Curtains

As a child, I was admitted to hospital often. Countless nights were spent in the frenzied rush to the hospital, followed by the agonizing purgatory of the emergency ward, seeing out the night in bleary-eyed waiting. Finally, I would be wheeled to the paediatric ward, oxygen tubes trailing behind in matted transparent coils. By the time I was sixteen, I was thoroughly accustomed to the process, and to the hospital itself. The off-white walls that never quite seemed clean; the aseptic lighting that seemed to drain all colour from whatever it touched. I would lie on my hospital bed, watching the routine of the ward, which was comforting in its unceasing process, and leave the curtains around my bed open, completely at ease.

On one occasion, I had been in the hospital for about a week, settled into the comfortable routine that I was now very familiar with. Later that day, a teenaged girl was brought into the room, and placed into the bed opposite me. I watched her for a moment. She was painfully thin, and was almost dwarfed by the bed, seeming to have sunk into it to escape from a biting cold that I couldn’t feel. After a few minutes, I decided to ask her name.

‘Hi, I’m Luke’ I ventured.

The girl raised her head, and considered me for a moment. Her eyes, a vivid shade of emerald green, ringed by darkness and made only more brilliant by the paleness of her skin, blinked slowly as if she was returning from some place far away.

‘Hello, I’m Sophie,’ she answered. ‘How long have you been here?’

‘About a week. It’s hard to tell in here sometimes. Without the television, I wouldn’t even know what day it was.’

She laughed at that, a quiet lilting sound that I felt wasn’t heard often.

‘It’s nice to meet you, Luke. It’d be nice to have someone to talk to in here.’

With that, she smiled; a sad, haunting smile that I have never truly forgotten. She then closed her eyes, and began to drift off to sleep.

Over the next few days, we spoke often, and I tried to make her laugh as often as I could. I liked her smile, I realised. As we talked, I discovered that she possessed a sharp and witty mind, undimmed by the fragility of her body. But I soon noticed things, like how she never ate. Meals would be brought to her, but she would only look at them with distaste. I watched as she hid food around her bed, and as she would take my plates to regurgitate food onto, trying in vain to remain unnoticed. I soon realised that Sophie was slowly dying, decaying away into dust from an illness I couldn’t possibly understand. We began to talk less as her energy faded, despite the increasingly desperate efforts of the doctors and nurses, but still those vibrant green eyes looked out from her bed, viewing the world with an energy I only wished she could harness to fight the demons that were slowly wasting her away. I would watch her during the night, observing the rise and fall of her breath, before I would fall into a troubled sleep. Then, one morning, she was gone. I stared at the empty bed opposite, feeling an immense sadness bite into the depths of my stomach.

‘What happened to Sophie?’ I asked the nurse, as she did her morning rounds.

‘We moved her to an intensive care unit’ the nurse replied vacantly, distracted as she took my pulse.

I remained silent, trying desperately to hold off tears. I was discharged a few days later, and was never comfortable in a hospital again. I never found out what happened to the girl with the luminous green eyes, whether she conquered the illness that was driving her to the brink of death, or if she finally succumbed to it during lonely and anguished nights. I have never forgotten her. From then on, each time I found myself in hospital, I drew the curtains closed around my bed.

Advertisements

Assorted Pottery

By which I mean poetry. I’ve been writing these stupid little poems for a long time, I don’t really know why I keep doing it.

‘Sick’

No sunshine beneath the street

Smiles melt and leak and drip off your faces

The tar breathes black and snarls upon feet

Spitting bitumen blood and untold spaces

Yellow muzzles press on the pane

‘Stand tall, son’, an empty stare

And I’m sorry to say

That I’m scared

Thrashing in the night

Aching like cracked bone

You’re like a sick twilight

and you won’t leave me alone

 

 

 

Tales Told by Idiots

  1. ‘Ataxia’

 

There are no heroes here

the blind frenzy of the drowning man

cackling clocks and bloodless clear,

nights where hope was overran.

 

Tick, tock. That hideous tick tock, echoing through the darkness of my room. Apparently in a real dark night of the soul, it’s always 3am. Whilst I agree that F. Scott Fitzgerald may have had a point when he penned this line, I feel that true despair obliterates time, and renders it meaningless. Time may indeed be the enemy, but in the oozing black anguish of a depressive episode, it too becomes indifferent. 3am could well be 3pm, and it would make absolutely no difference. Ante and post meridian becomes nothing more than a knotted, indistinguishable mess of rotting, worthless time. As I lay in bed, I knew that one hallmark of depression is that any day could be selected from this indistinguishable mass of retreated time, and no matter which one emerged, it would still be the worst day of my life. The reasons for this aren’t exactly clear to me – it seems as if I’m on one side of a dirty window and have completely forgotten whatever was on the other side. One thing I do know is that I’m desperately trying to catch a glimpse at those opposite, those to whom everything comes easy, flitting from task to task, completing everything with such facile grace, that they should be dipped in Lucite and placed upon an enormous pedestal, serving only to remind of the things I can never be. As the sun dawned and intruded through my curtains, I knew that I was just another fool, whose way was now lit.

