GOOD INTENTIONS Ch 5: Letter From a Time Traveller (1000 words)

5: LETTER FROM A TIME TRAVELLER

Dear Past Robbie–

I am so sorry. This was supposed to be a good deed. I hope it can still be rescued. That’s why I’ve sent you the phone, and I’m writing you this letter. Because where I come from, events can be rewritten, the way a story can be rewritten. Everything is up for grabs. The stakes are huge, as huge as a single human life, yours–mine. Because you and I are more or less the same person. You could say we’re different drafts of the same story. Different angle, different takes on the same material.

I’m writing this to you on 20 July 2017–Happy Moon Landing Day! I’m 54 years old as of my last birthday, and I’m still massively excited that we went to the Moon. I still think that “we”–all of us, all humanity–did that. It might be last thing we all did together. I’m inclined to think it was the apex of human civilisation, given what’s happened since then.

I’m sorry about what happened in your room the other night. I was trying to reach you, but the Widow, Fiona, got me. I managed to shift back to my primary self, so it was just the unthinking drone that was killed, but there’s no way to know that, based on what you saw when the smell woke you up, is there?

The weird thing is how even as I flashed into your room that night, I was remembering, when I was a kid, the following morning, waking up to find the dead body. I knew there would be an attack. I knew it was coming. So I was in a big rush to wake you up, to deliver my Message From the Future before Fiona turned up. But she turned up early.

As I say, this was supposed to be a good deed. I remember very well what life was like when I was you. Growing up in those days. I was trying to help you, in my idiot, ham-fisted way. It’s not as if there aren’t these days plenty of warnings about How Time Travel Can Go Wrong. We’ve had time travel since the 1980s, by the way. About the same time we got computers. Next thing, liquid reality. And next thing after that: hyperfoam realities. Then, now, everything is just “the smear”. Things are solid only as far as you can see, as long as you’re looking at them. Everything is interface.

Anyway. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m working on a way for you and me to meet up, so we can talk properly, so I can explain everything. What I want most of all is to take you and your Mum and Dad to my present, so you can meet my Mum and Dad. They are elderly now, but they are happy and well. They and I are close. I get on famously with Dad.

You’re shocked. Things is, Rob, your dad is very sick, and has been for a very long time. You are, too. It’s an illness called bipolar disorder. In your time its’ called manic depression, or manic depressive disorder. It means your emotions go way up and way down. With your dad it often manifests as anger and low, dark moods. He feels deeply frustrated about everything. He worries about not being a good provider and not being a good dad. He loves you more than life itself. But he can’t tell you. He has to show you, but he doesn’t know how to show you properly so he does weird, strange stuff.

But he loves you. He’s sick, and his sickness distorts his personality. You feel, in your time, listening to your parents fighting all the time, their arguments, their strife, and the way you’re always in trouble and getting yelled at, that everything is your fault, right? If only you were a better kid, a better person, a better student, things wouldn’t be like this, right? Dad wouldn’t always be threatening to leave you and Mum. He wouldn’t always seem so angry with you. He wouldn’t be yelling so much, or seem so upset or worried.

But it’s not at all your fault. This is what I’ve done all this to tell you. It’s not your fault, Rob. It’s not his fault, either. He’s just sick. He needs help. He’s been getting help all along, but it was no good, ineffective. This kind of illness has very poor remedies available to it.

This is all I have to tell you for now. Have a look at the phone. You obviously won’t be able to make calls with it because there’s no network there. But it does all kinds of other things, plus the time travel app (“application” or “programme”), “HG”. Note that you only have the limited free version of HG, which restricts what you can do. Also, if you do time travel, be aware that it gets very messy very quickly. It’s dangerous. Be careful not to go to a time where you can’t recharge your phone. That means probably no earlier than the 1950s. You can also send me a cross-time text, if you want to talk. I have a vague memory of doing that when I was you, but history is nothing if not fluid, so who knows?

So there you are. Watch out for Fiona. You’ll find photos of her and me and various others in the phone. Fiona is very dangerous, and she has a time machine phone as well. Everybody has one. She wants to kill me. She’s had a few red-hot goes, and will try to get you, or those close to you as well.

And, as I say, I’m so very sorry. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be a good deed.

Yours,

Robert

MEMOIR: A YEAR AGO TODAY ON FACEBOOK

MEMOIR: A YEAR AGO TODAY ON FACEBOOK

This time last year I was in the midst of my second hospitalisation, and we were engaged in some major medication engineering. Drugs that I’d just about always been on were going away and being replaced with new ones, sometimes very new ones. Like the Latuda mentioned below, a medication so new that it was hard to get supplies of it in Perth, and pharmacists had often never heard of it.

As always, I was posting to Facebook about the whole experience, including this:

“So, tonight I’ve just had my dose of Latuda, but took a Temazepam with it, just in case. The nurse told me to come back at midnight if there’s still no joy and I can have some more Temazepam.

Meanwhile, earlier I had the second-last dose of Tegretol I’ll ever have. Tomorrow is the last one, and I can’t wait! More than 30 years I’ve been on that stuff, and now it’s going away. Once it’s gone, that’ll be the end of the medication regimen that’s kept me more or less glued together, at least outwardly, all that time. And which, without my knowledge, had also been causing me a world of internal trouble that I thought was due to all manner of other things. 🙁

Kind of a big moment, at least for me.”

NOTEBOOK: TWO MONTHS

NOTEBOOK: TWO MONTHS

Two months ago today Michelle and I were sitting in a café in Subiaco on a cold and miserable Saturday afternoon, and I opened a blank sheet here in Ulysses in what would become my writer’s notebook, and I wrote a short piece about a painting by the artist Basquiat, which had just sold in New York for a shocking amount of money.

It was the first real writing of any kind I had done in years. My psychologist, the day before, had nudged along what she saw in me as a sort of yearning, an inclination, towards writing. I’d been telling myself that I would take up writing again when I was well, but I had no idea when that might be, or how I might tell that I’d arrived. Would it be a day when I felt fine? Would it be several days in a row of feeling fine? What if there were, as there was this week, a few days of feeling low and melancholy, after a good patch? Was I sick again? Was I no longer well? Or was it more that I had stubbed my mind on a rock, as I would stub my toe, and it was in need of a mental Band-Aid, and would soon be fine again? Today I’m feeling pretty okay again, so I think the “stubbed mind needing a Band-Aid” hypothesis might have won the day.

