Mostly that was because I was hoping the TAB would open a book on it and I could put down maybe $20 and if I was right get about $12,000 back, but I needed some kind of official answer to prove I was right. He didn’t write back either.
Or about the time I wrote a letter to the priest to ask him if when we died and we were good we went to heaven, which I thought was probably the case, but that if it was the case, what happened on Judgement Day – wasn’t everyone already either in heaven or hell? And he said – because he did write back – that everyone just hangs around being dead until Judgement Day, but we don’t know about it because we’re dead, and then on Judgement Day we come back to life and God says either ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ and then that’s where we go. And so I wanted to know how come at my auntie’s funeral they said her pain is over now and she’s with God in heaven when really – according to him – she was dead in the ground, and that time he didn’t write back.
There are things you can’t Google. That’s one of them, and also questions about whether there were more smells before or after 1780, or whether if you measure the average speed of things now it will be faster or slower than when there were dinosaurs. Sometimes it makes me mad. I told a cat on the street the other night about how angry it sometimes makes me. I told him, ‘you can all fucking die for all I care!’ – I said it out loud – and then I asked him if he thought maybe in my last life I was a Lithuanian Jew and all my family got rounded up and killed, because sometimes I feel so angry and I just don’t have any reason to feel like that.
‘Steve,’ I say.
‘Do you want a cup of coffee?’
‘Are you going over the road?’ he asks me. And I tell him, no, I’m just going up to the kitchen for a Nescafé.
‘No way, I don’t want that,’ he says, and he asks me, ‘how can you drink that shit?’
And I want to ask how he can pay $3 just for a cup of coffee. I don’t. I just get up out of my chair and walk to the kitchen. I put two teaspoons of Nescafé and three teaspoons of sugar in my cup and I fill it up with water out of the tap almost to the top with room for just a little bit of milk, which I put in, then put the cup in the microwave. I press ‘one minute’ then I watch it turn and wait for the cockroach that lives inside to run in front of the lit up clock so I can tap the glass and see if he hears me.
You want to hear about a program I wrote? I’m not asking Steve now, I’m asking you. He won’t listen to what I say anymore. It’s a program for Facebook – you know that website? Yeah. So it’s a program that you run and it updates your status reports and your profile every few days, adds pictures of holidays and friends’ babies and that kind of stuff for you every couple of weeks. You run it, right, and all your friends think your life is going really well. And then you can just go, you know. Just leave. No one would even guess.
When I say ‘I wrote it’ – it’s more I thought of it. I don’t know how to write a computer program yet. Besides, I only have one friend on Facebook – my mum. She won’t talk to me in real life anymore, though.
‘Anyway,’ says Steve, when I get back with my cup of coffee, ‘you should spend more time thinking about filing the mail properly and not so much about ways to get Nicole Roxon to have dinner with you.’
‘Her name is Nicola,’ I tell him.
‘Whatever,’ he says. ‘Because before Mr Bruce was down here and he said things have “gone astray” and we need to “lift our game”.’
He put his fingers up in the air while he was telling me, to let me know Mr Bruce had said those things, not him.
I just shrug. Sometimes I unstick the envelopes when they come in and take out the pension forms and write in the boxes they haven’t filled in D O N T W O R R Y T H E J U D G E M E N T W O N T B E T I L L L A T E R A N D Y O U C A N T F E E L W H E N Y O U A R E D E A D and then stick the envelope back up and write RETURN TO SENDER on the front. So that’s probably what Mr Bruce means about ‘gone astray’, but I don’t see what I can do about it.
Steve asked me once how come if I worked all day in Registry, which I do, I wasn’t sick of letters. Like how come I was always writing them to the AFL and to Nicola Roxon MP, who is my local representative in Federal Parliament, and to Andrew Bolt, when all I did all day was open letters and close letters and send letters and take letters to all the other people who worked upstairs with their computers. And Steve doesn’t even know about most of the letters I send.
There is a lot to talk about, I don’t say to him. There is all the world of time: a lot to find out about, and I’m sitting here licking envelopes while you tell me about what happened last night on Motorway Patrol and that tonight when you get home you are going to jerk off and eat Doritos.
