AFTER THE BOMB (Rewrite)

The boy had been split asunder, a ship cast upon lightless rocks, its spine shattered. The boy had just been given his diagnosis. The words “psychosis”, “bipolar” and “disorder” were now carved into his face, as if branded.. He was only 16, but his old life was over. He was ruined. What girl would habe him? What employer? He was used to being a pariah at school, but he had always figured that it might be a school-only thing, that once he was free from school, he could get on with his life. But what if instead a new kind of curse had fallen on him? He knew that, at least as of that year, 1979, people did not talk about their mental illness diagnoses. Such things were steeped in burning shame. People so afflicted were “malingerers”, “it was all in their heads”, and they just needed to “snap out of it”. It was an impossible time. There was no air. You couldn’t breathe, if you were one of these people.

Each step he took along that passageway from that room led him into his new life–not that he could have been persuaded at the time that any future waited for him. If I had appeared before him that day, a Time Traveller from an unimaginable future that is unimaginable even to people who live here and who got here the hard way, I would never have been able to persuade him that his life would get better.

And one of the reasons for that difficulty is that it would take seven long years for everything to settle. I had been through a Vesuvian eruption of the mind. It would take a long time to recover from something like that, for the land o recover, for grass and animals to come back, for healing to take place. For the land itself to be convinced that there would be no more shattering eruptions.

But the boy did have one good, burning idea in his head. It actually came from the doctor, who, when she told him his diagnosis, also told him to not go looking it up, to try and find out about it. The boy should trust that his medical team (three doctors, a squad of nurses, occupational therapists, two art therapists) knew what they were doing.

Well, he was thinking that afternoon as he made his way upstairs, screw that!

The first thing he did was to visit the hospital’s medical library. It was one of Perth’s major teaching hospital. Medical students were thick on the ground. And the medical library did have a sign on the door: medical students and doctors only.

Again, screw that!

Over a few days I was able to acquire the right sort of clothes. I was obviously very young, and my 16-years bum-fluff did not exactly sell the image of a hard-working 20-something med student, but equipped with a clipboard in one hand and a determined manner about me, I damned well went in there, and I started looking for medical dictionaries.

Which I soon found. It was very quiet in the library. You know how regular public libraries can be quiet? These libraries are even quieter still. Or at least it seems that way when you’re scared of being rumbled and thrown out at any moment. Not only were the hairs on the back of neck standing up, they were standing on the tips of their toes. My shirt was soaked with tension sweat. I could hardly breathe.

And these books were ENORMOUS! I had never seen such immense volumes!

I staggered, carrying one to a table.

But once I had the book, and my notepaper with the full name of my condition jotted down, I could set about looking up what it all meant, at least in a dictionary-definition level of detail. This was no substitute for proper textbooks, but there was no point in near those without some basic awareness of the language.

So. Mood swings. Good-o. Psychosis meant silly buggers with how you perceive the world without you’re being aware of the silly buggers going on. You think it’s all normal, and react accordingly. Okay, that made sense. There were references to things like paranoid delusions (check), too, that made sense to me.

But the main thing I got from this expedition was a sense of relief. Nowhere in the discussion of the word “psychosis” was any direct or necessary connection with murderous violence. You could be psychotic, but you wouldn’t want to kill people because of it. Though you might want to if they were tossers, but that’s another matter.

I can’t imagine why that doctor told me not to try and find this information. It helped me enormously. It gave me a sense of direction, a compass heading, a lighthouse in stormy seas. The next several years, as I struggled to get used to medication, to get used to the world, to finish high school, to deal with girls, unemployment in a job market not interested in people like me–it was all impossible. And I was often impossible as well. My parents and I went through hell. It was the hardest time of my life, and I didn’t know if I would get through it. In the middle of all this it suddenly seemed like a brilliant idea to go to university, but again, I wasn’t nearly ready, the cake not nearly “done” yet, but I wasn’t to know

It was only when I met and settled down with Michelle that things started, at last, to take their proper, coherent shape. It was like emerging, in a kayak, from seven years of terrifying, deadly white-water rapids, in which you thought many times you would capsize and drown, into calm, clear waters at last, and you can breathe again.

It is good to have survived, and doubly so because of the knowledge, inside me, that despite my own happy-so-far story, there was never a guarantee that I would survive it. Plenty of young men experience what happened to me and don’t survive. Young women, too. They are lost in the brutal rapids of real life.

After my visit to the medical library I felt much better about things. I still felt branded, and still felt that I would always be alone, and that I would never have more than odd jobs, and struggle like my dad to hold them down. I grieved for the versions of me in alternate timelines who did not have the illness, who had never been cast upon the lightless rocks, and who I imagined would have relatively straightforward lives. I thought of those other Adrians often.

But in this timeline, it wasn’t all bad. One thing surprised me more than anything. In that hospital psychiatric unit, where I was an inpatient for four months, I found community and acceptance. Friendship and fellowship. I found girls who were only too happy to be with me, to talk to me, who never saw all the many ghastly things the girls at my high school seemed to see. These were the first girls I ever simply got on with. They were anorexics, self-harmers, with thick white masses of scar-tissue up their arms, and drug-addicts and sex-workers. All kinds of people. I often felt, a 16-year-old boy, out of my depth, but I also felt at home, that I was welcome.

That place was a lighthouse for me. It was a home from home, a safe harbour from the storms beyond.

ME VERSUS GIRLS

Her name was Lynette, and she was the dreamiest girl in grade six. She was blonde and otherworldly yet still somehow accessible, though I’m a little unsure how I knew that since she and I never just about never spoke. I think we may have touched hands once, clammy and warm and soft and brief, but I suspect unreliability of memory, something like an East German Trabant packed full of my primary school memories, trundling down a street, belching smoke.

The key point here, I think, is that Lynette never knew, or even suspected, that she turned my world. That I lay awake at night thinking about her. That I sat in class between morning recess and lunchtime, wondering if I’d see her. Wondering if I’d have the nerve even to mumble an awkward hello.

Lynette was the first girl I ever had anything resembling “feelings” about. I knew nothing about her. I knew nothing about books she liked, TV shows she liked, music she liked, her favourite meals, where she lived, nothing. She was mysterious. Not only did I never even get to first base, I could not even find the change-room. Couldn’t locate my car-keys to go out that day.

I still think fondly of Lynette because I never learned anything about her to spoil the image I always had. She never became a real person. She was, in a way, the first celebrity I ever encountered, all surface image. I have no doubt that she was as lovely a person as she appeared, but I never found out. This was the hurly-burly world of grade six, after all. Life moved fast. Next thing it was grade seven, and while on one hand we had at last become kings of the school, we were too busy being preoccupied–and shit-scared–by the thought that next year we would all be first-years in high school.

High school, you may have gathered, was not good. My whole body was erupting and transforming. It was as if a werewolf needed several years each full moon to fully change from human to beastly monster. Only I felt like a beastly monster all the time. I felt loathsome, and everyone was only too happy to make sure, as I’ve previously said, to make sure I remembered my place.

There was a pulsing undercurrent of sex and hormones all through high school life. It was subtext and often text as well. Everyone knew what was happening to their bodies, the point of the exercise, and some were quite pleased with the results so far. You could practically smell the hormones as you walked around. Teenagers, on heat like cats, and only too aware of it.

