As I walk in through the front door of the tattoo parlour, my pulse immediately quickens at the sound of the needle. It’s an unmistakable sound, angry and buzzing like a supercharged swarm of wasps. It is the primary tool of the tattoo artist. A wickedly sharp needle connected to an electric motor, it enables the tattooist to create works of surprising intricacy, but is also the main method of dispensing pain. Pain and tattoos are inextricably linked, and it is not possible to have one without the other. It’s simply a part of the process. As I walk further into the studio, I wonder if the pain becomes alluring to some, an agony-induced rush that cannot be replicated by any other means. A ragged groan sounds, rising above the buzzing of the needle. It is not the sound of someone enjoying themselves. Everyone is different, I suppose.
The parlour is clean, tidy, and mostly empty today. The tang of antiseptic fills the air. Appearances mean a lot in this business. No longer are tattoo parlours the hangout of bikie gangs, criminals or other undesirables. Artwork of surprising beauty line the walls; a delicate Japanese print of a samurai, a surreal traditional painting of a flower-laden skull, exploding with vivid colour. Professionalism and legitimacy are important parts of the image of the modern tattooing industry, and this studio has clearly aimed to be in line with such an image. It is not a trendy studio within the inner suburbs, where artists are in high demand and often booked out six months in advance. Located in the outer east along a busy main road, walk-in traffic and word of mouth are vital for a place such as this. The studio must be inviting, friendly, and, most importantly, the work must be good.
James and Michael are the two artists working today. Both are heavily tattooed, which is comforting in a way – they have felt the pain and live with the permanence that is the nature of tattoos. James, in his early-twenties, is excitable and talkative. Having just completed an apprenticeship, he approaches every job with enthusiasm, and has a habit of talking constantly to clients even if they aren’t talking back. Perhaps some find the constant chatter soothing, a way to distract themselves from what is happening to them. James’ father was also a tattooist, ink ingrained in his family not only on skin, but in tradition. He is hunched over the ribcage of a middle-aged man, halfway through a detailed piece that envelops most of his right side. This is where the earlier groan came from, and I can understand why. Bony and extremely sensitive, the ribcage is a notoriously painful place to get a tattoo. Michael, slightly older and more reserved, sits behind the counter. He doesn’t tend to talk to clients, preferring instead to focus upon his work. Not much of a talker myself, I appreciate his approach. He looks up as I near the counter.
‘You’re a bit early, mate. Haven’t finished copying your design yet,’ he says.
Coming in early isn’t always appreciated, I have noticed. It’s almost as if the process of his preparation is ritualistic and private, not intended to be seen by others. This tattoo parlour may be one of the few places on earth where the advice ‘Be five minutes early’ does not hold.
‘Yeah, sorry about that. Just thought I’d come in a little early this time,’ I say.
Michael eyes me suspiciously. Perhaps my arrival during his preparation makes him feel rushed, robbed of being able to complete his routine to schedule. Another explanation could be the inability to fathom just why someone would want to be early to an appointment that mostly involved having pain inflicted upon you. Whatever the reason, I get the distinct feeling that I should leave him alone. I walk over to the tattooing tables, where James continues to work. Essentially massage tables, most work will involve lying down on them at some point. Despite being padded, they are never comfortable. James continues to talk at his client, who lies red-faced and silent, hands clenched into tight balls at his side.
‘G’day Luke,’ James says, looking up from his work. ‘You’re in today, yeah?’
‘Yeah, Michael is doing it,’ I say.
‘Nice, nice,’ he says, nodding. ‘Thought I was doing you for a second. Was going to have to tell you to come back tomorrow – this one will take a while.’
James has a habit of being somewhat flaky with his appointment times, as I have discovered in the past, but he doesn’t mind people arriving early. Everything is open and accessible with him, in contrast to the more guarded nature of Michael. I look down at the silent man on the table. He doesn’t look like the sort of man who would be getting tattoos, but that definition is becoming increasingly vague these days. I know he probably doesn’t want to talk, but I decide to risk a conversation.
‘Looks good,’ I say. ‘How does it feel?’
He looks up at me. Drops of sweat fall from his face and onto the table. His skin, flushed red earlier, has now begun to pale as the ordeal of the process takes its toll. His eyes lock onto mine. I get the feeling that I have asked a profoundly stupid question.
‘How do you think it feels?’ he spits. ’It bloody hurts.’
I nod. There really isn’t much else to say, and he obviously isn’t in a chatting mood. It occurs to me that tattooing, despite usually being derided as a realm beset by regret and poor decisions, does have advice to impart: sometimes, you have no choice but to grit your teeth, endure, and hope that it in the end, it will all be worth it. Both in life, and in ink.
That the man doesn’t seem a likely candidate for a tattoo isn’t altogether surprising. Tattoos have become increasingly accepted amongst mainstream society, and have subsequently seen an explosion in popularity. 19% of all Australians, or one in five, have a tattoo. Whilst traditionally seen as meant solely for the young and rebellious, over a third now get their first tattoo at twenty-six or older, with 20% of people waiting until their mid-thirties to go under the needle. Although some will never be accepting of the practice – my mother being one such person – it seems that the long-held image of the ‘typical’ type of person to have tattoos doesn’t exist. Now, it seems, it is all of us.