Do you want to know what I’m going to do tonight when I get home, Steve? I know you don’t, but here it is anyway. I’m going down by Stony Creek Backwash. I’m going to lie on my back down on the pier and I’m going to listen to the birds’ feet sucking in the mud and have my eyes fill up with all the lights bright orange on the cranes along the docks. And while I’m lying there this girl will come sliding from the mud and she’ll crouch just past the creek edge, her fingers still tangled in all those weeds that stretch their roots into the water, finger ends all pointed from digging out the eyes of fish. She’ll be slick with mud, her mouth lined with it, feeling grains of gravel, probing them from between her teeth with her mud-coated tongue and chewing on grains of gravel. She’ll spit one into her hand and then she’ll wipe her hand on the damp grass, get up from the creek and untangle her fingers from the rushes, lick the cuts that had opened where she clung too tight, and coat them all with mud from her tongue. I’ll see her coming and I’ll close my eyes, and then I’ll feel her lick the water from beside my eyeball, where the wind stung me and made me cry. She’ll lie down next to me on the tumbled wooden pier and she’ll mutter to me, she’ll tell me that under the mud down there, in the mud under the river where the bridge’s pylons drive deep into the river’s guts, she can hear everything the earth ever knew. ‘It’s all still there,’ she’ll say to me. ‘Dive down with me,’ she’ll say to me. ‘Squeeze your head full of it, nostrils and ears and down your throat. Breathe your lungs full of river mud.’ But I won’t tell you about it, Steve. I’ll just tell you about how I had to go get a kebab because there wasn’t anything in the house worth eating. Which will be true, because after I open my eyes and the girl is gone I probably will walk down to Spotswood and get a kebab.
Transit Lounge will publish my first novel, A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, in June 2013. There’s more information here.
Instructions for an installation was first published by Cardigan Press in 2003, in the collection ‘Normal service will resume’.
‘Here,’ he told me. ‘These are the taste buds for fear. These ones taste jasmine when it’s cold outside but the flowers think it’s warm. These ones are for the times while you wait for your friends to finish saying their goodbyes; the times you know the bus is coming but they just don’t care enough to wind up, to say “Hey, I’ve got to go. The bus is coming.” These ones taste oily grit under your fingernails when you’re looking in the bottom of your bag for 50 cents, but can only find 10. They taste what it’s like when the phone is there in front of you and all you have is the weight of 10 cents in your hand.’
He held the flesh up in front of me, forced his littlest finger under the sinew and pulled it upwards, tore the skin away from the fatty flesh beneath.
‘Here,’ he told me, and he pointed with the same little finger, held the skin away. ‘Here.’
I looked, and he let the skin loose. ‘Here. When you taste acrylic fibers under your fingers; when you rub your fingers along the seam of a car-seat cover and think about the skin of his inner arms – this is where you taste it. This is the taste of the veins of his arms, the taste of his sleeves rolled up; the taste of the sinews in his forearms and the softness in the crook of his elbows. It’s here.’
He’d pulled me up from the gutter that night on his way out. He’d taken my photo, then pulled me up from the gutter. ‘I’m on my way out,’ he’d said. ‘You should come with me.’
I was full of gin – no more tears left, but still the gin that had brought me here.
‘I have these things to do,’ I’d told him. ‘I have places to sit.’
He wasn’t interested. Later he said he’d seen my fingers picking through the wrappers in the gutter, seen my fingers sliding under the edges of my shoes, looking for an anchor, and he’d known. I couldn’t remember any of that, and even later still I realized he’d made the whole thing up.
‘You know what?’ he’d said. ‘Let’s go for a drive.’
I had felt the acrylic fibers of the car seat covers under my fingertips, but didn’t know the taste buds for them yet. His car had a tape player that worked. I didn’t know the tape he was listening to, but I used it as a soundtrack to watch the buildings go by; leant my head back and let them slide by beneath me, watched like a pigeon flying upside down. It was raining. The windscreen wipers were in time with the music. While I thought about something else – the way rain looks when you’re a pigeon flying upside down, drops flying up to meet you – they slid surreptitiously away from the music into a beat of their own, hung around outside the tempo like kids smoking at the bottom of the oval while the football team practiced, then slunk back in time again, blended back in with the crowd.
‘Why were you crying?’ he’d asked me.