But what do you do if you’re a misfit? If you are a designated hate object, despite having those same throbbing hormones squirting through your body, the same changes happening everywhere?

Nothing. There’s nothing at all you can do. You keep your head down, lest you get it shot off, and go about your business. You try to blend in, and try to present as small a target as possible.

And there are a few girls who have not received the briefing about me, and who are quite happy to talk to me, but only up to a point. I talk to them, pathetically grateful inside, trying not to let on just how grateful, and it’s nice, even though it stings all the more, for reminding you of how terrible everyone else is treating you.

One day a girl you don’t know tells you she fancies you, and walks off. You’re astonished. You’re all messed up inside. You bump into things. Your guts are in knots. You don’t even know her name. Someone tells you she’s on the student council. It takes ages and days of turmoil but you eventually discover there is a gallery of headshots of student council people in the library. So you steam off there at flank speed, and you scan those photos–and there she is, with a name.

You set out to find her, a detective on a case. By this point you’re angry. You haven’t seen her again. It’s been days. You’ve barely slept. The voices in your head scream all night. You can only sometimes eat, when you eat everything, or not at all. You’re upset, prone to long showers, and your parents are No Help.

You finally track her down at school, laughing it up with her friends. She sees you, the look on your face. She says it was just a joke, and laughs, and her friends laugh. “Who’d fancy you?”

Hospital, D20, August 1979. Time Traveller Me standing in a ground floor corridor, leaning on a white-painted wall, when an office door opens, and a boy shuffles out, followed by a middle-aged female doctor with a bag and a bundle of documents. She looks concerned for the boy. The boy looks like a dead person, as if his living spirit has just been blasted right out of his body. He’s moving slowly. He believes his life is over. He’s been told he’s psychotic.

Early 1980s. I’m finished with hospital, and have yet to go to university. I’m trying to get a job, and it’s unbelievably hard. I have a two-year hole in my resumé, and it turns out that employers don’t like to hear that you spent that time caught up in the psychiatric system as both an inpatient and an outpatient. They don’t want to hear that you have this history, that you have “problems”, that you are a problem, walking around, looking haunted by the spirit that got blasted out of your body.

I’m still no closer to finding someone to be with. I came close while in hospital with a beautiful young woman whom I will call Kelly, but who had her own troubles. Still, she gave me my first kiss. It was as wondrous as it was unexpected. It wasn’t a perfect, slow, romantic moment. It was a spontaneous Christmas thing during a party, and I felt it for weeks afterwards.

The fundamental problem I faced during this time was that because of the circumstances of my life up to this point I knew nothing about girls and women. What were they like, what were they interested in, what did they want? I had no idea. But I was an inarticulate depressive lump.

Then, one day, waiting at the doctor for an appointment, I had the brainwave that would save my life.

I picked up a copy of CLEO magazine and started reading it. From cover to cover it was articles about exactly the things I wondered about, written for and by women. It was startling. I made a point of reading every issue of CLEO I could get my hands on. I started reading COSMOPOLITAN, too. My brain was lighting up with powerful and helpful information.

Listen to women. Believe what they say. Don’t be a dick. Ten things women are looking for in a potential boyfriend. Don’t interrupt. Don’t leave the toilet seat up. And so much more besides, much of which I see reproduced these days on websites written by women for women. CLEO, I believe, has not survived, and that’s a shame, because it saved my life.

It made it possible, when I chanced into meeting Michelle when I was 23, to talk to her, to become friends, to build a relationship, to not be a dick. To be a decent guy with her. On our first proper date in the city, though, I did sit her down, first thing, and told her about what I called “my sinister secret”, the whole psychotic, bipolar thing. I told her because she needed to know. If it was going to be a deal-breaking thing, better it happen here at the beginning.

But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. She and my doctor at the time had a meeting, and talked all about it.

Meanwhile, for quite some time now the vast majority of my closest friends have been women. I treasure them, one and all. I feel as if I earned their friendship, in more ways than one.

MESSING ABOUT WITH BOATS (Rewrite)

It was Dad and me and we were out off the coast on his 17-foot fibreglass cabin cruiser. It was a hot, sunny, Polaroid sort of day with a steady breeze and a gentle swell.

And Dad was trying to show me how to bait a fish-hook. It was the most revolting thing in the world–and I was a boy of about twelve or thirteen, and knew about revolting things, being one myself.

All I’ll say about the baiting of hooks is that it involves the eyes of the fortunately dead bait-fish.

I hated, always hated, fishing. I liked being with my dad, but I hated fishing. I hated putting bait on the hook, and I hated that feeling, once the line is in the water, when you can feel the live fish at the other end incautiously, and perhaps injudiciously, even recklessly, nibbling at the bait. When do you go for the catch? How much of a free nibble do you let the fish have before you try to hook it? How much, too, do you want to be able to send the nibbling fish a fax to tell it, You idiot! Stop eating the bait!

I just about always got Dad to bait my hooks. He muttered a bit about my squeamishness, but was happy enough to do it anyway. Everything smelled fishy, especially this knife he had, which he used for every fishing-related task, and especially for cutting up bait, such as the eternally doomed mulies, small thin streaks of silver with hard black round eyes at one end. Mulies came in big frozen blocks, all jammed together, squeezed up tight, a claustrophobe’s nightmare, everyone smelling all fishy.

Since I’ve been working on this piece, I wondered if my historic difficulty with eating seafood (see my earlier posts about food) might have its roots in my constant sense of horror and disgust on these days. The smell was inescapable. And Dad’s fishing knife, as I said, was never cleaned after use, nor even wiped. There were many years of accreted bits of fish guts on it. I hated to have anything to do with, and didn’t, if I could help it.

Once, I caught a monster, a giant beast of a fish my dad told me was called a North-West Blowie. Regular-sized blowfish, or “blowies”, are the bane of the fishing life, worthless, ghastly, ugly fish that are also extremely common, and extremely undiscerning about tasty morsels that might contain deadly traps. When you go fishing and catch more blowies than anything else, you feel bitter. You’d be happier catching old boots, or clumps of seaweed.

But I caught a kind of blowie that was in fact remarkable. It was like a dinosaur blowie. It was almost as long as I was tall at the time–and I only remember this because somewhere this is a photograph of my young self, standing in front of my dad’s electric blue six-cylinder Torana (how he loved that car!), holding, with a certain look on my face, this mighty creature of the sea. You would be less astonished if you saw a photo of me holding up a whale shark, because whale sharks are supposed to be huge. But blowies are supposed to be small little bastards that puff up, “blow” up, if they get agitated. This thing was immense. To this day I have no notion of what became of it once this old photo was taken. It’s hard to believe it got flushed like a dead goldfish down the loo: I can only assume it was given some form of burial in the garden. It’s monstrous nature might have found redemption nurturing some beautiful flowers.

