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Of human Bondage

Originally published some time in 2007.

Oscar, The Evil Sulphura and I have gone to see the new Bond film, Casino Royale. The first ten minutes takes place in a men's bathroom, in which a fight involving broken urinals and wildly spraying plumbing leads neatly into Bond's iconic flip-around-and-shoot-the-cameraman move.

It is exciting and violent and it awakens an urge deep in my bladder.

I squint at my ticket in the darkness. ‘8.30 — 11.15’, it says. It is barely quarter to nine. I decide to rush out and back as quickly as possible, but by the time I build up the nerve to slink across my row the first thrilling action sequence starts and I'm locked anxiously into my seat.

The following 150 minutes pass in alternating stripes of exhilaration and lower abdominal distress. The film seems to pass in a deliberately provocative sequence of scenes in which people are variously emerging from, plummeting into, pouring, drinking and occasionally spurting from multiple bullet holes with, watery fluids.

‘Stop squirming,’ hisses Sulph.

‘I have to pee,’ I whisper.

‘Just go then!’ she says.

‘I can’t! I’ll miss an important bit of plot!’

Sulph glares at me. ‘It’s a Bond film. Bond good, bad guy evil, woman evil stroke sexy. You’re just making an excuse because you’re scared of public toilets.’

‘I am not scared of public toilets!’ I exclaim.

Oscar leans over. ‘Is there a situation?’ he asks.

‘He needs to pee, but he’s afraid to go,’ says Sulphura.

Oscar observes me. ‘You can’t go,’ he says. ‘You’ll miss an important bit of plot.’

I make an expression which weaves triumph into excruciating pain. Sulph presses her eyeballs with her fingers. We sit back to watch the film, which had just reached a scene in which Bond undergoes horrific genital torture. Mentally switching chairs with him brings only temporary relief.

The credits roll, and because of a very specific kind of bloody-mindedness I sit through the entire credits, including the model makers and the drivers of the catering vans. When I see the words JAMES BOND WILL RETURN, however, I'm off like a hare.

The cinema toilets are large and white and remarkably reminiscent of the bathroom from the Bond film. The last of the other filmgoers is leaving as I arrive, so I have my choice of urinals. As the dam bursts, I think as I always do of my favourite word for this process: micturate

Then it’s over, and I'm standing alone at the urinal in the Bond-bathroom, and behind me are the mirrors for the basins. It’s silent. I can’t hear anyone coming. I may not get another chance to do this. Should I? What if someone opens the door just as I'm doing it? I’d hear someone coming. Wouldn't I?

I zip up. Listen. Silent. I’ll never get the chance again. Do it.

The soundtrack begins in my head: twangy guitar first, then the towering brass. I spin around, fingers cocked like a .38 Special, and shoot the mirror.

‘Bang!’ I yell joyously at the top of my voice. For a microsecond, I am as happy as it is possible for a freshly-relieved man who has just seen a Bond film to be.

Then I notice that one of the cubicles is not vacant. Under the door, a pair of shoes is keeping perfectly still.

‘Oh, um, sorry,’ I say, ‘I—’

Then every urinal in the room simultaneously begins its automatic flush cycle and the secret agent in the mirror leaps in three directions at once and yelps a G above high C.

Oscar walks in. He looks at me. I am standing in the middle of the public toilet, shaking, my fingers cocked like a gun.

‘ I'm not doing anything,’ I say reflexively.

There is a short silence.

‘It’s alright,’ says Oscar mildly. ‘Public toilets can be scary.’

When we get home, I admit to Oscar that I've never read anything by Ian Fleming. He sighs, reaches into his bookcase and hands me a slim volume.

A hundred pages in at two the next morning I begin to get frustrated at how long it’s taking for Bond to make his first appearance. Frowning at the cover, I try to remember who played Bond in the movie of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I decide it must have been George Lazenby.

Quantum Perverts

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.

#melbquake

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.

Thinking about you

In the bathroom at work, I encounter a colleague who is hand-washing after exiting the toilet. ‘Hey!’ he says. ‘I was just thinking about you a second ago!’

There is a short silence.

‘I mean,’ he says, ‘like 20 minutes ago. Not …’ He glances at the loo door. There is a longer silence. We are trapped by his embarrassment.

‘I’m just going to get a cup of tea,’ I say, as gently as I can. I’m not, but only I can free us from this. I walk away. He is still washing his hands.

The other Georgia

There is a man looking in my study window from the back yard. I suddenly can’t remember where I keep the cricket bat. He’s burly, and he’s tapping on the glass and saying something which I can’t hear because I’m listening to some traditional Georgian choral music on my headphones and I’ve just turned up the volume as high as I can stand to get the full majestic effect.

He’s five feet away, banging on my window and I’m staring back at him, as lifeless as one of those ducks hanging in restaurant windows in Chinatown. The Georgians are giving it handful in my ears. Prickles are running through my blood. He’s yelling now, the man, and I want to run.

He’s pointing to his ears, and at me. He’s lifting something up for me to see. It’s the nozzle of a large vacuum cleaner.

I yank the headphones from my ears with a hand like a boxing glove, and the Georgian wail drops away to silence. At least, it should drop away to silence. Instead I find that outside the headphones the huge, mountainous harmonies are booming around the walls and, critically, out the windows. The headphones are still plugged in.

I jab at my laptop until it stops.

‘Sorry,’ the man is saying. ‘Only I’m steam cleaning the carpets of the place next door and I couldn’t tell if my machine was on or not.’

‘Sorry,’ I say numbly.

He goes to leave, then stops. ‘What is it, anyway? Muslim music or something?’

‘It’s Georgian,’ I say.

‘Oh,’ he says. ‘I thought that was all fiddles and banjos and Lucinda Williams.’

‘There’s another Georgia,’ I say. ‘It’s near Russia.’

‘Oh.’ He doesn’t sound convinced. ‘Good luck with it then.’ He leaves, presumably to call the Terror Hotline.

I investigate the headphones lead. I had plugged it into the microphone jack instead of the headphones jack, which apparently makes the music play at the requested volume through my headphones and deafeningly through the speakers. I plug it into the correct hole, close and lock the window, draw the blinds and make myself a settling cup of tea.

How lucky, I think as the kettle waits for me to look away, that this happened at home. I sometimes have to take the train during the day, and I’m always being told I should take my laptop to get some useful work done in transit. I never, ever do this, because I fear that one of the generation Naomi Robson refers to as Our Young People will take it off me and hurt me and run away.

Now it becomes clear what infinitely greater humiliations could have befallen me. I congratulate myself on my instinctive trust of fear as an evolutionary adaptation.

Back in the study I return to my laptop, put my headphones in, click Play and my eardrums touch in the middle.