I tapped my foot in time with the windscreen wiper, obstinately ignored his tape.
‘Do you not want to talk about it?’
‘I’m just drunk. I was just drunk.’
Foot tapping now in time with the music.
And I’d thought to tell him a story I’d dreamed about a girl in a car, crying.
‘Here’s why I was crying,’ I said to him. ‘Driving into town this morning, she and I, we took a hump in the road too fast, a hump and a dip; we left our stomachs behind at the top of the rise.
‘ I wanted to tell her it felt like my soul had been knocked loose, ejected out of my mouth. I felt that feeling like in dreams, like I’d caught the spin of the earth just right, just at the point where it would fling me loose of the ground and I’d be flying. But I wasn’t.’
He watched me. Waited. There wasn’t anything else to tell, so he asked, ‘And that’s why you were crying?’
‘Not really. I just wanted to tell you that story. It was about driving.’
He pressed fast forward on the tape player. His tape player had the ability to find the beginning of the next song. He didn’t have to jolt his way there by tiny increments. I liked that.
‘Do you want to hear another possible story about why I was crying?’
‘Is this one true?’
‘Not really. Does it matter? We’ve only just met.’
He was listening to the tape.
‘Is it far, where we’re driving?’
‘A little way. You might as well tell me the story.’
‘Would you mind having it told to you as if it was written down, like a chapter in a book? Or like a script?’
[A silvery bar. She’s speaking again.]
Her: ‘By the way, we’re not talking to one another.’
Him: ‘Sorry. I know it’s inconvenient with the three of us being here together, but, well…’
Her: ‘You don’t mind, do you? You’ll hardly notice after a while.’
Him: ‘We’ve found it quite peaceful in fact. The quiet. Quite peaceful.’
Her: ‘You understand, don’t you? We just can’t. Just can’t bear to speak to one another anymore. It’s just not possible. Sorry.’
Him: ‘We’re happy to talk to you, of course, though.’
Her: ‘Oh yes, quite happy. Things are fine with you.’
Him: ‘Oh God, yes. We adore you.’
Her: ‘And why wouldn’t we? It’s so great to be out with you. Thanks so much for coming. We haven’t seen you in ages.’
Him: ‘It has been ages. We can’t let that happen again. Now, what will you have?’ [Trying to catch the waiter’s eye.] ‘Excuse me? ‘Scuse me? Yes please. I’m having a Citron and tonic, thanks; oh and one for her. That’s OK, isn’t it? A Citron?’
Her: ‘I’ll have one too, thanks.’
I bend over the bar, resting on my elbows, and sip at the lip of my glass, break the meniscus. I don’t like to use the straw. There’s a filthy beige half-moon on the glass from my lipstick. These people are making me bad tempered.
Me: ‘I’m going to the bathroom.’
They’re not listening.
As I turn the corner into the narrow corridor I look over my shoulder, watch them kiss with their hands in each others’ hair.
Someone’s left the window in the bathroom open, so I climb out. I’ll come back tomorrow for my coat.
Where are we going? I didn’t ask out loud. I was getting sober now, and being sober was making me scared. Where are we going?
He pulled into my driveway.
‘This is my driveway.’
‘I know. This is the closest place to park. You know, to go to your house.’
‘Thank you for taking me for a drive.’ I looked at my feet, felt around the edge of my shoe, ran my finger under the edges of my shoe and back out again. ‘I feel better now.’
‘You were doing that before,’ he said. ‘When you were sitting, before. I saw your fingers picking through the wrappers in the gutter, and I saw your fingers sliding under the edges of your shoes. You seemed as though you were looking for an anchor. I thought; that is, I knew…’
I watched his face. He looked at his fingers in his lap while he talked, looked at my fingers in my shoe, looked at my face while he thought I looked away. He spoke into his lap, though, to his fingers, when he said, ‘We’re here now. This is where we’re going.’
Looked me in the eye.
‘Do you want,’ I asked, because he looked as if this was the thing I would say now, ‘to come in?’
He got out of the car and shut the door behind him. I took my finger out of my shoe and followed him up the stairs.