But it doesn’t answer the larger question of how would I recognise “being recovered and well” if it were to happen. To be honest I still don’t know. I have a few clues, though. One is that I stop worrying about it so much. That I have so much else going on that it just falls down my brain’s to-do list. And I do have a lot going on at the moment. I’m working on not one but two different book projects. The writer’s notebook I started keeping that afternoon in Subiaco two months ago today turned into a series of memoir essays, which I decided to make into a book project, called RANDOM ACCESS MEMOIR: A Time Traveller Explores His History with Mental Illness. This has run to about 90 essays. It’s flown out of me. Some days I managed three pieces. Two weekends I managed a total of six pieces. I have enjoyed truly remarkable clarity of thought and no shortage of energy.

I’ve also kind of accidentally started writing a science fiction novel, with the working title of GOOD INTENTIONS. Am four chapters in. The premise comes from one of my memoir essays, where I was thinking that a good use of a time machine would be to go back in time to when I was a teenager and felt so awful because Mum and Dad were always fighting and arguing and I felt like it was my fault (it wasn’t, I know that now), and to reassure that boy that it’s not his fault, that his dad is sick, but doesn’t know he’s sick. To explain things. To make sure the boy understands that his dad loves him. And maybe take the whole family, in the time machine, to the Time Traveller’s future in 2017, where many things are truly terrible, no question, but one thing that’s good is that his Mum and Dad are still here, they’re close and happy, they don’t fight anymore, and we all get along great. Dad doesn’t even remember that bad time years ago, and is horrified to hear how bad it was.

So this is my Time Traveller’s plan. But it all goes wrong. He changes the past, but then the troubled boy’s life turns out differently. It’s not all happy. It goes much worse than it did for the Time Traveller. In fact he ends up killing himself, and his wife sets out to kill that original Time Traveller for destroying her life, for destroying her husband’s life.

The book opens with the troubled boy waking up to find a dead man in his bedroom, murdered. The dead man is the Time Traveller and the Widow killed him. But the Time Traveller had some tricks up his sleeve the Widow doesn’t know about.

And so on. I’m working on both these things. I’m also working hard on my weight-loss and fitness. At the time I started keeping this notebook, my weight had soared back up to 127.1 kg. It’s now, after very serious work these past two months, 118.7 kg. Last year I managed to get it down to 114.3, and I’m aiming for that point again. Ultimately my weight-loss goal is what it’s been for the last 4.5 years: I’m aiming for 100 kg, down from my original weight of 165.5 kg. The main thing working against me since leaving hospital last November is one of the drugs I take, Nortriptyline. It works well on managing my mood, but it’s diabolical for weight-gain and increased appetite. In the first few weeks I wrote in this notebook, I was gravely worried and depressed about it, and wanted my doctor to consider lowering my dose, putting me on something else, or trying something else entirely.

In the meantime, between appointments with my doctor, I started trying things. One thing that has worked for me these two months is extended fasting each day. I have one main meal at lunchtime, and some treats/snacks, and that’s it, other than coffee with skim milk. It means I am fasting for 18-20 hours a day. It means I am often hungry, but you can ignore that. I am also taking a medication called Topamax that my doctor prescribed: it helps with anxiety, but has a weight-loss side-effect in some patients. I’m not sure if it’s doing that yet with me, but I’m not complaining.

When I started keeping this notebook I was worried, depressed, kind of desperate, and thought maybe I could, rather than wait until I achieved wellness, write my way towards wellness, one page at a time. I’m not sure I am yet there. I may never be there. I will likely always walk with this metaphorical limp. I will always be not quite right. But I can be right enough. I can function pretty good.

FIRST CONTACT WITH PUBLISHER

FIRST CONTACT WITH PUBLISHER

Today I wrote to the publisher at Fremantle Press, Georgia Richter, about RAMDOM ACCESS MEMOIR. When the manuscript is ready (though at this point I am not sure what that would mean or look like) I will be sending it to them first, since I think they would do a good job with this sort of material, and because I greatly enjoyed working with them on two of my other books (their edition of TIME MACHINES REPAIRED WHILE-U-WAIT and BLACK LIGHT), and I’d like to do that again.

I asked her about the ramifications of publishing a book where its contents in a different form had already been posted online: did that present a problem? Was it considered to be already published? Have I made a giant blunder?

The answer is no, not at all. No giant blunder, or at least not one of that sort. She said that once contracts are involved it’s worth considering taking down at least some of the online posts, in order to prevent spoilers for future readers. That seems reasonable to me.

She and I will talk some more by phone tomorrow about what would be involved in making a formal submission of a memoir manuscript. Previously I’ve only ever submitted novel manuscripts to publishers. This, and the fact it’s a big collection of separate essays, means it’s a very different beast from what I’m used to doing.

Meanwhile, today I started reading through some of the actual posts prior to thinking about rewrites and/or corrections. I’m thinking some will not need complete rewrites, but who knows? My experience tells me that rewrites are usually better than the original. We shall see. I also have not completed the actual manuscript. There’s at least one piece left to write, about how my parents met. With that in mind tonight I visited my parents and we talked about old times, which stirred up lots of dusty old memories of times long past but still of interest, especially the way the bipolar disorder goes all the way back through my father’s side of the family, and how it was a deep, dark secret that was kept from my mum when she married my dad.

It’s also kind of sad, but also kind of a blessing, that my elderly father has no recollection of what his illness did to him when I was growing up. How it made him unstable, angry, moody, unpredictable, inclined to terrible fits of temper (though never violent). He sat there tonight as I was explaining this, horrified. In his mind the great relationship we have now we have always had. He doesn’t remember how I was bullied all the time at school, either. He feels angry and sad about the things he’s forgotten, but I’ve told him there are some things you don’t want to remember. I think he’s unconvinced.

MEMOIR: CHOP WOOD, CARRY WATER

CHOP WOOD, CARRY WATER

A student in a Buddhist temple was working hard, trying to achieve Enlightenment. But he was also having to do hard, practical work around the temple, like chopping wood and carrying water, which were essential tasks. He would complain to his Master, “what should I do while I’m waiting for Enlightenment?” And the Master always said, “Chop wood, carry water.” The student, perhaps a little disgruntled, then asked, “And after I achieve Enlightenment? What then?” And the Master smiled. “Chop wood. Carry water.”