In many ways, this surge in popularity has seen tattooing move away from its roots. Its popularity amongst women has soared, with women now more likely to have a tattoo than men, almost one in four. Linked traditionally to masculinity, modern tattoos have now become a common feature amongst both genders, shifting dramatically away from its male-dominated historical basis of naval tattoos and bikers. However, it has not completely abandoned its past. As with most forms of art, artists often look to the past for inspiration and influence. The current popularity of traditional tattoo design, which stems from the naval tattoos of the early 20th century, is a result of this. The resurgence of this style, with its bold outlines and intense colouring, has replaced the more familiar tattoo designs of inspirational phrases and tribal symbols, with over half of all tattoos now being a picture, or drawing. Tattoos have certainly come a long way, both in artform and acceptance. However, some contradictions remain. Whilst it is true that more people than ever are likely to have more than one tattoo, about 26% of people answer in the positive when asked if they have ever regretted getting a tattoo. This paradox lies at the very heart of tattoo culture – why, after all, would someone continue to get tattoos, when you end up regretting them? Despite the advancements made, it seems some clichés about tattoos may hold true after all, which raises an altogether unsettling proposition: perhaps my mother was right, and I will eventually come to regret my tattoos. I hate it when parents are right.
‘Ok, I’m ready to start,’ Michael says, beckoning me over with a wave.
I walk over and sit down. Little thimbles of ink are lined up on the bench, each held in place with a smear of Vaseline. Fire red, emerald green, golden yellow – these colours will soon be punctured into the skin of my arm, where they will stay to be faded only by time and sunlight. Michael tests the tattoo gun which responds with a piercing buzz. Already I can feel sweat forming on my hands. My pulse speeds up. The anticipation is almost like a drug. People with tattoos do say that it is hard to stop at just one, and perhaps this is the reason why. It is this thrill that they chase – the pounding pulse, the sweating hands, a way to feel alive. Michael dips the tattoo gun into a thimble of black ink. The outline is always done first, with shading and colouring done later.
‘Good to go?’ he asks, tattoo gun held in air.
‘I’m ready’ I say.
I never really know if I am, but I always lie. It’s usually good enough. The needle touches the skin of my arm. Biting and sharp, it is akin to a few small cuts at first, an annoyance more than anything. It eventually grows over time to feel like shards of molten glass tearing at your skin. I am not anticipating a good session. The inside of the bicep is another notorious location for a tattoo, eliciting grimaces from those I asked about it. So far it isn’t too bad, but I know that time is the enemy. It will only get worse.
As Michael works, I think of my mother. Every tattoo I get would invariably bring forth similar statements. ‘I hope you still like those when you’re seventy’ she would say, shaking her head. She would then repeatedly point out that they would be there forever, as though that fact had somehow escaped me. As the needle worked its way across my skin, it occurred to me that ‘forever’ is a term without much meaning to those in the present, which is most of us. It is simply too vast and shapeless to have any opinion on. Besides, when I’m seventy years old, will I really care what I look like? As Michael pauses to swab blood and ink off my arm, I realise that tattoos are a peculiar mix of both impermanence and perpetuity. The tattoos we get now represent ourselves at that moment, but people are not static. They change, grow, and evolve over time. Tattoos mark these representations permanently onto us, where they remain unaffected by the ever-changing person who inhabits the interior of the skin. They will all come to serve as constant reminders of a present long-gone, for better or worse. If the only thing I regret in the future is a few tattoos, then I think I will have made it out from life well, all things considered.
As the pain grows, Michael pauses to refill a container of ink. I look at the tattoo that is beginning to take shape on my arm. The black ink stands up prominently, forming ridges across my skin. My arm is already beginning to swell. The skin of my arm has turned an angry shade of red, indignant that I would be allowing this to happen to it. I take a deep breath, and await the return of the needle. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.
Tried to experiment with rhythm in this one. Don’t know how well it worked.
I avoided looking at the people around me. It was safer that way. Animals interpret eye contact as a threat. I kept my eyes low. The bus shook as it went over a bump. The springs were worn out and would have to be replaced soon. I read the safety information, printed in red. The morning was colourless, cold. Someone coughed, a ragged wet sound. Disease spread easily on public transport. I counted twenty-two people. Their faces were hidden behind scarves. A newspaper rustled. One flipped the pages of a book. I willed the time on.
I approached the entrance to my building. It blended into the sky, ashen and bare. I didn’t know when it had been built. I got the sense that it had always been there. Shuttered and locked windows lined the outside walls. Yellowing posters slowly peeled away from the glass. A lot of businesses had inhabited the building over the years. Some survived, but most didn’t. They left suddenly, leaving empty offices. Some vanished in such a hurry they left furniture behind, standing unused and frozen in time. Others stripped the copper wiring from the walls, leaving ragged scars in the plaster. No one said anything about it. It was forty-two steps from the front entrance to the stairwell.
I hoped the receptionist wouldn’t notice. She would try to talk to me. She would ask questions about my day, smiling at me with bright red lipstick. I would get nervous, and mix my answers up. I would say that I had to leave, that I had work to do, but she would continue to talk until I felt sick. She knew that it made me uncomfortable. I would hear her laughing softly to herself as she tapped on her keyboard. I moved quickly, my head down. My shoes squeaked on the linoleum. She looked up from her desk. The fluorescent lighting flickered and I saw the red lips smile at me.
I hurried down to the basement. Sweat beaded on my forehead. There were three flights to descend. I took the stairs two at a time, sometimes three. My identification card bounced on my pocket. When I reached the basement, the security guard lifted a finger in greeting. He opened the door and sat back on his stool. We never speak. I couldn’t even picture his face. Getting through that door was all that mattered to me. As the door swung open, the metal freezers hummed in greeting. Relief poured over me.
