THE BEST USE OF A TIME MACHINE (Updated)

Dad was packing a suitcase and he was leaving and it was all my fault. I lay in my bed listening to the sounds from Mum and Dad’s room, the zipping up of the suitcase, the fastening of the buckle. The air reeked of cigarettes and anger.

The Time Traveller is there, watching, listening, wishing he could help. The boy is in a catastrophically bad way. He believes everything that’s happening, and that has happened, is entirely due to his bad behaviour and personal shortcomings. If he’d been a better son, a better student, if he’d been better at everything, none of this would have happened. Dad and Mum would not always be fighting, and tonight Dad wouldn’t be packing. The boy wishes he could throw himself on the exploding grenade of his dad’s terrible anger, wishes he could absorb it all, and save his mum. He’s seen all these movies about World War II. He knows what to do. But then, he’s also up for plain old begging, too, if that would help. Maybe blocking the front door and refusing to let Dad pass would work. He doesn’t know. He’s desperate. He can hear his family coming apart. He’s dead scared. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen.

The Time Traveller would love to help him out. Would love to sit down on the end of the bed and explain a few things. Such as, what the hell is up with the boy’s poor tormented dad. Right now the Time Traveller is older than the dad. The dad is a guy in his thirties who is having a really hard time with everything, but especially with being the provider, with holding down a steady job, with his wildly oscillating moods. He doesn’t understand why sometimes he feels like a million bucks, and sometimes he feels like an unpaid bill for a dollar-twenty-five. He knows that every morning when he gets up he has to go to work, fixing engines on boats. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes they’re bastards of things. Sometimes you have to strip the things down to nothing and rebuild them piece by piece several times before you isolate the tiny, secret problem. Sometimes it takes all bloody day to look like a genius. Sometimes the clients are arseholes, too. That’s always lovely. Who expect the impossible, or won’t pay up. All of them arseholes.

And some days, it doesn’t matter, no matter what, for some reason, you just can’t get out of bed. You can’t stop crying. You can’t go to work. Your wife has to phone in for you. You’ve probably lost jobs this way.

The Time Traveller understands all this, and has had this whole experience, too. But the Time Traveller has also had, and is still having, treatment. He sees a doctor and a psychologist. He has a whole bunch of medication to take every day. He has a diagnosis that he carries around like a brand burned into his face, and he feels as if he walks with a limp. The Time Traveller gets it. He’d like to urge the boy’s dad to Get Help Now, Boofhead, before you destroy all these lives around you, including your own.

Then he’d like to do a couple of other things. The boy, who here is about 13, has been through this apocalyptic scenario a few times. Mum and Dad have had another big fight, they’ve said dreadful things, and next thing Dad’s packing a bag. I don’t recall Mum ever packing a bag. I also don’t recall Dad or Mum engaging in any sort of physical violence. It was never like that, thank God.

(Although, when I was younger, there were nights when I’d be in bed trying to sleep, but there was this noisy kerfuffle from the other side of the wall, in Mum and Dad’s room. There would be muffled voices, and the occasional exclamation and cry. It would sound like someone was being hurt. A few times, before I understood things better, I yelled out, all noble, “Stop it! Leave Mum alone!” Which I can only imagine resulted in fits of giggles on the other side of the wall. Sometimes a voice would reply, “Go to sleep!”)

I went through much of my youth not understanding my father. He was baffling and unpredictable. Every day would be something new and unexpected. Sometimes good, sometimes not. Sometimes the end of the world–job lost, or sometimes I’d come home from school and find Mum and Dad packing the station wagon because we were going for a holiday to Esperance. Now. Today.

No-one sat me down, when I was little, and explained to me that my dad’s weird and scary moods, his erratic behaviour, his wild and sometimes very generous impulses, were all symptoms of an illness. Mum sometimes, when I was older, tried to sort of explain this but I didn’t really get it. I needed someone, at an early age, to say to me, “look, your dad is sick. He does a lot of weird stuff, and has strange and unpredictable moods. A lot of the time he seems angry with you, but he’s not. It’s just his illness. He can’t help it. He loves you very much and wishes he could tell you more clearly what’s going on with him. But he is not mad at you. Nothing is your fault. Hang in there. It’s going to be okay. He loves you.” It never happened, or if it did and I’ve simply forgotten, I can still say I wish it had been earlier, much earlier. I would like to have known, when I first started feeling like it was all my fault, that it wasn’t. It would have spared me a lot of what went into my breakdown when I was 16.

If I had a time machine, I would use it to go back to visit this version of my Past Self, and tell him all this, to give him this kindness. I might also invite the kid, and maybe Past Mum and Dad as well, to come with me to 2017, the present day, when Mum and Dad, now elderly, live across the road from Michelle and me. I would bring in Past Self and Past Mum and Dad, and show them. Look, this is how things turn out. It’s going to be fine, once you get some help. Because these days, as of just tonight, my parents were laughing and joking and we were having a nice time over cuppas. We were close and happy. We were as far from that night when I was a kid as it’s possible to imagine. And to me it’s about the only really useful thing you could do with a time machine, to make miserable people see that there is a point in carrying on, that there is a worthwhile future for them.

THE BEST USE OF A TIME MACHINE

Dad was packing a suitcase and he was leaving and it was all my fault. I lay in my bed listening to the sounds from Mum and Dad’s room, the zipping up the suitcase, the fastening of the buckle. The air reeked of cigarettes and anger.

The Time Traveller is there, watching, listening, wishing he could help. The boy is in a catastrophically bad way. He believes everything that’s happening, and that has happened, is entirely due to his bad behaviour and personal shortcomings. If he’d been a better son, a better student, if he’d been better at everything, none of this would have happened. Dad and Mum would not always be fighting, and tonight Dad wouldn’t be packing. The boy wishes he could throw himself on the exploding grenade of his dad’s terrible anger, wishes he could absorb it all, and save his mum. He’s seen all these movies about World War II. He knows what to do. But then, he’s also up for plain old begging, too, if that would help. Maybe blocking the front door and refusing to let Dad pass would work. He doesn’t know. He’s desperate. He can hear his family coming apart. He’s dead scared. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen.

The Time Traveller would love to help him out. Would love to sit down on the end of the bed and explain a few things. But mainly he wants to have a word with the boy’s poor tormented dad. Right now the Time Traveller is older than the dad. The dad is a guy in his thirties who is having a really hard time with everything, but especially with being the provider, with holding down a steady job, with his wildly oscillating moods. He doesn’t understand why sometimes he feels like a million bucks, and sometimes he feels like an unpaid bill for a dollar-twenty-five. He knows that every morning when he gets up he has to go to work, fixing engines on boats. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes they’re bastards of things. Sometimes you have to strip the things down to nothing and rebuild them piece by piece several times before you isolate the tiny, secret problem. Sometimes it takes all bloody day to look like a genius. Sometimes the clients are arseholes, too. That’s always lovely. Who expect the impossible, or won’t pay up. All of them arseholes.

And some days, it doesn’t matter, no matter what, for some reason, you just can’t get out of bed. You can’t stop crying. You can’t go to work. Your wife has to phone in for you. You’ve probably lost jobs this way.

The Time Traveller understands all this, and has had this whole experience, too. But the Time Traveller has also had, and is still having, treatment. He sees a doctor and a psychologist. He has a whole bunch of medication to take every day. He has a diagnosis that he carries around like a brand burned into his face, and he feels as if he walks with a limp. The Time Traveller gets it. He’d like to urge the boy’s dad to Get Help Now, Boofhead, before you destroy all these lives around you, including your own.

Then he’d like to do a couple of other things. The boy, who here is a younger teenager, has been through this apocalyptic scenario a few times. Mum and Dad have had another big fight, they’ve said dreadful things, and next thing Dad’s packing a bag. I don’t recall Mum ever packing a bag. I also don’t recall Dad or Mum engaging in any sort of physical violence. It was never like that, thank God.

(Although, when I was younger, there were nights when I’d be in bed trying to sleep, but there was this noisy kerfuffle from the other side of the wall, in Mum and Dad’s room. There would be muffled voices, and the occasional exclamation and cry. It would sound like someone was being hurt. A few times, before I understood things better, I yelled out, all noble, “Stop it! Leave Mum alone!” Which I can only imagine resulted in fits of giggles on the other side of the wall. Sometimes a voice would reply, “Go to sleep!”)

