The parable of Clive Blarsehole

My four year-old son comes into the room.

‘Sorry Dad, I spilled my drink.’

‘That’s okay The Boy. What happened?’

‘I bumped into the table.’

‘Well, that can happen. Not to worry.’

‘Yeah. But I feel like a bit of a dickhead.’

‘Sorry?’

‘A dickhead! I FEEL LIKE A BIT OF A DICKHEAD!’

And so, once again, I enter the parental equivalent of seeing someone start to fall in the street and feeling time stop while the urge to reach out and grab them battles the feeling that it looks like it may turn out to be a more than usually funny pratfall. Do I intervene like a hypocrite, or laugh like a monster?

My parents never swore in front of me. My high school best friend, born on the same day as me, had parents who swore constantly. His dad performed the George Carlin ‘Seven words you can’t say on TV’ routine for us when we were fourteen. So I found it shocking when my mum once yelled ‘fuck!’ after dropping a glass, and he found it shocking when his didn’t.

And here’s the point: we both now swear exactly the same amount, which is continuously and to an award-winning standard.

The Boy, it appears, is a natural. When he was eighteen months old and burbling random syllables, he once crawled over to me, looked up, clearly said ‘cuntface’, then went about his business. In my clumsiness I later inadvertently taught him to properly deploy the term he still thinks is ‘fuxake’.

So as far as swearing is concerned that horse has sailed. It only seems like yesterday he was in his crib, gurgling happily along with his favourite Derek and Clive records, but now he is four and a protocol must be agreed. I don’t want to teach him that any word is bad, but neither do I want to hear the phrase ‘effing and jeffing’ from a series of increasingly irate kinder teachers. Again.

‘Who taught you to say “dickhead”, son?’

‘Frank Woodley.’

‘Oh. Well, it’s funny, sure, bit it’s a bit rude. We wouldn’t say that in front of everyone.’

‘Okay. Is Frank Woodley a dickhead then dad?’

This seems as good a line to draw as any.

‘Yes, son. It’s definitely okay to say that Frank Woodley is a dickhead.’

So it’s possible I have a little Malcolm Tucker on my hands. And I’m fine with that. As long as I don’t end up with a Paul Anka. Or a Rex Hunt. Or a Clive Blarsehole.

Originally published in the King’s Tribune, which you should definitely read even though there’s hardly any effing or jeffing in it.

I went to the yard to live shirtlessly

A crow is looking at my nipples and it’s all the fault of Henry David Thoreau.

As part of preparing to move house I’ve been spending a lot of time renovating my garden, and this has inspired me to read Thoreau’s Walden, in which he spends two years living in a primitive hut in the woods, whittling decorative aphorisms for Robin Williams to abuse two hundred and fifty years later in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’.

(I say “reading”: in fact it’s proven sufficient simply to follow several of the Walden-themed Twitter accounts on my 3G iPad in various inner-city cafés, just as Thoreau intended.)

As I clamber up the slopes of the steeper parts of my back yard with a potted aloe under one arm I suddenly feel kinship with Enlightenment born-again rustics like Thoreau, though I picture them as the only reference point I have for outdoors types: the stream of near-identical shirtless men in early-eighties Solo commercials. I’ve tried, but I really can’t help but imagine poet-philosopher Thoreau piloting a kayak off a waterfall or sawing through a semiotically significant tree trunk with the aid of another beefy poet-philosopher to whom he is clearly giving the eye.

I plant the cactus and wipe a soiled arm across my brow. I am here; I have come to the yard to live deliberately and face the essential facts of life; I have indeed worked it hard to be a Solo Man.

I am filled with the joy of nature. I have shed the obsessive self-awareness of the virtual world for the pure simplicity of the physical. I can barely even hear the Guardian Books podcast I set up on my iPhone to play over the computer speakers I put on a long extension lead because quiet makes me feel weird.

The weak late-autumn sun, casting itself from cloud to cloud, sheds a pale beam on me. My soul is bursting. Wordlessly, thoughtlessly, I follow an instinct and tear off my shirt to bask.

A crow alights on the fence above me. We look at each other. In the same year that Thoreau was slamming down light-on-the-fizz masculinity, Edgar Allan Poe wrote ‘The Raven’.

The sun has reached the next cloud. It’s chilly. The podcast has finished. I’m standing in my silent garden, shirtless and shivering, while a crow looks at my anxious, erect nipples. I may not be about to marry my underage cousin but if it’s a choice between Thoreau and Poe I now know who I am. I run for the back door.