 

  1. ‘Asphyxia’

 

Nameless yet aimless,

long-since dead and totally blameless.

Just stack my body high,

and take me home.

 

Feet shuffled forward. I shuffled forward. The bills I needed to pay were folded neatly in my hand, growing slightly damp from the beaded perspiration forming upon my fingertips. Most people’s lives are unremarkable, of that I am certain, but they were surely above the level of dullness that I had managed to achieve. It had not been easy. It had taken effort to be this dull, stripping any source of vibrancy of its colour and covering it with layers of assorted, laminated tedium. My life had somehow become the wallpaper of a mid-1970’s flat, which is scientifically proven to be the most depressing décor in history. I bumped into the person in front of me, a beige-shaped mass with lonely wisps of hair that clung to his head like a thought bubble. He grunted. I was surrounded by faces and bodies, pressed up against each other in limp acceptance. Stranded amongst a sweaty, bulging mass of humanity, with no way to get out. Why was it so busy today? Aren’t these people supposed to be working, toiling dutifully in factories of industry and making sure those societal wheels kept turning? Oh Christ. Here it comes again, the beginnings of panic, tingling inside my skull and rising like bubbles in soda. It was unavoidable, inevitable, as certain as death and taxes: I was going to have a panic attack. Normal people don’t live like this, I told myself. Stable people seldom ran screaming out of banks, unless there was a gun-wielding maniac inside demanding money. These normal people were everywhere, apparently. They stood in line, waiting to be served with the serenity of people who, for all intents and purposes, weren’t there – they could be walked through like a breeze, floating lazily in a hazy peace found in intangibility, the disconnection from their surroundings rendering them almost ethereal, subsisting amongst the world in a state of living humdrum. It would be a perfect way to live; untroubled, unimpassioned, and tranquil to the point of flat effect, and I was extremely jealous. The line shuffled forward. The tellers counted their cash, as the branch manager glided behind them like a black-tied shark. A cough sounded, wet and rasping. Still the panic rose, and I knew that I had to get out of there. That seemed to be all I knew, an all-encompassing fact that took precedence over all other considerations. I was stranded amongst this grey, sweating throng for a reason: the bills needed to be paid. Red-inked and angry, they greeted me like wasps every morning at the mailbox, and were quite clear in their warnings to not be ignored. They would just have to wait. I wished that I hadn’t thought about where I was, or why I was here, or that my brain had even made the rather poor decision to fire a single synapse. It just didn’t pay to think too much. Thinking too much, I had discovered, had an inexorable tendency to turn an otherwise manageable day into one that could quite easily come to a close at the end of an extension cord. I pushed roughly through the crowd, before the automatic glass doors slid open, and ushered me out into the cold, winter’s midday.

 

  1. ‘Hypoxia’

 

Web-cracked hope and shattered faith,

tracing fingers where you used to be,

smiling knives flash in the night,

as you recede away from me.

 

I sat in the McDonalds and picked at my food. Talk bubbled around me, the chatter rising and falling amongst the earth-toned walls and non-threatening décor. I wasn’t always like this. I swear I used to feel things, other than gasping panic and pitch-black despair, of course. It would be nice to experience a version of life that didn’t feel like it was pushing through several layers of Styrofoam. I scrunched up my food into a tight ball, my appetite now vanished. A family ate near me, their jaws moving in rhythmic unison, swallowing in breathless gulps. The largest creature sat at the head of the table, slurping the remnants out of his drink. Someone belched. A grin spread across his pink, snouted face, and the family brayed loudly, spraying pieces of half-eaten food into the air. When you haven’t slept in thirty hours, the world is ugly. I cannot bear to look any more. Rain splattered on the window, and wind blew fast food detritus across the car park. All I wanted now was to get home, where the only ugly thing that remained was myself.

Regretstacy: Pain and Pigments

 

j1nbwh1iuv3swhnq2umy.jpg

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.

Tattoo-inkt-kankerverwekkend.jpg

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.

All my friends are dead

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.

 

Death and Buses

10.jpg

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.

cracked-sky-gothenburg-sweden-6837359543

Found this cool photo here. I should cite these. Kinda close to what I saw in my head when I wrote this.

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.

‘Now?’

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.

Old shirts and introverts

R-1297507-1267723506.jpeg

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.