As I closed the front door behind us and turned around, he placed his hand on the wall beside my head and stared at me. ‘There are things I have to show you.’ His hair fell over his eyes, and he pushed it aside with his other hand. His fingers were long and there was blood under his nails. ‘Where’s the bathroom?’
I took him there. When I turned to go to the kitchen, to put the kettle on, he said, ‘No. You have to be here too.’
In his pocket, in a tin box made for mints, or maybe tobacco, he had a tongue. ‘Here,’ he said, and he started to show me. ‘These are the taste buds for fear.’
Later: lying on the sloping ground of my back yard, a small, sharp rock in the small of my back and acacia twigs in my hair. Lying under stars he held my hand.
‘The stars make me queasy.’
He turned his head on its side to look at me.
‘No, not queasy. They make me feel – oh, what are the words for it? – dirty. They make me feel dirty. Like there’s grease on my face, little bumps, a rash of tiny pimples, and I want to go wash, I want my face to squeak from the cleanness and all the bumps to be gone. I want the sky to be smooth.’
‘You don’t like stars?’
‘I don’t care for them. They make my face itch.’
I let go of his hand to pull the twig from my hair. I flung it ineffectively at the fence, and reached for his hand again, which was gone.
He’d sat up, and was cleaning the blood from under his fingernails, staring at the whorls of his fingerprints.
‘Have you seen the skin of fingerprints when you strip it from off the fingers?’
‘No. Does it grow back?’
‘It doesn’t grow back. Fingerprints and toeprints, they don’t grow back. Ears; fingerprints; toeprints: unique. And you take them away and they’re gone, and you can’t get them back. Do you want to see my place?’
I put my hands behind my head and closed my eyes to block out the stars.
‘Tell me why you’re like this,’ he said.
When I was eleven years old my father lost his job. We lived in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. There was dust everywhere. The dust was red. My mother had given birth to us squatting in dust, given birth to me and my five sisters, and sometimes there had been no one there to help her. When there was no one there to help her, the little girls she had fell in the dust and spent their first few minutes caked in red. She wiped them off with paper towels, and later dogs would eat the trash. My father worked in a canning factory. The factory canned mushrooms in butter sauce, and mushrooms in herbed butter sauce. When I was eight, they started canning low-fat mushrooms, which were in a yellow sauce that was mostly water and cornstarch and salt. When I was eleven, my father was laid off. He was good at his job, but people didn’t like the canned mushrooms anymore. They wanted frozen meals. None of us understood that. No one we knew had anywhere to keep a frozen meal. Not frozen, anyway. So he came home and sat in a chair – we had one chair, which my mother held onto the leg of while she was squatting and giving birth – and told us we wouldn’t be eating canned mushrooms anymore, and after that he didn’t talk much about anything. My mother was good with babies, so she went to work at the studio where they painted pictures of big eyed children for greeting cards and motel rooms and such. She cleaned the brushes with paper towels. The ladies who worked there, the painters, talked among themselves at lunch time, in the lunch room, about how much easier their work would be if the children were taxidermied. They’d say this at least once a day, and every time one of them said it, the others would laugh. My mother would have to laugh too, because she was the woman who cleaned the brushes. She told us that some of the children were sweet. But they all scared her. She tried not to stare at them, but she was so unsettled by their giant eyes. My sisters and I would pretend to have giant eyes; we’d play at being models for the card people. There wasn’t much to do at our house, so that was what we’d play. One day my father told us we wouldn’t be able to go to school anymore, that we would have to get jobs too, because my mother was old and tired and he didn’t want her to be scared by the children anymore. He was worried she would grow weak from fear. We didn’t leave school right away, but we tried to find jobs so that we could. Unfortunately, in our town there were only two places to work: the painting studio and the canning factory. Neither of them would give us a job. My sisters and I felt very bad. My father sat all day looking at the dusty floor; my mother had begun laughing at home with the same laugh she used in the lunch room at work. We were a burden to them. If it wasn’t for us, our mother could leave her job and they could both go, leave, go somewhere else – just take the bike and go, him on the pedals, she with her legs hung over the handlebars. The bike had a basket with flowers on the front. There wouldn’t be room for the chair, but perhaps they could leave it behind. So that day when we got home from school my sisters and I borrowed a rope from a friend of ours who had a dog, and we tied it to a rafter in our house. We had to ask dad to move over a bit on the chair so we could use the edge of it to stand on, and he was OK with that. After my first sister hanged herself, he asked what we were doing, but we told him it was a game, and he said OK and looked at the floor some more. It was hard, standing on the chair and untying my sister, lifting her down, then tying the noose again so my next sister could have her go. It was hard, but we were pretty used to difficult stuff. We’d all had our fair share of fixing the bike when it broke, for example. So there was just me and one other sister left to go when my dad said, OK, that’s enough. This is a stupid game. He actually got up and picked up the chair and went outside; took the chair outside. He said, I want to sit out here in the sun now, I’m tired of that game. I’m tired of it. Just stop. So we had to stop. Later dad died and mum took my sister and me here. We didn’t have to ride the bike because she had a friend in town who drove us most of the way.