I went through much of my youth not understanding my father. He was baffling and unpredictable. Every day would be something new and unexpected. Sometimes good, sometimes not. Sometimes the end of the world–job lost, or sometimes I’d come home from school and find Mum and Dad packing the station wagon because we were going for a holiday to Esperance. Now. Today.

No-one sat me down, when I was little, and explained to me that my dad’s weird and scary moods, his erratic behaviour, his wild and sometimes very generous impulses, were all symptoms of an illness. Mum sometimes, when I was older, tried to sort of explain this but I didn’t really get it. I needed someone, at an early age, to say to me, “look, your dad is sick. He does a lot of weird stuff, and has strange and unpredictable moods. A lot of the time he seems angry with you, but he’s not. It’s just his illness. He can’t help it. He loves you very much and wishes he could tell you more clearly what’s going on with him. But he is not mad at you. Nothing is your fault. Hang in there. It’s going to be okay. He loves you.”

If I had a time machine, I would use it to go back to visit this version of my Past Self, and tell him this. I might also invite the kid, and maybe Past Mum and Dad as well, to come with me to 2017, the present day, when Mum and Dad, now elderly, live across the road from Michelle and me. I would bring in Past Self and Past Mum and Dad, and show them. Look, this is how things turn out. It’s going to be fine, once you get some help. Because these days, as of just tonight, my parents were laughing and joking and we were having a nice time over cuppas. We were close and happy. We were as far from that night when I was a kid as it’s possible to imagine. And to me it’s about the only really useful thing you could do with a time machine, to make miserable people see that there is a point in carrying on, that there is a worthwhile future for them.

THE MOTORBIKE INCIDENT

You would not have been more astonished if actual space aliens had landed on the school quadrangle instead. Space aliens would have seemed anticlimactic. Space aliens, even in the pseudopod flesh, would have been more believable.

It was lunchtime at my primary school. Grade 5. Nothing much going on. A bunch of boys out on the grassy footy oval kicking a ball. As routine a day as it’s possible to imagine. Or as it’s possible to remember. The grainy Super-8 film footage of this memory only starts moments before someone calls my name, “Bedford!” and I notice several kids streaming towards to the side street entrance to the school. There was a palpable vibration in the air. Something was up.

Kids were looking at me, and smiling, which was strange in itself. A couple may even have been waving at me, “come on, come on!”

I was ten years old and confused. This was the typical state of play for me. And right around this time even more so. Mum was in a hospital trying to lose a bit of weight. It was just Dad and me. At some point we would aquire a housekeeper of sorts who would cook and clean for us, and I would end up so sick that I would wind up in Princess Margaret Hospital for Children with psychosomatic gastroenteritis (see my entry, “Stiffies”). I knew Mum was overweight, but I wasn’t sure what this hospital could do for her, or why she couldn’t do whatever it was at home. And for some reason I couldn’t go and visit. I still don’t know to this day. I remember when I was little, and my Pop was in hospital with cancer I wasn’t allowed to visit him because I was considered too young (about six at the time) so maybe that was it.

I followed the streaming, excited kids. They seemed to know what was going on already, as if whoever was in charge of what was happening had issued press releases, and I’d somehow missed out. I remember kids telling me this was “unreal!” which was the thing to be in the 1970s.

At last I had a clear view of the astonishing thing.

There was my Dad, standing next to his electric blue Holden Torana, his pride and joy, a car he’d managed to buy new–I still remember the new-car smell that first time we got in it. Now of course I understand that smell is nasty synthetic chemicals and stuff outgassing, but at the time it seemed, well, “unreal!”

My dad did not often appear at my school. Once in a great while he might drop me off in the morning, maybe, if there was time, or if he was out of work, so this was a surprise. What was more surprising was what stood, lashed firmly to prevent damage, on the trailer attached to the back of the Torana.

It was a 75 cc Honda trail-bike. The tyres were extremely knobbly, I remember.

My dad saw my astonished, slack-jawed face as I approached, and laughed. He was thrilled.

My dad, in his wild, mis-spent youth in Geraldton, was a known motorbike hoon. Mum and Dad have told me many hair-raising tales of Dad and motorbikes and lucky escapes. He was a bit of a thrill-seeker, my dad, which also manifested in his interest in speedboat-racing. But was I a motorbike hoon? The thought had never occurred to me. I wanted to be an astronaut, sure. I wanted to fly in space, and go to the Moon, or maybe live at the bottom of the ocean, no worries. But zoom around on a motorbike? I’d never mentioned a possible interest in this sort of thing. The topic had never come up. I’d never spent months or years badgering and begging and wheedling for a motorbike, saying I had to have one, pleeeeeease! Not once.

But here it was on Dad’s trailer, brand-new, straight from the Honda dealership, for me, Dad’s number-one son, a special gift because we were going through a tough time with Mum being away and all. Dad may also have asked, with a crazy smile, “Do you like it?” or similar. The whole moment was so shocking, so strange, as to have left no distinct mark on my mind. I only remember frozen shock. I remember other boys milling around, amazed and delighted and pleading with Dad to let them have a go on it sometime, calling him Mr Bedford. And boys pounding me on the shoulder in approval. I’d finally done something good and cool, and they couldn’t wait to be part of it.

It was as disorienting a moment in my life as I’ve ever experienced.

It took a lot of figuring out how to operate it. Dad helped quite a bit, explaining about the clutch, gears, the accelerator, the brakes, and all of that.

And the EAR-SPLITTING NOISE it made when the engine was running.

The helmet seemed to make my head three times bigger than it should be for my body.

I liked the denim jacket I got to wear while riding it. And I did kind of like it once I started getting the hang of how it worked. I had never been interested in motorbikes, but I could see some of the appeal, for sure.

Mum was furious. It turned out Dad had done this extravagant thing without telling Mum he was going to do it. And he had waited until Mum was off in hospital, out of the picture, before doing it. When she found out, it was bad. She declared that the very first sign of trouble with the thing, the first problem, whatever it was, it would be gone. She and Dad had a huge argument about it. Dad didn’t see what was so bad. Mum was concerned about my safety, for one thing, but mostly about the way Dad had gone about it, behind her back. It was a low moment.

(Tonight, I was visiting my parents, and they asked how the book was coming along. I told them I had written about this incident. Mum’s face soured. “Hmmmm!” she said, remembering. Dad, a little sheepish even after all this time, said, “You got two thousand words out of that?”)

There’s a missing reel in the film here, because the next thing is the one and only time we took the bike to an actual moto-cross event somewhere up in the Hills, a place of wildly uneven, rocky and muddy terrain. There were loads of other guys there with their own bikes, and probably some kind of organised tournament or competitive event. I don’t know what I was doing there. (Mum and Dad tell me it was an event for people with bikes to learn to ride them off-road.) I don’t know what happened, where the idea came from, how I was persuaded–how Mum was persuaded–or anything. All I remember is being there, and finding the terrain frustrating, and winding up stuck between two giant hunks of granite, covered in mud, unable to do much other than feel cold and miserable.

Apparently this was the best fun ever.

Meanwhile, back home, I had never been more popular. I was the toast of Grade 5. All the boys wanted to be my best friend. And they all had special notes from their parents addressed to my parents granting permission for their kid to use my bike. I received their enthusiastic overtures with measured enthusiasm, and was sufficiently lonely that I said yes to all of them. My post-school afternoons filled up with boys who not long previously had played games where the hilarious point was to keep the ball from getting into my hands. I was cool with it. Beggars can’t be choosers, my mum always said.

The kid who nagged the hardest to be given a shot at the bike, who was most bonkers about the entire thing, whose eyes burned with the desire for it, was a kid I’m calling Tim. He was an average-looking white kid with a mop of brown 70s hair that hung in his eyes, and he was a bit feral. At last the day came when he could give me his parents’ permission slip. He was so happy, so brimming with excitement behind his impenetrable fringe. He came over that afternoon.

So there we were, on the bike, both of us, in the dusty unpaved alley out behind our house. I was on the back. I thought I should be in front, driving, since I had more experience, but Tim had begged to be allowed, just once, he’d be so careful, it’d be okay, he promised, he really would, cross his heart and hope to die.

He had the throttle way too open. The engine was howling. I remember the vibration rattling me head to toe. I remember feeling scared. I told Tim to ease the throttle back, it was too high. If he let the clutch out now…

He opened the throttle further. The noise and the vibration was like nothing I had ever known, and nothing I’ve encountered since, other than times I’ve chanced to find myself standing near fighter jets revving their engines during testing. Noise you can’t believe can even exist. That presents as a solid substance attacking you.