My dad, in those days, always seemed to me a man who loved fishing. Or at least he said he did. My dad was the kind of Australian man who “liked to mess about with boats”. He was a motor mechanic by trade, and could fix anything with an engine in it. It was true. I’d seen him work magic. I’d seen him bring the dead back to rumbling roaring life, against all the odds. He would buy old, dead-seeming outboards, machines resembling corpses as well as simply not working, and Dad would bang away at them all weekend, get them running (asking me to pass him tools), then sell them on at a nice profit. And of all the motored things in the world, he preferred boats. Boat motors didn’t make your hands as dirty, he said to me once when I asked him why the choice. With boat motors, you very often had to head down to Matilda Bay, on the river, or to some marina on the coast, or some equally lovely, scenic spot in the sun in which to work.

He even had a career, when I was a young boy and he was still just hanging on to his own youth, racing speedboats on the Swan River on Saturday afternoons. There was an organised club, with a program of races of different boat and engine classes each Saturday. There were big powerful sleek fast hoon boats that went a million miles an hour and kicked up huge rooster tails of spray and emitted unearthly insectile whines from their warp engines as the hurtled by on the steel-blue afternoon chop. Then there were the tiny “go-boats”, little things, not much more than curved bits of plywood with a seat and an outboard engine, and a mad bloody bastard at what passed for the controls. The power-to-weight ratio was astronomical since there was no significant weight, other than the engine itself, and the pilot. Then there the midsize boats, which, if their class had a name I’ve since forgotten it. But those midsize boats were my dad’s thing.

Dad built his own boats out of plywood and fibreglass with the help of his best mate, a Scottish guy named Hugh who was a cabinetmaker and knew his way around a piece of wood. They’d get together in the evenings and build these boats, and on Saturdays Dad would race them, a beautiful shade of deep iridescent blue and white, called Kingfisher, around and around the course, a serious competitor, carving his way through the water, and he won often enough it stopped seeming so remarkable.

(At the time it meant less to me than it does now, decades later, and my dad is an 81-year old man still in reasonable condition but elderly and frail, with a heart, and forgetful, among other things. He’s still a restless soul, though. He can’t sit still for long. He has to be up, bustling about, looking for things, doing things, organising things, has just remembered something, and will be right back. He has a framed photo of the 17-foot cabin cruiser taken by a professional photographer back in the day of Dad at the controls of the boat, slicing through Perth Water at top speed. I’m in the picture, too, or the very top of my head, just visible through the cabin window.)

Mum was unhappy. She believed the whole speedboat racing thing was dangerous, and she had evidence on her side. Dad did not. He thought it was potentially dangerous and risky, bit that experienced racers had skills and knew how to handle their boats. Mum would not be persuaded. She believed that sooner or later someone would be killed.

These Saturday afternoons at Coode Street Jetty in South Perth went on, seemingly, for days. It always took ages for Dad’s event to come around. I had little to no interest in the other races. I wandered about, up and down the beach, inspecting all the other boats pulled up on the coarse beige sand, their hulls bright and popping with colour. It wasn’t the sort of beach, the sort of sand, that invited or encouraged sandcastles. It was too young for that. It was still a work in progress. It was still too evidently fragments of shell that hadn’t yet been sufficiently smashed up. Instead I inspected the giant washed up pulsing horrors that were the big brown jellyfish. If there’s one thing about the Swan River, it’s that it’s lousy with jellyfish: two kinds, one a translucent white sort of flimsy disc-shaped thing, and the other was a stonking great big brown-domed Lovecraftian horror, with tentacles, and wafting bits, and stuff underneath the dome that looked like the inside of your lungs. These things had a way of washing up on the river shore and expiring. It was fascinating yet also revolting.

Meanwhile, one afternoon one racer was very nearly killed. The boat behind his briefly became airborne during a turn, and somehow one of the big inflatable buoys was involved, and next thing the airborne boat, engine still running, propeller still spinning so fast you can’t see it, came down on that man’s head. He was left badly brain-damaged. I can’t remember whether the man had been wearing a helmet. I think he may have been, and might be the reason he wasn’t killed outright.

All those Super-8 afternoons by the river, while I studied grotesque jellyfish dying on the coarse sand, my mum, sitting nearby on a tartan picnic blanket with a Tupperware box of sandwiches, had been deathly afraid for my dad’s life. Even when he wasn’t racing, she was afraid for him. She was just afraid. Of losing everything. Dad gave up racing without a protest.

That thought that my dad might have been risking his life had never once occurred to me.

He took me out in one of his speedboats one afternoon, while waiting for his race. We pottered at a sedate pace, the engine making polite coughing noises, as we made our slow way around the course, turning at the big green inflatable buoys. It was marvellous! I remember the smell of petrol, the smell of the river, the wind, the afternoon angle of the sun, the feeling of being with my dad in Dad’s pride and joy.

I only recently found out that Dad was never interested in fishing, as such. A troubled man, haunted by his own past, and in those days yet to undergo treatment for his bipolar disorder, being out on the river, or just off the coast, enjoying the breeze, waiting for a nibble, just quietly whiling away a few hours, riding the swell or the current, was as close as Dad got to pure bliss.

There were lots of weekend afternoons, often with his Scottish mate and me, out at sea in Dad’s 17-footer. They’d enjoy a few beers in the stern of the boat and not really care too much if they caught anything. They talked and laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company.

I was a bit of a third wheel. I obviously wasn’t drinking. In fact, I was often the designated driver. Aged 12 or 13, given the job of driving the boat back into port through heavy seas and back up the river to the launching ramp. I always felt proud and competent doing that, especially in heavy seas, where you had to be careful with the throttle and the rudder, where you could easily end up sideways and capsized or at least swamped. But we were always, despite some hairy moments, fine. It was something I could do, and I was pleased to do it.

When I was about eight, my dad had a wooden, clinker-built, dinghy-type boat, a rowboat. It looked picturesque in the water, but it was a heavy bloody bastard to lift out of the water and manoeuvre, upturned, onto the roof-rack of your dad’s car. There’s a reason aluminium caught on as the mayerial of choice for boat-building.

Dad and I, and sometimes with his Scottish friend, would take this wooden boat out on the river at night, starting in the area around East Perth, when it was still a nasty, run-down industrial zone. We’d putter around on glass-flat waters. It was so quiet, but for the chuffing of a tiny few-horsepower motor that looked like it was made from toothpicks, and powered with rubber-bands. In those days, we knew about boats and outboard motors the way these days we know about computers and broadband.

My memories of this time in my life are infused with the smell of two-stroke petrol, often in a metal, red-painted tank for connection to an outboard motor, and the smell of the river. It was never quite the same as the smell of the ocean. There was a lot of salty water in the river, but there was a lot of something else as well. At least in theory you could say, well, that would be the fresh water coming down from out in the countryside, but freshwater wouldn’t smell like that. There was something alive, or living, biological, about Swan River water. When you smelled it, that miasma of sea and life and something possibly else, you knew you weren’t alone.

There were many nights, just us blokes out in this little boat on the river, fishing from hand-reels, my dad and his mate chatting ever so softly, necause there was no need to speak any louder. We were in the quietest place in the world. The loudest thing might be an irritable seagull a few miles away having a squawk.

We often ended up in front of what used to be the old Swan Brewery. In those days, there were lights mounted on the outside of the building facing out over the water, coloured lights, that when lit would take the shape of a ship, a swan, and a sailing ship. Those nights we ended up parked out on the water in front of the Brewery, bathed in that silent electric light, were sublime. I had no staying power, eight-year-old me, and I would curl up, rocked to sleep, in the bottom of the boat, listening to the whispering talk, to the silence, to the light.