When I woke up I was lying in bed and he was drawing my outline on the sheet with a thick pen. Piled beside the bed, on the floor, were drawings on acetate, drawings of the stories I’d told him, drawings of my stomach and my lungs, my duodenum and the bones of my foot.
‘Is there a photo for that one?’ he asked.
‘Sort of. Can I move?’
I got him the picture of my mum beside the ping-pong table, and he added it to the pile.
‘Don’t get back in bed. I need that sheet. Do you want to go take a bath or something? I’ll finish up in here. Do you want me to put a clean sheet on the bed?’
He was making notes. I took my towel from the back of the door and started running a bath. He kept writing, so I went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of whiskey. Bits of bread crust, grains of rice stuck to the soles of my feet: in the bathroom I set my glass down and sat on the edge of the bath to wipe them off. When I put my feet in the hot, foamy water they hurt, and I couldn’t tell if the water was too hot or my feet too cold. I got undressed anyway, switched off the light and got in.
Instructions for an installation
Electric carving knife
Stories and sketches of stories
A floor lamp with a high wattage bulb
Freeze the subject, then slice laterally from head to toe: each slice should be no thicker than half an inch. Check for translucency – if light cannot pass through the slice, trim it. Press each slice between two pieces of Perspex and hang in a line from the ceiling of a room: if you are standing in front of the first slice, the slices behind should be hidden from view. Keep the room at 10 degrees centigrade below freezing. If necessary, provide coats. In the bottom left corner of each piece of Perspex, affix the relevant photo. In the bottom right, affix the relevant story or sketch of story. On the front panel, affix a photo of the subject in the present day: a story should not be necessary. Place the floor lamp behind the back panel. Switch it on.
A dynasty of square standers was first published by Vignette Press/Mini Shots in 2008. It later morphed into the novel, A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists.
We set fire to the shrivelled Christmas tree and we squat by the edge of the basketball court to watch it burn. It’s starting to rain so I turn my collar up to stop the water dripping down my neck. From a pub behind us I can hear football – it’s getting colder and I guess cricket season must be over by now.
By the time we hear the sirens the tree is already just smouldering black. I’m disappointed by how quickly it’s all over.
As they’re hosing down the tree, we head for the underground station. All along the sides of the roads people asleep over vents, dogs curled up outside tents and one guy, arms out of his sleeping bag, wrapped around a sleeping Rottweiler, spooning his Rottweiler.
‘Get your dick out of that dog,’ I tell him. But I knew he didn’t really have his dick in the dog. He was just hanging on to it. Like I said, it’s getting cold out, these days.
Down the escalator into the station. We slip into the bathroom while the attendant isn’t looking, me and Simon, both of us in the one bathroom (women’s: the men’s stinks) and light cigarettes and wait while they start closing the place down. He sleeps a little, curled on the cold floor. I draw pictures on the tiles with the end of a burned match – a tree with a cow under it, a squirrel as tall as the cow’s ear. The squirrel is whispering something to the cow, but the cow can’t hear it. Or maybe the squirrel’s saying something the cow doesn’t want to hear – I don’t really know.
He’s pretending to be asleep.
I roll pellets of toilet paper between my fingers, wet them in my mouth and drop them into his ear. Some of them roll out on the floor; some stick there quite nicely. I fish through my bag for a pencil. I write messages onto pieces of paper from out of my pockets; roll, wet, drop. I want to push them into his head, into his brain.