I was screaming at Tim to stop. I’m afraid for my life. If he released the clutch now…

He released the clutch. He released it all at once.

There’s another break in the film here. Then Tim and I are lying on our backs in a heap together in the dirt of the alleyway behind our house.

The bike is in the air above us, turning end over end in the afternoon sunlight.

I’m terrified but stunned.

Then the bike falls, and hits the dirt just next to us. It makes a giant clattering bang as it impacts. But it doesn’t hit either of us. The bike’s wheels are spinning. I think the engine may still have been running, the exhaust spewing blue stinking smoke.

This is very bad. We get up, shaky and quiet. I pick up the bike and check it over. I’m shocked to see that it’s fine. It doesn’t seem possible–and then of course I see that it’s not possible. There is damage. There’s a grab-handle behind the saddle, for the person riding behind the driver to hold onto. That handle is badly bent and scratched. It’s the sort of damage that a guilt-ridden kid can’t fix. But it’s also the sort of not-obvious damage that a distracted parent might not notice any time soon.

Tim goes home. He never comes back. My afternoons become a lot lonelier all of a sudden.

I try to be cool with Mum and Dad. How’d you get on with your little friend today, love? (My friends were always “little” somehow.) Oh, fine, just fine. The bike, in memory, still spinning in the air over your head, all set to kill you. Just fine.

I got away with it for several weeks, but Dad noticed the bent grab-handle one day while in the garage where the bike was kept. He was there to do a job on one of his outboard motors, and he just happened to glance at the bike, and there it was, obvious and reeking of deadly shenanigans. “What’s this?” he said.

I tried every weaselly, unworthy, craven dodge there was. There were no proud moments here. The whole story came out. Dad was gravely disappointed, not only with me, but because he would have to tell Mum, and he and I both knew what that meant. He had bought this crazy thing for me as a grand, crazy impulsive generous gesture of love. He wanted to do something really amazing for me. And he did. And I was simply not up to the responsibility. I wasn’t mature or old enough. I was a dumb little kid, and unworthy of Dad’s gift.

The day the truck took it away was bad. There was nothing to say. Mum had nothing to say to Dad, and Dad had nothing to say to me. We watched the truck leave, then we went back inside. Life, which for a while had been amazing, vivid and strange like colour TV, soon went back to black and white.

THE MOTORBIKE INCIDENT

You would not have been more astonished if actual space aliens had landed on the school quadrangle instead. Space aliens would have seemed anticlimactic. Space aliens, even in the pseudopod flesh, would have been less believable.

It was lunchtime at my primary school. Grade 5. Nothing much going on. A bunch of boys out on the grassy footy oval kicking a ball, most likely. As routine a day as it’s possible to imagine. Or at as it’s possible to remember. The Super-8’film footage of this memory only starts moments before someone calls my name, “Bedford!” and I notice several kids streaming towards to side street entrance to the school. There was a palpable vibration in the air. Something was up.

Kids were looking at me, and smiling. A couple may even have been waving at me, “come on, come on!”

I was ten years old and confused. This was the typical state of play for me. And right around this time even more so. Mum was in a hospital trying to lose a bit of weight. It was just Dad and me. At some point we would aquire a housekeeper of sorts who would cook and clean for us, and I would end up so sick that I would wind up in Princess Margaret Hospital for Children with psychosomatic gastroenteritis (see my entry, “Stiffies”). I knew Mum was overweight, but I wasn’t sure what this hospital could do for her, or why she couldn’t do whatever it was at home. And for some reason I couldn’t go and visit. I still don’t know to this day. I remember when I was little, and my Pop was in hospital with cancer I wasn’t allowed to visit him because I was considered too young (about six at the time) so maybe that was it.

I followed the streaming, excited kids. They seemed to know what was going on already, as if whoever was in charge of what was happening had issued press releases, and I’d somehow missed out. I remember kids telling me this was “unreal!” which was the thing to be in the 1970s.

At last I had a clear view of the astonishing thing.

There was my Dad, standing next to his electric blue Holden Torana, his pride and joy, a car he’d managed to buy new–I still remember the new-car smell that first time we got in it. Now of course I understand that smell is nasty synthetic chemicals and stuff outgassing, but at the time it seemed, well, “unreal!”

My dad did not often appear at my school. Once in a great while he might drop me off in the morning, maybe, if there was time, or if he was out of work, so this was a surprise. What was more surprising was what stood, lashed firmly to prevent damage, on the trailer attached to the back of the Torana.

It was a 75 cc Honda trail-bike. The tyres were extremely knobbly, I remember.

My dad saw my astonished, slack-jawed face as I approached, and laughed. He was thrilled.

My dad, in his wild, mis-spent youth in Geraldton, was a known motorbike hoon. Mum and Dad have told me many hair-raising tales of Dad and motorbikes and lucky escapes. He was a bit of a thrill-seeker, my dad, which also manifested in his interest in speedboat-racing. But was I a motorbike hoon? The thought had never occurred to me. I wanted to be an astronaut, sure. I wanted to fly in space, and go to the Moon, or maybe live at the bottom of the ocean, no worries. But zoom around on a motorbike? I’d never mentioned a possible interest in this sort of thing. The topic had never come up. I’d never spent months or years badgering and begging and wheedling for a motorbike, saying I had to have one, pleeeeeease! Not once.

But here it was on Dad’s trailer, brand-new, straight from the Honda dealership, for me, Dad’s number-one son, a special gift because we were going through a tough time with Mum being away and all. Dad may also have asked, with a crazy smile, “Do you like it?” or similar. The whole moment was so shocking, so strange, as to have left no distinct mark on my mind. I only remember frozen shock. I remember other boys milling around, amazed and delighted and pleading with Dad to let them have a go on it sometime, calling him Mr Bedford. And boys pounding me on the shoulder in approval. I’d finally done something good and cool, and they couldn’t wait to be part of it.

It was as strange a moment in my life as I’ve ever experienced.

It took a lot of figuring out how to operate it. Dad helped quite a bit, explaining about the clutch, gears, the accelerator, the brakes, and all of that.

And the EAR-SPLITTING NOISE it made when the engine was running.

The helmet seemed to make my head three times bigger than it should be for my body.

I liked the denim jacket I got to wear while riding it. And I did kind of like it once I started getting the hang of how it worked. I had never been interested in motorbikes, but I could see some of the appeal, for sure.

Mum was furious. It turned out Dad had done this extravagant thing without telling Mum he was going to do it. And he had waited until Mum was off in hospital, out of the picture, before doing it. When she found out, it was bad. She declared that the very first sign of trouble with the thing, the first problem, whatever it was, it would be gone. She and Dad had a huge argument about it. Dad didn’t see what was so bad. Mum was concerned about my safety, for one thing, but mostly about the way Dad had gone about it, behind her back. It was a low moment.

There’s a missing reel in the film here, because the next thing is the one and only time we took the bike to an actual moto-cross event somewhere up in the Hills, a place of wildly uneven, rocky and muddy terrain. There were loads of other guys there with their own bikes, and probably some kind of organised tournament or competitive event. I don’t know what I was doing there. I don’t know what happened, where the idea came from, how I was persuaded–how Mum was persuaded–or anything. All I remember is being there, and finding the terrain frustrating, and winding up stuck between two giant hunks of granite, covered in mud, unable to do much other than feel cold and miserable.

Apparently this was the best fun ever.

Meanwhile, back home, I had never been more popular. I was the toast of Grade 5. All the boys wanted to be my best friend. And they all had special notes from their parents addressed to my parents granting permission for their kid to use my bike. I received their enthusiastic overtures with measured enthusiasm, and was sufficiently lonely that I said yes to all of them. My post-school afternoons filled up with boys who not long previously had played games where the hilarious point was to keep the ball from getting into my hands. I was cool with it. Beggars can’t be choosers, my mum always said.

The kid who nagged the hardest to be given a shot at the bike, who was most bonkers about the entire thing, whose eyes burned with the desire for it, was a kid I’m calling Tim. He was an average-looking white kid with a mop of brown 70s hair that hung in his eyes, and he was a bit feral. At last the day came when he could give me his parents’ permission slip. He was so happy, so brimming with excitement behind his impenetrable fringe. He came over that afternoon.

So there we were, on the bike, both of us, in the dusty unpaved alley out behind our house. I was on the back. I thought I should be in front, driving, since I had more experience, but Tim had begged to be allowed, just once, he’d be so careful, it’d be okay, he promised, he really would, cross his heart and hope to die.