It was time to begin. I clenched the chart in my hands. The first of the day. The deceased’s information was neatly typed in black on a white page. She was thirty years old, of average height and weight. No children. A massive cerebral haemorrhage had killed her instantly. She probably didn’t even feel it, just blinked out of consciousness like turning off a switch. But none of this concerned me. It didn’t matter who she was, or where she was from. I told her my name as I snapped on my gloves. Told her that an autopsy was to be performed, that it was my job. I hummed softly to myself, matching the pitch of the freezers. I brushed hair out of her eyes with a gloved finger. I told her about the morning, how grey and chill it was. As I spoke, I moved through my preparation. I laid my tools laid out, descending in order, the metal shining. Superiority dictated by usefulness. Life was not as simple, but death could be. I began to feel my thoughts slow, fade away. It always did here. Soon I would be tranquil as water. I said not to worry; I wouldn’t hurt her. I made my incision. Red blood spilled bright over my gloves. I smiled. I was amongst friends.
Here’s some more short story nonsense.
In the cold hours of an early April morning, Cole Lowman’s feet squelched into half-melted snow as he trudged to work, head ducked low in a tailored black overcoat. The fog hung thickly in velvet sheets, enveloping everything it touched. The sun didn’t seem to have the energy to fight the gloom these days, not that Cole could really blame it. As he walked, sleet drifted down and danced before his face, and cold air stung his eyes. Headlights of sickly yellow cut through the fog as the first car of the morning traffic felt its way along the road. The driver, a lumpy mass of scarf and coat, peered impatiently over his steering wheel as though he believed that pinched face indignation would somehow make the fog lift faster. More headlights soon appeared. The thought occurred to Cole that the world always woke up, no matter how lousy the weather. The apocalypse could occur this very morning, and no doubt people would still go about their routines, oblivious. Unless, perhaps, they pulled up beside the unusual sight of a skeletal horseman stuck in traffic. Jobs to work, money to earn and bills to pay, with the occasional buying of coffee machines and the like. The things we live for. As he squished along the footpath, his feet rapidly turning numb, Cole wondered dimly just when life had become this way. A car bounced through nearby pothole, splattering Cole with icy mud. It was going to be a dismal day.
It was 6.49am when Cole got to the corner of his bus stop. He was adhering to his usual schedule. He had somehow become a punctilious man, although he wasn’t exactly sure when or how it had happened. The bus would arrive at 6.52am, Cole would step onboard, take his usual seat, and stare out the window as the bus clattered down the road, belching black smoke and stopping intermittently to disgorge people along the way. Cole had a few minutes before he was due to cross the road to the bus stop, and paused a moment. He rubbed his hands together, and blew air on his fingers, hoping that the feeling would return to them. His employer would have little use for a frostbitten typist. His boss, a bald, permanently red-faced man with a tie that was always done up too tight, would remind Cole that he had better look after himself, because he didn’t have any sick days left. Cole sighed and watched as his breath spiralled away into the morning air. Faces buried in scarves and jackets hurried past him, each a walking set of blank eyes and headphones marching along to their own soundtrack. One set of eyes cast a glance at Cole, darting downwards and narrowing slightly, before meeting his gaze. The strangely bright eyes, set in an elegant, angular face of a young man, moved towards him. A surge of anxiety spiked in Cole’s chest, and he remained still. The strange man moved close to Cole, and leaned in. ‘Don’t be late, Cole. You’ll miss your bus’ the voice said, softly whispering in his ear. Terror spread through Cole like molten hot metal in his veins. He turned and ran. His pulse drummed in his ears and his mouth turned acrid as he hurried across the road. As he ran, his mind scrambled with panic, he wondered deliriously if anything that morning was real. Cole was prone to panic attacks, and he had been suffering more of them of late. But, in addition to their usual effects, unpleasant as they may be, there would additional consequences today. Cole would no doubt now be late. Secondly, and perhaps more seriously, it caused Cole to be completely unaware as he wandered into the path of the oncoming 409 bus. His thoughts were abruptly interrupted as the bus ploughed into him, flinging him across the road. His skin ground away against the bitumen as the world became a garbled blur of gravel and pain, spinning wildly as he tumbled. A scream sounded from an onlooker as Cole came to a stop in the gutter. Now a mangled mess of broken bones and spreading blood, his thoughts slowly ebbed away into blackness as horrified faces peered down at him.
‘Call an ambulance!’ he heard a voice shriek.
‘Not going to help him, lady. He’s a goner’ a gruff voice replied. He felt a foot poke at his side. ‘Might as well call him a hearse.’
All in all, a dismal day. But, Cole thought deliriously as his vision faded for the final time, a dismal day that was now done.
Cole’s eyes snapped open. He was seated on a worn padded chair, clothed and apparently healthy, free from any of the typical aftereffects of being run over by a bus. He had regained consciousness in a panelled room, dimly lit by a single flickering light, swaying gently from the ceiling. Yellow dust hung thickly in the air, and twisting veins of darkly coloured wood lined the room, warped and in danger of splintering apart. A single closed door stood at one end. A sickly-sweet odour of decay, a nauseating blend of decomposing wood and rotting gardenias, caused Cole to gag violently. This was not where he was supposed to be. Cole slowly rose to his feet, and ran his hands over himself. He was sure that he was supposed to be dead. But, no matter how many times he checked, everything on his body was where it should be. Moving over to a window, he peered out at a blackened sky, splattered with brilliant white cracks that spread like webs to the horizon. Straight roads with glowing streetlamps spread out into the darkness, each dotted with buildings that pumped smoke into the air in rhythmic bursts. Cole stumbled back to his chair. It was all utterly incomprehensible. He pressed his face into his hands.
‘First time?’ a voice asked.
Cole became aware that he was not alone. He looked up, and saw a young man seated in the far corner of the room. He seemed relatively normal, if somewhat unnervingly ambivalent about their current situation. As Cole focused his vision, he saw that the young man’s eyes glowed faintly, as if reflecting a candlelight that wasn’t there.
‘Is this your first time through, I mean’ said the young man. He leant back in his chair and stretched.
Cole got up and pulled frantically at the lone door, before banging on it with his fists.