I first encountered a version of this story many years ago, and have found it in many places since, always slightly different, but always with the essential beats: the student who doesn’t grasp that ordinary, mundane life grinds on regardless of the grand voyages of your enlightened soul. The Master who has had this conversation with too many idealistic but naive students to count, who don’t understand that the temple needs water and chopped wood to function.

It means a lot to me, and I was thinking a lot about it just today while I was the local pool, slogging out an hour of heavy-duty walking laps. I feel quite depressed today, but I decided to go and be depressed at the pool as opposed to staying home where I could be a greasy depressed stain on the couch. At the pool I could at least do something worthwhile, despite feeling lousy.

So there I was, doing my thing. I realised I was chopping wood and carrying water, just like in the story. Exactly what Enlightenment might mean for me, I’m not sure.

CHAPTER 4 (Total Rewrite, 1600 words)

4

I was still staring into the yellow bag and wondering what the hell an Apple iPhone 7 might be when the whole thing was snatched out of my hands. Stuart Cross, smart, good-looking, the sort of pretty, thuggish lowlife who had no problem getting girlfriends, had my yellow bag, and was peering inside it, laughing. “Whatcha got, Pig? Looks nice! Looks expensive! Much too nice for the likes of you! Hey, Squint!” He called to one of his comrades, the vile Tom London, the sort of mate you could rely on to hold your coat while you thumped the shit out of your enemies, and tossed the bag across the locker room to him. London snatched it out of the air. “What’s this?” he said, and stared uncomprehendingly at the writing on the bag. “Never heard of these guys,” he said, offering his expert opinion. He took a look inside, registered the exotic presence of whatever it was in the white box, but shrugged and threw the lot back to Cross, who made a big show out of dropping it. “Oops!” he said, pantomiming shock, and bent to pick it up, shaking it to hear if it was broken. “Sounds okay. Should we have a look?”

Squint laughed. “Yeah, let’s have a look!”

“That’s mine,” I said, stepping forward, trying to steal it back. Cross was too fast, moving out of my path, and lobbed the package across to Squint, who snatched it and tossed it back.

This was my world. This was everything. Every day was this. Everything turned into a game of Keep Away from me, “Pig”. And here I was again, standing between Cross and Squint, taller and more solid than either of them, jumping to try to catch the bag, but they had all kinds of tricks. They had other confederates, too, and they tossed it to them when I looked like I might be about to get it. It seemed to go on for ages, back and forth and back and forth, and it was, based on the howls of laughter from everyone involved and the big crowd of kids gathered round to watch and cheer, and chant “Pig! Pig! Pig!”, the most hilarious thing ever, or at least this week.

The yellow JB HiFi bag was gone. I never saw it disappear. Now it was just the white box flying around the locker area, passing between many happy hands, between everyone’s hands but mine. I could have screamed. I wanted it back. I didn’t know what the thing was, but I understood that it was something important and special. That someone had put it in my locker, somehow, for me. But then this. It was always this.

“Come on, Pig! You have to put in some effort!” Cross was saying, to shouts and hoots of laughter, and even a bit of applause. We all had Maths class at any moment. I was standing there with my books and my Maths file and everything, and there was, for a moment, a feeling deep inside me, that was telling me to cut my losses here, to give up. To follow the classic, time-worn advice passed down to bullied kids everywhere: ignore the bullies and they’ll get bored and give up. They’ll go away.

I wasn’t convinced. In my experience, from times when I’d conducted this experiment, it just made the bullies try harder. They interpreted your response as a communications problem. They needed to go harder and louder and more violent. They needed to up their campaign. Because it was a campaign, with goals. The goal was the total destruction of the target. What that might mean, in practical terms, was poorly understood, but the target dissolving into tears whenever you were nearby, or behaving in an abject, submissive way towards you, were seen as good indicators that the campaign was working. The target was broken, humiliated.

I’d had more than ten years of this sort of bullshit. My very first day of primary school, back when it was called “Grade One” rather than “Year One”, a kid pushed me out of the line as we queued before going into the classroom to begin the day. And it had been every day ever since. The faces and names changed, the tactics changed, the ingenuity of the attacks changed, but the point, the ultimate goal, was the same. I was to be destroyed. And everything important and special to me had to be destroyed, too.

The white Apple iPhone 7 box was on the floor. They were playing soccer with it, kicking it up and down the main hallway in the locker area. Kicking it hard, and it crashed against the walls, against the steel struts supporting the lockers. I was in the middle of it, trying to catch it, to grab it, but just when I managed to get a hand on it, someone would kick or stomp that hand, lr just kick me in general, anywhere about my person would do.

Then, in the middle of the frenzy, the deafening hilarity, the wonderful game of it, I lunged with my bleeding hands for it, and Cross launched a savage kick at the side of my head. He clobbered me, and I collapsed to the floor, stunned, my vision dark and blurred, full of queasy pain and disorientation. I held my head, determined not to cry. I would not give them the satisfaction. I could not let them win. I sat there, holding myself, hurting, even breathing hurt.

Then I noticed that everyone was gone. I was alone in the locker area. I blinked a few times, confused. How did I miss that?

Staring around me, I saw the white Apple iPhone 7 box next to me. It was battered and crunched, torn in places and the pristine white was scuffed and marked. It looked the way I felt. It looked like someone had jumped up and down on it several times.

I picked it up, my whole body aching as I moved. Shaking the box, expecting to hear fragments, I heard nothing. It seemed solid.

So either they’d opened the box and made off with the iPhone, or it was still in there, in whatever condition it might be. It had to be broken. The thought did make me cry. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to get this to me, and now look. Ruined. I screamed and sobbed and hated the world. I thought of the poor man who’d been killed in my bedroom. I understood that he, and his murderer, were somehow connected to this white box. It could not be a coincidence. But look, already stuffed. Because people are vile. I hated everything about my life. The voices I often heard in my head, circling and circling, screaming at me, sometimes told me how much better this world, and all the people in it, especially my family, would be if I were gone. How my departure would solve a lot of problems. Because what was I contributing, anyway? Wasn’t I just a mouth to feed? A drain on my parents’ strained finances? And wasn’t it my fault that they were the way they were? I knew that was true. And that was the thing about the voices: they were persuasive. They made sense. I couldn’t argue with them. They were right.