He had the throttle way too open. The engine was howling. I remember the vibration rattling me head to toe. I remember feeling scared. I told Tim to ease the throttle back, it was too high. If he let the clutch out now…

He opened the throttle further. The noise and the vibration was like nothing I had ever known, and nothing I’ve encountered since, other than times I’ve chanced to find myself standing near fighter jets revving their engines during testing. Noise you can’t believe can even exist. That presents as a solid substance attacking you.

I was screaming at Tim to stop. I’m afraid for my life. If he released the clutch now…

He released the clutch. He released it all at once.

There’s another break in the film here. Then Tim and I are lying on our backs in a heap together in the dirt of the alleyway behind our house.

The bike is in the air above us, turning end over end in the afternoon sunlight.

I’m terrified but stunned.

Then the bike falls, and hits the dirt just next to us. It makes a giant clattering bang as it impacts. But it doesn’t hit either of us. The bike’s wheels are spinning. I think the engine may still have been running, the exhaust spewing blue stinking smoke.

This is very bad. We get up, shaky and quiet. I pick up the bike and check it over. I’m shocked to see that it’s fine. It doesn’t seem possible–and then of course I see that it’s not possible. There is damage. There’s a grab-handle behind the saddle, for the person riding behind the driver to hold onto. That handle is badly bent and scratched. It’s the sort of damage that a guilt-ridden kid can’t fix. But it’s also the sort of not-obvious damage that a distracted parent might not notice any time soon.

Tim goes home. He never comes back. My afternoons become a lot lonelier all of a sudden.

I try to be cool with Mum and Dad. How’d you get on with your little friend today, love? (My friends were always “little” somehow.) Oh, fine, just fine. The bike, in memory, still spinning in the air over your head, all set to kill you. Just fine.

I got away with it for several weeks, but Dad noticed the bent grab-handle one day while in the garage where the bike was kept. He was there to do a job on one of his outboard motors, and he just happened to glance at the bike, and there it was, obvious and reeking of deadly shenanigans. “What’s this?” he said.

I tried every weaselly, unworthy, craven dodge there is. There are no proud moments here. The whole story came out. Dad was gravely disappointed, both in me, but because he would have to tell Mum, and he and I both knew what that meant. He had bought this crazy thing for me as a grand, crazy impulsive generous gesture of love. He wanted to do something really amazing for me. And he did. And I was simply not up to the responsibility. I wasn’t mature or old enough. I was a dumb little kid, and unworthy of Dad’s gift.

The day the truck took it away was bad. There was nothing to say. Mum had nothing to say to Dad, and Dad had nothing to say to me. We watched the truck leave, then we went back inside. Life, which for a while had been amazing, vivid and strange like colour TV, soon went back to black and white.

THE MOTORBIKE INCIDENT

You would not have been more astonished if actual space aliens had landed on the school quadrangle instead. Space aliens would have seemed anticlimactic. Space aliens, even in the pseudopod flesh, would have been less believable.

It was lunchtime at my primary school. Grade 5. Nothing much going on. A bunch of boys out on the grassy footy oval kicking a ball, most likely. As routine a day as it’s possible to imagine. Or at as it’s possible to remember. The Super-8’film footage of this memory only starts moments before someone calls my name, “Bedford!” and I notice several kids streaming towards to side street entrance to the school. There was a palpable vibration in the air. Something was up.

Kids were looking at me, and smiling. A couple may even have been waving at me, “come on, come on!”

I was ten years old and confused. This was the typical state of play for me. And right around this time even more so. Mum was in a hospital trying to lose a bit of weight. It was just Dad and me. At some point we would aquire a housekeeper of sorts who would cook and clean for us, and I would end up so sick that I would wind up in Princess Margaret Hospital for Children with psychosomatic gastroenteritis (see my entry, “Stiffies”). I knew Mum was overweight, but I wasn’t sure what this hospital could do for her, or why she couldn’t do whatever it was at home. And for some reason I couldn’t go and visit. I still don’t know to this day. I remember when I was little, and my Pop was in hospital with cancer I wasn’t allowed to visit him because I was considered too young (about six at the time) so maybe that was it.

I followed the streaming, excited kids. They seemed to know what was going on already, as if whoever was in charge of what was happening had issued press releases, and I’d somehow missed out. I remember kids telling me this was “unreal!” which was the thing to be in the 1970s.

At last I had a clear view of the astonishing thing.

There was my Dad, standing next to his electric blue Holden Torana, his pride and joy, a car he’d managed to buy new–I still remember the new-car smell that first time we got in it. Now of course I understand that smell is nasty synthetic chemicals and stuff outgassing, but at the time it seemed, well, “unreal!”

My dad did not often appear at my school. Once in a great while he might drop me off in the morning, maybe, if there was time, or if he was out of work, so this was a surprise. What was more surprising was what stood, lashed firmly to prevent damage, on the trailer attached to the back of the Torana.

It was a 75 cc Honda trail-bike. The tyres were extremely knobbly, I remember.

My dad saw my astonished, slack-jawed face as I approached, and laughed. He was thrilled.

My dad, in his wild, mis-spent youth in Geraldton, was a known motorbike hoon. Mum and Dad have told me many hair-raising tales of Dad and motorbikes and lucky escapes. He was a bit of a thrill-seeker, my dad, which also manifested in his interest in speedboat-racing. But was I a motorbike hoon? The thought had never occurred to me. I wanted to be an astronaut, sure. I wanted to fly in space, and go to the Moon, or maybe live at the bottom of the ocean, no worries. But zoom around on a motorbike? I’d never mentioned a possible interest in this sort of thing. The topic had never come up. I’d never spent months or years badgering and begging and wheedling for a motorbike, saying I had to have one, pleeeeeease! Not once.

But here it was on Dad’s trailer, brand-new, straight from the Honda dealership, for me, Dad’s number-one son, a special gift because we were going through a tough time with Mum being away and all. Dad may also have asked, with a crazy smile, “Do you like it?” or similar. The whole moment was so shocking, so strange, as to have left no distinct mark on my mind. I only remember frozen shock. I remember other boys milling around, amazed and delighted and pleading with Dad to let them have a go on it sometime, calling him Mr Bedford. And boys pounding me on the shoulder in approval. I’d finally done something good and cool, and they couldn’t wait to be part of it.

It was as strange a moment in my life as I’ve ever experienced.

It took a lot of figuring out how to operate it. Dad helped quite a bit, explaining about the clutch, gears, the accelerator, the brakes, and all of that.

And the EAR-SPLITTING NOISE it made when the engine was running.

The helmet seemed to make my head three times bigger than it should be for my body.

I liked the denim jacket I got to wear while riding it. And I did kind of like it once I started getting the hang of how it worked. I had never been interested in motorbikes, but I could see some of the appeal, for sure.

Mum was furious. It turned out Dad had done this extravagant thing without telling Mum he was going to do it. And he had waited until Mum was off in hospital, out of the picture, before doing it. When she found out, it was bad. She declared that the very first sign of trouble with the thing, the first problem, whatever it was, it would be gone. She and Dad had a huge argument about it. Dad didn’t see what was so bad. Mum was concerned about my safety, for one thing, but mostly about the way Dad had gone about it, behind her back. It was a low moment.

There’s a missing reel in the film here, because the next thing is the one and only time we took the bike to an actual moto-cross event somewhere up in the Hills, a place of wildly uneven, rocky and muddy terrain. There were loads of other guys there with their own bikes, and probably some kind of organised tournament or competitive event. I don’t know what I was doing there. I don’t know what happened, where the idea came from, how I was persuaded–how Mum was persuaded–or anything. All I remember is being there, and finding the terrain frustrating, and winding up stuck between two giant hunks of granite, covered in mud, unable to do much other than feel cold and miserable.

Apparently this was the best fun ever.

Meanwhile, back home, I had never been more popular. I was the toast of Grade 5. All the boys wanted to be my best friend. And they all had special notes from their parents addressed to my parents granting permission for their kid to use my bike. I received their enthusiastic overtures with measured enthusiasm, and was sufficiently lonely that I said yes to all of them. My post-school afternoons filled up with boys who not long previously had played games where the hilarious point was to keep the ball from getting into my hands. I was cool with it. Beggars can’t be choosers, my mum always said.

The kid who nagged the hardest to be given a shot at the bike, who was most bonkers about the entire thing, whose eyes burned with the desire for it, was a kid I’m calling Tim. He was an average-looking white kid with a mop of brown 70s hair that hung in his eyes, and he was a bit feral. At last the day came when he could give me his parents’ permission slip. He was so happy, so brimming with excitement behind his impenetrable fringe. He came over that afternoon.