‘That won’t do anything. It doesn’t open until you’re called’ he said as Cole clawed at the door. ‘Didn’t you read the sign?’ He yawned and gestured to a sign hung pointedly above the door. It read:
‘Sit until called. Do not leave the room. Do not cut the line. No fighting. And don’t forget to smile!*
*Failure to smile is an offence
Printed by Because I Said So Civic Control Corp.’
‘The no fighting part always makes me laugh,’ the young man continued. ‘I mean, what’s the point of fighting if the person you just killed can just reattach their head?’
Cole slumped into a corner, breathing rapidly. He tried to remember the breathing exercises his doctor had given him, but realised with horror that these may not work if you aren’t breathing at all. The curious young man stood, and moved over to Cole. He knelt on his haunches, and placed a hand on Cole’s shoulder.
‘I’m sorry, I forget sometimes that this isn’t exactly easy. I’m Nine. Stupid name, I know, but it isn’t my original. Long story.’ He took Cole’s hand and shook it.
‘I’m … Cole.’
Nine smiled. ‘Well Cole, I find the best way is the most direct. You’re dead, and you’ve ended up here. I don’t know if this is the afterlife, but if it is, it’s pretty disappointing, really.’ Nine looked around the room, and sighed.
Coles breathing began to slow. He looked up at the young man with the glowing eyes.
‘The last thing I remember,’ Cole said, ‘was crossing a road. And maybe a bus. And pain.’ He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts.
Nine grimaced. ‘You remember less each time, but that doesn’t sound like a good one. I’ve had a few bad ones myself. One happened on a roller coaster called ‘The Slicer.’ Nine walked over to the window, and peered through. ‘If I’d known it was going to be that literal, I probably wouldn’t have gotten on.’
Suddenly, an announcement sounded from a crackling speaker.
‘Cole Lowman, please enter Receiving Room One.’
Nine helped Cole to his feet, and brushed the dust from his clothes in quick swipes.
‘That’s you. Better get in there. You don’t want to miss your appointment, or you’ll end up like old man Dusty over there.’ Nine pointed to a dimly lit corner. There sat an old man, gnarled and grey, beard trailing on the ground and covered in brown dust, unmoving and blended into the wall.
‘That’s a man?’ Cole said, recoiling.
‘Used to be, I guess. No one knows how long he’s been here for. His marbles have pretty much all rolled away now.’
The old man creaked his head in their direction, dust falling from him in clumps of dirty snow.
‘On and on we try, born without being alive, but there can be no hope, in a place where not even time can fly’ the old man rasped, soil blowing from his lungs.
Cole hesitantly opened the door. A desk stood in a circle of light, behind which a tall man stood. His back turned, he was clutching an open file, his arms unnaturally long. Cole saw with horror that a noose was tied around his neck, buried into glaring red flesh. He took a step back.
‘Don’t worry. It’ll be alright. Well, maybe. But you have to go in.’ Nine placed an arm around Cole’s shoulder. ‘I’ll see you again, ok? I guarantee it.’
Cole nodded, and slowly headed into the room, the door slamming shut behind him.
Cole looked out across the vast factory. Oil dripped freely from the walls, forming brown pools upon the rivet-studded floor, shimmering with heat. Blasts of steam hissed as the machines pumped, throwing rust and metal shavings into the air where it slowly fell in polluted flakes. Sallow faces stared at the conveyor belt in front of them, assembling parts that came past. His fellow workers, some of whom still carried evidence of their latest demise, stared straight ahead through glassy eyes, mouths agape and covered in ochre grime. The strange man in the room had certainly not sugar coated it. He had been given a pamphlet, taken to a bus, shoved onboard, and promptly driven to his new place of work. The pamphlet, entitled ‘So, you’re life-impaired!’ explained that as a new arrival, Cole was entitled to a dwelling and employment, where he was expected to work. It was all part of what was termed the ‘adjusting period’. Cole could expect to work here for a few hundred years, before a position possibly opened up in management. It was not optional. Each factory was staffed with similar men to the one in the room, each with a noose around their neck, and they prowled around the factory floor, making sure that everything remained in order. They often dragged malingerers to a lower floor of the factory, and usually, they did not return. To Cole, this seemed to be a slight subversion of ‘eternal rest’. But, with no choice given, he worked.
Cole felt a tap on his shoulder. He wasn’t sure how long he had been working, or even if time really meant anything in a place such as this. He turned to see the face of Nine close to his.
‘Follow me’ Nine said, his voice low.
Cole never usually liked to leave in the middle of shifts. In his old life, he was infamous for being one of the few employees to have remained at his desk during a building fire. Luckily for Cole, it was extinguished shortly before he had to get up.
‘Yes. Now. This way.’
Ducking low, Nine slunk through the factory, avoiding the gaze of the patrolling Noose-men. He stopped at a large iron door which led outside, and gestured for Cole to hurry. Reluctantly, Cole crouched, and followed.
Cole and Nine stood on top of a cliff, overlooking an immense murky sea. The sable waves churned below, crashing into jagged rocks that stuck out like broken teeth, stained inky black by time. A lone wooden sign stood at the peak. It read: ‘Everywhere is nowhere. Everyone is no one. There is no escape’.
‘Ignore that,’ Nine said, shrugging off his jacket. ‘That’s just there as a loss-prevention device.’
Cole looked down over the edge of the cliff to the crashing waves below.
‘This next part might get a little wet. That down there, is how you get out of here. Only way to do it is to jump. Might want to hold your nose, or something.’
Cole backed away from the edge. He had never been a great swimmer.
‘That’s how to escape?’ Cole said, hugging himself against the wind. ‘Isn’t there a better way?’
Nine stripped off his shirt.
