Rebecca Slater outperforms the challenge yet again in this, the fifth and final obstruction.Read More
watching you stew
your golden apples
at the stove
suddenly I long
to peel you
like a fruit
to find your
The penultimate challenge for Rebecca Slater: poetry.Read More
I woke at 8am to the electro-wind chimes of my alarm and the smell of something sweet. Or, I thought, snoozing my phone and turning over in our linen sheets, something rotten. It was hard to be certain. It got me out of bed.Read More
Since our intrepid writer has so easily risen to the challenge of the previous obstructions, I decided to try kicking it up. There are only two obstructions for this round but they're intentionally challenging.Read More
The obstructee forced to get political. Read her response to the last writing challenge.Read More
For Rebecca’s second obstruction there is only one rule. She has to rewrite the story as a work of propaganda.Read More
Read Rebecca Slater's first Obstruction challenge, as Stewed Fruit moves into the third person.Read More
A short video from the obstructor.Read More
Welcome to the first video on Seizure TV. Meet Rebecca Slater who is part of our Five Obstructions project. Hear her answer questions on the project – her expectations and misgivings.Read More
Join Rebecca Slater and Alice Grundy as they embark on a Lars von Trier-esque adventure of writing challenges.Read More
Read the Monash Undergraduate Creative Writing Prize-winning story, ‘Stewed Fruit’ by Rebecca Slater. This story is the basis for Obstructions II.Read More
Welcome to the first set of obstructions for our young player, Rebecca Slater.Read More
For those of you following the 'Five Obstructions of Sam Twyford-Moore' you may be wondering what's been happening since Feb 6 when we challenged STM to rewrite his story in outline form to make him focus on the bare bones elements. This was an attempt to draw out a sense of direction in the work which was previously lacking.
What happened next shall remain lost in the sands of time, we will just abbreviate to say that we rejected what STM sent us, not once, not twice, but thrice. It seemed that we truly had struck on his weakness, which was a lack of respect for the nature of causality in our universe or in storytelling. It seemed beyond our young pen to wrestle motivations out of his character leaving them directionless and the plot non-sensical (DMH: sorry STM).
After each submission we reframed the challenge to try to draw out some thrust until we eventually settled on making STM rewrite every sentence to match the pattern of 'This happened, which caused this' or 'Because of this, that happened,' or 'This event caused this effect'.
The results of this third obstruction are pasted below for your inspection.
We understand that this all proved especially difficult for STM, but as always we admire his bold and undaunted approach. There are two challenges left, and I think we all know what the last one is going to be, so for Obstruction number four we want to let STM have a bit of fun, while also practising the most loathed aspect of being an artist: self-promotion.
Learning how to talk coherently about your work isn't easy. Condensing and abbreviating is instinctually abhorrent. But, being able to get other people engaged and wanting to read is vitally important to a writing career. As such, we challenge STM to write four scenes, each where he the writer is explaining his book to someone.
- STM meets an actor in an elevator who would be perfect in the role of Renee/Liam. He has one minute to get them interested.
- STM meets a girl at a party, and he attempts to woo her by telling her what his book is about.
- STM is taking a taxi from Rozelle to Newtown and the driver is persistently inquisitive.
- STM meets a publisher to pitch his book.
PLOT: OF TWO MINDS
Renee Cullen is driving to Melbourne in the grips of a hypomanic episode after being informed that she has failed her university degree. Renee has snapped. She is 22 and her family has a history of such things. She has no five-year plan, one-year plan, or even a plan for the next five minutes beyond continuing to drive along the stretch of highway in front of her. Her degree was in creative arts and that she managed to fail this makes her feel that she is not capable of achieving anything. Renee doesn’t want to be alone so she stops at Canberra where she picks up her sometimes boyfriend Ben, who is studying his Masters at ANU, packing him into the car, before taking off again. Ben still has feelings for Renee and because he can tell something is not right and wants to keep an eye on her, he agrees to accompany her to Melbourne. Because Renee has no car maintenance skills the car breaks down outside of Yass. Ben suggests they go to a house party back in Canberra because he thinks she will be safer amongst friends. Renee goes with him because she has no choice, she can’t stay on the highway. Because she has sexual energy to burn and she is finding Ben a drag, Renee dances suggestively with several people at the party. Because he is confused and hurt by Renee’s actions, Ben leaves. Because Renee is feeling a need to make her life worthwhile and exciting, she suggests to one of her suitors that they break into the house of the Olympic swimmer next door. Because he is the Olympic swimmer who lives next door, the blond boy goes with her and laughs when he reveals that it is really his house. She doesn’t believe him. He shows her a photograph of himself, but his hair is wet and she doesn’t think it’s him. Because he strips for her, in order to prove he is the swimmer in the photos, and in doing so shows his clean skin, shaved for swim meets, she is attracted to him. And they go to bed together. Because she seems to need no sleep, she walks around the house while he sleeps. She takes what she needs including a handful of money from his wallet and some CDs for the drive down to Melbourne.
Because of his need for approval, and that he is working as chef de partie at a respected restaurant in Los Angeles – neo-gastronomical, more laboratory than kitchen – Liam feels intense pressure to perform. Because his bosses are making him experiment with form, he is having to work hard at conceptualising new meals. He is spending hours in the kitchen after work testing new recipes. His social life is non-existent and he feels isolated in this new foreign city. He is doing his best to heed the advice of doctors back home to keep his moods in check, but he can’t say no to the work or its rewards. Because he is running out of travelling scholarship money, he is not eating properly. He gets by mostly on Diet Cokes. He is aware this is not doing him any good. Because his palate is feeling numb he is finding it hard to do his work. He needs to solve this if he is to continue and believes the cause is the medication that he has been taking to control his mood disorders. He goes into the cold storage of the kitchen and gets some blue cheese and some stinky tofu, and places the strong food on his tongue and lets it sit. He does it to test his palate, but also as a wake-up call for his taste buds. Because this pressure to perform is part of the culture in the industry, Liam’s direct superior, Mark, is going through similar feelings. Because of this pressure Mark drinks a lot. Because they are opening a new restaurant in Mexico City, Mark will be sent to Mexico. Because Liam finds Mark an instructive example of how not to behave, he stays and watches him break down in a car park, stopping him from throwing a rock through a Mercedes. He doesn’t want to get dragged down by Mark, but he feels caught now, holding the limp human in his arms. Because Liam has lived through it, and needed someone when he was in a similar state, he drives Mark home and puts him in bed. In Mark’s house, Liam makes himself some coffee and gets Zoe’s number – an LA Weekly food blogger who wrote of Liam’s food ‘it’s like bipolar on a plate – highs and lows’ – from Mark’s phone. Liam tries to convince himself that he wants the number for professional reasons, but in the back of his head he can feel the attraction to her. He looks through a series of photographs of her pickling vegetables. Because he has Mark’s computer open, he downloads some recipes and puts them on his phone, as well as some industry contacts that could be useful to him. He sees them as reward for looking after Mark, and a potential way to save time, able to offer them as his own when Mark is down in Mexico. Because he desires meeting her, Liam calls Zoe and goes into the city to her LA Weekly offices. She comes down to the street to meet him and says she needs to go out to try a new restaurant. They take the Red Line out to Koreatown. The restaurant is solemn, with conservative tablecloths and clean wine glasses. Zoe orders two of everything – the food is as white as the walls. Liam spies a Salvadoran pupusería across the road and runs over pupas. He stuffs them with kim chi he buys from a corner store. Zoe having had a mouthful of each meal and having made her notes comes and joins him and laughs at his choice of food. She agrees to see him again the following night because of his strange behaviour, and because he seems like an interesting guy. Liam can tell there is some reservation, though, so he decides to dial it back. Because he wants to get off work early, Liam offers his bosses one of Mark’s recipes that hasn’t been used in the restaurant as evidence of his work. Zoe suggests a bar to meet at and he shows. Because they are in good moods they drink a bottle of wine between them and don’t notice the effects right away. Liam gets a call from Mark, which he hangs up on. Then another. Then another. Liam answers the fourth. Because he is down, too down, Mark has decided to leave the restaurant and wants to know if Liam can take his place. Because Liam is drunk and distracted by Zoe across the table, he says yes. He forgets that he is committing to months in Mexico. He is scared of Mexico, because of what it might do to his mind, because of stories he heard and because he is finding overly-familiar America foreign enough as is. Zoe smiles, congratulates him and asks if he would like to come back to her place. He says he will do the right thing and walk her home, and then remembers he is in LA where no one walks. She laughs and is attracted to his otherness. Because he cannot get the numbed palate off his mind, he makes a very conscious effort to note everywhere he puts his mouth on her, and whether the sensation is the same as it once was when he was a teenager. Because of this extreme attentiveness, she finds him even more interesting than she had the day before. Because he is lonely, he wants to fold himself in her and never go to Mexico. He has taken on more, when he should have been scaling back.
