by David Stevens
The man in the darkness of the cinema stalls whacks him and he stumbles out here in the burning dry, but he does not go down. Not real, he says to the ghost of rancid butter and fumbled breathing. He is tired of it, and surprised that he is still surprised. He … fuck it … it's just back story. Move along…
So. What are the pleasures of middle-age? Each word was hammered out with a new step, his thoughts finding the same rhythm as his feet, a litany returning him to earth, away from the lies of a past that never existed. Anger, resignation … bargaining? No, they were the stages of grief. He supposed there was a difference. It was unlikely he would ever enjoy the pleasures (any there may be) of old age, but what he wondered, sucking air and ignoring the stitch in his side, were the pleasures of middle age supposed to be?
They were a confidence trick, designed to distract you from the horrors. (Joe would be happy of distraction, but it would have to be fairly monumental to work.) It was all about enjoying the fruits of your youth. He liked fruits. He missed them. Teeth might not handle an apple these days, but a tin of sliced cling peaches – heaven on a stick. In a can. And sucking down the syrup afterwards – a smack of the lips. There was a term, but he could not find it just now. That was happening more and more. It was not early onset whatsy, it was … what? Stress?
Deferred satisfaction, that was the word. Term. Deferred consumption. He had been an economics major. Until he dropped out in second year. Neo-classical market theory, all of us rational actors, making decisions about putting off today so that we could enjoy tomorrow. That's why the ants shouldn't let the grasshopper in. Allow an insect of lesser virtue into the nest, and he’ll drag everyone down. He’ll sink the ship!
But they had let Joe in, the integrity of the script bent to accommodate his place in the plot. The little commonwealth of survivors. He had felt the whole thing creak, the improbability of it, as they let him enter via the narrow gate. Fair’s fair, though, thought Joe. He had looked the part. He had acted like a good ant. An ideal member of the community. Foraged during the day, returned by evening curfew. Never followed home by undesirables who might lower the tone of the town. Ate locally. Attended town hall meetings, voted though it wasn't compulsory. Kept his tools clean and neat. Didn’t bite his neighbours.
Face facts, Joe. Your heart was never in it. You always had your own agenda, he wheezed to himself, shifting the squirming bundle from one arm to the other. God, he thought, why did people used to jog? Why would you do it to yourself? Assuming of course, the pain of others was real.
So. What were these deferred satisfactions of youth? He could hardly think of one. Wasn’t every message you used to see about not deferring satisfaction - if you wait, it’ll be too late. Indulge yourself. Cram it in everywhere you can. Leave no orifice unfilled.
Sullied satisfactions, none of them pure. Guilt, connivance. What about innocent pleasure?
He had a list all ready. Banged them out along the straight. Now this, this was stuff he knew. Chocolate buddies. Cobbers. Liquorice bullets. Caramel swirls. Whiz Fizz. A dollar bag of mixed lollies, enough to gorge on til you hawked chocolate spag off your rainbow tongue. Candy cigarettes. Coke. A can of Passiona to wash it all down. Bouncing around in your guts all afternoon afterwards.
The snack bar at the cinema, framed by individual light bulbs, the packets of lollies all different to those in the normal shops. Boxes with bows, oversized bags, he thought them classy, but his mother - he would not dwell on that other time, her absence, trying to find his seat in the dark, the man – his mother declared each time that it was a rip off, and she would buy their supplies at Woolworths beforehand and smuggle them in. Stuffed in her cavernous handbag, tassles dangling, hand tooled leather elephant on the side, the sweets were rationed out through the film, each distribution bringing with it a whiff of otherness, the smell of suede and 4711 cologne and cigarettes, though he had never seen his mother smoke. The smell hinted at a time before him, though he found it hard to believe in such a thing. Pollywaffles, chunk size ones already broken up. Lolly Gobble Bliss Bombs, but they always had those hard bits at the bottom of the bag, if you were greedy you ended up breaking your teeth on indigestible corn kernels. Smith’s Crisps. Handfuls of Smarties, but never M&Ms. American movies, but never American chocolate. Incredibly, his stomach rumbled, even as he climbed the incline, stumbling a little under the extra weight. A long list formed in his mind now, music to run by: finger buns, custard tarts, pineapple doughnuts, vanilla slices, apple cream turn-overs, … He had thought he would never be hungry again. Hungry for particular things. Separate, articulate desires. He understood utilitarian fuel shovelling. Get that mass inside.