And yet, something kept me here. I held the white box. I hardly dared open it. The lid was already half off. There was a photo of the thing on the top of the box, this Apple iPhone. It was funny-looking, like nothing I’d ever seen. It appeared to be a telephone.

My head still awhirl from the kicking, throbbing with pain, I managed to get the lid off the box. It was very tight.

Then, the unexpected: several printed pages of writing. It seemed to be a letter. It started with, “Dear Past Robbie” and went on from there.

But before I even got to the text of the letter–from, it seemed, my Future Self? A version of me in the future had sent me this? Actual time travel? I was thinking, my brain exploding, about what Dad said earlier about the man he met in the pub last night, who asked him what he would do if he had a time machine? Surely not a coincidence. It seemed likely that same man had left this package in my locker. But why?

Then the letter itself. What size paper was that? I was used to quarto and foolscap. And the text: I’d seen print from electric typewriters, like the IBM Selectric, that looked futuristic, and very different from the product you got from regular typewriters. But this? Was it even typing? There were no impressions in the paper, as from something hitting it. It looked like the print you would get in a book. But how the hell would you get that from any sort of typewriter? I’d very faintly heard of “word processors” but knew little about them.

Then there was the gadget itself, which I found cocooned in layers of plastic that was filled with bubbles of air. I’d never seen anything like it. Future Robbie had gone to a lot of trouble to protect this thing, I was thinking, and only then realised: because he would remember this morning, and everything that happened, the pounding Cross and his mates gave the box. He remembered this whole scene.

He didn’t kill himself. He didn’t listen to the voices. He survived.

I turned to the letter. I had to find out how this bastard, this whole planet, had survived.

CHAPTER 4 (600 words)

4

Then it was gone, snatched from my hands. Stuart Cross had it, grinning, “Oooooh, what’s this Stinky’s got? Looks interesting! Looks expensive!”

Then his vile mate Tom London took the bag from him, laughing, and they started tossing it back and forth between themselves.

“Hey!” I said, knowing as soon as I said it how useless I sounded, and how futile was the gesture. I’d been on the receiving end of this scenario many times. This was Year 11. I was 15. Kids like Stuie and Tommo had been doing this to me since the first day of grade 1.

But this was the first time it had ever involved something extraordinary. I had no idea what an Apple iPhone 7 might be, but I understood just from the heft of the box, from the way it looked, that it was expensive, that it was special, something exotic. Something that did not belong in my grubby world. I watched the yellow package flying back and forth, and saw the boys having a great laugh at my expense. I knew from long experience that standing between them trying to capture or intercept it in flight would not work. Already other mates were gathering around, laughing it up, big mocking smiles, kids looking my way. I’d played this scene many, many times. My main concern was that the Apple iPhone 7 might get broken. One of these idiots might drop it, or throw it against a wall. I had only had the briefest glimpse at the picture on the box. It looked fragile. It didn’t look like something that would bounce.

So I stood near my locker and watched them play. There were only a few minutes until Maths class. The yellow package flew back and forth, full of mystery and wonder. It was hilarious fun, making sport out of Stinky’s special present! And look at his sour face! Wouldn’t you love to just punch that face? Aren’t you sick of him being such a know-it-all? Isn’t he just disgusting and filthy and horrible? How is even allowed in the school stinking like that? Shouldn’t he be hosed off before being let onto the school grounds every morning, or maybe dipped like sheep, attacked with scrubbing brushes?

I knew what they were thinking. I heard their voices in my head as I watched them throwing my parcel back and forth, as I watched them laughing at this hilarious sport. I had years and years of their voices whirling and screaming through my head like a winter’s storm, a cyclone, a rain-bearing depression, blasting through my head, pushing out all possibility of decent self-esteem, of achievement or pride. All I thought about sometimes, listening to these voices, was how everything would be better for everyone, maybe, if I wasn’t here. If I just removed myself, like cancelling out the x, from the equation of life. I seemed to be a problem for my parents, my teachers, and even these moron kids. The package flew back and forth, back and forth. The laughter sounded like the opposite of happy–it was mocking and sarcastic. It was derisive and hollow. It was abuse dressed up as hilarity. It was cruelty dressed up as harmless frolic.

It was my fucking gift and I wanted it back.

I charged at Stuart Cross, hit him like a freight train, and kept going, and drove him hard against the brick wall of the locker room. We hit the wall at speed and I felt him crumple and I heard the air whoosh out of him as he sank to the concrete floor, and I fell on top him, my greater size and mass crushing him. I snatched the JB HiFi bag from his loose grasp, got up, kicked him in the nuts, turned and went back to my locker. It was time for my Maths class.

XXX

GOOD INTENTIONS Ch 3 (Version 4, Updated)

3

The police cordoned off our house as a crime scene. We booked into a motel near the airport, not that we could afford it. Dad stood outside smoking and staring at traffic. Mum sat inside, looking at TV, but not particularly taking anything in. I was restless. I never did get to school today. Mum wrote me an absentee letter to give to the deputy headmaster tomorrow morning, explaining that there’d been a sudden “bereavement” in the family. It was all a terrible shock. It was near enough to the truth.

I did what I’ve always done when things get too much. I wrote. I wrote all evening. There was nothing else for it. Nothing on TV held my interest. Everything seemed garish and stupid and loud. In my mind all I could see was the dead man’s face, the texture of his skin, his part-closed eyes, the angle of his slump against my door. Again, I wondered how it could all have happened without my noticing a thing? Why, of all the houses on our street, in our suburb, in our area, did this man choose our house? Was the killer following him, and so knew where to find him? Was it somehow random? Could it have been any house, so why not ours? Or had we been selected? I didn’t know which was worse.

What had the killer been searching for? That was another weird thing. That was something that made me think the choice of our house, and my room, was deliberate. The killer seemed to believe I had something stashed away in my room. Maybe that’s why the victim was in there, too. Maybe that’s what they were both doing there. Could they have been a team, only it went sour somehow, and one turned on the other?

I can’t remember anything the dead man was wearing–but I remember the exact texture of his skin. I remember that smell. I can still smell it on me, and in my nose. Since we’ve been here at the motel I’ve had two very thorough scrubbing-type showers, and I can still smell it on me. Mum says I reek of it. She says we all do, but me especially.

She’s wondering what we’re going to do about tea tonight. Dad unhelpfully says he’s not hungry. He’s thinking of heading out to see a couple of mates. “Fine,” Mum says. “Whatever you say, Phil.”