Renee drives out of Canberra, and gets as far as Yass, before the car breaks down again. She stops at a farm, looking for a telephone. Because Renee has no money she breaks into an empty farmhouse, where she steals food and money. Because she needs petrol for the car, she pulls into service stations, waves hi to the security cameras, fills the tank and drives off. Because of a U-turn she is returning to Sydney, which hits her eyes like direct sunlight. She drives into the backstreets of Surry Hills and parks the car near Ward Park. The car won’t start again. She is forced to walk to the train station to return to Newcastle. She walks into a hostel and steals enough money for the train ride home out of an anonymous foreign backpack. Because she steals a phone, she logs onto Facebook and gets an invitation to house-sit in Avalon from her old friend Gemma. Because the car has enough energy to get there, she drives around the bends that lead to Avalon and meets up with Gemma, who is bombed out on Valium she has stolen from a hospital after breaking her arm on a dancefloor. Gemma is a high achiever – proto academic, poet, art installation star – and high. Renee finds her intimidating and turns down the offer of a stay in her house, but steals the script for Valium. Because she has not told her parents where she has been, or indeed that she was going in the first place, they sit her down and question her. Renee’s father had filed a missing person’s report. Because graduation is coming up, Neil, Renee’s father, offers to buy her a gown. Renee chooses to conceal the fact that she won’t be graduating. Because of the pressure of living with her parents, Renee becomes addicted to Gemma’s Valium supply. Renee has a pharmaceutical salad in front of her, she takes as much of the Valium as she can. Because she blacks out in the bathroom, her parents admit her to a mental hospital. Because she is assessed as suicidal, she is asked to remove her shoelaces and the book she has brought with her has to be put in the bedside cabinet. Because she is sedated, she sits watching a windsurfer go back and forth on TV. Because he is scared, Ben has decided not to visit her in the hospital. Because Ben will not see her, she becomes obsessed with him. Because she needs to see Ben as soon as she can, she convinces the nurses to let her sign herself out voluntarily. Because beds are limited and she seems clear-eyed, they let her go. Paperwork is filed and she is gone. Because she is quick, she gets through the car park and out into the daylight and puts on running shoes. Because she is good-looking, the bus driver lets her onto the bus without paying. Because she is resourceful, she goes into a bank account and with only her proof of ID gets enough money to buy a mobile phone. Because she is patient, she sits for hours while the company makes her sign for the phone. Because she has the phone, she calls Ben to tell him that she is coming, but only gets voicemail. Because she doesn’t want to be traced, and is paranoid that the phone is giving away her location, she goes to throw it in the bin, but Ben calls back. He says that he can’t see her again. He has to finish his Masters. She decides she will finish it for him, so he can see her. She goes into a bookstore and steals books on Ben’s pet topic: poetics and space. Because she can’t come up with everything on her own, she copies and pastes large parts of Gemma’s thesis and her father’s articles from the eighties. She is suffering something close to hypergraphia without knowing it. She gets to 100,000 words – way over the word limit – in a week and decides to take the paper to Ben to give to him to hand in. Because she needs to get back to Canberra to see him, she goes home to borrow her parents car again. Because her parents are home, and surprised to see her, she can’t just back out of the driveway with it. Because they can see she is still hypomanic, they refuse to give her the keys. Because she has been denied something, she starts to tear up the photographs in her house. Because her mother is out on the lawn, overwhelmed, her father is forced to restrain her, to hold her down. Because of her violence, the police are called and she returns to the mental hospital. Because she keeps breaking into houses and the summer is coming to an end, and there are no permanent beds in the hospital, her parents ask if she could please go and stay with her grandmother while she seeks treatment. They are exhausted and need a break. Because Renee’s parents are renovating their house and are feeling at the end of their abilities to help her recover, they ask if she can move in with her grandmother at her beach house. Because Renee has no other choice and her grandmother is one extremely relaxed individual, she agrees. Because she wants to help, Renee’s grandmother gives her a haircut, which ends up looking lopsided and making Renee look a lot crazy than she actually is, which is still crazy, of course. Because they share a sense of humour, grandmother and granddaughter laugh over this. Because of a generational divide, however, the grandmother accuses the granddaughter of being ‘ergophoic’ – fearful of hard work. Because she is feeling sensitive, it starts to eat away at Renee. She wants to wave the 100,000 words in front of her grandmother’s face. Because her grandmother lives by the beach she has rich neighbours – a local businessman with a large art collection visible from his large windows lives next door. Because she wants to replace the art she destroyed in her parents’ house and she still has a little kleptomania running through her system, Renee starts fantasising about stealing some of the works. Because there are more works in that McMansion than would fit on the walls of her parents’ place, Renee starts to think about selling parts of the collection to raise funds to travel to Japan or Mexico. Because her grandmother is trusting, Renee is able to go through her bank accounts and slowly transfer money into her own account. Because she’s developing skills as a thief, Renee manages to get in and out of the house next door with one of the artworks and stores it in her grandmother’s garage. Because she is missing one particular skill set, she doesn’t know how to sell it and she is suddenly stuck with a large missing canvas and her grandmother. Because of the tumor in her stomach – a physical illness that takes precedence – Renee’s grandmother is rushed to hospital.
Because Liam is working in the kitchen during an LA heat wave, he is his wiping sweat off his brow, which keeps threatening to drip into the food he is preparing. Because of the numbing of his palate, which is worsening, Liam is sending out food over-seasoned. Because Mark is gone, Liam has extra responsibilities, which he can’t keep on top of; his hit rate is even worse. He sends out an abalone dish, which is promptly sent back by a customer because it is underdone, tough to touch, worse to taste. Liam becomes depressed as it is binned. Because Liam knows that the meat is costed at $180 per kilo, he storms out of the kitchen and accuses the customer of being wasteful. Because of the severity of this scene, the owners of the restaurant send Liam home immediately. Because of his conviction that the medication is responsible for his perpetual dysgeusia, Liam decides to go off his medication, flushing what is left down the toilet, despite warnings and protestations from his now sometimes girlfriend Zoe. Because he wants to really feel the effects of going off the medication, he does not go to work for days, and stays at home eating plain toast and soup, waiting for his palate to reemerge. He will only communicate to Zoe on Skype, won’t let her into his house, even when she knocks on the front door. Because he can feel the geography of his mind changing, he begins to cook again and out-performs himself. Liam begins to mark up notes for new recipes, keeping book after book of preparatory instructions. Because he is off his medication, he is starting to act and move faster than normal, and Zoe cannot keep up with the speed at which he talks, particularly as his already strong Australian accent is getting stronger. Because he is talking so fast, she misses it when he says that she should meet him at the restaurant after work. He returns home out of control and furious, locks her in his room and starts punching the walls of the hallway. Because she is terrified, she asks him to see someone and go back on the medication. Because he is deaf to this, he goes out drinking and blacks out. Because she is there when he gets up, she tells him he needs to sort himself out. Because Liam is on a creative high, and wanting to grapple with his disease head on, he attempts to create a dish that replicates the experience of taking his medication, something that stimulates the palate before numbing it completely. Because of the complexity of the dish, and its purpose-driven approach, he needs to research foods that can create such effects. Because of the research, he drives down into the Mexican desert to find a hallucinogenic plant that is said to have such properties.
Well, STM came through again, delivering to us what we think is his best piece yet. It's fresh, it's met the challenges head on and is highly readable. (see below.) It did set off a bit of a discussion between the two torturers, DMH and RM, which we thought we should relate below.
DMH: He's done brilliant. I loved it. It was fast to read, which to me makes it good. Only a few stumbles that a light editorial cream would fix. The story took me to a foreign location and gave me a foreign experience that I wanted more of. But, and this is my issue, wasn't the challenge to rewrite the original story? Has STM met the challenge of reworking his original piece, or has he written something completely different?
RM: Agreed. I loved the foreign locale, the wit and the occasional absurdist touches, but the only link back to Renee & co seems to be the reference to the medication. Is this enough? Maybe. Our job is to provoke and stimulate, so … Even though the use of the first person wasn't forbidden, it does feel like we've taken a small narrative step backwards. And then there's the overarching question of plot i.e. where is this thing going?
DMH: What is with this modern fetish to avoid plot? Does STM try to avoid it out of artistic choice, or is it lack of confidence to impose a storyline too early? It seems writers these days want to write aimless wandering prose on the off chance that it will end up somewhere. How many Dharma Bums do we need?
RM: One is plenty. And although it may sound old-fashioned, story is still king, irrespective of the medium or mode. I want writing to take me some place new, some place different, with an assured voice that is as convincing and authentic as it is surprising and unpredictable. I want to be enlightened, amazed; I want to come away enlivened by a new idea and a new way of expressing it. All of which requires incessant planning, practising and then more practising. Again, the old adage rings true: you need to master the rules in order to break them. Miles Davis didn't start out blowing improvised riffs; he spent years obsessively mastering the fundamentals before he diverged. I'd like STM to think about the structure of his story next; the big picture, bullet pointed, even; the raison d'être, s'il vous plait.
DMH: I think there is an angle for this resistance to story, but to me all I want is a shape. I want a sense that what I'm reading is going somewhere, or I won't go with it. Is that intolerant? Is this a question of art versus craft? Is it too crafty to pre-plan your novel? Is that not true to the spirit of writing? What about the spirit of reading? Are there readers out there who would say that story isn't the be all and end all?
RM: I guess there are as many types of reader as there are types of writer, and this is a good thing most of the time, as I'll explain. What I'm longing for on the page but only occasionally find is greatness, or at least the sense of aspiration towards greatness. (By greatness btw, I mean art that's intelligent, interesting and original, expressed well and, crucially, that will stand the test of time and be enjoyed in years if not decades to come.) The question is how to achieve this, and as with the reader/writer thing, there are as many ways as there are grains of sand on Bondi Beach. Story in and of itself mightn't be critical, but the writer needs to know what they're doing, whether that be stream of consciousness prose poetry or a tightly-plotted work of crime fiction.
DMH: Alright. It seems like we are both ranting. Upon reflection, perhaps the main character in the original story, and this most recent one, is still present. A young man, searching for his niche and perhaps a meaning to his life. This is perhaps a life imitating art parallel as the character wanders without direction similar to the story. Perhaps the next obstruction should be to just do story? Nothing else. Just plot out the damn thing like a synopsis.
RM: That's a plan. And it ought include notes on the basics: story, characters, settings, chronology, plot, etc, to see if all the pieces to date cohere. Writing it will be a valid element in itself: 'young man searches for meaningful structure'. Good luck, STM!
Tomas Tollefsen stands at a flip chart doing word associations before service. He is not embarrassed to brainstorm in front of waitstaff. He does this most nights and it is essential to the menu.
The words usually go: “Mexico: hot, salsa, fucked up” and “Japanese: cool, white rice, white radish, white miso, cold, spring, snow, calm.”
The trick is to find the balance between the two. That’s hard to do when he’s thinking more about one than the other. If it isn’t working for him he writes BALANCE in big blue Sharpied letters and then circles it a few times and then a few times more.
Tomas works as head chef at Zen Diagrams, a Japanese fusion food restaurant in Veracruz, Mexico.
The restaurant is one of three. The other two are in New York and San Francisco, where I was working before being sent to work under Tomas. Someone stupid once called this the vertical integration of the cooking world. Mexico was literally beneath me for a long time.
Tomas moves from the flip chart into the kitchen where he stands injecting mirin into a cut of marbled steak with the finest hypodermic needle to be found inside or outside a hospital.