Safely inside my house, a jumper and the internet, I look up Walden and discover that Thoreau’s wilderness hut was ten minutes’ walk from his comfortable town house. In many ways, Thoreau was a prick.

Originally published in the King’s Tribune, which you should definitely read even though there’s hardly anything else about crows or nipples in it.

Six cardigans of doubt

In 1985 Edward de Bono wrote a book called Six Thinking Hats, which taught us all how to think things, which was brilliant, because up to that point we’d all just been ham-fisted, masturbating idiots.

De Bono’s metaphorical hats were coloured white, red, black, yellow, green and blue, which I don’t need to tell you correspond to factual thinking, intuitive thinking, thinking about octopuses, Ringo, cherry and a sixth thing. This radical new system for conceptualising thought was a revolution in the way people did important things like brainstorming improvements to the payroll system wearing a range of colourful hats and a piece of paper with ‘yellow’ written on it because they couldn’t find a yellow one.

What you probably don’t know is that de Bono didn’t stop there. In 1991 he wrote and evidently persuaded someone to publish a sequel to Six Thinking Hats called Six Action Shoes, a title so inherently ludicrous and redolent of satire that it requires me to break character at this point and say that this isn’t a bit I’m making up to be funny, it really is actually true.

The concern of de Bono in writing Six Action Shoes appears to have been that, having taught us how to think things, we had spent the intervening six years milling about, wielding thoughts but unaware that we could act on those thoughts, because Edward de Bono hadn’t told us how to yet.

The six action shoes of Six Action Shoes are, and again I have to pause to insist that these are genuine things a person wrote in a real book, as follows:

  • The Navy Formal Shoes of Routine
  • The Grey Sneakers of Investigation
  • The Sensible Brown Brogues of Sensibleness
  • The Orange Crisis Gumboots
  • The Pink Slippers of Caring
  • The Purple Riding Boots of Authority

And so we all learned how to think things, and then act on those thoughts. And then someone invented the internet, and we all went mental.

The internet, having been originally designed and built in the Middle Ages to satisfy the near-insatiable cravings of medieval monks for high-definition tentacle hentai, is now more or less entirely comprised of confidently amateur opinion, confidently amateur derision of other people’s confidently amateur opinions, and pictures of baby sloths cuddling monkeys.

Even the cute animal pictures are subject to our compulsive need to have thoughts about things. It’s no longer possible to have one picture of a baby sloth cuddling a monkey; instead there must be thousands of pictures of the baby sloth cuddling the monkey, plastered with our bold, white, all-caps thoughts about what the baby sloth might be thinking about the monkey, or what the monkey can be made to say about today’s news headlines, or what both make of this baby-sloth-and-monkey meme. ERMAHGERD, they are forced to say to each other over and over as their images degrade from infinite repetition, like a reflection caught between two mirrors. BERBEH SLERTH. MERNKEH.

And it’s all Edward de Bono’s fault. How foolish we were to worship him all these years. Let’s kill him.

Except that we weren’t, though. It is actually both helpful and important to think things, and if you’re going to have thoughts, acting on them sounds like a terrific plan. But there’s one element missing, one clothing-metaphor-based skill the lack of which has led to this messy, instant-O-pinion omni-tsunami of noise and certainty.

What it is, right, is it’s this: shut the hell up.

Just for a while. If everyone’s talking, and there’s something you think you might be forming a sudden thought about, and here you are, cherry hat on, riding boots tight and high, reaching for your keyboard, searching for a relatively unsullied picture of a baby sloth cuddling a monkey, stop. Wonder about this new opinion you’ve just had. Where did it come from? Am I sure it’s right? Do I even know about the thing it’s about? Can I even say with certainty that this baby sloth and monkey are into this?

In short: doubt.

In our mad lustful idolatry of Edward de Bono we forget that he neglected to teach us to doubt our millinogenic thoughts and our now barely-contained shoe-compulsions to act on them. So I’ve decided to step into this breach. I present to you, as an instructional guide, Six Cardigans of Doubt.

1. The Hot Pink Shrug of Insouciance

The first and most potent form of doubt, the Shrug evokes in its wearer a wordless, teenage disaffection with whatever happens to be passing by. When wearing the Shrug, treat your thoughts as any fourteen year-old would treat someone your age attempting to unselfconsciously deploy the term ‘Gangnam Style’ at a family barbecue.