‘Believe me, I’ve looked. This is the only way. I’ve done this before.’ A tinge of sadness crept into his voice. ‘It leads to the surface, or whatever world you left behind. Problem is, they look for you, and find ways to bring you back. Each time you move between the two, you lose a little piece of yourself.’ Nine crouched, and ran his hands through the rough gravel of the clifftop, pebbles falling through his fingers. ‘Pieces chip away from you, like your memory. Nine isn’t my name. Truth is, I can’t remember it anymore. It’s only the number of times I came through here before I lost count. To be completely honest, I’m not even sure if I’m human anymore.’ Nine looked up at Cole, his eyes glowing faintly. ‘But you have to make a choice. I made mine. And now you do too.’ With that, Nine leapt off the cliff, disappearing into the waves below.
Cole was never one to break rules. His whole life he had done what he was told, sat up as straight as he could, and the only thing it had gotten him was the privilege of being hit by a bus. He wasn’t sure of it, but he felt he was close to grasping the answer to a question that had long eluded him. The answer lay at the bottom of that cliff. With a deep breath, Cole stepped off the edge, into the abyss below.
I found an old shirt in my closet the other day. It was my high school uniform shirt, yellowed with age and crumpled in a box. I spent a lot time in shirts like this as a teenager, and it feels odd to look at it now, a relic from a strange, insular world now long gone. One of the traditions of the final day of school is to sign the shirts of other people, leaving little messages on the fabric. As I recall, some people barely had enough space on their shirt to fit all these messages. I was not one of these people. I was never particularly popular, and no one was clamouring for the real estate. I was just a quiet guy that no one really knew anything about. One of the few messages on my shirt reads ‘Hi Luke, u didn’t say much but ur great’. Well, at least they got my name right, I suppose. One of the things that stand out about the few messages that I did get however, is a recurring reference to a particular band. One message reads ‘Have a Green Day!’, written by some guy who I never spoke to. Another message reads ‘Billie Joe is a hillbilly, get a cooler idol’, left by one of the guys who always seemed to be into much cooler music than I was. Yet another oddly specific message informs me that ‘Green Day have little talent but sound cool’. Seems a little contradictory to me, but whatever. From these messages, it seems that one thing was known about me – that I really liked Green Day. Despite being quiet and shy, that fact had still managed to become known.
Thinking back, I suppose I did have a habit of playing their music frequently in the common room. Oh, and I did dye my hair blue that one time, after I saw that Billie Joe had once done the same, although the end result looked like I’d had an accident with blue toilet cleaner. I also shamelessly aped his fashion sense, usually failing to pull it off. With all that in mind, I suppose it makes sense that I was known for my slight obsession with them. But, what strikes me now is how strongly I identified with them, and how they gave me an image that I felt I could embrace during those unsure teenage years. It comforted me, I suppose. Only now as I look at an old, yellowing shirt do I realise just how much their music helped me through that time. I suppose I could also mention the symbolism of reminiscing over an aged high school shirt when I myself am growing older, but I think I’ll leave that alone.
Let’s start again. This post was meant to be about something else entirely, and I’ve gotten a little side-tracked. I also should really clean out my closet. Anyway, what I originally planned to talk about was Insomniac, Green Day’s 1995 follow-up to Dookie. It’s an album that doesn’t seem to get much attention, even from the band themselves, who only tended to include the songs Geek Stink Breath and Brain Stew/Jaded on their setlists. I’ve written on here before about my love of the album Dookie. Whilst it is true that I still love the album, I feel that I should probably make a confession – it isn’t my favourite Green Day record, nor was it the first album of theirs that I listened to for any length of time. Nope, that album would be Insomniac.
It’s easy to dismiss Insomniac as the edgier, lamer and less-successful version of Dookie. It isn’t as accessible. It’s harsher, darker and more abrasive. It didn’t sell as well. In some ways, it follows the tradition of the ‘after the success’ album, much like Nirvana’s In Utero. But, although Insomniac may not break any new ground, it is a ferocious, visceral album that blasts relentlessly forward, speeding through its songs in just under 33 minutes. I always found this album to be recklessly joyful in its approach, which is slightly odd, considering the darkness of the lyrics. The opening song Armatage Shanks is an example of this, Billie Joe’s painfully detailed and perversely proud self-assessment being something I have always found uncomfortably easy to relate to. Overall, the album retains all the melodies and hooks that Green Day are so adept at, and displays some of Mike Dirnt’s best playing, his bass parts being a highlight of the album, especially in songs like Stuck With Me and Stuart and the Avenue. The album simply doesn’t let up, and I always find myself going back to it.
I was going to go further into detail, but I think I’ll save that for another post. I’ve also been listening to Smash a lot lately, so I might write something about that, too. It’s another one of those albums that I often return to. It’s funny how particular albums can become tied to memory, and provide access to certain points in time. We all have our soundtracks, and they do say that the best memories are set to music. At least I think they say that, anyway.
This is a summary/analysis of Animal Farm by George Orwell that I wrote for yet another class. I think I messed this up a bit – it isn’t really clear what this piece is supposed to be. Regardless, still a great book (or novella, I suppose).
Animal Farm is an allegorical novella by George Orwell, first published in England in 1945. Containing many of the elements and themes that would later define Orwell as a writer, it has come to be one of his most celebrated works, placed only alongside 1984 in terms of its impact and legacy. A symbolic retelling of the events leading up the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the subsequent Stalinist period of Soviet Russia, it incorporates Orwell’s keen awareness of social justice with the dystopian setting that has become so associated with his work. Through the setting of Manor Farm and the satirical animals that inhabit it, Orwell presents a metafictional work that draws attention to itself as a representation of history, but also serves as a warning about the dangers of power and the methods in which it is attained and used.