Like sex. You wouldn't expect much of that to be going on these days, not with how familiar everyone had become with internal anatomy. Too many insides now on the outsides, it was off-putting. Made no sense, but it was standard for the genre. Even if absent, the audience would infer it any way, each time our hero entered a womb like tunnel, each time a victim, their chest heaving, leaned against a telegraph pole for a brief respite from futile running. Fuck this, fuck that, even with the sky falling, with the hands of the dead reaching up through the earth, with dragon-fire incinerating everything, they’d still be at it.
That’s why there were still kids around the place. Just like the one tucked snugly under his arm.
On cue, the boy struggled, and Joe gripped him tighter. Where you going, kiddo?
Never happier than at the movies, stuffing his face, sitting in the dark next to his Mum. He usually enjoyed the trailers more than the film, the burgeoning anticipation. The magic of "Coming Soon" greater than the day's blockbuster.
“NOONAN,” came the shouts, bringing him back to reality. Whatever that was. After a moment, he remembered that was his name. Joe Noonan. The one he was using. They must have seen him as he took off from the compound. Despite all of the distractions.
He was leaving that name behind, like everything else in the village. Except the little kiddly-wink.
The real surprise was that they persisted. The village had disappeared off-screen, so why did their voices continue? A glitch?
The boy pushed against him, trying to find leverage. Children are dangerous. They are a weakness at his heart. A rational actor would leave the boy now. Put him down without a thought, not miss a step, just keep going. They might be satisfied with that. They might be so happy with the boy that they would let him go, or at least pause for a moment, their pseudo-anger dissipated. He adopted grimness to force off the temptation. Fuck 'em. Fuck the villagers with their torches, their courage finally sucked up now they had no choice, chasing the monster to the edge of the cliff. And fuck the other things too. He would run until he could not run any more. And though his legs were older, there was still a lot of run left in him.
Football did not have a time limit when he was a boy. They did not play against a final whistle, or save something for the dying minutes. They just ran and ran, him, his brothers, kids down the street, each time surprised when night fell or mothers called them to dinner, as though that had never happened before and nobody had suspected this day too would end, despite the evidence of every day that had come before. He had never stopped. Running, running, the others falling away, him trying to keep up, seeing them merge into the smoke of winter fires descending from the chimneys. They drifted from the game as they grew older, leaving him wanting it to stay the same forever. Wanting the day never to end.
All these families without fathers. Worn out women with strays running round, don’t even notice if one or two go missing. It’s expected, it’s de jure, not a single conscious thought behind any of it. Little fat bellied things running squealing, arms held high. Where do those tummies come from? Who gave them permission to laugh?
The boy struggled again. "Please ... don't...," but it was Joe who was gasping out words, the boy did not break his silence. Never had, so far as Joe knew.
Once, staying up all night studying for an exam (an attempt to do well, to fit in, to be normal), he nodded off, then woke, scared. Who was he? He couldn’t remember his name. He knew he was a tree, ergo his name would be Latin … What the hell had he been studying that time?
It was becoming
difficult now. He barely had enough air for one. Please don't push me, please
don't push me, and a Little Golden Book image popped into his head, that little
train that could, who just kept going. Middle-age. When you realise you're on a
train that only has one way of stopping. No, no, better, never stops, it will
keep going forever, but your ticket is running out. Indian trains hurtled into
his reverie, the multitudes crowded on them. His thoughts shifted to corpses
floating in the
Men he’d known
in the old days –fellows with certain unconventional tastes - had settled for
The wildness of the cities, bands of monkeys sweeping through, raiding markets. Flocks of children, brown-limbed boys like birds – so many boys - all moving as one organic thing, swelling, shifting like the sea, the illusion of a consciousness hidden at the centre.
The stone steps beneath his feet, their particular cracks, the shades of grey, the specific sparkle of specks of quartz, the evidence of centuries in the worn footsteps. Just fled from uni, thinking, this is real, I am here, trying to convince himself, trying to break through the barrier between himself and the world, trying to let it penetrate him like a virus through a cell wall, willing it to alter his structure. Crumbling temples, stink of pressing flesh. Trying to believe in the age of the stone buildings, that they had not just appeared as he turned the corner and looked up. Lost his camera, his lunch, his hat, all that first day, all the while he repeated his mantra, this is real, this is real, this is …
He dreamed of
Virdassa, the daily pilgrims, the tourists, the bereaved. He imagined their
shock at the water garbled moans as the first of the charred dead began to slap
at those stones and drag themselves from the
Not good, hope.
