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.