2. The Second-Hand Hipster Cardy of Insufferably Ostentatious Difference

Don’t be fooled: even the expensive, faked-up, faux-ho doubt of the alternative, non-mainstream, I’ve-never-heard-of-whatever-you’re-into-because-I-know-a-better-one-from-Brooklyn hipster is, like the hipster herself, a useful tool. Adopting a posture of difference by dressing up your thoughts in identical big glasses to the thoughts of everyone else around you is a cunning metacognitive tool for exposing your own tribal allegiances and conformity. It will also gain you entry into smart pubs in Newtown, North Fitzroy and New Farm, where they do some really nice artisan ciders.

3. The Moth-Eaten Tracky Top of Genuinely Not Giving a Crap

The antithesis to the Hipster Cardy, the Tracky Top is for practicing authentic disengagement with the whole stupid meaningless mess. Careful though: visiting every news article on your local tabloid newspaper’s website to comment ‘THERE ALL LIERS FUKEN BURN THE LOT LOL’ does not constitute Tracky Top behaviour. The maximum allowable engagement with the news cycle in Tracky Top mode is having a covert early-morning slash behind the big stack of Herald Suns outside the milk bar while holding a Choc Top in the other hand.

4. The Three-Armed Harlequin Yak’s Wool Cardigan of Baroque Craziness

Rationality is the root of all cogent, intelligent thought, and it’s about time you stopped. Don this cardigan and try out the insane polar opposite to all your reasonably held beliefs. Feminists are Nazis! Any gas you can’t taste can’t warm the planet! My chosen sport team is no better than all the other chosen sport teams! I actually understand the scientific processes I sneeringly privilege over religious idiots! My opinions, unlike those of people I disagree with, will seem to future generations at best quaint and antediluvian!

5. The Actually Perfectly Defensible Straight Jacket of Moral Relativism

This is of course the worst, most tedious form of doubt; wearers spend their entire time saying things like ‘quick to condemn’ and ‘rush to judgement’ and talk a lot about defending the right to unpopular free speech. It is impossible to have an opinion at all in the Straight Jacket; wearing it tends to remind us of how much fun it is to just call someone we don’t like a toasty funge-mungler, and that is its primary virtue.

6. The Form-Fitting Fair-Isle Pullover of I Quite Fancy Sarah Lund out of The Killing

Ooo, controversial. Although not technically a cardigan, the Fair-Isle pullover embodies the forensic doubt of the investigator, the scepticism and … um … Scandinavian tradition of … oh who am I kidding, I just dig on Sarah Lund. Everyone get those jumpers, they’re brilliant. D’you remember when she wore that red one? Crikey.

Originally published in the King’s Tribune, which you should definitely read even though there’s hardly any other fashion advice in it.

The Magical and Sensuous Cowshit Moustache

Originally published in the December 2011 issue of the King’s Tribune, which you should definitely read, even though not all of it smells.

The manager is standing over me as I peruse his lengthy cheese platter.

‘The one on the far end is especially piquant,’ he says.

‘Oh?’

‘Oh yes. Especially,’ he says.

I am about to make two decisions, but I think I’m only about to make one.

‘Can you tell me more about it?’ I ask, leaning out from under the lee of his vast and slightly intimidating moustache.

I’m out at dinner in town with spouse/super-villain The Evil Sulphura. We don’t come to town for dinner much, partly because we have a four year-old son and partly because we live in a distant village where the weekly carriage out of town is often pursued by flaming torches.

As a result of this, I’ve put a huge weight of expectation on this dinner-and-a-show being a magical evening of sophistication and romance, which has been slightly dented by the evident conviction of QI Live’s producers that Australia has spawned no greater intellect or raconteur to sit on their panel than Jono Coleman.

He sat next to Julia Morris. I’m honestly not making this up.

So by the time we reach our smartly dim Spring Street restaurant, my desire for a magical experience has become tense and shrill.

‘Look at the gorgeous faux-antique French advertising prints!’ I gush. ‘Aren’t these giant incandescent globes whimsical? Isn’t it lovely how the waitress moved us away from the table full of businessmen making jokes with the word “poofter” in!’

‘Do you think we could order?’ says Sulph.

‘It’s all just so lovely and magical,’ I say.

After a lovely and magical spaghetti alla marinara dinner, the manager comes out personally with his cheese platter.

‘This one?’ he says. ‘A fine choice. I sourced this one personally from an obscure Croatian archipelago.’

‘I’ve been to an obscure Croatian archipelago!’ I cry delightedly. I’m experiencing a bonding event. ‘Maybe it’s the same one!’