It’s just about lights out for the night. No sign of Dad’s return. It’s after midnight. Weird. It’s not the first time he’s done this, staying out all night. I just hope he’s all right. He and Mum have their problems, and their shortcomings (I can only imagine what they’d say if invited to list my shortcomings!), but they’re the only parents I have. I need them. I need both of them. Even if they were no longer together–I’ve been getting used to thinking about that possibility for a couple of years now–I still need my mum and dad. I just hope, if it came to that, they wouldn’t marry new people. That would be mental. Step-parents! God!

Lights out! Last time I turned the lights out, my whole world exploded. I hope things are quieter tonight.

XXX

Dad was “home”, with us, at the motel, when I woke this morning. I had hardly slept. I had known the motel was near the airport, but during the endless night that fact was repeatedly emphasised. We were not simply near the airport: we were directly under one of the main flight-paths coming to or leaving the airport. It was unbearable. And I was a kid who had always loved visiting the airport. I loved seeing the planes coming and going. I remember the time the first-ever Boeing 747 came to Perth, and just about all of Perth flocked out to see the extraordinary beast. One of my earliest memories is sitting in the airport terminal one night, working my way through a Dr Suess book, which might have been Green Eggs and Ham, and feeling pleased because this was a book I was reading on my own. I loved standing out on the open-air observation deck, in the wind and the freezing night, inhaling the kerosene waft of jet fuel, staring at gleaming planes. I loved it. I wanted to fly. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to get out of Perth. Perth was everything I hated.

But last night I hated the airport, and I hated my dad. Things were bad. I needed my folks to hold things together, to provide a stable floor beneath me, to stop this awful sense of plummeting doomward freefall. Ever since I woke yesterday morning, when my sense of routine reality had blown up in my face, I’d been in this long fall away from stability, tumbling end over end, screaming. When I closed my eyes, even for a moment, I saw the dead man. I saw the blood on my copy of Robert Heinlein’s HAVE SPACESUIT WILL TRAVEL. And the smell was still all over me. I think I showered for at least twenty minutes this morning, so long that Mum banged on the door a few times to get me to come out because I was going to be late for school, but all I could think about was scrubbing, scouring, scraping at my skin. If I could have flayed my skin right off and grown new skin, free of the clinging horror of that stink, I would have. I already felt flayed and vulnerable, a crab without a shell. My room was gone, so gone I may never get it back in a form I would recognise or accept. I might at some point receive an acceptable form of the physical space itself, the room, but everything about it that made it mine, my shelter from everything beyond its door, was gone. It would take me a long time to understand what that meant.

Dad gave me a lift to school. It was a long drive. We didn’t say much, or at least not at first. He fiddled with the radio, but couldn’t find anything he wanted to listen to. The static and chatter of AM radio made me flinch and jerk, as if attacked. I was tense, hunched over, watching everything. Dad’s every restless move was annoying. I tried to just sit there and look at the world of traffic and rain outside. It was cold. All the windows rolled up, but I still felt as if a cold draft blasted through me. I could feel goose-flesh on my arms and chest.

Then, during the final few kilometers, he came out with this, a blurt, the sort of thing he never did, but was doing now. He said, “I met a bloke last night. When I went out, why I was out so late. We were having a drink. This bloke was at the pub. I’m not a talker, you probably already know that, eh?” Here he flashed a nervous, self-conscious grin, but I was too astonished at this outburst to say anything. I just listened in silence, taking in every hesitant, not-sure word, as if navigating a mine-field, or defusing a bomb. He said, “He spilled his beer on me as he brushed past. I was just coming back from the dunny, and there he was. It’s a narrow passageway just there. Anyway, boom, we bump into each other, and suddenly I’m wearing half his beer. He apologises, he’s real decent about it, it was a genuine accident, I could see that, and the bloke was extremely apologetic. And get this. You won’t believe this. You’ve people talk about someone being so generous they’d give you the shirt of their back? This bloke offered to swap shirts with me. He was already unbuttoning his shirt, he was doing it. I didn’t know what to do. I had the shits with the whole world last night. Bloody everything, just everything. I would have burned the whole bloody planet last night, to be completely honest with you, mate. But this guy offering me his shirt. That got to me. It was shockingly decent. It was a generosity of spirit you don’t see anymore. I had to put my hands on him, to stop him. “It’s okay, don’t worry about it, no drama, seriously, please, it’s just a bit of beer,” I said. But the guy, he insists, you wouldn’t believe it if you’d seen it with your own eyes. He bloody insisted. So we bloody well did it. The shirt I came home in? Not my own shirt. It was his shirt. Incredible.”

“Dad?” I felt worried. This was the most Dad had ever said to me ever. He was animated. He was relating to me a life-changing moment, something he probably would have loved to tell Mum about, if they had been in okay shape. He had to tell someone, he felt as if he was going to burst. So he was telling me, and feeling self-conscious, his hands wringing the steering wheel as he talked, his face working hard, and stealing glances at me.

He went on. “So we got talking, this bloke and me. He bought me another beer. He was the nicest bloke I’ve met in years. I felt as if I’d always known him. I felt like I could tell him anything, everything. I told him about the dead man. Told him about me and Jennie, about you, even, my pride and joy, my beautiful boy.” He flashed a nervous smile, and laughed a bit.

“You okay, Dad? Seriously. Is everything all right?”

We were nearly there. I could see my high school at the end of this long road. I wondered what my dad would do with the rest of his day. He did not seem well. It was the strangest thing to see. I felt disoriented. One of the axes of my personal reality was out of kilter. It was confusing.

Then we were there. Dad had not said anything else. He looked embarrassed, as if regretting that he’d said so much to me. I didn’t regret. It was the most meaningful thing I’d ever experienced with my father. I don’t know what that meaning was or is, or quite what he was trying to tell me, but I treasured that conversation regardless.

I opened the door to get out. Dad said, “Mate?”

“Look. Would you do your old man a favour today?”

“A favour?”

“Watch out for strangers. Watch out for weird shit.”

“Weird shit? Like?”

“The bloke last night. Something he said. If you had a time machine, what’s the best thing you could do with it? What would you do? Who could you help? What would you do?”

