FICTION: Chapter 12 (Finished, Updated)

12: BALLPOINT
Last year, 1978, the movie 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was re-released to celebrate its tenth anniversary. It made the rounds with a new 70 mm print and soundtrack. I saw it six times over six Saturdays at the Town Cinema in the city. It was thrilling and baffling. I was starting to get the hang of it after the fourth time.

The scene where Dave and Frank sit in the pod with the audio feeds switched off so they can discuss their concerns about HAL’s apparent erratic behaviour (not knowing that HAL can read lips), comes to me forcefully as I sit with Dad in the front seat of Dad’s car, which is parked in front of the motel room door, with its peep-hole at eye-level. I look at the peep-hole and imagine HAL behind it, watching Dad and me talking, worried that we’re going to disconnect him. I worry, too, about Mum looking out at us, wondering what Dad’s saying–doing to me. Should she be worried. Should I be worried? I’m more afraid right now than I’ve been in a long time. It stirs me inside, where I’ve not had time to eat anything. I can feel my stomach trying to consume itself, eating nervously, the way you’d guts a bag of popcorn at the pictures if you were watching a scary movie. Because you’re worried. You don’t know if you’re getting out of this car alive.

It was a mad scramble to get ready and out here to the car in five minutes. Even as I threw myself and my empty bag into the passenger seat, Dad sat there with my notebook and his yellow disposable lighter, and the lighter was lit, with a tall yellow tongue of flame. “I’m here, I’m here, God, all right, for God’s sake!” I said, before I realised Dad was playing, having a laugh at my expense. This was Dad’s idea of “lightening the tone”, having a laugh when things were a bit tense. I was in no mood for it. I wanted my book back.

Dad smirked around his current cigarette and snapped off his lighter. He dropped it in his shirt pocket. That left him with the notebook, flipping through it this way and that, skimming pages. He took his fag out of his mouth, and with his free hand rubbed his unshaven face. He looked terrible, as if he hadn’t slept, and I realised he may not have. But if he hadn’t slept he must have seen Future Bastard, but it seemed like he hadn’t. I was confused, more than usual.

One thing, though: he looked like shit, but now he just looked sad and thoughtful. He didn’t look angry. He didn’t look so mischievous, either. “Interesting read, son,” he said, out of nowhere, looking out his side window. I said nothing. I knew Dad’s moods could bounce any way at all, like a football. He went to hand the book back to me, and I blinked, moved to grab it, but he pulled it back before I’d even properly grasped what was going on. He flashed shark-like teeth.

“I did read it all. I read the whole thing.” His voice had slowed right down. He was wringing and strangling the steering wheel again. Tendons jumped and popped along his forearms. I had a powerful sense of a man at war with something only he could see or hear. “I read it all, and. There’s something I need. I NEED you. To UNDERSTAND, son.” The notebook was in his lap now. I could just take it, but I dared not. I hardly dared breathe. These changes came over him so fast, so overwhelmingly. I once read the story of Jeckyll and Hyde. I never had any trouble believing it, the way a man could be host to two such opposing or mutually hostile natures. At war with himself, or at least with forces only he perceived.

So I sat and waited. I needed a piss, but I couldn’t move. Dad started beating his fists against the steering wheel, again and again, so hard, so often, I thought he would draw blood–from the steering wheel! Again and again he hit it, his face torn up, his breathing ragged, until finally he slumped against it, exhausted, gulping air, staring at me, covering his screwed-up eyes. After a moment, he looked at me, unable to speak, but gestured that he needed something to write with, like a biro.

I looked in my bag, and found a Parker ballpoint.

He took it, and grabbed my notebook. His hands hurt, and he gasped, putting them to work, and winced, and swore, and bit his lip in great pain. He turned to the final page in the book, still blank, and turned the book upside-down, to make this last page a first page. It was hard, after what he did to the steering wheel, to hold the pen, but he managed, glancing at me, his face so expressive, a world trying to speak to me across an unbridgeable abyss of only about one metre, and one generation. He began to write, hiding his words, leaning the book against the abused wheel, frequently crossing out, but persisting.

He wrote quite a bit. I thought it would be just a few words, if that. Dad had never struck me as a man of words, of books, who might know his way around a pen. But look! He was hunched over, secretive, in pain, writing out of desperate, urgent need, while he could.

I couldn’t wait to see what he was saying.