I hate this part, the part with the sitting, and the slow, slow waiting. With Simon pretending to be asleep.
The lights go out.
‘OK,’ he says. ‘Let’s go.’
He can see better than me. We slide down the handrails on the escalator, jump off the platform and head into the tunnels. He kicks rocks and mutters to himself as they bounce off the rails.
Our stuff is right where we left it.
‘Did you mark off the zone over by the park?’ Simon asks me as I go through our bags, looking for something to eat.
‘Yeah. Geeze, why do you always ask me things like that?’
‘Like, did you mark off the zone over by the park?’
‘OK, well I did, alright?’
‘Alright,’ he says. ‘While you’re there can you grab me something to eat?’
‘We only have muesli bars. Lemon and yoghurt’
‘Do you want one?’
‘No. I’m going to bed.’
I eat my muesli bar slowly. I wish it was chicken casserole. I wish I had something to read.
‘Let’s say I had a dog. Simon? Let’s say I had a dog, OK?’
I don’t think Simon’s listening, curled down in his sleeping bag, woolen hat pulled over his eyes.
‘Simon, just for argument’s sake. Let’s say I get a dog from somewhere. No, wait, let’s say someone gives me eight hundred bucks, and the only thing I’m allowed to spend it on is a dog. OK? Right. So I’ve got eight hundred bucks and the only thing I can buy is a dog. This is enough to buy a car, you understand? I could buy a terrible, terribly crappy car with this eight hundred bucks, but I’m not allowed to.’
‘How are they going to know what you buy?’ he mutters at me from under his hat.
‘I don’t know how they know, they just know.’
‘Why do they want you to buy a dog, anyway?’ He sits up.
‘I don’t know. Because I’m a little girl, I guess. If I was a 19-year-old girl, maybe they’d want me to buy a car, but I’m a little girl and I’m supposed to want a puppy and anyway I can’t drive.’
‘Why don’t they give it to your parents to look after, the eight hundred bucks? You know, till you’re old enough to buy a car, or something?’
I stare at the back of his head, give him a filthy look, but he doesn’t notice. So I keep going, ‘Because they want me to have a dog, alright? I don’t know, they just have this spare eight hundred bucks sitting around that they have to get rid of. Maybe they won it on a horse race they weren’t even supposed to be betting on and if they get found out they’ll be in a ton of trouble, or they feel guilty about it or something. Anyway, they have to get rid of it and they just think, well, heck, won’t the world be a better place if this little girl has a puppy, you know? Won’t I be a good person?’
‘OK, sure. Eight hundred bucks. For you. For a dog. Eight hundred bucks so the little girl can buy a dog.’
‘Yes. Thank you. God. OK, so I have eight hundred dogs. No, eight hundred bucks; I have eight hundred bucks and I have to get myself a dog. And I know what I want. The only thing I want, in the whole world, is a bulldog. I want a British bulldog, and I want to name her World War Three.’
‘You’re an idiot.’
‘So, I take my eight hundred bucks to the bulldog kennel, the British bulldog kennel…’
‘Get on with it, will you?’
‘You have somewhere to be?’
‘I could be sleeping. I could be working on my needlepoint.’
‘You don’t know needlepoint.’
‘I could so easily have learned by now.’
‘Oh, please. Just get on with it, OK? Eight hundred bucks, and you go to the kennels…’
‘And anyway they tell me, not eight hundred, but twelve hundred. TWELVE HUNDRED BUCKS for a dog. Twelve hundred bucks. Do you believe this?’
‘No. I mean, it’s not true.’
‘OK, sure, I don’t have eight hundred bucks. But if I did – even if I did – I could not buy myself a British bulldog and name her World War Three. Because they cost twelve hundred bucks.’
‘That’s a lot for a dog.’
‘Yeah, you’re not kidding.’
‘You should get a different dog.’
‘I don’t want a different dog. I want World War Three.’
‘OK. I want a lot of things.’
‘Not like this. Not like I want this. This is fate. And four hundred bucks stands between me and fate.’
‘Sure. Except no one ever gave you the eight hundred bucks in the first place.’
‘No. But in the story they did.’
‘Oh, for Christ’s sake.’
‘And even in the story I can’t afford to get my dog.’
He just stares at me.