So there we were, on the bike, both of us, in the dusty unpaved alley out behind our house. I was on the back. I thought I should be in front, driving, since I had more experience, but Tim had begged to be allowed, just once, he’d be so careful, it’d be okay, he promised, he really would, cross his heart and hope to die.

He had the throttle way too open. The engine was howling. I remember the vibration rattling me head to toe. I remember feeling scared. I told Terry to ease the throttle back, it was too high. If he let the clutch out now…

He opened the throttle further. The noise and the vibration was like nothing I had ever known, and nothing I’ve encountered since, other than times I’ve chanced to find myself standing near fighter jets revving their engines during testing. Noise you can’t believe can even exist. That presents as a solid substance attacking you.

I was screaming at Tim to stop. I’m afraid for my life. If he released the clutch now…

He released the clutch. He released it all at once.

There’s another break in the film here. Then Tim and I are lying on our backs in a heap together in the dirt of the alleyway behind our house.

The bike is in the air above us, turning end over end in the afternoon sunlight.

I’m terrified but stunned.

Then the bike falls, and hits the dirt just next to us. It makes a giant clattering bang as it impacts. But it doesn’t hit either of us. The bike’s wheels are spinning. I think the engine may still have been running, the exhaust spewing blue stinking smoke.

This is very bad. We get up, shaky and quiet. I pick up the bike and check it over. I’m shocked to see that it’s fine. It doesn’t seem possible–and then of course I see that it’s not possible. There is damage. There’s a grab-handle behind the saddle, for the person riding behind the driver to hold onto. That handle is badly bent and scratched. It’s the sort of damage that a guilt-ridden kid can’t fix. But it’s also the sort of not-obvious damage that a distracted parent might not notice any time soon.

Tim goes home. He never comes back. My afternoons become a lot lonelier all of a sudden.

I try to be cool with Mum and Dad. How’d you get on with your little friend today, love? (My friends were always “little” somehow.) Oh, fine, just fine. The bike, in memory, still spinning in the air over your head, all set to kill you. Just fine.

I got away with it for several weeks, but Dad noticed the bent grab-handle one day while in the garage where the bike was kept. He was there to do a job on one of his outboard motors, and he just happened to glance at the bike, and there it was, obvious and reeking of deadly shenanigans. “What’s this?” he said.

I tried every weaselly, unworthy, craven dodge there is. There are no proud moments here. The whole story came out. Dad was gravely disappointed, both in me, but because he would have to tell Mum, and he and I both knew what that meant. He had bought this crazy thing for me as a grand, crazy impulsive generous gesture of love. He wanted to do something really amazing for me. And he did. And I was simply not up to the responsibility. I wasn’t mature or old enough. I was a dumb little kid, and unworthy of Dad’s gift.

The day the truck took it away was bad. There was nothing to say. Mum had nothing to say to Dad, and Dad had nothing to say to me. We watched the truck leave, then we went back inside. Life returned to its usual small, black-and-white scale and resolution.

INSIDE THE CYCLONE (Partial Rewrite)

You’ve seen these poor bastards many times. A huge weather event is coming to town–we call them cyclones, but you might call them hurricanes or typhoons–and look, here’s a TV news reporter, in some sort of raincoat, sou’wester and wellies, holding onto a tree or a telephone poll, because there’s lethal wind, and quite possibly horizontal rain, and God only knows what else, and this reporter’s job is to tell you, from inside the weather event, what it’s like, without quite getting swept away in it. In the US a number of years back, Michelle and I were enchanted by the Weather Channel coverage of a hurricane, and there was this guy whose whole job appeared to be deliberately throwing himself into the path of deadly weather to report live (“it sure is windy and wet out here!”).

Tonight, I’m that guy. I’m all those guys. I’ve got my heavy weather gear on, and my sou’wester hat, my wellies, and I’m lashed to a palm tree and my camera guy is yelling over the wind and the rain that he doesn’t get paid enough for this crap, but here we are. I’m depressed. I’m feeling lousy. I’m inside the weather event, reporting to you live.

The first question is probably, “how do you feel?” I feel terrible, sour, a little bitter and out of sorts. I feel like a piece of fruit that’s gone off. I have a miserable dose of mild depression. What I have is much like a nasty head cold, but it’s your mind, rather than your lungs and nasal passages. Think of how you feel exhausted, slug-like, because there’s an infection war raging inside you as your immune system takes on the intruders. Mild depression feels like that, only there’s no fountains of snot.

And you know what? Fountains of snot, or something physical, visible, obvious, would make this kind of thing much easier to deal with, because other people around you would be able to see that you’re sick. You’d get sympathy. People would cut you a bit of slack. Guys would probably get accused of being over-dramatic about their “man-glums”.

As it is, you can have this sort of depression and go about your daily life, and nobody would know, let alone care. You have little to no energy, you feel a certain numbness, a kind of remoteness from things, that your body is occupying space in the world but your mind is somewhere else feeling like the potato at the bottom of a 10 kilogram sack of potatoes.

You know how freezing cold winter’s days in countries where they get snow and frost and icicles, and there’s skating and skiing and toboganning and snowpersons, always look picturesque? That you can imagine dressing up in appropriate winter clothing, with beautiful handmade mittens and hats, and having a marvellous romantic time with your beloved in the snow?

Mild depression is like winter in Australia, or at least like it used to be. Where it’s wet and cold and the wind will go right through you like a sword. Where there are puddles so vast and deep you could drown. Where no amount of clothing helps warm you up. Where you feel cold and miserable and shivery all the time, and everybody talks about how horribly cold it is, and how much they hate the smug people who talk about their pot belly stoves. Mild depression is rain that lasts all weekend long, but clears up in time for Monday morning, but it’s still somehow cold and windy, as if to remind you to feel lousy even though the sun is at least theoretically out.

Mild depression means you can get out of bed. You can shower and dress. “You don’t look sick.” You feel abstractly pissed off, in that you can’t identify exactly what it is that’s bugging you. It could be anything or everything. It could be nothing. It could be random brain chemistry, and that thought gives you no comfort whatever. You can, as I did today, function. You can do your job, and hate every moment, feeling every moment scraping at your skin as it goes by, as if time had barbs. You feel less like you’re struggling through your day, and more like it’s you with a big hawser rope, and you have to pull the whole day, everything that happens to you, towards and past you. You have to make the whole day happen. You have to pull it over yourself, you can’t weaken or you’ll be stuck. Keep on pulling the rope as hard as you can. Get the day past you, even if it feels like it’s killing you.

So here I am, reporting live. So far the wind is not that strong, and the rain is not even horizontal. It’s miserable, but not deadly. I can still feel my hands. I’m shivering; I’m not yet numb. More serious depression makes you feel numb to everything around you, as if you’re not there at all. Major clinical depression is deadly. It gets you with persuasive arguments and thoughts about much better off everyone you know, especially your family, and your spouse in particular, would be if you were no longer in their lives, being such a burden to them. About how you can end your pain so easily, with things you have just there at home. You can Google it. It’s so simple. And you’ll make so many people happy that you’re gone. Major, serious depression will kill you if it can.

But this thing I have, as I stand here next to my soggy palm tree here, where the rain isn’t even horizontal now? This is mild depression, as I say. It’s like a cyclone that has come ashore, away from the energy-giving ocean, and wherei the land sucks the power out of it. Where it becomes a rain-bearing depression.

ME VERSUS MUM

Mum and I were in my untidy, always messy room, and Mum was telling me off about it again. She and Dad were always on my back about cleaning my room. Clean your room, it’s a pig sty, what’s the matter with you? Always, always, always. I did, sometimes, usually only when Mum threatened to come in one day while I was at school at clean it for me, which meant throwing out almost everything. And I had some very meaningful junk that I was hoarding.

But this was bigger than just my messy room. Mum and Dad were always telling me off, it seemed to me. Every day I was in trouble for something. I was an only child, too, so there was no-one else to blame for things going wrong, going awry, going missing (I’ve written before about how I went through a weird phase of taking things). It often felt to me that everything about my entire existence was in some way wrong at any given moment. There were all the many ways I was wrong at school, and when I came home, there were different kinds of wrongness.