The initial conflict is between human and animal, as Mr. Jones, the owner of Manor Farm, is a cruel and irresponsible drunkard. He is seen by the animals as a representation of all that is wrong with mankind, and they soon resolve to overthrow him, with the pigs of the farm the driving force behind this movement. Old Major, an elderly pig, delivers a rousing speech to the assembled animals, and creates the philosophy known in the novella as ‘Animalism’. Espousing that all animals are created equal, Old Major myopically places blame on mankind for all of their troubles. This speech also illustrates the great power that language can have over crowds, and serves as the inciting incident for the story. He finds supporters in Snowball and Napoleon; two adult pigs who soon become leaders of the newly-found movement. Seven commandments are written upon the barn wall, to serve as a guiding reminder of the shared values they hold. Old Major also imparts a warning that will increase in relevance as the story continues – that ‘in fighting against man, we must not come to resemble him’. All characters are given easily identifiable characteristics, from the slow-witted but powerful Boxer, to the infantile and immature Millie, and all are united in the common goal of overthrowing their human masters.
After the death of Old Major, the animals soon rebel and drive the humans from the farm, destroying all traces of the former regime. The pigs are established as the new leaders, tasked with educating the other animals about Animalism. Snowball and Napoleon are established as the de facto leaders of the farm, which is renamed ‘Animal Farm’. However, conflict between these two characters soon arises, with Napoleon’s theft of communal milk serving as an early delineation between the two. In contrast to Snowball’s high-minded and noble ideals, Napoleon, a ‘fierce-looking boar’, is concerned with power and is ruthlessly fixed on attaining it. At this point, their revolution has been successful, however it soon becomes clear that the difference between philosophy and implementation is far more marked than the animals may have believed.
At first, the farm operates well, but we soon see the character of the pigs begin to change, with Napoleon and Squealer, the fast-talking mouthpiece of the leadership, showing the most noticeable transformations. The pigs do not assist with any of the work, merely standing behind the other animals as they toil, and begin to appropriate food for themselves alone, which is relentlessly rationalised by Squealer. The overall goal of most of the characters has been achieved, but we now see that the pigs have a very different goal in mind, and are beginning to advance inexorably towards it.
After a failed attempt by humans to regain the farm, the conflict between Snowball and Napoleon soon escalates to violence, and Snowball is driven from the farm by three vicious dogs, trained by Napoleon for this express purpose. This conflict is ultimately ended with Snowball being branded a traitor, with any mention of his name strictly forbidden. The history of the farm is rewritten, and all traces of Snowball are erased from record. After the defeat of the humans, the farm begins to adopt a militaristic tone, and the pigs begin to exert further control. Napoleon instructs the animals to construct a windmill, an idea originally proposed by Snowball, but now rather than being a project of self-sufficiency, it is now merely a justification for punitive methods of control.
Napoleon soon establishes total control over the farm, starving the animals and working them harder than they ever had under the rule of the humans. However, all thoroughly believe in the pig’s message, as displayed in the horse Boxer’s unceasing dedication to work harder, all the while constantly reassuring himself that ‘Napoleon is always right’. The animals are entreated to sacrifice for the common good, whilst history is rewritten further, the commandments painted upon the barn walls now subject to alteration. All characters have changed through this process, with the common animals becoming wearily accepting of their life, reduced to the recitation of mindless slogans, whilst the pigs drift closer to becoming the embodiment of the very thing they once rose up to fight.
By the end of the novella, years have passed, and the pigs have completed their assumption of power over the farm. The common animals have no concept of how much time has gone by, and are accepting of their life of toil and oppression, and in an echo of 1984, reason that it must have always been this way. The pigs have completed their transformation, and now resemble humans to such an extent that the common animals cannot tell them apart. The pigs now dress in clothes and carry whips, and all vestiges of the original revolution have been wiped away. In the conclusion of the novella, Orwell reminds us of the dangers of power – that even the most altruistic ideals can be warped into being merely the tools of the corrupt and the cruel.
I’d been thinking about my grandmother recently, and decided to write about her early life for a non-fiction piece. This could be a lot longer, but I was working to a word limit and a little constrained. I might revisit it one day and write a longer version – I think she deserves it.
Outside of Bundaberg, Queensland, Mary sat and waited for the train. The wind swept across the baked fields, whipping up clouds of dust from the remnants of failed crops. Drought and the depression had taken its toll, and now the country was at war, yet life struggled on in rural Queensland. Mary enjoyed watching the trains. Perhaps she saw them as reminders that there was another world beyond the bare plains, a place where life was not struggling, tenuously clutching on at the edges of parched dirt and economic ruin. She would watch the people in the carriages as they rattled past, their possessions and hopes stacked high as they headed south, and although she was only eight years old and couldn’t yet join these people in their search for a better life, dreams of places far away filled her head.
This day, however, she was waiting for a particular train. Every week, a train hauling its load of sugar cane would depart Bundaberg and head south across the dry plains, to be unloaded for processing and distribution to the southern states. The driver, an older man with a kind face, would stop the train and give her some sugar cane, pleased by the young child’s happiness to see him. Then, he would climb back into the cabin, and set off once again. Mary greatly looked forward to this weekly ritual, the sweet juice of the sugar cane a rare treat in a world where such things were rare. As she waited, her sister Elizabeth approached from the opposite side of the track. Elizabeth was older by four years and hardened to the world, her young face containing a weariness beyond her years. They both possessed their mother’s features, an angular face with pale, quick eyes, but few recognised them as sisters.
‘Mary!’ she called as she clambered over a fence. ‘You know Father wants us back at the house at 4 o’clock.’
‘I know,’ Mary said. ‘I was waiting for the sugar cane man. He’s usually here by now.’
Elizabeth knelt next to her sister.