RECOGNITION

Michelle and I were extremely tense. I could hardly bear it. “My” category was up next, Best Australian Science Fiction Novel.

We were at the Aurealis Awards. My fourth published novel, TIME MACHINES REPAIRED WHILE-U-WAIT, was a finalist in the category. My previous books had all made the finals in their years as well, but this was the first time we had come to the award ceremony, which was in Brisbane.

The theatre hosting the awards night was full to bursting with industry professionals from across the country: writers, artists, publishers, editors, and of course their long-suffering partners and spouses. It was hot. I kept being surprised by the tropical heat in Brisbane, and in this theatre, jam-packed with speculative fiction enthusiasts, even more so. The women looked fabulous, all dressed up for a great night out; the blokes rather less so, but some definitely made the effort. I had broken with a lifetime of accumulated rock-hard tradition and was wearing a proper long-sleeved button-down shirt. Because, after all, it was at least mathematically possible, a one in five chance, that my humble, scruffy, red-haired step-child of a book might win. I did not think much of its chances. It was up against some vastly talented authors with amazing books, and I was a fat schlub from Perth who sweated too much.

But my book did win. The universe tilted in my direction. The emcee announced my name, and the title of my meagre book.

Michelle clamped her hand on my leg and gripped it as if her life depended on it, and made a great exclamation. I could not speak. I was staring at the big screen, where it said that K.A. Bedford had won the Aurealis Award for Best Australian Science Fiction Novel, for 2009. I still could not speak.

The audience erupted. I had never heard anything like it.

And that was true. I had not.

High school. Fifteen years old. Big, overweight, a picture of oppressed misery, shuffling through my days and nights. Bullied, hated, rejected, mocked, teased. On reflection, I am not sure why I did not consider ending my life. Probably one important reason was my best friend Michael (my murdered best friend Michael), and the other was my family. I couldn’t do that to them. So I carried on, slogging through life.

The one thing I loved at this time was science fiction. I had grown up during the late 1960s and the 1970s, a time unironically referred at the time as “the Space Age”. People seriously called it that. Because the very air seemed to vibrate with the promise and excitement of a future in space, in orbit, on Mars, on the Moon, away from Earth, doing big, exciting things. It was “the High Frontier”. There was talk of gigantic orbital space colonies. Asteroid mining. Lunar cities. Commercial spaceflight. Men on Mars by the 1980s.

Some of my earliest memories are bound up in the manned space program, and especially with the Apollo Program. I was six when I saw, on blurry, confusing, black and white TV, men land on the Moon. I did not understand, at the time, what I was seeing. Even though our local TV station had round-the-clock live coverage, with a panel of talking heads in a studio trying to interpret events for the audience, there was still a profound gap in understanding between what the pictures showed and what we understood. There was more helpful information in the audio feed. “Contact light.” “The Eagle has landed.”

That there would soon be more people on the Moon was not even a question. We, and it was absolutely understood that this was a global “we” moment, would not only go back, but we would go on, and out into the dark.

It was the late 1960s. STAR TREK was a thing. People would use the word “groovy” in a sentence unironically.

My sense of who and what I was was formed in this period. On one hand my world was all about the mad, giddy excitement of space, but also about the paralysing terror of the atom. This period was also the first peak of the Cold War. Kids in America having to do bomb drills, hiding under their desks. I don’t recall anything like that. Maybe, most people here thought we were too far away from anywhere worth nuking. I never thought that. I spent a lot of time thinking about this, wondering about a hypothetical bomb dropped on the centre of Perth–would the blast effects reach as far as my school in Wembley? Depended on the size of the bomb, really. A ten-megaton weapon, almost certainly.

Age 15 was very much like a post-apocalyptic wasteland of the soul, but I was no Mad Max, roaming the waste lands in a hot muscle car, sorting out bad guys. My thing, as I say, was science fiction. I read books, and I watched movies and TV (at a time when most movies and TV in the genre were rubbish), and hung out with my couple of friends.

And I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote and I wrote some more. At age 15, not yet into the Unbearable Weight of Being in Year 11 that would ultimately cause my breakdown, my nightly homework burden was more manageable. I was able to find time for writing. And so I wrote. Wrote wrote wrote wrote wrote. I wrote in the morning and I wrote in the evening. I wrote all day long, in any spare moment I had.

God, but it was all rubbish. Very prolific rubbish.

Some days I could manage maybe three entire short stories.

My output was ridiculous. I knew nothing about editing or rewriting. I only knew what I read in other people’s short stories, which meant Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, among others. I read loads of their stuff. I did have a rough understanding of story mechanics. My Year 10 (third-year) English teacher, a nice lady actually from England, was very encouraging, and told me to keep at it.

The school instituted a program of writing awards. Each month there would be a prize for best story.

I entered often. Most months there were entries from other students, too, but some months it was just me.

Once, for some reason, the school admin decided to take advantage of having the entire student body present in the gym for an assembly in order to award that month’s lucky winner of the writing award. Which, not for the first time, was me.

The gym gave everything a very distinct sort of acoustic vibe. The merest squeak of a chair, or quiet cough or murmur behind hands, were all not so much magnified as smeared across the entire space, rendered audible but almost indistinct. And there was a smell of sweaty socks in shoes, of breath expelled, of accumulated human warmth.

Then, the headmaster starts going through the program, his various remarks, introducing departmental heads and their thrilling reports. Kids kicking chair legs, shifting their weight in their seats, restless, concealing yawns, glancing at one another, maybe furtively passing notes. Needing a piss.

But, wait: now the headmaster is proud to announce–and here it comes!–your gut knots up, you’re instantly sweating down your back, your shirt sticking to the back of the plastic chair–the winner of this month’s writing award. “Please give a big hand…” And he announces my name.

And nothing.

I make a thunderous, clattering, nervous noise with my chair as I get up, my mouth dry. I stumble and trip on chair legs as I make my way to the outside aisle. I can hear my footsteps, my heartbeats, my hair growing. Even my hair is embarrassed on my behalf.

I go up on stage, in the ringing silence. You could hear mice blinking behind the rear walls.

The headmaster and my English teacher make a big fuss. There is a bit of “come on, then!” applause. I am made of ash at this point. They hand me a certificate. I mumble something.

Time Traveller Adrian, watching this from behind, up near the back of the stage, a tall middle-aged, plump man going grey, shakes his head, wishing he could murder those kids out there, withholding their support. He remembers being hated. He remembers being the unlovable virgin the girls would not hold hands with in ballroom dancing classes. He has tried, tried hard, in the intervening decades, to understand why they were like this. Was I really so loathsome? Was it group dynamics? Was I just the designated Hate Target, like Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984, subject to the ritual 2- Minute Hate, the person you were told to hate, only you were never sure exactly why?

Time Traveller Adrian, watching the silent auditorium stay silent as a lonely boy makes his way back to his seat, wonders why even the boy’s friends seem quiet? Were they quiet? Did they say anything, maybe privately afterwards? The Time Traveller remembers nobody much wanting to read anything the boy wrote. Maybe everyone’s just embarrassed. Maybe the boy is embarrassing himself and should stop. Certainly nobody here other than teachers is encouraging him.