I was, I’ve said, a weird, moody, fat, probably not very nice kid. I don’t remember myself as “lovable”. I never had anything like a “winning” personality. There were things I was extremely interested in (astronomy, science and science fiction, and maybe girls), and there was the vast, uncaring, lightless void of everything else in Australian life. If you were interested even a bit in things that interested me, I probably liked you, and we might be friends. I didn’t have many friends, except for strange times, like when we got a big above-ground swimming pool, when suddenly I had loads of friends. Or when my dad, in one of his manic phases, got me a trail bike (I was 11 with no stated or even hinted at interest in motorbikes, but Dad thought I’d love it). That got me loads of friends, too. And when it went away, so did they.

I was weird in lots of ways, and I’ve written about some of them here. Like how there was all sorts of food I would not eat, leading to Scenes and Problems and Upset. I got some serious tellings-off about food, about meals ruined, about my being difficult. I don’t recall wanting to be difficult. I recall only the feeling that if I swallowed the item in question, I would vomit in front of everyone. I could feel the gag reflex. No-one believed me. I was also weird about people, shy to the point of pathology, even with people I liked, even with family. And there was one friend I had, in the early years of my primary school career, who had a way of inspiring in me a towering rage, an anger like I have rarely experienced in the decades since. He had a strange way about him, a “knowing, a “smugness”. Plus, he cheated at games we played, sometimes so obviously that even my legally blind albino mum, playing with us, could tell. I screamed at this boy. I still don’t understand it. It must have been an early manifestation of my illness.

So there we were, Mum and me, on this ultimate occasion in my room, and Mum, exhausted, with quite enough on her plate already with Dad being unwell, too, and she was telling me off good and proper. She was letting me have it. My mum was and remains formidable.

Then, years of grievance, sick to death of being wrong in so many ways, of being so unsatisfactory in absolutely every respect, all gave way at once. I yelled back. Me yelling back was not so surprising. Mum and I yelled lots. Sometimes, even now, we still do. But this time a true thing came out of my mouth. Something that I had been thinking a long time, bit kept to myself, held privately because it was unspeakably awful.

I said something along the lines of, Why do you yell at me so much when you obviously hate me?

It was the unsayable thought. I dared not say it, but there it was, naked and quivering in the air between us. There was a shocked pause. I could not believe I’d actually said the thing I’d so often thought and believed, that my own parents must hate me, which was why they were always on my back about everything. It must be like sport for them, picking on me all the time like that, the way it was for the bullies at school.

Mum looked as if she were shaken to her marrow. She could not believe I had said the thing, either. That I had even been thinking it. That I saw things that way. She said, and again I’m working from imperfect recollection, that it was because she and Dad loved me so very much that they cared enough to tell me off about things I did wrong. She said if they didn’t love me, they wouldn’t care. They’d ignore me. Throw me out, because why keep me? They told me off because they loved me.

This was one of the most important conversations I ever had in my whole life. It changed my life. It changed my relationship with my parents. I understood them. I believed them. I was still often difficult, moody and weird (and hey look, I still am), but I understood them. I knew what they were about now. Even my dad, who was so unpredictable and moody, who could be so terribly angry, but then so magnanimous and funny and joyful, so elated and proud of his son–I understood him better, too. They loved me. And even though we still had our fights and arguments, especially when I was so sick, I loved them, too.

WEIGHT/ANXIETY

Yesterday I ate two sausages and felt bad about it all day. Today when I weighed myself at noon, and my weight was the same figure as yesterday, that I hadn’t gone up because of the sausages, I was delighted. It was a little pathetic how pleased I was.

I would like, one day, to reach a point where I no longer have to think about the kilojoule cost and the gram weight of every single damned thing I eat or otherwise consume. When my thinking each day is not at least 75% occupied with kilojoule budget maths. When I can just eat what I want to eat without worrying about the consequences on the scales the next day at weigh-in. Because as things stand, that is my life. Everything is about the noon weigh-in. My whole life revolves around that event. Whether it’s a good or bad day depends on what numbers come up at noon.

Yes, I’m obsessed. No, this is not healthy, you’re right. I’m well aware. I’m only too aware. For years I have followed a program outlined to me by my psychiatrist (see my piece titled, “The Scales”), which got me down from 165.5 kilograms to 114.3 kg, as of around a year ago, while I was in hospital. And, under the influence of various nasty medications, it has been coming back ever since.

It has been coming back like the tide coming in, filling me up again. It recently got up to 127.1 kg. I was walking around the house, clutching my head, scared out of my mind. The thing about major weight-loss is that you become extremely invested in what you’ve lost. It becomes important to you. It’s as important to you as the house you live in. And as with a house, you would take out weight-loss insurance if you could.

What could I do? I felt like I had no control over my weight. I was eating piles of chocolate, thinking, well, if I can’t control it I may as well enjoy myself–but I was not enjoying myself. I was tearing myself up inside. And every day on the scales was a new, higher figure and I’d look down over my growing belly at the glowing numbers and I’d feel helpless and slump against the wall.

I blamed the Nortriptyline I’m taking. Increased appetite and weight-gain. The whole tricyclic antidepressant family is evil this way. In my experience psychiatric patients are either nervy, agitated, very thin people, or they’re unhappy fat people. There are few people of regular build.

But the Nortriptyline has been helping me. Mad obsessive weight-related anxieties aside, I’ve been doing pretty well. It’s just that mad obsessive weight-related anxieties take up all available psychological real estate.

The news each day does not help. Even though I no longer watch much TV, I still get news through Facebook and Twitter, and I get New York Times and The Guardian headlines in my email. And the news is all terrible. It’s so bad I often hesitate each day before looking at it. Do I really want to see what’s there? Can we wait maybe five minutes?

Recently, my weight spiked back up to 127.1 kilograms. It’s extremely prominent on my weight chart. It’s a terrifying spire. I call it the Peak of Madness. And it was on that day, a Wednesday, when I asked myself exactly what I could really do, if I was serious about it, to try and turn this around. I had already asked my doctor to explore other options, but that was going to take ages. He was prepared to accept at least some weight-gain if it meant I was doing better mental-health-wise. Whereas I was not so prepared.

The first thing was implement the 5:2 intermittent fasting diet recommended by Michael Mosley, but that was only a partial success. What did work was not so much a low-carb diet as low-food. I have one meal a day now, and usually one of those protein shakes. And sometimes also a fruit and vegetable smoothie instead of a giant iced coffee, which cuts down on my milk intake. There’s also a bit of chocolate every day as a treat and reward for hard work.

Then I fast for up to 18-20 hours.

For real.

It’s hard, but it works, and I have been doing this now for a month. In that time my doctor has also put me on an anti-anxiety drug called Topamax, which has a surprising weight-loss side-effect. The net result is that since that day when I stood horrified on the summit of the Peak of Madness I’ve gone from 127.1 down to 119.4 kg, as of today. I’m also charting my waist and hip measurements, which are showing startling reductions. Right now I’m thinner than I’ve been at any time since before our wedding. When I saw my doctor recently he kept exclaiming over the change in how I look. When I showed him my weight chart, and the plunge down the slope from the Peak of Madness he swore, he was so shocked. Pleased, but shocked.

There’s just this one problem. I don’t know how to stop. I’m worried about anorexia. I know this sort of thinking. When I was in D20 as a teenager, I knew many wonderful young women who were afflicted with anorexia nervosa, who were deliberately starving themselves. Who, weighing a mere 38 kilograms, believed themselves to be grotesquely fat, who would exercise in their rooms for hours, and sometimes regurgitate meals. Who would fight off attempts by staff to force-feed them. And who sometimes died of heart attacks.

I do not think I’m anorexic. I’m very interested in food. I think about it all the time, and I enjoy what I have. Had a fabulous bacon and eggs lunch last weekend at nearby shopping centre cafe. But I worry. I worry that if I ease up, even a little, on the stringency of my program, with its endless-seeming fasting, the Nortriptyline will make the tide come in again. At the moment what I am doing is working, but maybe too well. My doctor is happy, though. He says the combination of fasting and the Topamax is beneficial. But I don’t know, and I worry. I worry so much.

Today I’m going back to the local pool to slog up and down, doing laps, thinking, working stuff out. And I’m quite sure I’ll spend at least two-thirds of that time thinking about food, about my weight, about how much fat the exercise might be burning, about how hungry I feel.

You, reading this, are worried for me. I know, and I appreciate it. I am under supervision. My doctor knows I’m doing this. When I see him again I’m planning to ask him about anorexia. I am fairly sure I don’t have it, but I can feel myself, so to speak, circling it, feeling its gravitational pull, its lure, its siren song.