‘That will just have to wait. You don’t want to make Father angry. Come along now.’ She took Mary’s hand, and pulled her to her feet. ‘And look at you, your clothes are filthy.’
Mary looked down at her dress, and scraped at some dirt with her fingernail.
‘I’m sorry, don’t tell father or grandma.’ Mary said. ‘I’ll clean it myself before dinner.’
Their grandmother, an austere woman, did not look upon the soiling of clothes kindly. She had lived in Ireland for most of her life, and moved to Australia to support her son as he struggled to transition to civilian life after discharging from the army. Her anger was terrible when roused, and both wished to avoid it.
‘Alright,’ Elizabeth said. ‘But use the washboard around the back of the house, the old one. No one can see you there.’
Mary nodded in agreement, trusting in her sister’s judgement. Elizabeth understood the realities of the world much more than her, and had paid a price for it, the carefree nature of a child worn down into an adult pragmatism that seemed odd coming from a girl of her age. She was always looking out for her younger sister, and protected her as best she could.
‘Come on,’ Elizabeth said, as she grasped Mary’s hand. ‘Let’s not keep Father waiting.’
The two then set off down the tracks, towards their home.
John O’Shaughnessy was a cold, taciturn man. He had spent ten years in the army, serving as an enlisted soldier in the Royal Engineers, before discharging and moving with his wife to Australia. The transition to civilian life had not been an easy one. Despite the birth of his children, he had spiralled into alcoholism, before the death of his wife during a botched clandestine abortion snuffed out any embers of warmth that had remained inside him. This loss had driven him to the point of breakdown, and he refused to speak about it. Perhaps it was shame that caused him to never speak of his deceased wife, but whatever the reason, he attempted to remedy whatever pain he felt by sinking further into bottles of scotch, and as such, a bottle was never far from his hand. Mary and Elizabeth only had vague memories of their mother, the only female presence in their life was provided by their grandmother, who lived with them in a vain attempt to prevent her son from completely falling apart. As he sat at the head of the table, he ran his eyes over his daughters.
‘You two,’ he began, his words silencing the table. ‘When I say I want you home at four, I mean it.’
‘Yes Father.’ Elizabeth said, quietly.
‘And I want your chores done properly. If I come home tomorrow to find what I did today, there will be hell to pay.’ He banged his hand upon the table, making the plates jump.
The two girls knew to remain quiet and obedient, as it was the safest response. Their grandmother entered, and put plates of food in front of them without a word. They began to eat in silence.
Suddenly, their father spoke.
‘Mary, take that bracelet off. I don’t want to see you wearing it at this table. Give it to me.’
‘But it belonged to mother …’ Mary began, as she covered the bracelet with her hand.
‘Don’t ever mention her.’ their father growled.
‘But she used to wear it!’ Mary protested, the fear of her father briefly forgotten.
Elizabeth tugged at Mary’s arm in warning.
‘I told you never to mention her!’ he roared.
The table fell into silence. Their father rose, and stomped into the kitchen. Knowing that his anger would only grow, Mary quietly got up from the table, and headed towards her bedroom. The bedroom was a sanctuary, and was where she read every night. Her books were treasured items that transported her away to places that seemed so real she felt she could nearly reach out and touch them. After she had read that night, as she lay in the darkness, she heard her father yelling from the next room in a drunken rage. She could hear the voice of her grandmother, attempting to calm her son down. It was not an unusual occurrence. There was a crash as her father overturned a table, before the front door slammed, and quiet returned to the house. Mary lay silently, clutching a book to her chest, desperately trying not to cry.
Some years later, Mary and Elizabeth sat in the backyard of their home, underneath a large eucalyptus tree. Mary quite often liked to read underneath this tree. They sat silently, staring upwards into the branches. Their father had left some days earlier, and not returned. Whether he ever would, they did not know. He had grown more violent over the years, frequently hitting the girls, particularly Elizabeth, with whatever he could lay his hands on. Their legs were often welted and faces bruised, but no one at the local school seemed to notice. If they did, they considered it firmly none of their business, and remained uninvolved. Their grandmother had passed away, and despite her uncaring nature, her death had stripped away any last vestiges of stability from their lives. Their father now seemed to be gradually detaching from reality, frequently spending hours drunkenly raging at people unseen, or disappearing for days at a time. Mary and Elizabeth looked after each other as best they could, with Elizabeth seeing to the general running of the house. But, it was taking an increasing toll on her. Her personality darkened, and she became withdrawn, hardly speaking.
‘When do you think he will come back?’ Mary asked.
Elizabeth remained silent for a moment.
‘I don’t know.’
‘I hope he never does.’ Mary said. She had never said this aloud, but knew her sister agreed. It was relief to finally say the words.
Elizabeth kept her head back, looking up into the tree. She enjoyed watching birds, observing their flight and attempting to identify them by song. Mary poked at the ground with a stick.
‘Elizabeth,’ Mary continued, ‘do you ever think of leaving?’.
‘Why do you ask that?’
‘Nothing good will come from staying. There is nothing for us here. Mother wouldn’t have wanted this for us.’
‘Mother is dead, Mary.’ Elizabeth said, as she got to her feet. ‘What she wanted doesn’t matter. What matters is where we are.’
‘There must be a place we can go. South, maybe, with Aunt Margret. Anywhere but here.’
Elizabeth laughed sharply.
‘We haven’t spoken to Margret in years. How would we survive?’
‘I don’t know, but I’d rather take my chances than stay here, afraid.’
Elizabeth cast her head down, and looked at the ground.
‘You’ve always had your head in the clouds, Mary. You read too many of those books.’
‘I’ve been putting money aside, from my work at the shop. Father doesn’t know about it. We can buy train tickets. Come with me tomorrow morning to the train station, and we can get away from this place forever.’