The Time Traveller also visits the Aurealis Awards, and watches the grown-up man receive his award. The man makes a rambling, awkward, not-expecting-to-win speech, being careful to thank Michelle before doing anything else. He says he doesn’t want to be that actress at the Oscars who thanks everybody except her wheelchair-bound husband, in the audience, with a camera on him.

The Time Traveller blends in with this crowd and is sometimes mistaken for the award-winner, except the Time Traveller is much older and lighter. He watches, during the afterparty in the lobby outside the theatre, packed to the gunwales, the author sweat like he’s never sweated before. He knows what the problem is. The author is confused. While the author has won this prize once before (for ECLIPSE, in 2005) he’s never been here to receive it. It makes a difference, being there, in front of your peers. It’s a new experience. It’s shocking, getting called up, someone handing you the actual award, and then standing there as a big room full of people cheer and clap and generally thunder their stonking approval at you. All but one of them people you’ve never previously met, and most of them have never encountered you outside the pages of your books.

And they are telling you, you are one of us. We are your people. Welcome.

MR BASTARDFACE: Bullies Again

(Another long one: 1900 words.)

 

In the books on writing memoir that I’ve been reading they all say that when you write about other people, real people who are still alive, and who could well be hurt by what you write about them, what you include and what you leave out, you should be careful, and they recommend various techniques for this, including changing a particular person’s name. Because this is about empathy for the other person. About caring for them.

So with that in mind, meet Mr Bastardface. This is not his real name. If he is still alive he would be in his eighties by now, and probably still as bitterly unhappy with his lot in life as he was when I knew him as a high school mathematics teacher.

At the time he was a chunky guy going bald but with a buzzcut, working the male teacher in shorts look that was very popular in the 1970s, and he had about him what we today would call a vibe, an air, an atmosphere of aggrieved barely controlled anger, and yes, bitterness. He was in his 40s, had completed a Master’s degree in Serious, Proper, You Wouldn’t Understand Maths, he liked to let us know, and here he was, teaching the likes of us, the gormless youth of Lockridge. And he made sure we understood how he felt about this.

He was like the character of Marvin the Paranoid Android in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who got stuck parking cars at one point. “Brain the size of a planet, and here I am parking cars.” Only Mr Bastardface wasn’t being funny about it. He really did think he had that very large brain, and his spectacular talent was going to waste so that he could pay his bills.

How bitter was he? How angry? Memory is a tricky thing, but I remember the time one hapless kid left his school bag in the walking space between his desk and the next desk. Mr Bastardface didn’t have to go down that particular channel between columns of desks, but he did, and on encountering the bag (having previously announced a no-tolerance policy for bags left like this) he kicked it mightily. The bag took to the air and flew and hit the back wall of the room–SPLAT!CRUNCH!THUMP!–and dropped, exhausted, to the floor.

Mr Bastardface was the sort of teacher who would throw things at students not paying attention. He was the sort of teacher who was always Right, even when he made a mistake. Once he did make a mistake in the working out of a complex bit of algebra on the blackboard. We had a kid in the class who had albinism (like my mum), and he had ghostly white skin, and could only barely see except with the aid of a device called a monocular. He had to sit right at the front of the room, squinting through this gadget. He was also unusually prepared to not notice the degree to which Mr Bastardface intimidated us kids to not talk back. This kid piped up all the time, raising points of order, disagreeing when he thought it was called for, and generally quite unintimidated. It was quite a thing to see. And one day he spotted a mistake in Mr Bastardface’s working out, and spoke up about it.

Mr Bastardface told him he was wrong. The kid said no, he was right. They went back and forth. Mr Bastardface got more and more hostile. The kid, I’ll call him John, calmly insisted that he was right, and explained his reasoning, when allowed. Mr Bastardface blustered and fumed, storming around the stage that was his area at the front of the room in front of the board, looking for bags to kick. But John was right. Mr Bastardface finally got him to come up and write out his thinking, and he did, without any grandstanding, any showing off. He had the facts, so he banged the facts. It was wonderful. That rare day in maths class where the sun shines and the birds sang and you came out smiling.

Mr Bastardface made a special project out of me. There were other kids who were bullies to me, who went out of their way to give me a hard time, to mock me, push me around, heap all sorts of abuse and insult on me. It was grim, but it was also familiar and routine. Mr Bastardface took me on as a special bullying challenge, and what he had was power.

My aptitude for mathematics was odd. In some ways I showed flashes of capacity for the truly hard stuff, which was referred to as Mathematics 2 and 3. Kids who did that also tended to take Physics and/or Chemistry, and had ambitious plans for university and a bold future beyond that. But my mathematical aptitude, as I say, only flickered and blinked, a pilot light in a breeze, sometimes strong and bright, sometimes barely there at all. Sometimes I felt as though I barely understood arithmetic, let alone trigonometry. I probably belonged in the lower class, Mathematics 1, and indeed, I spent a lot of time in that class–but the problem there was that the teacher was wonderful, and I thrived. I did fantastically well in Maths 1, so I got promoted to Maths 2/3, which was the dark domain of Mr Bastardface.

His problem with me was simple: he did not think I belonged there. He thought I was denying a place to a more deserving kid. He also didn’t like me personally. When he looked at me it was a look of disgust, revulsion, the way you’d look down in the toilet bowl after a particularly nasty dump to see what the hell you’d just let loose into the world.

And, sure as eggs, Mr Bastardface would see that I suffered and burned in his class and was booted back to Maths 1, where he thought I belonged.

He had many weapons in his arsenal, many ways to make you feel small and useless. Bear in mind I was dealing with Mr Bastardface in the year or so prior to my 1979 breakdown. When I think of contributing factors, this guy is right up there. He put me in hospital, I have no doubt.

A representative story to illustrate the problem: I had to miss a day of school for some reason. On the missed day there was a big maths test. When I turned up the next day I was given the test paper and told to go and work on it in the school library. I slunk off, heavy of heart. This event took place during a time when I was failing badly in Mr Bastardface’s class. I could not land a single trick. I did not understand anything. Everything was baffling. Between my fear of the man himself, and my terror of the material, and my sheer unending fatigue from several hours of grinding homework every single night, I was at my limit, maybe beyond my limit. I had turned in a series of assignments and previous tests, all of which scored between 0 and 2 out of 10.

So there I was in the library in my study hitch, staring at this paper. It was quiet. I could hear myself blinking. I was a loud blinker. The test paper had been reproduced on the sort of machine that makes blue print and gives the paper an alcoholic kind of waft. You’d see kids given such papers sit there sniffing them. I wasn’t sniffing mine. I felt like I was playing with the business end of a gun that was going to explode in my face.

I completed the questions to the best of my ability in the time allotted. Some I thought I understood, some I didn’t. I thought I might, maybe, get about 5/10. I packed up and went back to the classroom to hand it in.

Mr Bastardface chose to mark it then and there, with me standing next to him, in front of the whole class, during the final moments of class. Ordinarily, you’d hand it in, he’d tuck it away in a file, and you’d get it back next time or in a few days. Not this time.

I stood there, open and exposed. The kids in the class stared, as shocked as I was. There was silence as Mr Bastardface got his red pen out, pulled the cap off and got down to work, placing a big red X on the first question, shaking his head, making a noise. Next question, another big red X. “Oh!” He exclaimed, making a show of shock and surprise.