I did not know what the hell to make of this. I understood about time machines. Of course I knew about them, student of science fiction that I was. Time machines were my favourite thing. I’d sometimes thought of what I’d do with one, but mainly I dreamt of seeing the future. I’d grown up during the so-called “Space Age”. I wanted to see if anything came of that, if humanity did indeed have a destiny among the stars.

“Time machines and strangers?” I looked at him. Dad always looked like he was walking a tightrope across a deep canyon. He always looked sweaty and tense, as if worried about falling, uncertain of his grip. Always wiping his sweaty hands. Looking around everywhere, and always sitting with his back to the wall, so he could keep an eye on the doors. But right now, sincerity was coming off him like radiation. He hadn’t had a wink of sleep since yesterday or the night before, but right this moment, he was concerned about me to a degree that was highly unusual. He looked like he was reluctant to let me go out there on my own.

“It’s just a favour for your old man. Be careful today. Watch out.”

“It’s okay, Dad. I’ll be careful.”

“It’s just, you’re–” And he couldn’t say the rest. He face seemed to fracture and collapse, and he rubbed at it with his hand. “Now get bloody going before I kick your fat arse out of me car, now git!” He made “shoo!” gestures.

“I’m going, I’m going.” And I went. Dad gave me five dollars in change so I could get some lunch. He also said, just before driving off, “Don’t worry so much. It’ll be okay. Your mum and me. We’ll be okay, all of us.”

“Coulda fooled me, Dad,” I said as he drove off.

I gave my absentee letter to the deputy headmaster. He and I had a long history, none of it good. I got to stand in front of his desk, often soaked through with rain, while he went through my various letters and medical certificates, and sundry other reasons to explain where I had been and why I had not been at school. What I needed was someone who would write me an authoritative letter which said, “Robbie did not attend school yesterday because he had a reasonable and well-founded fear of psychological, interpersonal abuse, and physical threats to his life.” Failing that, I had letters like the one Mum wrote. The deputy head wrote in his ledgers with his expensive purple fountain pen, did some aggressive and noisy stamping that made me flinch, and in due course sent me on my way.

Then I went to my locker to get the books and stuff I would need for my first class, the looming horror of Maths 1. Other kids bustled, larked, yelled, boiled, and tussled around me, yelling and laughing, making chaos. I ignored them as much as I could. Some wanted to know where I was yesterday. A few remarked that I smelled worse than usual, and I was surprised at how little that bothered me. The day before yesterday, a comment like that would have killed me. Now? Now I hardly even noticed. I was hardly even there, occupying that space. I felt as if the important parts of myself were somewhere else, doing something else. Maybe trying to find out who the dead man had been, and what he had been doing in my room. I felt as if I no longer had any interest in all this, so to speak, “kid stuff”, bullying and schoolyard bullshit and hostile teachers. Not when a man had been murdered in my bedroom.

Even so, much as all this school stuff felt like a remote abstraction, I did have to get through it. It was my job. The police would do what they could to figure out who the dead man was and how he came to die in my bedroom. Mum and Dad would do their things, too. Life would grind on. So I got my locker key out. I needed to get my books for Maths class.

Locker key in locker padlock. Zik, click, snap, pop. Lock opened. I pulled open the door.

“What the hell?” I whispered.

There was something in my locker that I had not put there.

As well as the usual jumble of worn and scribbled-over textbooks and file-folders and pencil-cases, there was also a big vibrantly yellow plastic bag with heavy black markings. There was something in the bag.

This was one of those moments, I knew this right away, when the vast bulk of your life swings around a single point of balance, where everything can change. This was something big. Things would come from this. I also suspected this yellow bag was somehow connected to the dead man in my bedroom. It had to be. Should I contact the police? Should I tell Detective Lockley? It seemed like I should. To do that I would have to go to Reception in the Admin Block and ask to use their phone.

I grabbed the bag, heart banging in my mouth. I felt sick with tension. I could see the dead man’s half-closed eyes.

The bag was marked, in heavy black writing,

JB HIFI

Which, I gathered, was a retailer for electronics, computers, and much else. Computers? They sold mainframes? Or did they sell machines like the TRS-80, and the Sinclair things, glorified calculators? In any case, I’d never heard of them. They must be an eastern states firm, like Harvey Norman, who you only ever heard about on late night chat shows, like Don Lane, when they were doing their Wheel of Fortune segment. JB HiFi must have come up as a sponsor on that and I just missed it.

I looked inside the bag.

There was a white box, and the writing on the box said,

Apple iPhone 7.

GOOD INTENTIONS Ch 3 (Version 3, 2000 words)

3

The police cordoned off our house as a crime scene. We booked into a motel near the airport, not that we could afford it. Dad stood outside smoking and staring at traffic. Mum sat inside, looking at TV, but not particularly taking anything in. I was restless. I never did get to school today. Mum wrote me an absentee letter to give to the deputy headmaster tomorrow morning, explaining that there’d been a sudden “bereavement” in the family. It was all a terrible shock. It was near enough to the truth.

I did what I’ve always done when things get too much. I wrote. I wrote all evening. There was nothing else for it. Nothing on TV held my interest. Everything seemed garish and stupid and loud. In my mind all I could see was the dead man’s face, the texture of his skin, his part-closed eyes, the angle of his slump against my door. Again, I wondered how it could all have happened without my noticing a thing? Why, of all the houses on our street, in our suburb, in our area, did this man choose our house? Was the killer following him, and so knew where to find him? Was it somehow random? Could it have been any house, so why not ours? Or had we been selected? I didn’t know which was worse.

What had the killer been searching for? That was another weird thing. That was something that made me think the choice of our house, and my room, was deliberate. The killer seemed to believe I had something stashed away in my room. Maybe that’s why the victim was in there, too. Maybe that’s what they were both doing there. Could they have been a team, only it went sour somehow, and one turned on the other?

I can’t remember anything the dead man was wearing–but I remember the exact texture of his skin. I remember that smell. I can still smell it on me, and in my nose. Since we’ve been here at the motel I’ve had two very thorough scrubbing-type showers, and I can still smell it on me. Mum says I reek of it. She says we all do, but me especially.

She’s wondering what we’re going to do about tea tonight. Dad unhelpfully says he’s not hungry. He’s thinking of heading out to see a couple of mates. “Fine,” Mum says. “Whatever you say, Phil.”