The manager shrugs his moustache in a way that only subliminally connotes impatience. ‘What they do,’ he continues, ‘is they milk the youngest cows first, then the eldest ones, and the two cheeses are layered in a mould and wrapped in the ash of a tree that you’ve definitely never heard of. Here,’ he says, proffering his trencher. ‘Sample its aroma.’

I smell the cheese, and the evening changes.

‘I would like to order that one,’ I say in a small voice.

‘A terrific choice,’ says the manager’s moustache. ‘I’ll just plate it up for you.’

‘I’m a bit surprised you ordered that cheese,’ says Sulph after he leaves. ‘I saw the face you pulled when you smelled it.’

‘I didn’t pull a face!’ I say.

‘It was like it smelled bad. You seemed revolted by it.’

‘I was not!’ I hiss. ‘I was entranced by a wondrous sensual experience.’

We sit in silence until the cheese arrives.

‘Enjoy,’ says the moustache, and disappears.

I look at my cheese. Critically, I smell my cheese.

‘Tell me what it smells like,’ says Sulph.

‘It’s wonderful,’ I say. I take a deep breath. At second smell, I’m convinced. ‘It’s really wonderful.’

‘Describe it. Accurately.’

‘It’s grassy,’ I say. ‘There’s a tang in it, a really strong, grassy, organic tang. It’s a milky, farmyard smell, rich and fresh, pungent, like a …’

‘Go on,’ says Sulph. ‘Say it.’

I look her straight in the eye. ‘It’s like a cowpat,’ I say. ‘This cheese smells exactly like a fresh cowpat.’

There is a short silence.

‘I don’t care what you say,’ I say. ‘This is magical and amazing, and I’m not going to let you spoil it.’

I eat the cheese slowly, taking in the magical and amazing smell of a fresh cowpat with every soft, yielding bite.

A few days later, I come into the kitchen. ‘That cheese smelled like cow shit,’ I say.

‘Yes,’ says The Evil Sulphura, putting on the kettle.

‘Why did I knowingly order a piece of cheese that smelled like cow shit, then completely convince myself that I loved it?’

‘It was a big night,’ says Sulph. ‘You wanted everything to be perfect. And then …’ she says tentatively, pushing a cup of tea towards me.

‘What?’

‘Well, the manager came out specially, and you wanted to impress him. You know how quality facial hair pushes your buttons.’

I think about this. ‘I like me,’ I say.

We drink our tea.

‘Am I really that influenced by context?’ I say. ‘Are we all? What does it say about us that our opinions are so malleable? I always thought I was immune to suggestion. Does it really only take a nice night out and a hirsute man in a position of minor authority to make me eat shit and like it?’

‘Are you enjoying your tea?’ says Sulph.

I look down at it. ‘I don’t know,’ I say.

I go out to watch TV, but it’s Derren Brown and I don’t really enjoy it.

By the next time I go out to town, to a friend’s birthday drinks, I have conceived a secret plan. I will, I have decided, repel all influence and express only opinions I’m absolutely certain I formed myself.

I’m going to a bar in North Melbourne, so I’m also guaranteed a healthy population of ironic moustaches. I can, I tell myself, handle ironic moustaches.

I stride down Errol Street full of vigour and conviction. ‘That dress is ugly on her, but I like it,’ I think. ‘I find asphalt interesting and I don’t care who knows it! I don’t have an important opinion on most political matters! People who do accents on languages they don’t speak are awful!’

The bar is smartly dim. Its walls are covered with faux-antique French advertising prints. My conviction wavers, almost imperceptibly.

Randi is standing among a group of his friends I don’t know. He beckons me over. I harden my resolve.

‘Hello!’ says Randi.

‘Hello!’ I beam. ‘Happy birthday! Isn’t this place horrible!’

There is a silence.

‘These are my friends,’ he says.

I buy them all drinks. The barman is clean-shaven.

The next day, because no one else seems to be doing it, I sign up for Movember. I have made my decision.

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.

Thank you, Batman

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of the King’s Tribune, which you should definitely read, even though not all of it is about Batman.

Time is a mighty river, and I am an ominously unpiloted rental kayak floating past the picnic area.

It’s my first day at a new job, writing the content for a website that helps young people who’ve had an experience of psychosis. I’ve blagged my way into the job through a psychologist friend, and as I run down my hill past a bubbling, mooing foam of quantum farm animals to the train station, I am increasingly possessed by the belief that when I get to the office I’m going to be immediately fired for not knowing anything at all about psychosis.