By question four or five he was laughing, jumping out of his chair, hooting with delight and disgust as he made huge X’s.

I’m not sure when I began crying.

I think that day I managed to get two questions at least partly right. I don’t remember. I remember the shock and trauma. I could not move. I was right there, in the open. I couldn’t even sit. He laughed and laughed at me. He was disappointed, hilariously disappointed, that he couldn’t give me a perfect fail. There was nothing I could do. Nothing.

That was the beginning of the day. I remember nothing of the rest of that day. If anyone came to me afterward with a kind word or a supportive gesture, I don’t remember it. I remember the class’s silence as he hooted and jeered at my stupidity and uselessness. It was a public execution, only I sort-of survived, a ghost walking around, invisible.

Many years later, in the late 1980s, I had a volunteer job with a local government organisation. One day there was a bus tour which would go around the district visiting some of the municipal facilities to assess how they were doing. It was as drab and dull a day as you can imagine it might be.

But on this day there was a special surprise guest on the bus: the Lord Mayor of the neighbouring district, who just happened to be Mr Bastardface himself, live and in person. He fancied himself in politics. He went on to be a state MP for the Liberal Party, but never got far.

But that day, on the bus, once I realised it was him, heard his voice–oh God, it’s Mr Bastardface!–it all came back, all of it. By that point I’d spent more than ten years as a patient, medicated, therapied, consulted-at, worked on like a car up on the hoist at a workshop. And not one jot of it made a damned bit of difference. The memory was then, and now, as fresh as the day it happened.

So, all these years later, why not give him his proper name? Mainly because I feel sorry for him. I feel for what it must have been like to be inside his head with all that anger and bitterness. All that, “here I am with a brain the size of a planet, and I’m stuck parking cars”. He had imagined himself a great scholar of mathematics, an academic, the robes, the mortarboard, maybe even a doctorate, perhaps a professorship somewhere, someplace where his acumen might have been appreciated. Somewhere far, far away from Lockridge Senior High School, and it’s hot and stuffy rooms full of gormless, slack-mouthed youths who kept leaving their bags where they were repeatedly told not to.

MAD BOY AND THE BULLIES

He was known to us all as “Mad Boy”, because, as far as anybody could tell, he was mad, out of his gourd, crazy, as only little kids can understand. The guy was bonkers, and not in a cute, adorable way. Mad Boy was our school bully, our blight, and our nemesis. He remains what I still think of to this day when I think about bullies and bullying. Unthinking, unhappy, unimaginative, a drag on the rest of us, out to cause trouble, sullen, wilfully stupid, slack around the mouth and dull around the eyes. The sort of kid who ends up repeating years, and winding up towering over little kids, making their tiny, helpless lives unbearable with witless torment, entirely because he could, because nobody would or could stop him.

His real name was Neil. But that and his surname are all I do know about the bullying artist known as Mad Boy. I never knew anything about his home life, or family circumstances. This was the 1970s. If you were a kid growing up in an abusive environment, it was all kept extremely secret. If your parents split up, nobody ever talked about it. The shame surrounding anything that wasn’t a standard nuclear family arrangement was hip-deep. I knew about this myself, from an oblique angle: my dad struggled badly with untreated bipolar disorder. It was hard for him to hold down jobs. Life was really difficult. Strange things would happen. Sometimes Dad would disappear off to certain special hospitals, but nobody could know. Everything happened in the dead of night.

Mad Boy was a blank. His home life was most likely a disaster, as bad as we can imagine, and I have imagined it many times. I’ve often wondered, why was he like that? Why did he have to be like that? What did he get out of being like that? Because he never looked happy. He always looked like he was dragging around a huge iron anchor of misery, and the people around him, the trying-awfully-hard teachers, and us hapless kids, only added to his torments. Why couldn’t we just leave him be?

He and I wound up in a fight once. It wasn’t much of a fight, though my sense of these things is that most such encounters rarely are. That they are 90% posturing, shouting, dancing about, hurling abuse and threats, and maybe 10% (if that) actually trying to hit each other. I got hit in the face. It was shocking. Stunning. I still remember it. Or at least Time Traveller Me thinks I remember how twelve-year-old me felt at the time. Trauma. Actual, brutal trauma. Someone had laid hands on me. Got me right in the face, on my mouth. Lip split and bled, swollen, and the whole area swelled up and stung, bruised for hours. For ages I sat, stunned out of my mind. Someone had hit me. Why? For what purpose? What was the bloody point? What did it prove? Why did he do it?

Except the answer is obvious. He did it because he was Mad Boy. He was walking, sullen chaos. This is why, when I think about all the bullies and tormentors I’ve known (and thought guiltily about the couple of people I have bullied at times over the years–oh no, the conscience records everything in its ledger), his idiot face is the one I see. He needs no reason to do what he did. That was the whole point. Why pick on me? Why not pick on me?

My mum always told me, when I came home in tears from primary school, that someone, whether Mad Boy or someone like him, was tormenting me, or threatening to beat me up (“see you after school by the bike racks, Bedford,” they’d tell me with a sneer, and you can bet I did everything possible to go nowhere near those bike racks, even to pick up my own bike, when school was over), “you’re twice as big as those kids, why don’t you just bash ’em up?” And I was bigger than them. I was a big lad, and fat with it. But I hated the thought of violence, even as a way to deal with these wankers. “You should take up boxing,” Dad would suggest. The thought filled me with terror.

I believed I should somehow defend myself, and deal with this endless threat, this climate of daily terror, often so bad I would fake illness so I could stay home from school. Sometimes Mum “believed” me, but usually she didn’t, and sent me on my way, full of fear and terrible knowledge of what awaited me. I knew I needed to do something. One bit of appealing advice was the suggestion that if you just ignore them, they’ll go away. Um, no, they redouble their efforts, and interpret your behaviour as a communications problem.

I never did figure out a strategy. But I did, one day in high school, long past the era of Mad Boy, but well into a ghastly new era with all new Mad Boys, I did finally reach my limit with these bastards. It wasn’t a decisive win, it didn’t make everything stop, but it did change things. Things after this were different, and better.

After school one day (I was about 15 or 16 and by this point well into the full-blown depression that would soon lead to a breakdown, hospitalisation, and the whole future saga of patienthood) I shuffled, extremely heavy grey school bag chock-full of most of my textbooks and files over my shoulder, and was looking at about six hours of homework that night. Exhausted, fed up, lonely.

There was a small bunch of cheerful dudes larking about where my bike was parked in the rack. I knew these guys. They were low-level hoons. By this point in high school, the real villains tormenting me were teachers. These low-level hoons were having the time of their young lives. They had pulled off the prank of the century, and they were dee-lighted to see me in particular. They could not wait for me to see their handiwork.

I came closer, cold iron dread in the pit of my gut.

I always locked my bike’s front wheel to the bike rack. I had a key for the lock on a cord around my neck.

But right now there were two locks on my bike’s front wheel.