The places he has seen. They cannot hold him, though. It’s all a dream. You can excuse anything in a dream. And, towards the end, the dream had changed. Joe had kept moving, pushing on from town to town, each old one fading as he departed, each new one offering its own subterranean world. As he kept ahead of the wave, he became alert to another progressing from the other direction. Men with other dreams, with no tolerance or fear of consequences. He did not want to be there when the waves met.
Surely memories would have died by now, or their possessors moved on, to the cemetery or to other towns. The schoolyard was gone, the bullies grown fat and pickled in mundanity, preserved in suburban aspic. It had been time for Joe to return home.
He was right,
Then. After he
arrived back in
That name. It was written on one or other of the pieces of paper he used to carry about.
The people at
the compound thought he was quiet. They thought him shy. They thought, if they
thought of him at all, in the moments between changing the reels of the horror
movies running in their own heads, that he was a version of them, traumatised
and getting on with it all as best he could. Like
The wall stretching around the village. If you replace every part of a ship over time, the timbers, the sails, the rigging, the spars, the rudder, is it still the same ship? If you keep building secret escape exits into the side of a fortress, at what point does it cease to be a wall, and becomes a door? He’d been a Philosophy minor at some time, he recalled.
In the middle of the night, him standing before the gate. It was ridiculous to think he could stand there, unchallenged. Such a thing could happen only in a dream. Mr Boscato, out the front of the class with his one good eye blazing, said he would never even leave him in charge of clapping out the dusters. The Cyclops had seen through him, seen the dangers. The universe had spoken through Mr Boscato then - a meat puppet taken over for just that purpose. Mr Boscato’s whole life had existed so the message could be delivered to Joe. We know you. We’re watching you. You’re no good, and you’re up to no good.
Why was nobody watching him, as he felt the tension between inside and outside, there at the border of yin and yang. What would be washed up, what might sluice through, if the gate was opened? The fear held at bay by the wall - he could feel it in his erection. Release the tension by having it over and done with, give into the fear so it leaks from him, so the waiting is over, the dissonance gone. Did anyone else feel this way?
Was there really anyone else?
Had it really happened? Were the screams around him just a sound track? Bodies fell, but he stood untouched in the midst of their Brownian motion. Aliens held others in their tractor beams, triffids struck down his neighbours, but the surging waves parted about him, leaving him dry as always.
And the children. Everywhere to be plucked. To be saved. Who could believe in such a world?
“Noonan,” they called. “Noonan,” they pursued. Had it been him? Had he dared to open the gate? Had there been no one there to stop him? Why would there be no guards? The absurdity of the notion. He remembers running. Always running.
Wriggling, the boy returned him to earth, and Joe faltered at the resumption of consciousness, as he had at the thought of the man in the dark. His rhythm was interrupted while he checked and found that he hadn’t just drifted to a stop in his reverie. The ground kept breaking beneath his feet, ruined by generations of feral goats. Once he would have tut-tutted at the environmental wreckage, feeling righteous in hemp, but things were a bit past that now. Slipping, he stopped himself with his free hand, a moment’s panic that his knee had twisted and this was the end of his running.
No putting it off now. He could weep. He wanted to save the boy, but he cannot be dragged down. If one panicking swimmer pulls him under, how can he help all of those other boys out there, real or not real, born and unborn, abandoned and not yet loved?
“Noonan! Where do we go? NOONAN!”
And then: “Noonan. HELP US!”
He either abandoned the boy, or blocked off his air supply until he blacked out, to stop him resisting. With that came the risk of crossing over to the wrong side of the tidal boundary of permanent paralysis, brain damage, death. Trying to run the numbers in his head, balancing grief, fear, all the tendrils of future possibilities that awaited his every decision. He’s just an old bloke in shorts and singlet, shoulders spotted with future cancers and no idea what he is going to eat tonight, or when he will next rest. What business was it of his to be making life or death decisions? Still, this little fellow was not the first. He had been rescuing boys for a very long time.
From way before
the Green storm. The fact he took them,
that he could do that and get away with it. That a mother could remove her gaze
for a moment showed she did not love. It was when they turned away that it
happened. When they left you in the cinema to have time for themselves. It only needed to be one time. The other list.
Trevor. Kenneth. The Italian kid. No
He reassured himself there were no little bodies in shallow graves, or silent in dark corners, left forever unable to raise a hue-and-cry. There was no evidence of his compulsion to take apart little machines to see how they worked, for the pixels did not exist off-screen. No computer system had unlimited memory space.