Tomas is taking a similar approach to the Mexico restaurant as the other two – although he has more creative control than the other two head chefs, mainly through distance and lack of oversight. It’s still a safe mix of sushi and Mexican overtones.
The popular appetizer is an oyster tempura with jalapeno and wasabi oil on a bed of forest mushrooms.
The mushrooms are imported from Tomas’ native Norway.
Tomas also offers a sashimi and avocado taco, which reads like the simplest thing on the menu, but that avocado is no avocado. It is a wasabi and green tea savoury ice-cream shaped to look exactly like an avocado. There is abalone meat buried inside the ice-cream.
It takes three hours to make.
I wish I could say I was on the hunt for white abalone – deep sea diving in a wetsuit – but it is more like a lazy walk down to the post office. The mushrooms and other obscure-for- ingredients come in boxes to the post office. I am routinely the one sent out to pick up the packages. The seafood shipments – fish and shellfish – also come via the post, in big white tubs filled with ice packs.
I don’t like what Tomas does with the abalone. He hides the natural sea flavour by burying it in the green of that wasabi. It’s a waste of what is very expensive ocean-farmed food. It is $180 a kilo back in Sydney airport duty free; perceived to be there for the Japanese tourists. It’s farmed successfully on the Baja Coast in Mexico and so there is a surplus, but still it is a waste for Tomas to bury them so deep in the mix.
I slice across the street. The traffic is a murderous stream in Mexico City, but in Veracruz cars slow in the rising heat. Veracruz is where Mexicans come to holiday.
I avoid the local fish market when carrying these tubs back, because Tomas and Zen Diagrams are committed to not using any products from them until they improve their hygiene standards. This has not made Tomas popular in Veracruz. It goes against Tomas’s whole local produce only ethos, and it pains him somewhat, but nobody wants a customer who has eaten at the restaurant to go to hospital because some fishmonger didn’t mop a floor.
I bring the boxes into the back of the kitchen. The silver surfaces of the new equipment make the kitchen look like an ice skating rink.
If only it was as cool as an ice skating rink. It’s about forty degrees outside. The stoves are heating up and there is Diego – who works the grill, obsessively – starting the fire.
Tomas gets this look on his face before the first order comes in. He moves his tongue around to check that all his teeth are still in their place. It looks like he thinking deeply over the make up of his mouth.
I sent him a New Yorker article early in our working together about a Chicago-based chef, Grant Aschatz, who was diagnosed with tongue cancer. Aschatz refused radical surgery to have part of his tongue removed. Chemotherapy dulled his palate. Tomas is worried that something like this could happen to him.
Tomas worries too much.
I worry too much and play into the way he worries.
The first order comes in, brought in by the gliding waiter Guerro.
Tomas picks up the ticket and calls out two sashimi taco starters, sea urchin tomatillo chawanmushi and the salmon with jalapeno and dashi jelly cubes.
That is all seafood, which means that I am on the mains. The orders come to my station and I start working through them three at a time.
Diego by the grill with the wagyu steaks wading in marinade looks disappointed.
The sashimi tacos are an assembly line job, but Tomas wants the avocado ice-cream sculptures out of the freezer at the last possible moment, but it means running across a busy kitchen.
I have a choice of being yelled at for dashing over his floor too fast or taking out the ice-creams too early so as not to rush them.
The meat orders come in and the kitchen is soon thick with charred smoke.
Tomas says that he will take over the chawanmushi.
I pick out the best looking pink fish and lower them into the pan.
I make sure not to glance at the clock above the kitchen doors.
Tomas has a high reedy voice and I don’t like listening to it through service. But he talks constantly, mostly delivering inane imperatives.
“Plate – clean plate, please. Clean the edges of the plate.”
He wanted to lay carpet on the kitchen floor to make sure we took extra care not to spill a drop of sauce.
Zen Diagram’s whole being, its very ethos, is about plating and Tomas gets insanely angry if there is any wiping down that needs to be done. He doesn’t like cloth marks on the outside of plates.
“Clean the plate!” and five minutes later, “I don’t want to see you touching those fucking plates with a cloth.”
I guess those are the words of a contrarian as much as a perfectionist.
I lower the --fish onto the serving dish and drop the jellies lightly. Seaweed salad that I had slaved over that morning goes on next and everything is an equal height. It’s spirit level plating.
Tomas sneaks by to check it out.
He wants everything on the plate to sing.
Well, hello, they hum a bit.
Service continues like this – Tomas trying to cook and be overseer at the same time – until the entrée and main orders stop coming in and the night switches over and changes mood.
Dessert is called La Playa and a rip-off of a molecular gastronomy dish that Tomas ate once in London. The London equivalent of La Playa is a seafood main but Tomas turned it into a dessert. He uses a mixture that looks like sand to create a Veracruz-style beachscape. He gives the diners a little wooden rake to remind them of a Japanese sand zen garden, too.
I think it’s a mess of a dish – the fusion not quite fusing – but the ground-up biscuits and miso oil that make up the edible sand is impressive.
I don’t do desserts – Tomas says he doesn’t trust the sweet end of my palate after he saw me spitting out some candied daikon he had experimented with – and so I can go out the back and play around with the late night challenge while he is still going.
I keep a short, itinerant and definitively anonymous cooking blog that gets a bit of traffic when I post about the challenges. I want to expand it, so I upload some photographs of Tomas’ La Playa and a basic breakdown of the recipe.
I sit on the back steps of the kitchen with my laptop in the titular lap, and hit publish.
Visa problems, boredom, the heat, illness, poor access to medication, fights with Tomas over the menu, flings with not quite girlfriends, workplace stress, newspaper reports of decapitations and kidnappings, unidentified smells, strained phone calls home, drunken nights, dinner parties, kitchen world gossip, stomach problems, global recessions, poor quality fruit and vegetables, natural disasters, blunt knives, un-exotic locations, sewage on the beach, rude tourists, brutal locals, flat surf, the word gringo, fixing the bathroom, heavy backpacks, unresponsive wait staff, bad internet connections, long flights, oil spills, overrun dining rooms, Skype cutting out, criminally inept coffee, unhygienic toilets, boredom again.
It is true that chefs eat poorly. Tomas has high standards for the seafood used in the restaurant, but he’ll eat any old shit as soon as he is out of the kitchen.
We are in love with this terrible prawn cocktail that you can get on a boat – a bulky ex-military ship – that has been converted into a restaurant and bar down at the port.
We gothere after every stressful service and either have a really bad Bloody Mary or the prawn cocktail, or we order a michelada, a beer mixed with tomato juice, lime, Worcestershire sauce, chili and anchovies or dried shrimp.
They go down easy once you are over the fish tank flavour.
The prawn cocktail looks wrong tonight under the coloured lights that line the stern of the ship. I convince myself that the pico de gallo is hot enough to kill off any bacteria that might be present at the prawn party.
Tomas asks me if there is anything I would like to say now about tonight or forever hold my peace.
“The service tonight was uber-stressful.”
“Uber-stressful makes it sound not all that stressful. Uber makes it sound slightly comic.”
No one was laughing through service.
I fail to say as much as I watch the barman stir Tomas a michelada. Tomas buys us a couple of shots of mezcal too, imported from Oaxaca. I knock them back.
“I’m thinking about doing a michelada inspired degustation meal. Like you could start with something cooked in spontaneous fermentation beer – one or two years old – and find things to do with the limes and the anchovies and the chilli, each as a separate course. Like a savoury key lime pie and then whatever – every ingredient covered.”
I just want to switch off when we’re onboard the ship – once the locals grind to the sound of bad house music – but Tomas can’t stop talking shop.
He talks about his ethics and his ideas and his approaches and his way of life and his plans and his dreams. He sees Zen Diagram as having an integral place in the Veracruz culinary revolution. He thinks we can improve cooking across the country.
This is where we disagree: I don’t think the restaurant should take a corrective role to Mexican cuisine.
Tomas pisses off the locals enough already.
We can probably show them how to improve on their approach to preparing Japanese food, though. Mexicans bastardise Japanese food. They line the middle of Californian rolls with cream cheese.
I find the words cream cheese embarrassing.
Isn’t Tomas’ fusion food a form of bastardization, too?
He is talking right this second about creating a teriyaki sake margarita as a starter cocktail. Who needs that?
“Mexican food is basically decaying. I want to be here because I want to be part of something struggling and growing, not something established and proven. It is a case of past versus future tense.”
Tomas doesn’t say it, but he’s talking about New York.
He was sent down here because he didn’t get a job in the New York Zen Diagram..
New York is the girl who keeps turning him down.
Veracruz was his chance to stay in the Zen Diagram family and run a restaurant on his own but Veracruz is not on the culinary map and the hours spent here are useless for a chef’s CV.
I was sent here as if it was a day spa.
I wasn’t well. They said I needed a break, a working holiday. But my being in San Francisco, my moving from Sydney, was my working holiday. Trying to get my head around a working holiday from a working holiday is too much for me to think about.
I don’t want to go on about it, but I kind of do.
It helps that people like Zen Diagram.
I get emails.
Tomas is a talented chef too and people are impressed that I am under him. He has a cult following.
The LA Weekly food blog described his food as “bipolar” – a mood swing of a meal. He has worked at Michelin starred restaurants under a couple of greats, who are not just celebrity chefs, but well known for the right reasons.
Not everyone is a fan, though: one particularly perceptive blogger described Tomas’s take on food fusion and the restaurant as a Geisha throwing up after a night of tequila and Tex Mex.
I want to look out at the ocean and not talk and think some more on all of this, but two women come up to our table, and lean over our drinks.
“Are you Tomas Tollefsen?” one asks.
Tomas sits up straight. “Yes.”
“We’re eating at your restaurant tomorrow night!” the other exclaims.
The women would be gringos to the locals – they are close enough to the border, Arizonans – but we get called gringos, too.
Tomas and I spend way too much time trying to convince the locals that we are not Americans.
!Soy no gringo!
“How do you know who I am?” Tomas asks.
“I follow food blogs.”
Tomas invites them to sit and I get up to go and get another drink from the bar, which is at the other end of the restaurant. It is an unsteady walk as the seas become higher with the rising tides.
I come back with a tall glass of Sol beer and sit on the tallest stool. I tower over Tomas for the first time in a while.
