We need to talk about the hippopotamus

Some weeks you’re moodily incubating a brilliant idea, some you’re just a surly, frustrated arsehole.

In the best weeks, it’s both.

This week, I’m bereft. I’ve surled and mooded my way through an entire week to find myself marooned at my desert island of a desk without an idea or a Man Friday to help me find one, partly because I don’t have a Man Friday but mostly because I’m pretty sure just imagining having one is quite racist.

So it’s Manless Friday, I have no ideas and I might be an imaginary racist.

Brilliant.

I have a strategy for this moment. I look up. It’s desperate and unpleasant, but needs must.

On the brick wall beyond my laptop there is a fluttering spray of curly post-it notes upon which I have written every half-formed, random and/or incomprehensible idea I ever spurned. I tell myself I keep them to remind me to be discerning.

That is not why I keep them.

I extend a hand towards them now. It means reaching over my laptop lid. If I can just do it without disturbing —

I don’t know why you think sneaking past me will work, preek.

—the plastic pteranodon blu-tacked to my laptop lid.

‘Shush,’ I say. ‘I need to do this, and I need to do it with an open mind.’

It’s not so much your scryeee belief that I’m an over-vigilant pteranodon that disturbs me, says the Pteranodon of Ptruth, as your belief that my mind might have been elsewhere for a moment. Kraaaaaarg.

‘I’m not listening to you,’ I say.

Then how can I be talking? I think we need to discuss this. Kah kahkaaaaah.

‘No!’ I say. ‘Discuss it with someone else.’

Someone else? Dear oh Lord, gAAAAaaaaaahrag. You were one of those kids who wondered what Ossie Ostrich got up to during the week, weren’t you?

‘HE STAYED IN HIS BOX BECAUSE HE LIKED HIS PRIVACY. Listen, shut it. I’m done with you. You were a one-off event, a brain explosion brought on by stress and general weirdness, but I don’t need you anymore. I’ve got plenty of better ways of telling stories. Look, I keep a wall full of them.’

Ah yes, the Wall. Now, are you sure —

‘Quiet. As if I need a plastic toy to construct a narrative. I can pick from dozens. Watch this. Today’s new idea is on its way.’

I reach out and pluck a random post-it from the wall. It reads:

HE’S A COP WHO’LL STOP AT NOTHING TO GET TO THE TRUTH

— He should stop at some things. List of things he should stop at:

  • releasing sarin gas
  • eating baby
  • molesting old hippopotamus

There is a long silence.

‘Do you think imagining Man Friday is racist?’ I ask.

I think, says the Pteranodon of Ptruth, that we need to talk about the hippopotamus.

The parable of the naked smorgasbord doppelganger

I can’t make an ellipsis, and it’s killing me.

It’s usually fatal, yes. Kraaa.

I try doing three full stops. They fail to automatically team up into a single glyph. I bemoan the decline of the Spirit of the Blitz.

Oh sure, World War Two Londoners had no trouble persuading three little dots to shift slightly closer together, scrawk raag, what with their communal sense of punctuation. On their laptop screens. In 1940s England. I expect that was what kept them safe from all those bombs. This is just like that.

I try doing an em dash, and I can’t do that either. I also can’t do diacritical marks, leaving the accented words I type creepily naked, like a doppelganger eating crepes at a cafe smorgasbord. I want to kill myself.

Funny you should say that, craaaAAAaw. It’s a little known fact that keyboard gremlins are usually what set off those self-immolating Tibetan monks.

I look up. The Pteranodon of Ptruth gazes back at me from its blu-tack perch on top of my new laptop.

Sorry, was I talking out loud? Sreeg.

‘I know where you’re going with this.’

Only I was just thinking—

‘Don’t you dare.’

that there is

‘I paid good money for this thing.’

a hashtag for this. Preek.

I #headdesk. #FML, I think. #WTF. #PteranodonofPtruth.

Warmer. Warmer. Red hot. Cold. Squeee.

I lurch up from my keyboard. ‘I know which arse-bastarding hashtag you mean!’ I say. ‘It’s for people who moan about scorched latte milk or slightly inferior jalapeños in their ten-dollar food-truck tacos!’

Um—

‘THIS IS NOT A FIRST-WORLD PROBLEM. Well it is, but it’s a proper one. I paid quite a lot of money for this laptop, which I need to use for my job, which is writing. If I can’t type some characters I need … well, it’s more or less useless.’