Oh, how they laughed and laughed. They laughed so much the entire district could hear. Because the joke here was that ungainly, pimply gormless fat teenager Bedford, who didn’t have a girlfriend, and couldn’t kick a ball, and who was No Fun, couldn’t take his bike and go home to the safety of his family. This was the hilarious joke everyone in Lockridge and surrounding areas could laugh along with.

I did not pause, I did not even look up. I just spun on my heel and walked back onto the emptying school grounds, and made my determined way to the Manual Arts block. Once there (the air always smelled of pine wood), I found one of the teachers. He asked what I was doing there.

I explained my problem, and made my request. He helped me out.

I went back to the bike rack. The hoons hooted and laughed, but then noticed I was carrying a huge red pair of bolt-cutters. I applied the bolt-cutters to the problem.

The low-level hoons stopped laughing immediately, and suddenly were all upset. In news just to hand, it developed that this was just a harmless prank and a joke, that it was just a bit of fun, that I didn’t have to do that, that I–

I cut that damned lock and threw it at them.

I then unlocked my bike, and rode it, carrying the bolt-cutters, back to Manual Arts, and delivered my report. The teacher shook my hand.

The ride home, I was flying.

Whatever became of Mad Boy and all the other Mad Boys I’ve known and hated? I don’t know, but I have often wondered. I keep thinking, nothing good. Most likely a career in which they find themselves “known to the police”. I’d love to think Mad Boy, Neil, got the help and support he seems to have needed, and got out of what must have been a terrible situation, or so I imagine. Or he might simply have been, and remains, a creature of that sort of environment. You never know how people are going to turn out, what makes a person choose this rather than that. It’s something I think about often. I’ve been incredibly lucky. At age 16, just diagnosed, just medicated and labelled, I thought I was as finished with this life as Mad Boy had always seemed to be, the way he seemed to be just wasting time until he died. My own prospects seemed just as bleak at that point.

But now look. Who’d have ever believed things could turn out like this? I hope the Mad Boys out there are lucky bastards, too.

“STIFFIES”

The boy in the bed next to mine that night showed me how, if he rolled up his tiny but flaccid penis and let it go, it would unroll and stand to attention. It made us both laugh and laugh, amazed and entertained. “You try it,” I’m pretty sure he urged me, and I’m pretty sure I remember trying it, and it working just like his, upright, alert, even perky–every boy’s dream. It was like a magic trick. And you could keep doing it every time the exhausted member subsided. We laughed and laughed, that boy and I.

I was 11. It was 1974, the year I was in Grade 5 at school, the year I learned about politics (when my teacher told me about Watergate), and the year I spent time in Perth’s Princess Margaret Children’s Hospital because I seemed to have gastroenteritis. I didn’t. My symptoms were psychosomatic.

My mum was herself in a hospital nearby at the time, and she and Dad had engaged a housekeeper to look after us. It was strange and disorienting having this young woman, and her baby, living with us in Wembley. I remember the icky smell that pervaded the whole house. She had been installed in my room. Where I had been stashed for the duration I no longer remember. But I remember this housekeeper’s cooking. Everything was cooked in lashings of some sort of vegetable oil. There was something about it that was not right. That, in fact, was actively wrong. And, from this distance it seems clear that the thing that was wrong in the picture was that this young woman was not my mum.

We blamed the woman’s cooking for my sickness. There was something about it. It wasn’t cooked properly. I was wretchedly ill. I remember being so ill that Dad tried to rush me from home to the hospital, and feeling like I was going to throw up all the way there, only to finally lose my gastric composure all over the back seat as the car sat just outside the hospital, at a red light, as we looked for parking.

I feel like a time-traveller investigating my own past, doing this. What startles me is how patchy and thin my recollection of things is. This business about me in the car spewing outside PMH: yes, that happened, but I don’t honestly know, now, right now, in 2017, if it happened as part of the story about The Terrible Housekeeper, or if it was one of the many other times I was so sick I had to be rushed to PMH. There were plenty of other times, but I barely remember them, other than a general wash of sickliness, fluorescent lights, noisy waiting areas, and being given broken toys to play with.

Time-traveller me definitely remembers the night of the roll-up “stiffies”, though. That absolutely did happen during that hospital stay. It was quite a highlight, you might say. The thing was, I was yet only about 11. I had no need of this magic trick. I wasn’t even at the Everest Base Camp of Puberty, let alone anywhere near the sweaty, spotty, awkward, squeaky-voiced Summit. I was pretty much at sea level, puberty-wise. In the next year or two, this magic trick of conjuring “stiffies” would become quite obsolete. The damned thing would acquire a mind of its own, appearing on a schedule known only to itself, and almost always at times of maximum inconvenience and embarrassment.

Time-traveller Me remembers this period well, and has all kinds of complex Feelings about it. This period was right before I was diagnosed. I was a sick kid, sick for real, but didn’t yet know it. I had yet to embark on my long career as a psychiatric patient. And one of the things about being a psychiatric patient, as I’ve noted previously, is you get medication to take, and sometimes that medication does things to you.

And no amount of rolling up your hapless penis makes it stand to attention.

But wait! There’s more. The psychopharmaceutical industry taketh, but it also giveth.

The magic tricks that delighted you when you were 11 can make you smile in middle-age, too.

SEEING IS BELIEVING–NO, WAIT

I just went for an afternoon walk up to the local 7-11 for a robo-iced coffee. I went without a thought in my head. Still feeling pretty murky, mood-wise, but nothing serious. The mental health equivalent of a head cold.

Early in the walk you enter a park, and right near the beginning is a small set of colourful playground equipment. There were a couple of little nonwhite kids trying to play, and there was a sketchy-looking older nonwhite guy on a black BMX bike, wearing a tank top, a baseball cap, and sporting halfhearted dreads, who appeared to be bullying the little kids, and they were yelling back at him. I couldn’t make out what any of them were saying, but it sounded bad. Sketchy older guy rode off up the path on his bike. The little kids yelled what was probably high-pitched abuse after him, and he yelled plenty back. Off in the distance a couple of female adults were yelling something possibly addressed at either older kid on the bike or the little kids on the playground equipment or possibly both. There was a lot of yelling, and it was all none of my business. I motored on, but felt troubled.

I described the participants as “nonwhite”. But that’s not quite detailed enough, or rather that that level of detail is necessary but insuffcient. The two little kids were very dark, and the sketchy young dude with the dreads, tank top, and bike was a very light brown. The two little boys might have been related to him, or he might just be a local hoon they know and who harasses them (which is what it looked like).

I walked further along the path, still very troubled. Sketchy bike dude, ahead of me, had run into the two or three adult women who had been yelling earlier. As I passed, they and sketchy dude were yelling all at once. Bike dude stayed on his bike the entire time.

Then I noticed, as I passed, that sketchy bike dude, with his tank top, dreads, baseball cap, light brown skin, and general vibe of suburban anomie, was playing with a knife.

An actual knife. Perhaps, as far as I could tell, a six-inch blade.

Twirling it by the handle, running it back and forth between his hands, fidgeting with it, more or less exactly the way you might fidget with a pen during final-period Maths on a hot Thursday afternoon.

One of the adult women in the group spotted me looking, and must have seen the concern I could not keep from my face. “It’s all right,” she yelled toward me, and “explained” something I didn’t understand and don’t quite remember about sketchy dude took the knife from some girl, and it was “all right”. The situation did not look all right, but again, not my business. I kept on walking, more troubled than ever.