“This lovely young woman here had her legs all cut up. Tell him,” Tomas says.
The woman had been travelling from the touristy pyramids in Tulum through to Veracruz. She had started hitchhiking with a male companion. They had taken a ride from two men in a semi-trailer, who had passed beers to them and told them jokes in Spanish. The men had been jovial for the first few hours before they started putting their hands on her legs and talking about being arms dealers. They told them that they were being kidnapped. They pulled over to piss and this woman’s friend jumped out of the cabin and ran into the forest. The men chased him and she went in the opposite direction. They eventually met up near some trees and watched the headlights of the truck as it circled the highway looking for them.
I ask her when this happened and she says a few days ago.
“I ran into an electrical fence and got a bad shock, and then ten metres later there was a barbed-wire fence that cut up all my legs and then I had to walk for hours until I found a farmer who didn’t know what to do with me.”
She lifts up her skirt to reveal lacerations from the barbed wire and burn marks from the electric fence.
I don’t know where to look. I certainly don’t want to look at the legs or the cuts on the legs. What if I’m attracted to them?
Tomas is staring at them longingly. “I want my menu to be more dangerous. I want the menu to be more like you.”
Tomas looks into her eyes. She smiles at this and slips her hand into his and I decide to get off the ship and go home.
“You want your menu to be like a kidnapping? What would that even taste like?”
“It wouldn’t be a taste – it would be a definite, veritable feeling of danger … in your mouth, at the table.”
Tomas fetishizes these sorts of experiences of Mexico.
He had a fellow Norwegian friend who came out to stay with him for a few weeks. When Tomas went back to work, the friend went travelling solo and ended up being held up with a gun in a bar.
Tomas is disappointed that he has no equivalent story to relate. He complains about not having experienced the real Mexico yet.
Because he has not had a gun held to his head?
He prizes authenticity.
I hate authenticity.
I excuse myself and say that I have to get some air, but then Tomas points out that we are out in the open, on a goddamn ship in the Caribbean.
Where is there more air than on a bar on a ship?
“Excuse me,” I say for the umpteenth time.
I walk off and he follows and as we pass the kitchen, he asks a passing waiter if he can go below deck to inspect. He is led down to a cramped steel space where two men stand preparing the hot food we eat up above.
The kitchen is not all that clean and I can imagine it being my last night aboard the good ship prawn cocktail. Tomas shakes his head as one of the chefs fries off some onions and takes the skillet from his hands. He can’t help himself. The chef rightly takes offence and sends us back upstairs.
I look back down the gangway and see two men who are doing their best with great limitations and constraints put on them. Tomas is unable to see this and continues to complain about the state of the kitchen and the food.
I follow him out and watch as he starts moving with either music or the waves lapping up against the side of the ship. There’s a gentle rocking and I can imagine him going over the side. The fairy lights strung high on the masts begin to blur.
It’s not him who is swaying.
Seasickness or did someone spike my drink?
I feel backwards.
Tomas is drinking pulque, a disgusting brew made of fermented cactus, which he claims has a slight hallucinogenic edge. He says it gets him mystical drunk. He mixes it with mango juice, and calls it man-goo. It has the texture of a mudslide. I wonder if he hasn’t slipped some into my drink. Was the michelada thicker than usual?
How can you trust a molecular gastronomist with your drink?
I excuse myself and go to the bathroom. I lock myself in the toilet stall and lean my head against the door, before thinking of the hygiene levels of leaning your head against a toilet door.
I leave the stall and Tomas is standing at the urinal, waiting for me. He turns his head but keeps pissing straight. He doesn’t say anything. Tomas is paranoid from all of the pulque and his isolated upbringing in a snowed-in forest.
I feel the boat moving away from the shore but the scene is stationary.
It feels like water has drained from my ears.
Tomas and I have a small game that we play, where we choose a very difficult ingredient and force each other to cook a dish. Last week he gave me these disgusting, foul-smelling bitter beans and I gave him duck tongues.
He ended his culinary adventure throwing up in the toilets after accidentally eating a raw tongue during a taste test – cooked and raw look scarily similar – whereas I made a stink bean pudding, which turned on some tourist in the restaurant and which convinced her that I might be a good person to go to bed with.
This week Tomas has stepped it up, asking me to cook with turtle fins. I gave him emu. I considered specifying and giving him an emu egg, but feeling cruel about the duck tongues, I offered him any part he wanted. There is an emu farm just outside of Oaxaca and I had them deliver the best cuts. If I knew he was going to be such an arsehole tonight, I wouldn’t have gone so easy on him.
Tomas asks the two women if they would like to come back with us to his restaurant to judge a culinary competition. We were supposed to be challenging each other after service the next night.
“You have your stuff prepared, right?” Tomas asks.
It’s lucky that I do.
They ask what we’re cooking with.
Tomas says emu and I say turtle.
They fake gag.
And real giggle.
“I’ve cooked with emu before,” Tomas says. “I went home one summer and roasted emu for my parents. We didn’t even know what it was. I think they thought it was turkey or some gamey bird but from memory the meat was very red.”
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“I didn’t feel the need. Do you have any turtle experience?”
“I went swimming with turtles down in Puerto Escondido not long after I arrived. This local guy stopped us on the beach and asked if we wanted to go for a boat tour – halfway through steering the boat he revved the engine and dived off the side, stranding us. I thought it was some weird sort of way to hold us up, like another boat would come and ask for all of our money, but he surfaced pretty soon after and dragged up this giant, must be like one-hundred-year-old turtle, which he pulled into the boat and made us – asked us, but basically made us – take photos with it. Then he tied a rope around the turtle’s leg and chucked it back in. If we wanted we could go swimming with it and I really didn’t want to get in the water.”
“What did you think of Puerto Escondido?” Tomas asked.
“That’s the question that you ask at the end of that story? Don’t you think I would feel a little bit uncomfortable cooking with turtle after telling a story like that?”
Veracruz at midnight is as hot as Bangkok at noon. The sun feels high in the sky during the dark. The ocean provides no relief, no wind coming off the flat blue to cool down the city. Shade provides no escape during the day, and even air-conditioned bars don’t do much good at night. The hours I have spent in the awful Las Americas Mall, buying tickets to movies and drinking soda in the food court, will not be returned to me.
There are wolf whistles coming from the passing cars for the “girls” on the walk. The two women are blonde-haired, like Tomas, and to the taste of the locals. I saw a guy wearing a T-shirt with Nicole Kidman’s likeness screen-printed on the front the other day.
I could punch a hole in a wall if one would present itself to me.
I am edgy because I have not slept in weeks. I have been living with Tomas while my bathroom is fixed and Tomas likes to sleep without the air-conditioning on. He says he won’t get the chance to have hot nights like this again if he were to move back to Norway, or even New York. He switches it off at midnight and lets the heat filter in. I go to the freezer and fill a bucket with ice and take it out onto the balcony, where I lower my feet into the freezing plastic tub.
The street is sweating with my body on the way back to the restaurant. Windows are wet from night’s muggy air. Faces are melting ice in a plastic bucket.
Tomas opens the doors to the restaurant, unbolting the roller screen and letting us slip through the security grille. He goes to make drinks and I go into the kitchen to put together the challenge. I have done what I can, preparing a Turtle soup matched with Guīlínggāo, a Chinese-style turtle jelly.
Tomas left me with zero to one options – I tried to pan fry and then deep fry the innards, but they tasted terrible, so I had little option but to turn them into broth and pretty disgusting jelly.
I pan fry a little of the leftover turtle meat – taken from the fin and neck – to use as a garnish, with some black pepper, and break it over the top of the soup like smashed croutons.
I’ve fucked it.
I bring out the first plate.
The gringos choke back on the jelly but make a smile at me when they slurp at the soup itself.
“It’s pleasing. I didn’t think that I would like it.”
I have heard that one too many times in my life in this job.
Tomas disappears and I expect him to bring us out his crimes against emu meat – an overly clinical deconstruction of the flesh of the bird. Instead, the emu has been crisp fried and then served with goat cheese tamales, corn, shitake mushrooms with roasted chillies on the side. I want to take points off, because this is a quail recipe that has been on the menu for months.
I did the prep work on the tamales earlier in the night.
The two women eat it up, though. They are careful with their spoons, and they clean off the plates carefully. My meal sits unfinished.
“That is absolutely gorgeous.”
“Who knew I would like emu?”
She says it emoo – as if the bird emanated from a cow’s guttural moan – and I bite my tongue.
Hoo noo I woo like emoo?
Tomas wins by two votes, and the only two votes that count.
I go behind the bar and scrape my food into the bin.
Tomas’ fingers are scratching at the wood of the table, as if he is a cat clawing a lounge. I can tell that he is restless.
“You won’t congratulate me?” he asks.
“You don’t like me, do you?”
“Don’t you think this is kind of a boring conversation for everyone here except you and me?”
“Who else is here but you and I?”
It is lucky that the two Arizonan women laugh, because otherwise I would be feeling very worried.
“You’re a bad sport, sport.”
I have a pretty good idea that the drink is making this stuff come out. Despite his fondness for mixing drinks, Tomas doesn’t drink all that much normally.
He can’t handle it.
That wooziness comes back and hits me again. I look down at the drink Tomas has prepared me, his experimental sake martini and the drug question comes into my mind again.
I need to get back at him somehow. I go into the kitchen and switch off the refrigerator and watch the thermostat drop. I wait for ice to drip from the ceiling. But I better not wait. I better get out of the restaurant and onto the street and not be seen. I leave the doors wide open and watch melting green drip down the side of the fridge.
Tomas and I meet at the aquarium in the morning. The air-conditioning is freeze-blasting the crowd inside. The line to get into the actual fish tanks and shit is about sixty people deep and the decision to wait will cost us an hour or two. Tomas wanted to come to the aquarium because he likes looking at the native fish, but of course he has to avoid the local fish markets as usual.
He has business on the brain, too.