On the platform two minutes early, I pull out the thick sheaf of academic papers my boss sent me. ‘Just give them a quick scan,’ he had said. ‘No problem,’ he had said. He had also said, ‘They shouldn’t give you any trouble.’

The first one is called ‘Non-Orthogonal Factor Analysis Of Something You Can’t Even Pronounce Because You’re A Fraud And Also Ugly’. It’s full of tables, Greek letters and that symbol that looks like ‘less than’ but has an extra line underneath because it hates me.

I’m a Film Theory graduate. Right now, sat on a bench on a windy train station platform staring at the exposure of my deception, I see myself in a very long shot indeed.

Another figure enters that shot, sees me and my papers and walks over.

‘Hello,’ he says.

He is standing one millimetre too close to me. His smile is one millimetre too jolly. He is wearing one too many scarves. Oh God, I think, I’ve got a ninety-minute train ride between me and failure and I’m not going to be able to read all these papers on mental health, which are my only chance of bluffing my way through the day, because here, to accompany me, is a nutter. I don’t believe in a higher power influencing our lives, but if I did I’d be cursing its perverse sense of poetic justice right now. Curse you, Batman.

There’s really nothing I can do. I can’t just stand up, look around with surprise and scuttle away, as if I’d only at that second realised that this is a train station platform and not the Upwey branch of Charcoal Chicken. It’s a train platform and the only reason to be there is to catch a train, so when the 8:55 to Flinders St arrives in about sixty seconds I am, in the face of an increasingly insistent impulse not to, going to have to get on.

I mumble some sounds that aren’t quite a greeting. I don’t make eye contact. He smiles again and for the moment seems happy to just stand there. A millimetre too close. Looking at me.

He boards the train with me and sits in my peripheral vision, still smiling amiably. I make a theatrical show, for both his and my benefit, of being completely engrossed in reading. I desperately shuffle the papers, looking for something comprehensible enough that my eyes could at least convincingly follow the words.

The paper I start reading is about delusions and hallucinations, the two keys symptoms of psychosis.

The man comes over and sits opposite me. ‘Are you a psychologist?’ he asks.

‘No,’ I mutter, ‘but I’m about to work with some psychologists, and I need to read this.’

‘Ah,’ he says and goes back to beaming.

Delusions, I read, are strongly-held beliefs that don’t accord with reality. Hallucinations are false sensations, especially in the auditory and visual—

‘I’m schizophrenic,’ he says.

This is just the worst luck. I’m trying to obtain a deep understanding of the psychotic mind and I can’t because one keeps talking to me. Batman is really after me today.

‘But it’s okay,’ he says, ‘because Jesus is looking after me.’

I fight the urge to ask if I could have a lend of Jesus and concentrate on reading. Delusions are most commonly manifested in paranoid beliefs, I read, though this can vary widely. Sufferers frequently believe that secret forces are arrayed to persecute them.

Hang on.

Hallucinations most frequently take the form of voices making inappropriate, impulsive and especially self-attacking statements. These voices are not imagined but neurologically indistinguishable from actual auditory sensation.

‘Jesus talks to me all the time.’

Oh God, I think. That’s me. I’m experiencing a strong, privately held belief frequently characterised by paranoia and self-loathing. I’m always hearing a voice telling me I’m a twat, and up to half the time it’s not coming from someone else. This is like one of those Twilight Zone episodes where a scholar finds that the ancient text he’s reading is describing him reading the text, and in the text there’s a monster sneaking up behind him. I’ve been having delusions about not having read papers that prove I’m delusional.

My skin starts to crawl. I can feel myself blushing and I think I might be sick. I’m having a panic attack in front of a schizophrenic man on my way to being fired for not understanding schizophrenia. This may be the first instance of a panic attack going meta.

I search my mind wildly for something to say. ‘What does Jesus say to you?’ I ask.

‘He tells me lots of things. He told me to talk to you this morning, for example.’

Oh great, I think. Now I’ve got Jesus on me too. He’s obviously teamed up with Batman in some sort of bizarre brand-crossover Justice League. I wonder if I should run off the train at the next stop.

‘Mostly, though, he tells me to keep taking my anti-psychotic meds.’

What is the next stop, anyw—

I stop. ‘Hang on a minute. Jesus talks to you, and what he tells you is to take the medication that stops you experiencing hallucinations and delusions?’

He nods. ‘Jesus needs me to stay well. He reminds me to go to my psychotherapist, too. And to sleep and eat well, and to see my friends. He keeps me healthy, because he knows I forget sometimes, and then I get sick.’

