Originally published in the October 2011 issue of the King's Tribune, which you should definitely read, even though not all of it is about goats.
And then suddenly the shaking stops and there isn’t a goat next door.
For most people, this won’t appear to be a problem. Not having a goat next door has become, in this modern world of iPads, Twitter and ironic moustaches, the expected state of affairs. In fact, very rarely do you hear our young people of today walking past a house, looking into the garden and saying, ‘I expect their goat’s probably round the back.’
No, our young people of today say things like ‘Ooo, what a lovely bed of iPads in that garden’, on account of it’s all modern now.
But it is a problem for me, because until the moment I realised there wasn’t a goat next door, I hadn’t technically been aware there was one, because there wasn’t.
(Now, at this point I can understand many of you might be considering your options. It’s a new magazine, you don’t know if it’s been worth your money, and you’re naturally leery of one of those wanky columns where the guy just likes to bugger about. Don’t worry though, this will soon come to a neat ending where all the jokes tie up neatly and it turns out I was just being a bit silly. Just like one of those columns in the Good Weekend magazine, which you love.)
I live, and this is important to know, in the Dandenong Ranges. If you’re unaware of it, that’s a sort of idyllic semi-rural eyrie just east of all those suburbs Chris Lilley and Gina Riley don’t really like, filled with the simple bucolic charm you might have seen in shows such as Midsomer Murders. It’s not like that Northcote they’ve got in town, with its restaurants and tram.
When I moved here from that modern Preston a couple of years ago it was difficult, what with my colourful clothing and children on the street making signs to ward off the Evil Eye, to know what to expect from village life.
One of the more striking features of life on my street was the appearance and then equally mysterious disappearance of various farm animals on and around what are essentially suburban front yards.
One neighbour brought a cow home for a weekend, let it wander around their lawn for a bit, then made it vanish again come Monday.
Across the street there is sometimes, but by no means always, a strange and eldritch Shetland Pony. Once there was a boy I’d never seen before, standing next to it, holding a Frisbee, just staring at me. I almost built a panic room.
Once I looked up from a bit of idle ironic moustache growing to find what I still insist was a llama staring at me over the fence. When I looked again, several weeks later, it was gone, so I was unable to gauge the reaction of the llama to my by-then fully established handlebars.
It may, and if pressed I am willing to concede this, have been an alpaca. Or a tall labrador.
No one would explain to me where these animals were coming from, or why and whence they were leaving again, because I wasn’t from there. I learned quickly just to edit out the distant lowing that echoed around the hills at dusk, accompanied by the modern alpenhorns of vintage Berlinas and sports utes plaintively inviting each other to go violate themselves. Farm animals began to pop in and out of existence around me, only weakly interacting with their surroundings before vanishing forever, unacknowledged and unremembered, like neutrinos, or Naomi Robson.
Which is why, when my keyboard stopped rattling just now and there suddenly wasn’t a goat next door, I had to rewind slightly to properly notice what I’d only subconsciously registered for the previous couple of hours, which was a nervous bleating coming from over the fence of neighbours who had, up until just those two hours ago, definitively not had a goat.
As I’ve said, normally I’d just edit out the mysterious appearance and rapid subsequent disappearance of yet another ungulate, except for what had precipitated this one’s silence, which was an earthquake.
I sit very still and watch my anglepoise lamp bobble around, then settle down again, as though it had decided at the last minute not to introduce a Pixar film. I watch my Twitter feed suddenly fill up with capitalised shouting about slightly dislodged chai latte foam and puns on the word ‘vibrate’, which naturally makes me think: bleating.
What happened to the bleating? Is the goat next door alright?
Best theory #1: the quake hit the natural resonance frequency of goats and it liquefied.
Yes, alright, but in times of great disaster the mind tends to seek extreme explanations for things.
Wait – there’s a goat next door?
Both possible answers to that question are confusing. I hadn’t consciously noticed the goat next door until it was gone, so for a couple of hours the goat had existed in a state of quantum superposition. Like Schrödinger’s Goat, but in Upwey instead of a lead box.
Best theory #2: my neighbours are secret particle physicist perverts who are keeping a goat in a state of quantum superposition.
My anglepoise lamp stares at me, just like it does in that bit at the start of the film where it makes you suddenly and uncomfortably aware that you’re an adult about to watch Monsters, Inc. on your own.
Whatever the story, I’m fed up with being kept in the dark about this weird business of quantum ruminants. I decide to go and look over the neighbours’ fence and sort this mystery out for myself, and if I end up in a wicker man on the local footy ground so be it.
I’m paranoid, but I also lose confidence quite easily*, so by the time I reach the fence I’m already admonishing myself for having entertained this kind of city-rube hipstery outsiderness.
‘TERRY STOP BUGGERING AROUND WITH THE INCINERATOR THE FUCKEN V8S ARE ON THE TELLY’
My neighbours are in their yard. I’ll just pop my head over the fence, say a quick hello, do a quick and passably surreptitious goat-scan and be on my way.
‘YEH ORIGHT GET OFF ME BLOODY BACK WOMAN’
As if there were quantum goats. What, is there some kind of seismically-triggered alternate reality in which, in a parallel universe, the goats next door just bought a person but it disappeared?
‘DON’T TALK TO ME LIKE THAT/SMY BACK YARD I’LL TALK ANY WAY/STICK YOUR FUCKEN V8S THEN’
Silly Matchy. I put my foot on the rung of the fence, but as I go to step up, it begins to rattle. The ground rumbles and the trees sway. Aftershock.
The first thing I notice after it stops is that the voices from next door have fallen silent. I step up and tremulously peer over the fence.<
There is no sign of the neighbours. In the centre of the yard stands a single, motionless, goat.
‘Beeeehhh,’ it says.
*A failing I ascribe to a primary-school art project in which I tried to make a papier-maché model of Saturn but got my cosmology wrong, painted the Great Red Spot on a rapidly sagging bulge and was forced to present before all our parents something that resembled an enormous paper tit in a hula-hoop.**
**Although, looked at another way, it’s possible I pre-empted Tracey Emin by two decades.