He had talked about starting a temporary restaurant slash food stall in Cancun during the climate change summit. Tomas had been in Copenhagen during the summit there and had figures that proved that the influx of visiting dignitaries saw a rise in fine dining profits greater than any other time. Obviously, we didn’t have start-up money to open up a restaurant in Cancun, nor did we have any desire to be based out of there, but there was a small desire to open up a temporary restaurant and so we went and had a look and just set up a stall for a few days, bribed a couple of officials, but we ended up making more money off the rowdy college students than we did off any actual dignitaries. Having a temporary stall meant that we could only really do variations on street food. We tried to introduce as many fine dining elements into that and it was a success, so we discussed trying it again during what is typically known as spring break. They enjoyed popping the oyster tempura into their mouths as they downed beer and danced suggestively. Tomas wants me to scout some locations. He thinks that he is punishing me by sending me to Cancun but I don’t really care. I’m happy to stop living the restaurant life for a few days.
Watching the shark swim beside the fish, I wonder what stops it from eating what it wants?
The impressive self-control of a natural predator.
More business, Tomas says. He has shark eyes.
The owners of Zen Diagram got a cease and desist letter from a London restaurant. They are not to produce a dessert called La Playa any longer because it adheres too closely to the London restaurant’s own recipe.
He holds up his Blackberry.
The emails are on screen.
They have screen shots of my blog.
Tomas plays it panicked, “They think that I have done this. Like I’m some sort of mole in the restaurant business, ratting everyone out.”
“Isn’t this a little bit of the danger that you want for the restaurant?”
He stares into the glass and looks worried at the worried look of his reflection.
“My recipes are their recipes. They own my intellectual property and this isn’t exactly my intellectual property. These are dishes in development. They are unfinished and so they resemble other dishes, of course.”
“There’s no copyright on food. They can’t sue. They can’t do shit.”
“No, but there is my reputation and they could crush that. The word unoriginal … you know … shiver. It’s a big difference when you’re talking about intellectual property and taking recipes and adapting them, but putting the recipe online and photographs and saying that the work is your own. I’ll have to figure it out. Replace the dessert.”
Tomas hands me a bus ticket for Cancun, but holds it for a moment more before handing it completely over.
“Did you turn off the fridge last night?”
Mexico is synonymous with buses. There is no other mode of transport for tourists. The country goes by in a blur outside of smeared windows, the landscape flat and brown. I pay extra to take the top of the line bus so I can actually get some sleep, at least. They have recliner chairs and footstools. I am handed a rolled-up wet wipe and a disgusting ham sandwich, with plastic jack cheese, as I get on. I take my seat and see the cover of a newspaper taped around the top of a telegraph pole. Thirty-five bodies have been found beneath an overpass near the exit of town – naked, gagged and shot.
It makes any disputes between Tomas and I immediately trivial.
I go through the small bag that I have packed, trying to find some sleeping pills and to blow up the neck pillow that I will probably throw into the isle a few hours later. I try and find some headphones too and then I realise something, looking into the lower depths of the backpack.
I was not drugged by Tomas last night.
I forgot to take my drugs.
There at the bottom of the bag is my unopened medication, which if not taken, produces dizziness and nausea. I pop a white pill into my cheek hole and swallow it with a mouthful of bad ham sandwich. I can’t be bothered opening my bottled water for now.
I never accused Tomas of drugging me, so there is no need to apologise, but I still feel like writing a letter to the guy or something.
The bus backs out of the depot and drives off. I’m not sure how long the trip will be. I fall asleep in the recliner chair. They play bad movies dubbed in loud Spanish all night long, so sleep is fitful. I get up to go to the toilet, when a boulder smashes through the front window. It hits the driver in the chest. It is hard to impart the drama of the situation.
It is comic for the first few moments, until the bus careens to the left of the road and the driver is not moving.
Men who can only be described as banditos board the bus. They are balaclava’d. They have guns. They point them at people.
I stash the company credit card down the side of the seat without taking my face off the disguised men.
Here is the danger you were after, Tomas.
I wonder if you can figure out a way to get it on the menu.
The 17th of November came and STM delivered his reprise on time. Since then we have done a light copy edit and you can read how it turned out below.
STM has done well with the first round of obstructions. He began a little rockily, dumping a good deal of back story on the reader in the opening few pages (taking up too much precious narrative space), but he soon got into a rhythm and mastered our challenges.
The obstruction of switching genders was not as difficult as we hoped. Nor did it push STM far enough from his comfort zone of graduate life. The third-person obstruction was also too easy, though the many sections of character introspection (not to mention Renee's monologue on her mother's car) suggest that STM is still attached to the familiar ways of storytelling.Thusly, we have identified new challenges for the next round of obstructions to help break him from some of his bad habits.
First, STM is all too aware that he is a writer and he is writing, and he will be read and judged by his writerly friends. In the next version, STM must not write, but speak. He must freestyle into a recording device and then transcribe. This should aid him in finding a natural rhythm and bring a more conversational and open style to his phrasing. At least, this is what we hope.
Second, STM must forego all exposition. If the information cannot be divulged through the observance of the story then it must be cut. Brutal? Yes. Necessary? Ditto.
Third, STM must reset his story in an unfamiliar locale. At least offshore. Perhaps that nightclub on a coal ship he alluded to in this version; as that spin is intriguiging and STM's familiarity with his roots may be blinding him to what is interesting to outsiders like us.
Lastly, and most importantly, we feel STM needs to really find the story. Even though this is a chapter of a larger work, it must be a narrative unto itself. So the chapter must end with what we like to call a narrative tug. A question that needs answering. An event that demands a resolution.As it's Christmas now, we will expect the next instalment on January 15.
Bon chance, Sam, and seasonal greetings.
R & D
THE FIRST OBSTRUCTION
Female – Third Person – Companion
Renee sat on the bonnet of the stolen car at a rest stop just outside Canberra. She took in what little that stretch of road had to offer – unfiltered sun and regional air – and tried her best to finish the book she’d been carrying around with her for weeks. She’d found it in the Cooks Hill secondhand bookstore, where they still sold paperbacks for a few gold coins; a slim volume, easily lost in the shelves of hardbacks. The colourful cover had caught her eye, but the title she had mistaken as Traumaville. It said something to her – a place that she might have been. The actual title of the novel, however, was Traumnovelle, which most people knew only because it had been adapted into Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The English translation was Dream Story – which could have been the title of just about any novel ever written.
She closed the book, rolled off the bonnet and went to a nearby payphone to call her boyfriend Ben. Her mobile battery was dead after half a day of using it to play music in the car. He answered and she told him that she’d be driving through Canberra that afternoon and would collect him and then they’d drive down to Melbourne together.
They’d never discussed moving to Melbourne.
“Why Melbourne?” Ben asked.
“It’s really cool down there. There’s a lot going on.”
They hadn’t spoken for weeks. Renee was ignoring any academic high-achiever in her life – including her father and boyfriend – because she had all but dropped out of her degree.
Renee had stolen the car from her parents. She tried to act casual as she climbed through their window and, inside, retrieved her mother’s keys then opened and sat inside the small sleek silver hatchback.
She got out.
What if someone saw her? She couldn’t get a handle on why she was panicking in her parents’ carport. She was borrowing her mother’s car, surely, not stealing it. The magpie knew she was doing something wrong, though, and in an attempt to protect its chick, it went for the back of her head. She knew that the magpie was there – her mother had warned her to watch it back in September – but she had thought the breeding season was over and the baby bird should have really left the nest by now.
People were telling her the same thing.
The depression had taken hold of her in the Merriweather share house during first semester of her repeated year. She’d lived with two surfers who left doors open and disrespected her space and dripped wet on the couches, only adding to the already rising mold problem. The floorboards needed to be regularly swept and reswept to get rid of the sand. She continued to live with these two water-obsessed Neanderthals, and walked around them as they played Wii and watched wave sports on TV only when they weren’t out because the ocean was flat. They blocked the hallways with long fibreglass boards. Renee had to pay extra rent because she was no longer sharing a room with Ben and when exams came around, she had had to take time off from the café where she worked. She had been too anxious, maybe even too proud, to go into Centrelink to claim benefits and basic welfare. And so the rent went unpaid for those busy weeks and the surfers started to fear getting kicked out of their prime real estate so close to the beach and so those lazy bums asked her to move out. Her only option was to move back in with her parents – to the childhood home where the nervous afflictions had started.
She wasn’t alone. The whole city was in a slump. It was a good place to be an underachiever. The unemployed still scanned the hills for something other than the darkness at the urban centre. There were houses being built on some of those ridges visible from the bottom of the basin and the tradies had hopes of getting work laying the foundations.
The rotting fig trees of Laman Street needed to be uprooted, but the rumour was that the council was broke. The street was cut off for weeks and the detour seemed to arrive at some greater feeling of frustration. The youth of the city, Renee included, were waiting for something to change – the weekends were long and empty – and in the meantime could only dream of the laneway coffee that might come and nightclubs on coal ships.
Ben had been smart enough to escape all that. He was in Canberra doing a Masters in Public Space. Fake city built on a fake lake. What bullshit, Renee thought. He had moved into a share house with his sister for the year and invited Renee down often, but she’d refused to go. He had passed Imagining Urban Spaces the year before, when they had taken the subject together. He had finished and she had failed, so he had been able to move on and out of Newcastle and she had been forced to stay behind and try some summer school subjects.
The final assignment for Imagining Urban Spaces broke Renee. The lecturer had asked them to go and walk the streets of the city and to keep a diary of their wanderings. She went out one clear sharp-aired morning and started walking down the steep hilled terror of the streets to get to Civic Park. She had what she thought was a panic attack. She sat in the middle of the park, and put her head between her knees, and the grass between her feet moved. It blurred into a green haze – not grass-green, or even olive-green but emerald-green.
When she looked up Ben was sitting writing furiously on the steps of the Town Hall.
He was asked to guest lecture when the visiting scholar from Melbourne who was taking Imagining Urban Spaces fell ill. He was over-prepared but proved popular and to watch him at the lectern made Renee more proud than envious.
He suggested that Newcastle be “violently remade”.
“Like a movie?” a student asked.
“Wasn’t Newcastle already remade after the earthquake?” said another.
“Renewal is an ongoing process,” Ben replied flatly.