It’s just about lights out for the night. No sign of Dad’s return. It’s after midnight. Weird. It’s not the first time he’s done this, staying out all night. I just hope he’s all right. He and Mum have their problems, and their shortcomings (I can only imagine what they’d say if invited to list my shortcomings!), but they’re the only parents I have. I need them. I need both of them. Even if they were no longer together–I’ve been getting used to thinking about that possibility for a couple of years now–I still need my mum and dad. I just hope, if it came to that, they wouldn’t marry new people. That would be mental. Step-parents! God!

Lights out! Last time I turned the lights out, my whole world exploded. I hope things are quieter tonight.

XXX

Dad was “home”, with us, at the motel, when I woke this morning. I had hardly slept. I had known the motel was near the airport, but during the endless night that fact was repeatedly emphasised. We were not simply near the airport: we were directly under one of the main flight-paths coming to or leaving the airport. It was unbearable. And I was a kid who had always loved visiting the airport. I loved seeing the planes coming and going. I remember the time the first-ever Boeing 747 came to Perth, and just about all of Perth flocked out to see the extraordinary beast. One of my earliest memories is sitting in the airport terminal one night, working my way through a Dr Suess book, which might have been Green Eggs and Ham, and feeling pleased because this was a book I was reading on my own. I loved standing out on the open-air observation deck, in the wind and the freezing night, inhaling the kerosene waft of jet fuel, staring at gleaming planes. I loved it. I wanted to fly. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to get out of Perth. Perth was everything I hated.

But last night I hated the airport, and I hated my dad. Things were bad. I needed my folks to hold things together, to provide a stable floor beneath me, to stop this awful sense of plummeting doomward freefall. Ever since I woke yesterday morning, when my sense of routine reality had blown up in my face, I’d been in this long fall away from stability, tumbling end over end, screaming. When I closed my eyes, even for a moment, I saw the dead man. I saw the blood on my copy of Robert Heinlein’s HAVE SPACESUIT WILL TRAVEL. And the smell was still all over me. I think I showered for at least twenty minutes this morning, so long that Mum banged on the door a few times to get me to come out because I was going to be late for school, but all I could think about was scrubbing, scouring, scraping at my skin. If I could have flayed my skin right off and grown new skin, free of the clinging horror of that stink, I would have. I already felt flayed and vulnerable, a crab without a shell. My room was gone, so gone I may never get it back in a form I would recognise or accept. I might at some point receive an acceptable form of the physical space itself, the room, but everything about it that made it mine, my shelter from everything beyond its door, was gone. It would take me a long time to understand what that meant.

Dad gave me a lift to school. It was a long drive. We didn’t say much. Dad fiddled with the radio, but couldn’t find anything he wanted to listen to. The static and chatter of AM radio made me flinch and jerk, as if attacked. I was tense, hunched over, watching everything. My dad’s every restless move was annoying. I tried to just sit there and look at the world of traffic and rain outside. It was cold. All the windows rolled up, but I still felt as if a cold draft blasted through me. I could feel goose-flesh on my arms and chest.

Just as we pulled up at school, as I opened the door to get out, Dad said, “Mate?”

I slumped back in my seat. Not even nine a.m., and I was already exhausted and fed up. “What?”

“Listen. Watch out, okay, watch out for strangers today. Will you do that?”

I looked at him. Dad always looked like he was walking a tightrope across a deep canyon. He always looked sweaty and tense, as if worried about falling, uncertain of his grip. Always wiping his sweaty hands. Looking around everywhere, and always sitting with his back to the wall, so he could keep an eye on the doors. But right now, sincerity was coming off him like radiation. He hadn’t had a wink of sleep since yesterday or the night before, but right this moment, he was concerned about me to a degree that was highly unusual. He looked like he was reluctant to let me go out there on my own.

“It’s okay, Dad. I’ll be careful.”

“It’s just, you’re–” And he couldn’t say the rest. He face seemed to fracture and collapse, and he rubbed at it with his hand. “Now get bloody going before I kick your fat arse out of me car, now git!” He made “shoo!” gestures.

“I’m going, I’m going.” And I went. Dad gave me five dollars in change so I could get some lunch. He also said, just before driving off, “Don’t worry so much. It’ll be okay. Your mum and me. We’ll be okay, all of us.”

“Coulda fooled me, Dad,” I said as he drove off.

I gave my absentee letter to the deputy headmaster. He and I had a long history, none of it good. I got to stand in front of his desk, often soaked through with rain, while he went through my various letters and medical certificates, and sundry other reasons to explain where I had been and why I had not been at school. What I needed was someone who would write me an authoritative letter which said, “Robbie did not attend school yesterday because he had a reasonable and well-founded fear of psychological, interpersonal abuse, and physical threats to his life.” Failing that, I had letters like the one Mum wrote. The deputy head wrote in his ledgers with his expensive purple fountain pen, did some aggressive and noisy stamping that made me flinch, and in due course sent me on my way.

Then I went to my locker to get the books and stuff I would need for my first class, the looming horror of Maths 1. Other kids bustled, larked, yelled, boiled, and tussled around me, yelling and laughing, making chaos. I ignored them as much as I could. Some wanted to know where I was yesterday. A few remarked that I smelled worse than usual, and I was surprised at how little that bothered me. The day before yesterday, a comment like that would have killed me. Now? Now I hardly even noticed. I was hardly even there, occupying that space. I felt as if the important parts of myself were somewhere else, doing something else. Maybe trying to find out who the dead man had been, and what he had been doing in my room. I felt as if I no longer had any interest in all this, so to speak, “kid stuff”, bullying and schoolyard bullshit and hostile teachers. Not when a man had been murdered in my bedroom.

Even so, much as all this school stuff felt like a remote abstraction, I did have to get through it. It was my job. The police would do what they could to figure out who the dead man was and how he came to die in my bedroom. Mum and Dad would do their things, too. Life would grind on. So I got my locker key out. I needed to get my books for Maths class.

Locker key in locker padlock. Zik, click, snap, pop. Lock opened. I pulled open the door.

“What the hell?” I whispered.

There was something in my locker that I had not put there.

As well as the usual jumble of worn and scribbled-over textbooks and file-folders and pencil-cases, there was also a big vibrantly yellow plastic bag with heavy black markings. There was something in the bag.