The boy kicked, hard, and regretting it all before it happened, the man lowered him to the cracked ground. He felt the ache of the boy’s weight for the first time, in its absence. Here we go, and he reached, but the boy was gone, already slipping away into the fingers of fog, about to dissipate like everything else.
Only he didn’t. A better approximation of a monkey than Joe could ever be, the boy pulled ahead. Joe saw he was leading the way.
The boy only wanted to help, he realised, and as the screams rose behind him, Joe felt something unfamiliar, a memory from the time of hot showers and dental hygiene and anaesthetic. A tug of happiness. He wanted to share the burden.
If only the boy could talk. He had a tongue in his head: Joe had checked. What horrors had silenced it?
The usual, probably.
One day the backdrop had changed and this is where Joe found himself. It was different in the movies, watching it unfold on the huge screen while identifying with the camouflage-clad survivor. It’d be great. You’d rescue some hot chick, and she’d express her thanks pneumatically. The only weight you were going to carry was a heavy machine gun, or a flame thrower, and that only as far as the next monster nest or ambush spot. Not a spare tyre round your belly, that was never going to be you. You definitely didn’t imagine the weight of a child under each arm, the fear that you weren’t fast enough, just keeping in front of whatever horde it was that was eating the remains of the world. And the guilt of survival, so that when horror relieved you of the burden of the weight, you searched until you found a replacement, then another, and another, until the day you were able to look no more. Your growing weariness at the long list of nightmares, a list that had been so abstract when he watched those films, chewing Pollywaffles in the dark with his mum. He’d forgotten the details: rogue asteroids, awakened primeval beasts, nuclear exchange, revived dead, a plague of flesh-eating maggots from space. What remained when the story was forgotten, was that even when the hero won, even then, the screen still went dark at the end.
There were no heroes any more. Nature had selected them out long ago.
Joe stumbled on, adrenalin tenderising his flesh, a sound like sick dogs, many, many sick dogs, howling behind him. If only he was a Hemingway, transforming it into art: The Old Man and the Sea – of Zombies! Then he would be able to give it a suitable end, a culmination in catharsis. Instead, he just ran. Names were called less often, his or the others, most of the shouting coming now from a source beyond intelligence. The child ran and Joe just let him, part of his long letting go, part of the eventual embrace of a poverty even greater than his torn shorts, the giving up of everything that will ultimately be required of everyone. He relaxed a modicum, marvelling at the boy as he made his own way. When do we first learn to try to control everything? When, he wondered, was it first instilled in him to plan for the absolute worst? The back-up pack, the secret cache of food, one more escape route. At the first death? When the first barricade was overrun? The first rejection of a clumsy attempt at affection? The time alone in the cinema, when those hands grabbed him? Motion is all. Just keep moving, until you can move no more.
He reached the
crest, the boy in front, all limbs and
brown skin. Hand-tremblingly gorgeous. At the peak, the world was no longer
rocks and crumbling dirt inches from his nose. The sky stretched out, a fractured orange sub-continent bent over and
broken away from the land, hanging over him, set on a collision course with the
No one had rescued him. Perhaps he was still pinned to the floor between the rows of seats, the fat fingers (they smelled like raw mincemeat, hamburger left out of the fridge) squeezed over his mouth and nose, his eyes open, desperate for a glimpse between the seats, for a sliver of screen, for a giant face to glance down and nod reassuringly.
He kept his feet firmly on the tracks, knowing that the next scheduled service of Indian National Railways was bearing down fast, and his ticket was running out. Behind him, the monsters howled again: giant ants, aliens, radioactive lizards, angry protoplasm, human shaped locusts, consuming everything in their path, louder than the voices in his head, and closer than any metaphor had a right to be. Out front, the cinema projector was magnesium burning in his eyes, the swelling applause of the audience so much hamburger breath panting louder and faster in his ear. A brief silhouette swallow-darted upwards across the screen – the boy? – but there was no time for thinking. He concentrated on breathing, excluding all else. Running, he was running into descending cloud, no longer certain that his feet were hitting earth, but reassured that even if he had stepped off that cliff, he would not plummet so long as he did not look down. Even if the credits stopped rolling and the curtains closed, even if his mother called him to dinner. So long as he kept running.
David Stevens lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife and those of his children who have not worked out the locks. He blogs irregularly at davidstevens.info.