‘My life sucks.’
‘Oh please, Sarah.’ He slides back down into the sleeping bag.
Later, when I think he’s sound asleep: ‘How much do Rottweilers cost?’ Simon asks.
‘I don’t know.’
‘You could get a Rottweiler.’
‘Oh, they probably cost twelve hundred bucks too.’
‘If they cost twelve hundred bucks that guy could never have afforded one.’
Simon rolls over again, pulls his hat over his eyes.
‘I don’t have eight hundred bucks anyway,’ I remind him.
We’ve been doing this now for three years. Well, longer, I guess, if you count the time before his dad died, but three years now on our own. I lost interest a long time ago, but Simon, I don’t know, I guess he feels like this is something he has to do for his dad. I have nothing better to do. Where would I go? Simon is all the family I have. Not just all the family; all the anything.
‘Are you awake, Sarah?’
‘You want to go get some groceries? I thought maybe we could pack up this stuff and go get some groceries.’
‘Yeah, OK,’ I say. ‘We could mark off the area over by Vic Markets.’
I can hear him staring at me.
‘I…Oh, never mind.’
‘It’s just, look, you know, if…’
‘If what, Simon.’
‘You know. If you’re not going to be serious about this then why bother at all? Why not go work in a plant store or something?’
‘A nursery, butthead?’
‘Whatever. Just do whatever. You know, if you’re not going to take this seriously.’
‘Oh for…. What? What? You know I’ve been doing this just as long as you have. Did I ever say I wanted to go work in a nursery or something? Did I? God, who died and left you in charge?.’
We both know the answer to that.
‘OK, but you know, we went over the plan yesterday morning, and we can’t do Vic Markets till after we do Flagstaff. You know that, you were there. We went over this together yesterday.’
Like I ever get a say in anything.
‘Yeah, I know. I just thought, well, while we’re over getting groceries we might as well…’
‘No! God! You know how easy it is to miss areas. That’s why we have a plan. You know that. God, don’t mess it up now. Not now. We’re so close to finishing.’
We’re nowhere near finishing. We have years of this. Years. But we can’t talk about that, so I don’t.
‘OK. Alright. Whatever.’
‘OK. Good.’ He’s squashing up his sleeping bag, pushing it down into its stuff sack, methodical as always. ‘OK, maybe you have a point. Can you wait a bit for breakfast? If you can wait a bit, maybe we can mark off around Franklin St, then go get the groceries, stop at the market for a coffee, and mark off that area. Would that work? Can you wait? Can you wait that long?’
‘I can wait that long.’
‘Good. That’s great, Sarah. That’s great. Do you need a hand with your stuff?’
‘No, I’m fine.’
Three years of this, plus infinity; I’ve been doing this since I was three. Since my parents and Simon’s dad got together over dinner one night, dinner and a slide show (I think it was my parents’ honeymoon trip to the Daintree, the slide show) and decided it would be a great idea if our families went on a little trip and, you know, saw the country. Someone pulled out a road atlas, and they all started poring over it. Drunk as hell, I’m sure they were.
‘Let’s see the country’, someone suggested.
‘Yeah’, someone else chimed in. ‘Our kids should really see the country. This great country of ours, our kids should really see it.’
‘Yeah, really see it.’
‘All of it.’
‘You mean all of it?’
‘All of it. They should really see the country. All of it.’
‘All of it?’
‘Yeah, all of it,’ I think someone else piped up right about now. ‘I mean, if we say we’re going to see the country, well, who are we to pick and choose between this state and that state, this national park and that national park? Who do we think we are, saying any part of this great country is any better than any other part of this great country? What, you think Wagga Wagga has nothing to offer? Really, you think Wagga Wagga has nothing to offer?’
Drunk as hell. Did I mention that?
‘You think they do absolutely nothing over there in the New South Wales Riverina to make this great country great? Is that what you’re saying? Well, is it, Mr ‘let’s spend a few months seeing Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef’, is that what you’re saying? Who do you think you are? God almighty?’
The way I imagine it, some things would have got broken. Some heated words would have been exchanged. Eventually, somehow, it was agreed that, given that no one person was in any way wiser or in any way above any other person, and given that no part of Australia has any greater merit, importance or worth than any other part of Australia, then: yes. Yes, it would be necessary to see all of the country. And to really see all of the country.