— have you noticed —

‘Quiet, I’m monologuing. If the laptop can’t do its job, then all my first-world money, and the first-world money that went into designing it, and the third-world labour that built it, and the rare elements they dug out of third-world countries to make it, are wasted. It’s like someone bought a luxury yacht and it turned out there were no toilets on it. Yes the yacht is luxurious, but it’s still a problem if the rich nobs on board have to crap over the side—’

— would you just —

‘I’m not some frivolous roué in a … in some sort of façade of—’

PREEEEEK.

‘What?’

Say that second last word again.

‘Façade. Why?’

Oh.

‘Why’s that suddenly working?’

I think you head-butted the ‘num lock’ key before. Gräk.

‘Is that … which one is — oh. It’s quite hard to see in that corner.’

The Pteranodon of truth looks at me. Äänittäjää, it says.

‘Is that a pteranodon swear?’ I ask.

I think it’s Finnish for ‘recording engineer’, says the pteranodon. But it’ll do for now.


Originally published in the King’s Tribune.

I don’t know, I’m a god damn pteranodon

I just blu-tacked my pteranodon to my monitor. If this were a euphemism I’d have already called an ambulance.

It’s not a euphemism. It’s a two-inch tall plastic pteranodon. I don’t know why I’ve suddenly blu-tacked it to my monitor, and now I don’t have long to find out, because I’ve just returned from my boss’s office, where I quit my job.

The pteranodon gazes levelly at me, or at least as levelly as pteranodon can gaze who is permanently posed in a wings-out, gape-jawed, waiting-for-Ray-Harryhausen-to-call-action stance.

Are you, it shrieks cretaceously, absolutely sure about this? Raark.

‘Sssh,’ I say. ‘I’ve got all these emails to look at.’

I look at the emails. The pteranodon looks at me. It has no choice.

It’s just—

‘I’m not listening.’

Yet here I am talking, caw.

I look up from the emails. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’

Yes you do, screech. Just look at you, sweating, edgy, openly anthropomorphising a plastic dinosaur during work hours like a common nine year-old. You think you’ve made a mistake, graaa raark, don’t you?

I pick at a bit of nothing on my desk. ‘Actually, pteranodons aren’t dinosaurs, they’re pterosaurs. You see, dinosaurs fall into two groups, saurischia and ornithis—’

You think, insists the pteranodon, that you’ve made a mistake.

I look the pteranodon in its tiny, inexpertly painted, basilisk eye. ‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘Maybe. But it’s done now, isn’t it? The decision’s made, so I hardly need a plastic party favour talking smack about it.’

Hey, you put me here, scrawk.

‘And I could easily replace you. Look, this drawer has three other plastic dinosaurs in it and a paper crane my friend made out of a headshot of Kevin McCloud—’

I’m not a dinosaur, preek.

‘“Preek”? What the hell kind of made up crap is “preek”?’

Oh sure, because you know what sound pteranodons make. In the wild. Here in Parkville, in 2013, in the wild. Preek.

‘I KNOW ALL KINDS OF THINGS, YOU TINY PLASTIC PRICK. I’m clever. I haven’t made a mistake. I’m not leaving this team of dedicated health workers in the lurch, because there are loads of people who could come and write their vital online psychological interventions. It’s totally okay and not at all selfish and cowardly for me to quit now. I like me.

‘And someone else will definitely employ me. Almost definitely. You’ll see. When I leave here with my specific plan to write something and then something else and then five book deal and then something something massive success and buy a castle, and you’re a gargoyle blu-tacked to one of my lesser crenellations, you’re going to look back on this churlish doubt of yours and feel,’ I say to the plastic pteranodon stuck to my monitor, ‘very foolish indeed.’

I sit back triumphantly in my swivel chair. The pteranodon stares at me. Jaws agape.

What the hell are you talking about?

‘What?’

I was asking you, says the pteranodon, if you thought it was a good idea to stick a toy to your monitor.

I look at the pteranodon.

You share this desk. Someone called Jane uses it half the week.

‘Does she like dinosaurs?’ I ask.

I don’t know, says the pteranodon with a sigh. I’m a god damn pteranodon.


Originally published in the King’s Tribune.

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.

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.

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.

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.