Then, some time later, he was done. He looked acutely embarrassed, a snail wanting to retreat into its shell, retracting its sensitive eye-stalks. Even light was too much to bear. He crossed his arms, and folded in half as much as he could. He tried to fumble his way through lighting a cigarette, but succeeded only in spilling them all over the floor on his side of the car, and he swore purple rage as he hunched down trying to retrieve them all. When I sat, stunned and useless like a mooncalf, he shouted at me and pointed at the book. “Well, go on. I didn’t do that for me bloody health, now did I?” He carried on the search and rescue operation.

I read. Dad’s handwriting was shocking. He pressed very hard, so hard he tore the page here and there, and he wrote in heavy block capitals, as if he’d never learned cursive, joined-up handwriting like I was taught in grade three. I couldn’t believe how much crossing out there was, and it was no surgical, precise single line or two to indicate error; this was utterest annihilation. No trace of the original expression must remain. It was quite something to see.

But he managed. After a lot of throat-clearing, he wrote:

“I am extremely sorry, son, for taking this book from you the way I did. I had no right to do that, and, now I’ve read it, I can imagine how upsetting that must have been for you. Please accept my apology, and I hereby hand it back to you, with this brief addendum from your old man. I hope you don’t mind too much. I won’t take up too much of your space–but I now some good ideas for excellent Christmas gifts for you! Much better than shirts and ties, eh?

“First things first. You are possibly experiencing some shock at seeing your old man writing like this. You know me as the most inarticulate man you ever met. It’s true. I have always been like this: brim-full of thought and feeling, but quite unable to speak about any of it. It always comes out wrong, or twisted, misunderstood. I’m always having to explain, or try to explain, and it’s no good–the moment passes, and I’m left stewing in frustration. I know what I want to say but I can’t say it–except like this, in writing.

“When I was going out with your mum, and made up my mind that I wanted to marry her, I knew that a spoken proposal would be a terrible mess, so I wrote it out, saying everything I felt and wanted to say about her that I couldn’t usually say because I’m such a typical Aussie bloke who can’t articulate powerful feelings like these in speech. But in writing, I was a pig in mud! I ended up writing more than twenty pages of it–and your mum, by the time she heard to the end, would you believe she laughed and said she didn’t believed that an inarticulate parsnip like me could possibly have mustered such poetry and sentiment. She turned down my proposal. It was a mortal blow. We broke up.

“Later, we happened to meet up at an engagement party for some mutual friends. And I had a thought. I was terrified she’d turn me down again, but I wanted to at least try. So I said to her, Look, you don’t believe I can write because I’m expressive like a roof tile. No worries, fair cop, guilty as charged. But suppose I prove it to you? We’ll sit down somewhere and I’ll write out a new proposal in, say, two hours. You get to watch, have a few drinks and dinner, my treat. And if when you read this proposal, you still don’t accept the evidence of your eyes, no worries. I did my best.

“And bugger me, she accepted the challenge. I wrote like a fiend, like I’d never written before–and I’d always written (news flash: it was all SHIT, and my parents, your grandparents, made me burn it). She read it as I wrote it, taking each page as I finished it. She was stunned. She said later she accepted me after page two, but wanted to see the whole thing, which ran to twelve pages. My hand was killing me, and it felt like my arm was on fire.

“All of which is to say: I understand what you are saying in your notebook. I understand why you keep it. I BELIEVE YOU. Your mum will much harder to persuade about Future Bastard. She will think he’s a stranger danger creep preying on you. But I believe you. I read his messages. I believe that’s you in the future. I like to think I’m still around in the future, and that your mum and I still together. The way things are with us now, I don’t know how we get there from here. But glad we do, somehow.

“So invite him to dinner. Not sure when or what. But soon. We want to meet him, and ask him questions. Your mum will certainly have questions. We need to get all this time-travel business out in the open.

“And, last of all, most important: you and are going to the doctor. I’ll make us a joint appointment for next week. Things will be discussed. I can see how awful you feel, and I know how dreadful I feel. I feel even more dreadful thinking you might have got yours from me. That kills me, that does. I’m sorry, truly sorry for that. If I could undo your conception–if your Future Bastard could maybe do me a favour–no, just kidding, son. I would not wish the way I feel all the time, this waking experience, this feeling of never feeling comfortable inside my own body, like I’m always fighting with myself, and always losing, like my own body hates me, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m dead inside, stone bloody dead, like an ancient rock in the desert. That’s how it is sometimes. That you’re a stone in the desert, and the whole world of people and events and stuff is just wind and light that washes around you, maybe erodes you a bit, but doesn’t affect you. The only thing that affects you is gravity, holding you in place, because without it you’d just drift away to the stars, and no bastard would miss you or even remember your name.”