He was now writing his Masters thesis on Newcastle and the failed attempts to revive the city, taking cue from his final undergraduate essay and guest lectures. Renee found it disingenuous that he had moved to Canberra in order to write it. The civility of the public servants who surrounded him meant that his intellectualising had none of the sharp edge that it had once achieved in Newcastle. They had witnessed a glassing one night at the Cambridge Hotel and he had gone home and made the beginnings of a potential conference paper on inner-city violence. Who wouldn’t love a dude who took such immediate inspiration from his hometown surrounds?
The proposed road trip was her chance at an escape, and indeed they had often talked about taking some kind of long drive together, to get away from it all, but they had never had the money or impetus. She explained to him that she imagined driving down to Melbourne, the way that some Americans – the Texans and those from Arizona, surely – must escape to Mexico. It was a post-grad sojourn, except that she would not be graduating (again). Ben didn’t sound so enthusiastic.
Renee drove up Ben’s driveway and told him to get in the car as if she was picking him up from the babysitter. She backed out without waving goodbye and forced him to do the same, telling him to keep his hands to his sides and not look out the rear window.
Renee drove onto the Hume Highway and pulled down her sunglasses. She planned to wear them for the next ten hours straight, driving into the dark, avoiding anything that looked like an unmarked cop car and doing her best to stick to the speed limit. She let herself forget that she was in her mother’s car.
She started to narrate the history of the car as far as she knew it: “Mum bought it when I was away on a three-month trip in Thailand so to come back and see this super silver super shiny car in the driveway sort of freaked me out because I think it was the first time that my parents had bought a new car and it smelt so bad like plastic like so new that it sort of actually smelt like a kind of meat and they wouldn’t let me drive it for that first year so it totally changed their behavior and that is when I think I realized that my parents were kind of mean and stingy and they were so oh my god so protective…”
“You're talking way too fast.”
Her aunt had taken diet pills once that had made her talk at the speed of an auctioneer.
What was she saying to him? There was no way to keep track.
And there was no way Ben would be able to keep up either. He had become boring. She could think of a million things wrong with him as a boyfriend. He only wore blue shirts and, because of that, it sometimes felt that he only had the one piece of unchanging upper body clothing. His clothesline, after the washing was out to dry, looked like a suspended ocean. He was useless and she wanted to turn the car around and drop him back in Canberra and go to Melbourne on her own.
She looked over to him again, sitting in the passenger seat. He was brushing the hair out of his eyes and the sun was hitting his face so that he was squinting and he was more handsome than ever to her in that moment.
And so she forgave him the endless parade of blue shirts.
They would make a blue life together down in Melbourne, in an inner-city warehouse, opening an architectural design firm, despite a lack of qualifications. She had wild plans for him. She would set him to work, ordering him to write long essays about Mexican zócaloand the need for more public squares in Australia.
She was doing her best to get this plan of action across to him when the car came to a sudden stop. She had not changed – nor ever bothered to check – the oil and water before she left. She restarted the engine but the car was shuddering to a stop every ten minutes, as soon as she tried to take it over eighty kilometers.
What had she done to deserve this?
The steering wheel was too close to her face and the seatbelt had the muscled grip of a boa constrictor. She felt restricted – oppressed even – by the confines of the vehicle.
She parked on the side of the road, cracked open a warming can of Diet Coke and told Ben to turn up the radio.
He sat in the passenger’s seat, dozing with his sunglasses pulled down like shutters. “It’s too late and too far to drive all the way to Melbourne,” he sighed.
The car kept shuddering, the engine giving way again and again. There was a way back – a house party in Canberra. Ben suggested that they go to that, instead.
“Aren’t parties in Canberra an oxymoron?” she said.
Ben didn’t laugh, didn’t even bother to look at her.
They got back in the car and she did a U-turn – as fast and sharp as in the movies – and Ben grabbed at his seatbelt and pulled it tighter across his chest.
They reached the suburban cul-de-sac on dark. The A-frame house was built for a European winter, and, sure, Canberra could be cold, but that didn’t mean you had to live in something that looked like a Swiss chalet. Despite the Euro-casing, inside, the hallway was hung with Fred Williams prints and other squiggly-line tree designs. There was a concrete wombat fake furrowing in the backyard. The aesthetic was kitsch. This was clearly someone’s parent’s house. Ben explained that his friend’s father worked for the Sports Minister, but there was little sports memorabilia. The bookcased walls were stocked with Australian classics.
“You have to wonder if every public servant is forced to present themselves as such a committed cultural patriot as this.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well, it ruins the living space whatever it means.”
She got a wide wine glass out from the top of the cupboard and filled it to the rim with red wine. She drank it fast – guzzling, as a concerned friend might say.
The dance floor was alive and Renee turned to Ben to take back the line about Canberra and parties being an oxymoron. “Canberra needs house parties, because there’s nothing else to do.”
Ben was not impressed with this line, either.
She wanted him to give up his jig – his crippling awareness of his social surrounds – and just dance with her, but when she made her move he didn’t and when she held out her hand, he said that he was going to the kitchen to find a beer.
She kissed him on the lips and asked him to bring her one.
On the dance floor she fell under the spell of the downbeat music. It was thumps and fuzz and no clarity whatsoever and that suited her mind fine. She liked disco music, but this was better for the moment. Self-installed strobe lights flashed blue and emerald green. She moved from her hips and ran her hands through her hair, catching the attention of a guy across the room, moving by himself, but with focus and drive. The guy was attractive. His hair came down to his neck and he kept it neat behind his ears. Renee moved up to be dancing next to him, close enough to be brushing up against him, but not facing him head on. She watched his neck turn when she touched his arm with her side. He lost his footing and fell out of step with the beat of the music. She laughed and kept dancing. The guy was trying to get her to dance with him. She kept an eye out for Ben and, realising he was out of sight, grabbed the guy by the hand and put that hand on her hip. He slid it down to her thigh and turned her around naturally. She rubbed her shoulders against his chest, being careful not to touch him with her full back. She turned around and bit his bottom lip and right after licked at it as if it was wounded. The guy laughed and went in to kiss her for himself, but she stepped back and he was forced to clasp his lips around nothing but air.
She backed into Ben who had appeared behind her.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
She turned around to face him fully. He looked distressed but she didn’t care. What right did he have to ask her what she was doing?
“What’s wrong with you?” He grabbed her arm.
She could feel the blood in her arm pulsating from his grip.
“Why don’t you just go home in your blue shirt and blow yourself!”
He stepped back and put his hands to his head as if he was trying to contain what he was taking in.
He moved toward her, saying “This is crazy. This is the behavior of a bipolar.”
She would not be contained. That she would perform private behaviours in public spaces, this made her bipolar?
Ben made his way out the front door, protesting by kicking over several drinks on his way – lime wedges, ice and cocktail straws scattered across the floorboards.
Renee stormed outside the back door and bummed a cigarette. She kicked the wombat over and cursed. There was a loner leaning on the BBQ looking like he was going to be sick over the hotplate. She moved him out of the way to get hold of the gas lighter and pulled a cigarette out of his pockets. He turned expecting more attention from her, but she pushed him off.
She lit the cigarette and before she had even had the chance to inhale, a thin, blond-haired man came up to her and asked if she wouldn’t mind smoking away from him and his group. She dropped the cigarette to the ground and rubbed it out with her foot. The ash spread white and black over the concrete. The man was not long ago a boy. His eyes had no lines and he looked purely energetic.
Renee persuaded him not to go back to his group and they talked about Sydney. She pretended that she lived in Surry Hills, the first inner city suburb that came into her head. He said he was from the country, but was hoping to move to Sydney soon. He had an apartment lined up.
“I think the apartment is in Kings Cross. Or Potts Point?”
“Those are places,” she said.
“Yeah, Potts Point? Maybe Potts Point?”
What sort of kid from the country can afford an apartment in Potts Point?
“Yeah, that’s a place, too. Great nightclubs.”
“Cool. Maybe you could show me when I get there.”
He introduced her to the group one by one and Renee nodded with each new name, which she then went on to purposely forget. One young woman gave Renee a dirty eye. The woman drank from her light soda based cocktail that looked like aquarium water caught in a cup. Renee could smell citrus and wondered if it was the woman’s deodorant or the drink or maybe it was just her pissy attitude.
Renee wondered if the woman had a thing for blond boys and if it was going to be a competition Renee decided that she would need to take an early lead. She slipped her hand into the guy’s hand, pressed her palm against his tightly, and he squeezed back. She smiled.
They moved from the group and into an unlit corner of the yard.
Renee overheard someone say “That’s the third guy she’s kissed tonight” but she just kept kissing him.
She wanted to get away from the rest of the party. Ben had told her that the house next door belonged to an Olympic swimmer who only lived in the house when he was training at the Australian Institute of Sport. None of the lights were on. She suggested they scale the fence and find some private space.
He looked nervous and uncertain.
She made her it will all be fine eyes.
She jumped over the fence first, calling for him to follow. He scaled and tripped on his way down, landing in a row of grounded Grevillea. She lifted him up and brushed the dirt off his backside. He grabbed hers, and she put her finger to his lips. “Shut the fuck up,” she said as quickly as someone else would say “shhhhh”.
They lifted a window and crawled through into the wide-open living room. They sunk down on plush leather couches and switched on the flatscreen TV, turning down the volume and sitting in silence as they waited for an alarm to go off, to sound their need to escape. It was an anxious wait but no bells rang.
“I'll make us a drink,” he said.
They moved into the bedroom.
What did swimmers sleep on?
Renee wanted there to be a waterbed from the 80s covered in black vinyl and rippling like a belly dancer’s stomach, with an electric blue aquarium filter humming in the background. She wanted the swimmer to live to a theme.
What did swimmers wear to bed?
Nothing, she hoped.
There were no actual signs of any living habitation in the house. Just how Renee wanted it. She went into the bathroom and opened the medicine cupboard, which was empty besides a pink disposable razor and a tall can of shaving foam. She released some into her hand and was surprised that it came out as a fresh blue gel. It smelt like chlorinated water and Renee imagined how homely that must have been for the swimmer as he shaved his legs before a meet.
Swimmers were ideal human beings both in body and mind. Renee liked the way the news of Nick D’Arcy, after beating up a fellow teammate, had torn through the media the year before. No one had expected aggro from a swimmer; a footballer, certainly; a soccer player, maybe; but never from a swimmer.
Proven, she thought: every type of temperament open to ruptures.