I just want to be no longer fat. It’s one of the things I’ve always wanted. I’ve always been fat (see also my piece, “Fat as Armour”), and I’ve always hated it, even if I have sometimes hidden away behind and inside it. It’s brought me nothing but misery. It has made me take up too much space. Has made me self-conscious. It’s difficult to relax in a social situation, because you know you take up more space than most people. In a lift you see the sign saying the lift can take x number of people, or so many kilograms, and you think, yes, but with me on board, they can take so many fewer people. You feel terrible and guilty on planes, knowing that the stranger next to you very likely is disgusted and revolted to be sitting next to a fat guy, and is probably going to post on Facebook about the hideous fat guy they were stuck next to and how he smelled, OMG!

I hate being fat so much. I just want to be the normal, healthy weight for my height. It seems like a sensible, reasonable ambition. But I want it so very much, so much that it has become an obsession, a sign of profound unwellness, a thing to tell doctors about, a thing for which to seek treatment. And that seems unjust, unfair, to me. I would dearly love to get bariatric surgery, but not only is it still extremely expensive even under full medical insurance, but they refuse people with a history of depression. That’s why I’ve been doing it this way, the hard way, all these years. It’s simply not an option.

So here I am, pathetically grateful that two sausages I ate yesterday didn’t destroy my recent efforts. Everything is still on track. The trend-line on the chart is still going in the right direction. Everything is okay. Stand sown from the alert. All is well. For now.

BOOKS AS SHELTER

I had just had the one and only proper fistfight of my life, such as it was, with the aptly-named “Mad Boy” the terror of Grade 6. He had landed a hard fist somewhere around my mouth, a result less due to pugilistic skill than blind, mad luck. He was Mad Boy. He was a twelve-year-old force of nature. He inflicted himself on anyone he could. Today was my lucky day.

It was about an hour later. The excitement was long over. The fevered chant of “Stink! Stink! Stink!” was gone, but it rang in my ears. The audience of excited boys had been all around us, two or three deep, all screaming for blood, my blood. Mad Boy was a legend, and I was the new kid, only recently arrived at this school because my family had just moved here. I was Mad Boy’s bait. They threw me to him the way you might deploy chum to catch a shark. I remember him as terrifying. Conversation was pointless. He was all brainstem and instinct. He’d seen your human world, your fancy civilisation, and he wanted no part of it. If he was here at all, he was here to burn it all down. Starting with useless pushovers like me. Kids who had no idea how to fight. Mad Boy didn’t know how to fight, either. He was just more practiced, and more willing to enter a state of frenzy.

Later, sitting alone on a bench outside a classroom, holding my swelling, aching, face, feeling shivery and weird, remembering flashes of the whole thing, wanting to cry bit too tired to cry, feeling awful, something wonderful happened to me. The first wonderful thing to ever happen to me at school. The first genuine moment of kindness, a transmission from a dimension where people cared about each other.

It was a woman, one of the teachers, I didn’t know her. I was new. I didn’t know anyone. That’s what was so awful about this. No allies. No-one to rally round and provide emotional support. No-one to provide shelter.

I don’t remember her name or what she looked like. I remember only that she was kind in a way I understood was rare. She was the School Librarian, it turned out. The School Library was in that demountable building just over there, she said, pointing. I’d been past there many times, and never known what it was. She asked who I was and what had happened. It was hard to tell her. You don’t want to have lost a fight and then have to tell a woman that you lost it. I was only eleven or twelve, but I understood this much about 1970s Australian manhood. She gently coaxed it out of me, the whole burning shameful fact of it. She inspected my wound. She tutted and talked about taking me to the School Nurse.

At some point she said to me that at any time, if I felt like I was in trouble, if the bullies were after me, if there was any kind of unpleasantness of that sort, I was most welcome to join her in the School Library. She would show me how to cover and repair books, and how to shelve them. She would show me how it all worked, and I could help her out when I felt like it. And she smiled at me.

When I told my psychologist this story, I got very choked up about it. She (the psychologist) asked me how I felt when the Librarian made me this offer? I still couldn’t speak. My face all screwed up, I put my hand over my heart. That’s how I felt. How I still feel, decades later. I had been reading and loving books since I was little, but this was the first time books had ever meant shelter to me. When books had given me a sense of home. It meant everything.

I took the Librarian up on her invitation. I don’t remember Mad Boy troubling me much after that incident. He was always around, an unexploded grenade spinning on the floor nearby, and I went out of my way to avoid him and his mates, but whenever possible I hid in the Library. I remember the smell of the books, and I remember working on the plastic covers, re-shelving returned books, and doing all the jobs involved in being a Librarian. It surprises me now, writing this, that I never thought even once about pursuing a career as a librarian, but I never did. I enjoyed the work I did in that School Library. It was like a world away from the school, sealed off from the schoolyard battlefield.

As I got older, and as my illness started to show itself in ever more obvious-when-you-think-back ways, I again found shelter in books. And once my illness erupted, like the “chest burster” scene in ALIENS, and I wound up in hospital, I read as much as I could. Which was not always easy. Medication can mess up your concentration. Your illness can fill you with unfathomable anger, or bottomless sadness, or mania so wild you’d swear you could fly and you would head to the roof of the building to demonstrate. The illness is not always compatible with reading, just as it’s also not always a good fit with writing.

I decided I wanted to be a published science fiction writer, a novelist, when I was fourteen, and I finally achieved this goal when I turned 40, when my first novel, ORBITAL BURN, was published in the US and Canada. That urge to write books was a way to build my own shelter, rather than seeking it in the books of other people. At one of the worst moments in my life, a kind person had shown me how the world of books could offer a way out of the wilderness. How could I not want to make my own place in that world?

During the couple of years prior to my hospitalisations last year, my reading dropped away. I didn’t have the concentration, the interest, the time–I’m not sure what it was. Or rather, I’m sure it was the depression talking. I missed it. My home away from the battlefield was no longer there. I felt strange, living in a house filled with books, bit not much desire to read one of them.

It was only when my new medication regime began to settle down last year that I became interested in books again. For a long time I’d had a stack of books on the bedside table in my hospital room, but I never touched them. It was a dreadful feeling. I would look at them and think about how I’d always loved books, and found shelter in them, but not now. It was one of many distressing things going on. But then one day I picked up one of them, and found I could follow along, it made sense, I could remember from day to day what was happening in the story. I could read for longer and longer times each day. Excited, I told the nurses, who told my doctors, who were also excited. This was progress. Things were happening. We were getting somewhere at long last.

In the months since I left hospital I found reading taking up more and more of my day. Until just before I started writing this book, I was reading for up to five hours a day, so many books, often several at once, a chapter here, a chapter of another there, and I was following all of them with no problem. It was when I first began to see that my writing ability might come back from its long silence. I could see that I had the necessary focus and clarity for writing. What was stopping me was the question, “do I want to bother with that again? Is it worth it?” I was feeling inclined to retire from writing, or at least to retire from the writing I was doing, which seemed to be going nowhere. I started thinking about what I would do with my life if I wasn’t a writer.

But here I am, 75,000 words into this project, and feeling stronger than ever, feeling more alive than ever. My mum tells me I look very tired, but I don’t feel all that tired. What I feel is that I got shipwrecked and washed up on this island, and this book is the hut I built for shelter there, and it’s getting bigger and more luxurious the more I write. I installed the Home Cinema Room over the weekend. A book has provided me with shelter when things were hard. I am forever grateful.

KIDS? (Updated with Big Postscript at the End)

“Do you want children?”

This was a specialist doctor asking us. Michelle was 41, and I was 46. We had not, up to that point in our marriage, produced kids, and we had long ago given up contraception as probably unnecessary.

It was a hard question for us. The doctor gave us six months to think it over, which is the sort of time limit that does nothing but magnify one’s uncertainties and doubts. That fills you with brilliantly detailed visions of all the alternate timelines springing forth from this instant. Countless timelines where you have kids, and the same where you do not. These possible futures fill your head, overwhelming you, tripping up your thinking with endless, “yes, but what if…?” questions. Every time you think you’ve reached a point of resolution with the question, you think of another possible scenario, one way or another, good or bad or mixed, the varied infinities of possible lives unfolding before you.

He should have given us a weekend to think it over. He should have given us twelve intense hours.

I had always assumed, all those years up to this point, that I was shooting blanks, so to speak. That I was a dud all the way down to the cellular level. I had read things of a medical informational nature explaining that if the would-be father is overweight or obese (such a horrible word is “obese”), then his sperm can be negatively affected. They can be sullen and moody and stare at their shoes all the time, and be really into noise music.