I’m not sure I should ask what I want to ask, but I can’t resist. ‘When you take your medication,’ I say, ‘… do you hear Jesus less frequently?’

‘He’s happy with me then,’ says the man with a broad smile. ‘He helps other people for a while, then comes back to remind me if I forget again.’

I’m no longer panicking. It’s hard to find room for emotional eccentricity in a conversation with a man whose psychosis manifests as a delusional urge to treat his psychosis.

We get off the train together at Flinders Street.

‘I’d like to give you this,’ he says. ‘I make them to give to people.’ He reaches into his jacket and hands me a small slip of paper, cut into an octagon. There’s an emoticon smile in the centre, and around the edge is carefully written, in biro, ‘DON’T WORRY! REMEMBER TO BE HAPPIER!’

‘Thank you,’ I say.

‘You’re welcome,’ he says. A passing commuter bumps into me and I drop the token. I can’t see where it’s gone. When I look up again, the man has gone too.

I check my watch. I was supposed to be at the office half an hour ago. I decide to go sit by the river and spend a couple of hours thoroughly reading all these papers.

I’m going to be late, but that’s alright, because sometimes a higher force sends you a message. Thank you, Batman.

Detriment-free air safety for kids

‘What’s up, son? You look a bit preoccupied.’

‘Dad, you know when I fly on the plane by myself to see Nanna and Grandad?’

‘Yes! You do so well, we’re really proud!’

‘Well I’ve noticed that it’s always a woman sitting next to me.’

‘Sure. Is that okay?’

‘Yeah. Some of the women are really nice, and some are grumpy. Mostly they’re nice.’

‘There you go.’

‘Why is there never a man sitting next to me?’

‘Ah. Well the airline has a policy that—’

‘What’s a policy?’

‘It means “a decision about the best way to do something”. And it’s the airline’s policy that men aren’t allowed to sit next to kids who are travelling alone.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, kids need to be safe on the plane.’

‘From men? Do men want to hurt kids?’

‘No! You don’t need to worry like that. Most adults you meet — more than most, nearly all — are good, fine, safe people. Even the grumpy ones. But a very, very, very small number of people aren’t good, and there are some people, yes, who want to hurt children. It’s just in case of that that the airline has the policy.’

‘And all those people who want to hurt children like me are men?’

‘No, there are plenty of examples of women who have hurt children. It happens, but a lot more of them are men. But it’s a very tiny number of men, and an even tinier number of women.’

‘And all those men who want to hurt kids take the plane? And the women who want to hurt kids don’t?’

‘No, just ordinary people take the plane. People like you and me!’

‘Oh. So the ordinary men need to be kept away from kids too?’

‘The ordinary men can sit somewhere else, can’t they?’

‘Away from kids. Because ordinary men on planes might want to hurt kids.’

‘No, but … see it’s just for safety. We do it like this, and there’s no detriment.’

‘What’s detriment?’

‘It’s something that makes the world worse, or hurts someone.’

‘Oh. So we don’t let men sit next to kids who are on their own, because men might hurt kids. Women are safe, so we let them sit next to kids. Everyone is kept safe from the men, and there’s no detriment.’

‘Well … that’s what the airline does, yes. And if we want to get on the plane, we have to agree to that.’

‘But Dad, what about Tall Steve from kinder? He’s just gone on holidays. He can sit next to kids, can’t he? He’s a kinder teacher! He’d be much more fun than women like that mean one who kept jabbing me with her elbow.’

‘Well that was just one of the people you sat with! Pretty much everyone else has been fine, so you can’t pick that one out and say “women aren’t nice”. That would be silly! But no, Tall Steve can’t sit next to kids. Tall Steve is a man.’

‘Dad, does Tall Steve want to hurt kids?’

‘No! Tall Steve is one of the nicest people in the world, and he would never hurt anyone. You know that.’

‘But he can’t sit next to kids.’

‘Well, not on the plane, no.’

‘Okay. What about you, Dad? When you travel, are you allowed to sit next to kids?’

‘I did once, ages ago, before they had this policy. A little boy and girl. The boy drew me a monster, and I helped him open his orange juice. But no, they wouldn’t let me sit next to kids now.’

‘Dad, do you want to hurt kids?’

‘No, son. No, I don’t.’

‘Okay. Dad?’

‘Yes son?’

‘Can Mum help with my bath tonight? It’s just … I just want to feel safe. So there’s no detriment.’

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.