All of it.
I remember right after his dad died, Simon got obsessed with watching the video. He’d scrape together enough money so that every few days we could stay at a motel, a motel with a VCR in every room, and watch the video. I didn’t remember it being made – I guess I’d been maybe seven or eight, old enough to have paid attention. For maybe two months, these three filmmaking students had followed us around, taping us, interviewing Simon’s dad over and over. A Dynasty of Square Standers they’d called the documentary. Simon’s dad loved that someone knew what he was doing was important, cared that it was done right – you could see it on the tape.
There was a favourite part Simon had, that he’d watch over and over: His dad, leaning on the minivan, looking off over the cameraman’s shoulder, rubbing his chin. Saying this stuff like maybe it was the first time he’d ever really thought about it.
‘The problem was,’ Simon’s dad was saying, ‘the problem was, you see, that Wendy and David had decided to measure things differently. You know: they’d redone the calculations and recalibrated the benchmark. So now they were working with squares of eight by eight metres, whereas I’d been realistic and measured each square off at five by five.
‘I mean, honestly: an eight metre square? You can’t see to the boundaries of an eight metre square. Any fool can see that (well, any fool within less that eight metres, that is). Oh sure, yeah, if you’re working in desert, something with a far-off horizon and groundcover that consistently falls below knee level, well then – of course – you can set your square at eight metres. But that’s not the point, is it? I mean, how often do you come across those ideal conditions? Not very often, let me tell you. I mean, I’m a bit of an expert on these matters, and I can tell you that within Australia – not counting Tassie – you wouldn’t come across those sort of ideal conditions any more often than, say, once every 16 weeks. Oh, we had a great run one time around Coober Pedy, it’s true – mile after mile of dead-flat land, horizon around 60 kays off and nothing, I mean nothing to break your line of sight. In all honesty, we could have stretched the boundaries to well over 100 metres square. But it’s the consistency of the thing that counts, you see? You set your boundaries for the worst possible conditions – say, one of those gorges round Wittenoom, you know the ones? All canyony and dark. Oh! Or the forest round the Franklin River, that stuff is thick – and then you apply those boundaries, consistently, no matter how easy it would be to stretch them.
‘You understand? It’s the consistency of the thing that counts. When we finish this thing – or rather, when my grandchildren finish this thing, because we’ve done the calculations and it’s going to be 128 years from start to finish, this project…’
Simon would always try to turn the video off before he said ‘128 years’. He’d hit ‘stop’, then ‘rewind’. Then he’d go to the bathroom, comb his hair for a while. Or he’d watch TV for a minute, five minutes. Act all nonchalant. And then, after a while, he’d say, ‘Man, there’s never anything on. Oh well, might as well…’ and he’d hit ‘play’. He’d hit ‘play’ and he’d try to stop it before his dad said ‘128 years’. And then sometimes, when he went out to walk around, smoke a joint, I’d hit ‘play’ again, watch it all the way through before he got back.
‘…finish this thing, because we’ve done the calculations and it’s going to be 128 years from start to finish, this project – we want to know the job’s been done properly. No shortcuts, you understand. No shortcuts.
‘If Wendy and David hadn’t taken shortcuts we wouldn’t have had to get rid of them and start all over again. I had a handle on this whole process. We’d covered a good portion of eastern South Australia, done almost Adelaide up to Innamincka. But then Wendy got ideas. I mean, honestly: eight by eight metres? And there was Wendy telling me that, hell, this job could be done 35 years quicker if we’d just up the measuring to eight metre squares. That we’d still have seen, well, 95 per cent of the country. Maybe even 97 percent. And that, hey, who was counting?
‘Yeah, well, I’m counting, Wendy. I’m counting. And because I’m counting, and because I believe in a job well done, I’m doing all this bit all over again. Yeah, that’s right: from Wilpena up to Lake Eyre, I’m remeasuring all of Wendy’s squares, and I’m standing in each of them, and I’m making sure I can see right to the edge of each and every one of them. Because when I say I’ve seen Australia, I want to be sure I’ve really seen Australia.’
And then I’d hit ‘rewind’ and go comb my hair for a while.