But I didn’t know this to be true. We had never tested my stuff for evidence of sullen moodiness. I just assumed it.

Michelle, meanwhile, had been examined. She had actual problems. Problems requiring surgery.

So there we were on this day, meeting this doctor, a surgeon. Michelle, as I said, was 41. She was right on the cusp of the last possible viable age to have a healthy baby. We would need the heroic assistance of possibly many rounds of IVF. It would be overwhelmingly hard for both of us, and especially for her. Was Michelle the sort of woman who had to have at least one child, no matter what? Who could not live without a child? Who would rather have a child than, possibly, a husband? Such women, I knew, were out there. Michelle and I had never talked about her having such a powerful urge, but we did wonder, during those six long agonising months, if the sudden pressure, the fundamental choice before us, might inspire such a powerful maternal drive in her.

Because choice B, if we decided we did not want children, was very serious surgery indeed. Michelle would be facing the prospect of a hysterectomy.

Even that first day, when the doctor posed this choice–kids or hysterectomy–Michelle was tempted, after a lifetime of trouble, to just go with the surgery and be damned. It would make so many aspects of her life much easier.

I asked the doctor what the side-effects of such surgery might be. He said, “Increased vim and zest for life.”

We were both a little shocked at that. It’s not the sort of thing you expect to hear from someone proposing major surgery in which a significant part of your body would be removed.

We went away. We talked and we thought, together and on our own. It was a very long six months. I don’t know everything that Michelle considered, other than her final conclusion.

My own thinking went like this:

I was afraid of being a father. Partly because I felt emotionally unready, and all kinds of nasty psychosis-based misbeliefs of the sort you should now understand. A whirlwind of deafening hostility whooshed and screamed through my head at all times. What business do you have bringing a child into the world? You don’t have a job, and you can’t even drive a car! What if the kid gets sick or needs a doctor one day when you’re there alone with it, and you can’t take him to get help? You’re bloody useless! You can’t even provide for your wife, let alone for a family!

Etc.

This still stings and burns me now, as I write.

But there was worse. And this was what led me to my conclusion. Mental illness runs in my father’s side of the family. I have it, and so does my dad. His mum had if so bad she was kept in her old age in a special hospital. I remember when w would go to visit her. I don’t remember much about her as a person, what she was like, but I remember she liked a certain brand of peppermint marshmallows that we could only get from one shop near where we lived, and every time we went to visit her we had to stop at this shop to get the marshmallows, and she ate them with glee. I don’t remember her speaking a lot. She was old, one of her eyes was turned, and that was freaky for a little kid to see. Which eye was dominant? Which determined what she could see? I remember the very powerful smell of disinfectant all through the place, and have always associated it with hospitals. And there was an upright piano, which I always played with, and probably annoyed many of the patients out of their minds with my tinkering.

One of her parents had the illness, too, I have only recently learned, and that is now going back a long way, further than I ever imagined when I was a kid, feeling dead inside, and wondering why my poor dad was always so moody and unpredictable. I never understood. There’s a lot I still don’t understand. But there is one thing I understood, during our six months of contemplation: any child we might have would almost certainly receive the family curse, the family stain.

When I was a kid, that stain was shameful. Polite people did not ever talk about it. It was simply never discussed. It was hidden, and its hiddenness added to the pain of those who suffered with it. Having to grind through their day-to-day lives, if they could, as if they were fine. Self-medicating with alcohol in many cases, or whatever they could get, and that often not enough. My dad was never a big abusive drinker, thank God. He liked a drink with his friends, and got properly drunk sometimes, but he was never a problem with it. His problems were mad impulsive spending sprees, and unwise snap decisions that his doctor would have to get him out of (a story for another time).

That was then. What things were like for sufferers of my grandmother’s era I cannot imagine. It must have been simply impossible. I know very little about her and my grandfather Pop’s lives together, and how they managed her illness.

A baby born now, carrying the mark, would face a very different world. When I was a kid you could watch men bouncing around on the Moon on live TV. But you could never even imagine producing a book like this one. It was unimaginable, unthinkable. It was not done. Why would you talk about something like that? Something so unsavoury, so disgusting? This is partly why I’m doing this project, because I remember when it could not be done, and that was not that long ago. Things have changed in the past twenty to thirty years. The unthinkable has become part of ordinary conversation. There is such a thing as RU Okay Day.

So if we were to have had a kid, the wee sprog would enter a world without having to feel ashamed of his or her illness. It would be no more shameful than any other chronic illness, like diabetes. And like diabetes, there might even be the possibility in the medium-to-long-term future of revolutionary treatments, and maybe even cures. Mental illness, in the future, might become a dusty, embarrassing thing of the past. I would dearly love to see an affected child of mine grow up into such a world.

However, I would not wish this condition on anyone. My mum once told me, when I was a teenager going through the worst of times after my diagnosis, that if she had known I would have to experience this, she would never have had me. She would not have wished the illness on anyone, not her worst enemy.

I feel the same way. The possibilities for radical and helpful treatments in the future are there, but the child would still have the illness, and would still experience the pain and wretchedness I and my dad have felt. Would have to endure it. Would have to deal every day with medication and doctors and “being a patient” that sense you have of feeling completely embedded in your illness, that it is profoundly part of you, not merely at a cellular level, but at the level of thought, and the thoughts you have about your thoughts. The way you see yourself, not in the mirror, but in daily life. What you think of yourself, the way you talk to yourself, who you understand yourself to be. It is the the water in which you swim, the air you breathe, and the lens through which you see everything. It’s inseparable from you, indivisible.

I would not wish that on a child.

We chose, ultimately, the surgery. For complicated reasons, and for simple ones.

Michelle has very much enjoyed the extra vim and zest for living. It’s been a great thing in her life. And we are happy together, these 24 years.

PS:

Years later, in 2013, we adopted a puppy from the local pound. We were there because were interested in a different dog, promoted on their website. That dog looked promising, though possibly too big for us. And so it proved. That dog was much too big and hard to handle.

“We do have some puppies,” the lady in charge said.

Michelle had discussed the possibility of a puppy. Toilet-training would be hard, and all the chewing would be hard, but overall it could be great. So I said, “What kind of puppies?”

The lady brought one in and handed it to me right where I was sitting. This tiny, warm liquid bundle that was all white fur, huge dark trusting sleepy eyes, and in the centre of its back a perfectly round brown patch.

I told Michelle, once the tears were underway, and I could no longer hide them, that I would not be handing the puppy back. The puppy was coming home with us.

We called her Freckle, a wonderfully apt suggestion from our friend

Eleanor Irving. She is now four years old, and weighs in at a beefy 30 kilograms. She sleeps with us in our bed. We need a bigger bed. She is the sweetest dog I have ever known, and I have known a lot of dogs all my life. We have always had dogs, going back to my earliest days. And Freckle is the best.

When we’d had her only about a month or so, when we were still figuring out what to do, Michelle went out to do some shopping one morning, and it was my job to hold Freckle to make sure she didn’t race out the kitchen door into the carport where who knew what might happen. Michelle got away safely, and I was left, sitting there, cuddling the wee mite, all tiny and perfect, snoozing gently against my chest, the colouring on her nose only starting to come in. She was warm, and she still smelled like a puppy, and I was taking deep breaths of the top of her head–

And next thing I was sobbing my guts out. This came as much of a surprise to me as it may have to you. (“What page are we on here? Is Bedford crying yet? Bloody hell!”) I looked around, not sure why, and I looked at tiny perfect Freckle, thinking, what’s going on? Because I was very upset. I was heaving. I feel terrible even now, years later, telling you about it, with full-grown Freckle curled up snoring right next to me. Earlier in this postscript she was in fact lolloped all over me, and I could only just manage to hit the iPad screen with one finger. Freckle is nothing if not a presence in one’s life.

I was thinking about all the other timelines. The ones where I was doing this, only with a baby rather than a puppy. The ones where I was a dad. A dad who hadn’t screwed up yet, who had yet to be a disappointment. Who loved his child, who loved being a dad even though he was no good at it. Because part of me did want to be a dad, but that part was overruled. It wasn’t wise. It would not have been fair on Michelle. It certainly would not have been fair on the child. So I cried, holding onto Freckle, sending good wishes to alternate timelines, to the other Adrians. Hang in there, guys. You can do it. There are probably, like, Youtube videos about being a dad, right?