I made it to the 7-11. I was so troubled, and so preoccupied, that I stuffed up my robo-coffee order, and suddenly the machine was whirring and gurgling and making me an unwanted capuccino. I sought helplessly for a cancel button. There is no cancel button, and the lack seemed profoundly meaningful.

Once I got the correct beverage, I embarked on the return journey through the park. All was quiet, except inside my head.

I have long worried that I harbour racist thoughts and beliefs. I don’t like them, the thoughts. I hate them, and do everything I can to get rid of them. They are unworthy of me. But they are there, conceptual scar-tissue remaining from a childhood where I often saw people with dark skin (regardless of where they were from, or their circumstances) behaving poorly, and whose conduct was commented on scornfully by people around me without anyone correcting them or otherwise telling them off.

I’m also, as I grow older, increasingly, uncomfortably aware, that I live on stolen land. That the entire Australian project is, in its most profound expression, potentially racist. The issue has never been addressed. Lately there have been fresh discussions of treaty settlements with the Aborigine population. I hope I live long enough to see a final settlement, to see the Aboriginal people formally forgive Britain for coming here and doing what it did.

When I saw the sketchy nonwhite kid, he went straight into my mental box for “no-good troublemakers” even though in my own experience there were no shortage of no-good white bullies, ratbags and proper, thoroughgoing bastards. But this kid tonight “looked bad”. The way when “people” see a certain type of person, they immediately think “Muslim” and/or “terrorist”.

I read John Berger’s WAYS OF SEEING recently. He says, “Seeing comes before words.” Before understanding. Our conscious minds are the last parts of our brains to know what the rest of our brains have already considered, thought about, discussed, analysed, and decided. Only then does the conscious mind get, as it were, a one-page executive summary of what “everyone else” has been discussing.

That boy on his bike tonight might well have been a good kid with a great future. It’s possible that woman who spoke up for him was speaking the truth, that he had taken that knife from someone else who had meant harm either to herself or others. I don’t know. I can’t even remember key details of the event. In this account I have been able to scratch up a few details, but I know there’s much that I’ve had to leave out. I just don’t remember, the quality or texture of the sequence of events, the strangeness of the whole thing, the way it tweaked that shameful sense of racist bias I have in me, that I hate so much, the way I leapt straight to the conclusion that the boy was trouble because of what appeared to be happening with those two little boys. But what was happening with them? Who were they to the boy on the bike? I don’t know.

I do know they were much darker, suggestive of origins anywhere from parts of Africa to the Pacific Islands to the Caribbean to the US. Who knows? I didn’t think or form biased thoughts about them. I instantly formed the judgement that the older boy on the bike was picking on them, the way older, not very bright boys picked on me when I was a little kid.

I turned up at that park today, on my way to get a simple coffee, and it turned out that as well as my $2 I’d also brought what John Berger would call my “way of seeing”, the full, nasty, complicated, unfair, biased, mixed-up, mess of it.

SUSPICIOUS

Michelle today was peering at her coffee. “Tastes funny,” she said. It wasn’t right. We’d been out this morning on an errand, and got a coffee from a chain place on the way home, a routine thing, and the coffee from this chain was usually pretty good. And the coffee I got today was up to the usual standard.

But Michelle was suspicious. From her first sip, she knew something wasn’t right. She frowned. She wondered if the straw was the problem, and tried a sip without it. It was a bit better.

I tried it, and I could more or less see her point, but mostly it just seemed weak and no longer all that hot. It seemed a bit limp.

Michelle works with blood for a living. She’s a medical laboratory scientist. When you have blood drawn for a test, chances are someone like Michelle is going to be the one in charge of finding out what’s up with your red and white cells. She’s been in this line of work more than 25 years. Her bosses made a big deal about this recently, and recognised her amazing service to the company. It was actually touching.

But the upshot is this: Michelle has an analytical mind. When she’s wondering why her coffee tastes a bit funny, she’s really thinking about it. She’s giving it the skunk-eye, but she’s also wondering if the milk was a bit out of date, or if the machine that made the coffee wasn’t quite right, or if the barista had a problem. She’s suspicious. She’s sitting there with her coffee in her hand, staring hard at it, as if she were one of the laser-focused insanely expensive analysis machines she works with. And you could also see that at no point was she going to take one last sip and say, now wait a minute. This is actually fine after all. I was wrong. This is great coffee. That sort of change was never likely. The suspicion had eaten its way in. That coffee could never redeem its sorry self. She eventually went and made a much better coffee.

But listening to her talk about her view of that coffee, I was really struck by how she sounded just like I sound to myself when I’m interrogating my mood, my mental state, when I’m suspicious of myself. “Hmm,” I’ll think, “just noticed I’m not doing that well today, hmm.” Like, for example, yesterday (today, too, only today I’m no longer suspicious while yesterday I was). I had been doing really well, but suddenly something was wrong, mind-wise. It was like there’s a faint whiff of a smell coming from somewhere, and it’s really bothering you, and nobody else notices it. It’s very faint, but also plain as day. It smells like depression, but that doesn’t make any sense, you tell yourself, walking around, sniffing here and sniffing there, trying to find the source of the smell. It doesn’t make any sense because everything’s been going well. Even the weight is going reasonably sort-of okay. So what could it be?

You’re peering with your mind at your own mind, as if in a mirror, in fairly poor light, in a steamed up bathroom after you’ve had a shower, and you’re standing there staring at your working mind, knowing something in there is out of whack today. It doesn’t feel right. It’s as if you have a weird pain in your left leg that every doctor has tried to find, and you’ve had scans and physiotherapists have given you all kinds of rubs and massages and exercises, but that weird pain is still there and sometimes it even makes you limp a bit, and people roll their eyes, oh God, there goes Steve and his leg again. People, I imagine, can get fatigue from hearing about the adventures of your wacky and whacked-out mind. Mind-fatigue.

And yet, it continues to feel weird. Something is wrong, you don’t know what or why, and it’s causing you distress. All the many books you’ve read on neuroscience (some of them, with details of where in the rats’ brains they put the electrodes, are really icky), consciousness theory, therapy, and all the rest, suggest that maybe it’s okay to just, like the Beatles song, Let it Be. Sure something is a bit wrong. But only a bit. It’s not a five-alarm fire. It’s not the destruction (“oh, the humanity!”) of the Hindenburg). You’re somewhat glum. As an experience you’d give it maybe two melancholy stars, two fairly droopy grey stars.

And you’d get some coffee, listen to some mellow jazz, and read a good book. There are worse ways to be, and you should know.

RECOVERY KPI’S

They say, in mental health circles, that recovery is nonlinear. That you do not go in a straight angular ascent from the depths up to some theoretical point of wellness. Is there a point of actual wellness? Is it reachable? Or is it next door to the fountain of youth, or at least in the same postcode?

Tonight I’m feeling none too flash, and I have no idea why. I’m doing everything I would normally do to help encourage recovery and wellbeing. I had a smashingly good weekend with Michelle. I’m hitting my recovery KPI’s like nobody’s business.

And yet, tonight I’m feeling a bit bogged, a bit stuck at the side of the road, hazard lights flashing, waiting for a tow truck.