The blond-haired man–boy returned with two tall drinks, lime lapping on the surface. He smiled with mischief pulling at the corners of his mouth. “This is my house,” he said.
She looked at him sideways, not following his drift.
“I’m the neighbour.”
“I don’t believe you.”
He got up and brought back a framed photo of himself, posing with a wet-haired woman holding a blue swimming cap.
“You doctored that.”
“In the ten minutes since we came in? I can show you that my keys fit the front door.”
“There’s only one way to find out for sure,” she said.
She went over to him and rolled up his pant legs. His legs were as smooth as those of a mannequin, with the same plastic sheen.
Renee looked around the house. How did he own all this – all this furniture as shimmery and new as his shaved skin – at twenty-one? His minimalist obsessions made her feel abject. She thought about her own cramped living quarters, the piles of old junk she kept stored in her parents garage back in Newcastle.
They moved closer to the bed, where it became clear that his taste was so minimalist that he had no linen. She opened his cupboards and found only fitted sheets and empty pillowslips. She threw them over the mattress, not bothering to fit anything, and told him to undress.
His body continued to display a bright sheen from chest down. He had a teenage agility that Ben’s body lacked. They did kick turns off the walls, and the sex was suddenly a sport, a race to the finish line and, more or less, a wrestling match. The bed a trampoline one moment, a yoga mat the next. That they were, in fact, fucking while doing all this seemed sort of superfluous until the very end. He slipped out and they disengaged and he caught his breath and, like all good worn out athletes, he fell into deep sleep.
She remained awake, watching the swimmer’s still body. She knew that she would never obtain his level of physical fitness. A psychologist, subsidized by the University’s Health Services, had advised swimming as a course of recovery from her depression. She failed to take up the recommendation, too frightened when swimming outdoors that the summer’s afternoon storms would come too soon, unannounced and that stray lightning could hit the pool and electrocute everyone in the water, leaving fried bodies floating by. This paranoia of open skies meant long days spent indoors and her body was not what it could have been.
The early light was intrusive. She did not want to wake yet. The swimmer boy was beside her bare-chested, naked except for a well-placed pillowslip. She pushed the sheets off her body and they dropped to the floor gracelessly. She wiped the sleep out of her eyes and held her hand out in front of her. She had pins and needles. It trembled slightly. She remembered that when she had been anxious her hands would shake and that she had been forced to shake out the shakes.
She slid open the glass doors and stepped out onto the lawn. The grass was dry when she had been expecting glistening dew. She forgot the time of year. She went back inside, and dressed, collected her things without waking the sleeping swimmer.
Outside, she found her car parked at an odd angle, too far from the curb to be legal. She threw her dress and shoes in the back, and stepped into a pair of jeans and sneakers and went walking down the avenue. She turned right and wondered where she could get up high enough to get a view of the entire city spread out. Black Mountain Tower was too far to walk.
She took it slow to Civic Centre instead and went looking for strong morning coffee. She held her shoes under her arms and thought about how fast she could run. She set them down and started to move her legs and she could do a fine sprint but she almost always ran out of energy soon after. She stumbled as she tried to come to a stop and tripped and tumbled forward and grazed her head against the side of a telegraph pole. She felt for the way to straighten her neck and she pushed a little too hard, putting herself through a great deal of sharp pain.
The city was still in her sights and she could imagine everything around her trembling, foundations cracking, entire buildings crashing down around her, the capital being brought to its knees. Wouldn’t they try to do the same to her if they found out how fast she was going? Wouldn’t they make an attempt to reset her head?
And violently remake her.
Has everyone seen the film The Five Obstructions? (IMDB) It features two players: a protagonist, Jørgen Leth, elder statesman of Danish arts and director of the 1967 short The Perfect Human, and an antagonist, the younger Danish director Lars von Trier. Over the course of the film, Lars asks Jørgen to remake The Perfect Human five times in reaction to a series of challenges or "obstructions". The result is a revealing and surprising analysis of the creative process. And the perverse sado-masochistic relationship between the creator and the obstruction is a lot of fun. And so Seizure is laying a similar gauntlet down at the feet of Sam Twyford-Moore, one of our favourite young authors. STM is the shorthand we will use hence, and let us introduce him for those who aren't familiar. STM is an editor and writer whose fiction and non-fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies includingMeanjin, Overland, and Seizure. STM edited the literary journal Cutwater and hosts The Rereaders podcast. He is a hard-working author who is known and loved in the Sydney scene, and is easily recognisable for his uniform of blue shirts and matching eyes. The antagonists for this game are Rod Morrison, newest member of the Seizure team and one of Australia's foremost editors, and David Henley, creative director of Seizure and maniacal genius. The challenge STM has written the opening piece in a new story collection, but we feel it could be improved (the original text is pasted below for your reading pleasure). The piece suffers on a number of fronts, primarily that it relies on the contemporary crutch of first-person narration. There are two kinds of first person in this world, the conversational storytelling style and the "dear diary why doesn't anyone understand me?".
STM has one month to rewrite his opening piece taking into account the following obstructions, 1) the main character be changed to female; 2) the piece be written in the third person and; 3) he introduce a companion character to help bring some behavioural conflict. The aim of these obstructions is to push STM to a new level of writing, away from the creative writing-school voice and free him up from self-aware internal criticism that may prevent the story busting from his chest like an angry alien. We'll be back in at least a month with the results and the next obstructions, but in the meantime we can all bug him on twitter as to how he's getting on. Good luck, Sam, may the best man win.
Life is bearable even when it’s unbearable: that is what’s so terrible, that is the unbearable thing about it.
― Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage
For reasons that aren’t worth going into now, I was, at the mid-point of that fast summer, an increasingly fidgety person, prone to pacing the house and, occasionally, jogging around it in something of a dog-legged dash. I had extra energy that I needed to rid myself of. Nothing moved at the same speed that I was going at. The only thing that would settle me down was watching tennis on the television. It was hard to say what about tennis created this soothing effect. Perhaps it was the perpetual back and forth of the ball, which created a hypnotic rhythm. These had variations and breaks, but for the most part there was the routine thwack of the ball meeting the racquet and a sigh or grunt from the player. These beats were reproduced in my head and steadied everything. It was better than drinking myself to sleep and that the games often went late and were sometimes repeated early in the morning meant that I was kept calm at the time when I felt that I was completely out of control of my fidgetiness. January meant that there was plenty of tennis on the TV, with the Australian Open taking up most of the prime time of one of the commercial channels. I would stay awake after the games, walking around my lounge room, thinking about what it would be like to watch the matches in the arena down in Melbourne.
It was past midnight, after a particularly emotional game (maybe Roger Federer cried), when I decided it was possible to get down to Melbourne in time for the next match. I packed the few basics I thought that I would need and a sleeping bag into the boot of my rusting, somewhat troubled 1987 Holden Vacationer and left at 4 am. The only vehicles on the road were garbage trucks and pick-ups. I got into the spirit of elite sports and tried to break my personal best in driving speed. Hooning down the F3, I did 140 km/h for most of the twelve hours. I shot through Sydney by the time the sun showed itself. I got lost on the south coast and ended up on the edge of a ditch, eating untoasted pop tarts straight from the box.
I had a micro-sleep as I finally drove into Melbourne, fourteen hours of driving later. I had only closed my eyes for a fraction of a second, but it caused me to swerve slightly off the road just before I came onto Sydney Street. I booked into a central hostel and took the small steel lift up to the TV room and sat in front of a 36-inch widescreen. I came all the way to Melbourne to watch the tennis on TV. I had, on arrival, lost all desire to go anywhere near Rod Laver Arena. I could have watched the games at home, but I convinced myself that it was different watching it on TV in Melbourne, in a closer proximity to the actual events. I fell asleep in front of the communal TV in my underwear that night after watching pre-game, game and post-game analysis. When I woke up my bankcards were gone and I realised that I had no money for another night at the hostel, so it was time to go home. I was still fidgety enough to drive back to Sydney twenty-four hours after arriving in Melbourne.
The car boiled over just outside of the nation’s capital at what should have been the halfway mark to home. The engine was over-heating – a little image of an oil tank flashed red on the dashboard to tell me so, but that seemed less pertinent than the steam rising out of the bonnet in white streams. The acceleration was slow to respond. The road was stretching on but it looked like the car would not make it past the next bend of the Hume Highway. I slowed down and pulled over into a rest area, where families picnicked on brown benches and an elderly couple stared at the sun. I opened the bonnet and checked the oil. I poured water into the place where I had been shown to pour it before. The metal inside went off like a geyser. I stepped back and rushed to get more water from a leaking knee-high tap. I looked around to ask for help but all eyes were on sandwiches and cold cans of drink.
I had sweat on my brow, which dripped into the twisting black innards of a greasy engine, as I did my best to revive it. The car had not committed suicide – the whole explosive situation was not its fault, and as much as I might have liked to, I didn’t kick in the fender or smash the headlights with a raised foot or pound down on the bonnet with clenched fists. The car was old and marked by death. I had not been treating it right. It had originally been lined up to be gifted to my cousin – my aunt was going to pass it on to him instead of trading it in to some used car lot, but he dropped dead from a bleeding brain before she had the chance. He was just seventeen and I was gifted the car shortly after his funeral. I made a mess with the rear window by placing stickers for radio stations over it. It was a car marked in every sense – my father called it ‘John Boy’ after my cousin, which I remember thinking was creepy at the time. I respected my father’s naming rights, though. This was a dead boy’s car and maybe an altar is what it should have been. I did all the things that my cousin would no longer be able to do in it, stopping short of having sex on the seats and smoking bongs in the back. I drove the car, listening to songs in it, on crappy tapes bought from the local supermarket and that felt like the best way I could pay my dues. The songs played through the single speaker that still worked – even it suffered the death rattles – but the sound was amazingly clear.
I could hear every word.
That the car looked like it was on its last legs was upsetting, but there was a certain thrill when I managed to get back on the highway. It wasn’t to last – there was only a kilometre or two of highway left before the car conked it for good.
I had to find a way to get out of the way of the murderous stream of traffic. The nearest turn-off was Yass. Making it to Canberra was out of the question. I turned into a ditch and killed an already-dead engine. I got out and looked around. Nothing but yellowing grass and the exit to a highway I should have still been on.