This was one of those moments, I knew this right away. This was something big. Things would come from this. I also suspected this yellow bag was somehow connected to the dead man in my bedroom. It had to be. Should I contact the police? Should I tell Detective Lockley? It seemed like I should. To do that I would have to go to Reception in the Admin Block and ask to use their phone.

I grabbed the bag, heart banging in my mouth. I felt sick with tension. I could see the dead man’s half-closed eyes.

The bag was marked, in heavy black writing,

JB HIFI

Which, I gathered, was a retailer for electronics, computers, and much else. Computers? They sold mainframes? Or did they sell machines like the TRS-80, and the Sinclair things, glorified calculators? In any case, I’d never heard of them. They must be an eastern states firm, like Harvey Norman, who you only ever heard about on late night chat shows, like Don Lane, when they were doing their Wheel of Fortune segment. JB HiFi must have come up as a sponsor on that and I just missed it.

I looked inside the bag.

There was a white box, and the writing on the box said,

Apple iPhone 7.

XXX

MEMOIR: THE OUTBOARD MOTOR INCIDENT

MEMOIR: THE OUTBOARD MOTOR INCIDENT

The salient point in this story about my dad is that he insisted, when he heard I was writing this book, that I had to include this story. “You gotta include the outboard motor story,” he said, with a huge grin.

It’s another of our family legends, and like others it has lived on since it first happened because of the way it captures and illustrates crucial aspects of the characters involved.

And in this story my dad was a proper arsehole. He couldn’t help it, but he was. He even admits it these days. In those days, when I was a nervous, moody kid, forever unsure what state my dad was going to be in from moment to moment, always trying to find out from Mum after school if she had heard anything from Dad at work, so we had some idea what to expect. It was hard, but it could have been so much worse. He could have been a drunk. He could have been an abuser. But he was neither of these things. He was just a hot mess of a bloke, making it up as he went, and doing the best he could to look after his family.

I never understood until quite late that my dad loved me. I never understood that my dad was sick, that we had the same illness, until I was first getting treated for mine, as I have said. Treatment transformed him. It was the making of him, as it was for me. And as it was for me, it took many years for the treatment to take hold, to settle, for things to become stable. Those were hard years. We fought often. There was yelling and door-slamming and angry brooding.

There was a strange period, when I was around 17, when my dad took overdoses of his medication sometimes. Not with serious suicidal intent so much (though the first couple of times we did worry greatly about that) as the idea that he felt badly messed up inside, so if he made himself sufficiently ill he would end up at the hospital, where they would have to fix him. This happened several times. He never got the fixing he was looking for. In time je gave up doing it. We were all grateful. But for a while I was very angry about it. I lost a lot of respect for my dad. Where was the flashy larrikin guy who raced speedboats? Little did I realise, but he was still there, but locked inside him, drowning.

I feel lousy remembering all this. It was a dreadful time for all of us. Mum had it worst of all. She was the one who had a sick husband and a sick son. The sick son was either an inpatient at D20 or an outpatient, heavily involved still with the hospital at least some of the time. That went on for a couple of years, until I was 18, when they let me go. Dad during this time had his own health crises.

And one day in the middle of all this, while I was in D20, Mum had a heart attack, and wound up in the Emergency Room. One of D20’s male nurses took me aside for a very serious talk about, gently edging around the explosive topic, worried about how I might react.

I mention all this to give proper context for the incident with the outboard motor, when I was a kid.

We were having a cheap, no-frills holiday in Bunbury, the only sort of holiday we could afford. It was all very cheap and cheerful. But one of Dad’s mates in the boat caper had an old aluminium dinghy (what are commonly called “tinnies”) that he lent us for the weekend. It had a ten-horsepower outboard motor on the back.

It was the end of a lovely sunny day. I and my Uncle Shane (seven years older than I was) had been swimming and having a laugh. There was a wall with a walkway, and Dad needed Mum, up on the walkway, to hold the rope attached to the boat, to keep the boat in place while he took the motor off the stern. But Mum got a bit distracted watching us kids, and the boat moved while Dad was holding the motor pressed against his chest.

The thing here is that Dad had an explosive temper, and he was always letting it go off. Mum and I were always in strife over all kinds of things, small (Adrian’s drunk all the milk again) or large (dinner’s overcooked again), and much else besides. Dad carried a huge freight of anger deep inside him, poisonous and full of barbs. And that day he’d already let it out a few times. So when Mum saw she’d let the boat drift while she was distracted, she yanked on the rope to pull the boat back. She didn’t want to get yelled at again.

But Dad was about to put the motor in the boat, just when the boat moved.

Dad and motor fell into the water with a huge splash! I still remember the splash. The two of them were completely submerged in the salty estuary water.

There was a pause as we up on the walkway, Mum still holding the boat rope, took in what had just happened.

Then Dad emerged, thunderous, furious, from the water, a volcano rising from the ocean. His titanic anger so great it has echoed down the decades in family legend. He let fly, and abused Mum and–

Sorry, but we were all much too busy laughing. And this is the point of the whole story. We laughed. We laughed and laughed and laughed. We laughed our guts out. We laughed like we had never laughed before and seldom since. The bully had been rendered ridiculous. He looked like a drowned cat down there sputtering and yelling, and it was hilarious. He looked small and pitiful. We couldn’t believe we had been afraid of this soggy bastard’s fury for so long.

And our laughter only made him angrier, as you might imagine. It was the funniest, most cathartic thing ever. The tyrant brought down to size. He was one of us again.

It took him a while, but by later that evening he admitted, grudgingly, that he could see the funny side of the whole thing.

And he did, as I said, just the other day, insist I include this story, because it illustrates my dad’s character so well. He is a kind and decent man whose untreated illness rendered him monstrous, as mine made me feel monstrous. He was consumed with frustration and anger, but it was all just his illness. Now, elderly, he is a sweet old man. He loves nothing better than sitting with our dog snoozing against him. He takes joy in all my doings. He’s interested in things. Concerned about his fading memory, but there’s a lot of that going around, I can report.

And that ten-horsepower outboard motor that got submerged in salt water? Ordinarily an accident like that would make the engine seize up inside and die. All the moving parts would lock up tight, encrusted with salt. But my dad was a genius with things. And he had a full can of this stuff called CRC, a seriously water-repellent spray. He used almost an entire can on the stripped-down parts of that motor. It took two hours, but in the end he had achieved a miracle, and the motor that had been fully submerged in salty water lived again. My dad was, and remains, an amazing guy.