The front door crashed, and their father lurched into the house. Elizabeth looked at Mary, before finally nodding.
The next morning, the two sisters stood in the early morning mist at Bundaberg Train Station. Each had packed everything they owned. Mary’s suitcase was held together with twine, her refusal to abandon her books had left it unable to close.
‘I’ve got us tickets to Brisbane, and from there we can get to Bowral. I’ve written to Aunt Margret. She’ll let us stay with her.’
Mary held out the tickets to Elizabeth.
‘I’m not going with you.’ Elizabeth said. ‘I’m going north, to Cairns. I can get work on a farm up there. I want to get away from all this, as far as I can. I don’t need anyone to provide for me.’
Elizabeth gently closed Mary’s hand around the tickets.
‘But where will you stay?’ Mary asked, as she began to cry. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘I’m sorry, Elizabeth said, her voice shaking. ‘It’s just something that I have to do. I need to get away, and be alone for a while. I don’t know who I am, Mary. I need to find out.’
‘But what will I do?’ Mary sobbed, as tears fell to the gravel at her feet.
Elizabeth took her hand. ‘You don’t need me to protect you anymore. Please try to understand.’
The two sisters embraced. Soon after, Mary watched as the train carrying Elizabeth moved away, tears running down her face, until the train disappeared into the distance. Then, she sat down, and waited for her train, finally joining those she watched as a child as they began their journey south.
Years later, Mary stood outside of a new house in Bowral, New South Wales. One of many new homes that were being built in the area, its white weatherboards shone brightly in the sun, and was fronted by an immaculate garden. It was the 1950’s, and the country was changing. People began to settle down and enjoy luxuries that would have been unimaginable only a few decades earlier, clustering together in newly created suburbs as a testament to prosperity. Elizabeth had remained in North Queensland, and the two had not spoken for several years. Eventually, the sisters received word that their father had died due to advanced cirrhosis of the liver, and that his final years had seen him destitute and dependent on the state. Neither attended the funeral. After her move to New South Wales, Mary had worked in a library, saving money for her plans to travel the country. She chronicled her thoughts in a diary, where she wrote of Elizabeth often, and memories of her childhood surfaced frequently. These diaries were never thrown away. Soon after, she met Ian Smith, a handsome Navy man, at a local ball. Both were instantly drawn to each other. Ian was charismatic and well-spoken, a widely-travelled man who had seen many sights during his time in the Navy. It could have been this worldly nature that drew Mary to him, captivating her with his easy smile and fantastic tales of foreign cities. They were soon married, and Mary fell pregnant. As she stood in front of her new home, carrying her first child, one wonders if she saw it as the culmination of a long and tiring search, that the life she had so desperately wanted as a young girl in Queensland was now, at long last, within reach.
A short review of a great book by Tom Holland. I love Ancient Rome; I would love to try to write something involving it, but the research required is a little scary. Anyway, this is from yet another class I took, and it’s nice to practice other forms of writing from time to time.
At its height, The Roman Empire stretched from Spain to Iraq, encompassing most of modern Europe. It persisted in various forms for 800 years, and much of its legacy can still be felt in Western civilization today, ranging from our legal system, to the names of planets. Throughout its vast and storied history, there are few periods less tread by academics and writers than the transition from Republic to Empire. This is not by accident – it contains some of the most famous people and events of classical antiquity. This is the time of Caesar and Pompey, of Cicero and Mark Antony, a period of tremendous upheaval where politics and the quest for power reached levels of brutality previously unseen. It is upon this period that Tom Holland and his work Rubicon are squarely focused, charting the decline of the republic with an accessible and entertaining work that avoids the impregnability and dryness of most academic writing.
Holland clearly has the credentials to undertake this kind of task. Educated in Latin at Oxford, he has adapted the works of Herodotus, Homer, Virgil and Thucydides for BBC Radio, and his considerable passion for antiquity shines through in Rubicon. Helped in no small way by a readily available cast of epic characters, he creates an informative and modern retelling of the events and major players of this period in history. Superbly paced, the book never feels heavy or dull, each character springing to life from the page unburdened by the two-thousand years of distance from which the reader is peering across. The characters feel alive, their motives and thoughts understandable, and Holland uses this to paint an engrossing and at times melancholy tale of the rise and fall of one of the greatest republics the world has seen. The author relates each character with care, but special mention must be given to the brilliant Cicero, whose story is perhaps most analogous to the republic itself, and for whom the author clearly feels a great deal of admiration. Holland does not gloss over the negative aspects of each figure however, stating succinctly of Cicero that he was “genuine principle fused seamlessly with inordinate self-regard” – a towering figure of the late republic who was nonetheless prone to bouts of unendearing self-pity and pomposity.
The book balances the necessity for information, without which the tale becomes incomprehensible and lacking in context, with the risk of becoming inaccessible and dull, and succeeds at this challenge. Tackling a narrative of such intimidating size is a daunting task, but Holland’s skills as a writer prevent Rubicon from ever becoming bloated or confusing, with the seeds of the continuing story sown into previous events, evolving and moving forward much like history itself. However, although the book relates the fall of the republic somewhat regretfully, the author refrains from placing its demise in the context of its effects upon following history, or from detailing its impact upon Roman citizenry, an omission that could hamper the full understanding of the influence these events would eventually have. This also raises the question of just why the fall of the republic should be mourned. This is a question which the book does not answer, and perhaps should.
Rubicon dispels the myths and dustiness of Ancient Rome, and exposes the enthralling reality of world that despite being totally alien, feels somewhat familiar to those looking upon it two-thousand years later. The fact that Holland succeeds in presenting a relatable vision of this world, that is both informative and entertaining, is a testament to his passion for this era of history, and Rubicon is a fine embodiment of the energy and focus this passion can bring to a work.