There was a fibro house at the turn of the corner, and I went around the side and turned on a tap and drank from the mouth of a hose. I could hear the family inside as my cheeks filled with water hot from stagnating in the sun. I needed to find a pay phone or someone who would lend me access to their line. I didn’t feel like knocking on a random family’s door. I slumped into the wet grass, and from such a low p.o.v. spied a Bed and Breakfast across the road. It was sitting by itself on a hill by itself with a gabled roof and wide windows and what must have been country-style charm.
I tried to find the reception of the main house, then went and knocked on the door of the restaurant, which was to the side in its own building. I went and called out at the house at the back, which I assumed to be the residence of the owner. There was no vacant sign but it could have been flickering over every part of the grounds. It was ghost town quiet. I went to the back window of the main house and tore open the flyscreen. It made the sound of Velcro separating and I wanted to keep going once I had ripped all the way to the top of the screen because I liked the sound so much. I climbed up and through the window and put my feet down in an overly precious Victorian decorated room. There were tea-cosies on a dressing table and small packaged soaps on the pillows, dried potpourri beside the bed, starched white sheets folded and sitting on a rocking chair. There was no luggage in the room and nothing looked like it had been moved for months.
I walked around the house and found four identical rooms and a shared living space with a TV and DVD. There was no phone, though. I packed up some of the DVDs and went and put them in the backseat of the broken-down car, next to my hardback copy of Leonard Michaels’ Collected Stories, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and about twenty other books which I had bought off online bookstores and which I had promptly forgotten to read.
The restaurant seemed more likely to house a phone. I peered inside and saw one by the register. The windows and doors would not move for me. I went and got a rock from the garden bed and considered lobbing it through the double doors at the front, but thought about the noise and the family in their living room across the road. I imagined them dialing the police. Instead, I used it to smash a small side window. The glass shattered across the floor of the kitchen. I cut my hand as I climbed through the window. It wasn’t a bad cut. I wrapped my hand with some tissues and tape and made myself a chocolate milkshake, with syrup and milk from the fridge, in a tall yellow paper cup with a green palm tree design wrapped around it, and drank it down fast. I didn’t really need any more energy than I already had, but the glucose sticking to the bottom of the tall paper cup gave me an extra kick to get through the whole drawn-out process of the break and enter. I had never used a cash register before, but it was fairly self-explanatory. I pressed one button and it opened itself up immediately. There were riches in the till – hundred-dollar notes – and I took them all, leaving the coins. I had no need for them. There were fifty-dollar notes. I stuffed them into my pockets.
I went around to the other side of the counter and found a blackboard leaning against a table, on which the specials menu would have been written. I wiped it clean with my forearm and picked out a piece of coloured chalk from an ice-cream container. I got down on my knees and wrote my repentance …
I AM SORRY FOR DOING THIS. I AM VERY POOR AND WOULD NEVER STEAL BUT I AM IN A VERY BAD WAY. I AM SORRY.
That was pure bullshit, or to put it more gently, something of a fiction. I was not so poor and despite the cut hand I was not in such a bad way, or at least I did not feel bad. I felt quite good and looking around the empty dining hall, I had a new hang out. I had access to food and books. There were only commercial fiction titles on the bookshelves, though, nothing worth actually reading; romance novels for women who were there for their weekend getaways. There was no real food in the industrial-sized freezers, either, just base ingredients and I did not feel like I had time to cook. I walked down to Yass Junction instead, populated by a small strip of cafes and shops, and with my pockets filled with new cash I would have my pick of every menu. There was a simple looking place and I went in and ordered a tuna salad, a large coffee, lemonade and carrot cake. The food was all orange, yellow and brown and this somehow provided a level of comfort, when it should have, in fact, made me push the plate away and not touch the coffee. I had always eaten fast, with a fidgety foot scratching the other, but there seemed to be no swallowing here. It was absorbed.
I bought some gum to get the sensation of chewing back.
I considered staying a night at a hotel few doors down, but figured I better get out of town. I went into the mechanic’s across the road and told them about my car, asking what could be done. Their books were filled for the rest of the week. That was no good to me.
There was a train line visible from the window of the mechanic’s and it seemed like as good a getaway plan as any. I could not save the car and the repair joint couldn’t look at it for a week. I walked down to see if I could buy a ticket, but there was no station master, and I could not imagine a train stopping here and the timetable read like nonsense.
I went back to the Bed and Breakfast and found that beside the owner’s quarters was a car under a blue tarpaulin. I figured the keys for the car would be somewhere in the house. I repeated the fly screen rip and climbed through into a tight bathroom. Stepping out into the main bedroom, it felt odd standing in front of a stranger’s bed. Near the door, on a table covered in keys, was more money. I took another two hundred dollars. I went back outside and ripped the protective cover off the vehicle shape beneath, revealing a red sports convertible. I opened the door, and felt relieved that I didn’t have to smash glass to get in. I turned the key over. I turned the key again and again but it wouldn’t start. It was lucky that it didn’t, really. The car was a manual and I didn’t know how to drive stick. It seemed pointless to steal a car if you didn’t know how to drive it. I imagined that I would be able to learn in the backstreets of Yass – of which there were probably two – before hitting the highway and heading home. I’m not sure how I thought I was going to explain the car when I got home; how I had managed to trade in the dead Holden Vacationer for an MG Sports Car of the Year. It seemed to be that if the driver of such a car was not wearing a red leather jacket with sunglasses, then the whole driving experience would have been a waste, and I did not own a red leather jacket nor sunglasses.
I went into one of the unoccupied rooms and showered, ripping open the soft white soap. The towels were white and clean. I lay on the sheets. Hit by a second wave of misguided creativity, I pulled a pen out from my back pocket and wrote at the top of the sheet a part confession.
‘Will this be my Glenrowan?’
What a load of bullshit looking back, but I was serious then. It wasn’t any myth-making on my part. [I really had to face this fact when the owner of the bed and breakfast sent the sheets to me in a white Australia Post package months later.] I had been pulled over by police earlier that day. Their blue and red lights flashed just as I hit the outskirts of Melbourne and made my move to get onto the Hume. I had been speeding out of the city like a hoon, looking forward to hitting the long country stretches, and right after stealing a tank of premium petrol. They didn’t mention the stolen fuel, though – it was a simple case of speeding. They had caught me going at 114 km/h. Before putting on the breaks, I was almost certainly moving at 130. They asked for my licence. The only proof of identity I had was printed the side of a packet of generic anti-depressants, which I had not, as of yet, been taking. It should have been a flag for them, but they read the name and handed back the packet. The officers inspected the packet as I explained that my licence, as well as a bankcard, had been stolen from a hostel I had been staying at. They did the routine check to make sure that the vehicle had not been stolen.
I watched them in the rear-view mirror as they talked on the radio. I was waiting for the cuffs, but they came over and handed me a swift ticket instead. The NSW plates must have made them think that I wasn’t their problem. I imagined that they thought that I would get pulled up again once I was over state lines and once that had happened it would be up to the NSWelshmen cops to deal with me.
Now in Yass, having broken into three separate buildings, I was expecting to see those blue and red lights flare up and flash again and when I heard the sound of footsteps coming from outside I imagined a can of tear gas coming through the windows. I wondered if the owner of the place could have a gun stored somewhere on site and whether he might go for it straight away on seeing the broken glass and the torn fly screens. The truth was that the illegality of all of these actions was extremely banal. I just wanted a hotel room and somewhere to sleep. Bonnie and Clyde and other bank robbers in crime films seemed to be acting out of boredom, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was acting out of necessity and the fact that, in the middle of Yass, I had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. I was not trying to look bad ass, because everyone was nowhere to be seen, and because of that no one could see me.
The footsteps came around again and I got off the bed and lay down on the floor. I really did not want to be seen, but then I remembered ordering the taxi and I went outside, just as he was walking back to his cab to drive off.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I was just saying goodbye to my grandparents. They’re both almost deaf, but they heard you out the front before I did.’
For whatever reason – the promise of money, most likely – the taxi driver bought the story. He repaid me with a story about his ex-wife and how she would not let him see his son.
‘She thinks that the boy is property. He’s not something you can divide. He is both her and me in one.’
The taxi started to feel like the cramped inside of a psychologist’s office. I should have charged him for my time. The fare from Yass to Canberra was excessive; a two-hundred dollar taxi ride. I paid the driver with the money from the cash register back at the B & B. He didn’t seem to question the fact that there must have been eight hundred dollars in notes on me. I booked into a cheap drive-thru hotel on the outskirts of the Capital. I went up to my room, which was like a concrete pod, with the bare minimum of natural light, and laid the money out on the bed.
I didn’t really know what to do with myself or this money, so I hitched into Civic Centre. I was over taxis, for life, after spending so much on a single drive. I bought a ticket to see The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, but I didn’t go inside the cinema. Now that I had money – more money than I needed for the moment – I wasn’t quite sure what it did or what I was supposed to do with it. Why not buy a ticket to a movie without intentions to actually see it? Movies did not move fast enough for me, anyway – to be trapped inside a dark room, listening to someone else talk, seeing someone else’s vision didn’t really appeal to me when my own imagination was working in overdrive, out Spielberg-ing the best Hollywood directors. I couldn’t stand to be in the cinema’s surrounds any longer, anyway. The shopping centre was dead. The fatal flaws were these: it was a Sunday night and it was Canberra.
This was the city where my cousin had died of the aneurism. I tried not to think about my own head.
I got back to the hotel after booking my bus ticket for the next morning, and ordered pay per view and waited up to watch The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, which was scheduled to screen at 2 am. I had seen the Andrew Dominic film in the cinema the year before and had enjoyed it. Many of the reviews I read after mentioned that Jesse James, as played by Brad Pitt, was very likely a manic-depressive. His erratic behaviour, in the film at least, seemed to uphold such a diagnosis. Jesse James went from calm in one scene, to putting a knife to a neck in the next. I wanted to see for myself if this assessment held up, but I fell asleep at the end of the first scene. No new impressions of the film were to be made that night. Things slowed down to a safer speed, but that speed was unbearable, a fact that would remain unchanged and static for months.
Good luck, STM.