An Awkward Meeting

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

We soon made it to what looked like a good hotel, small and cheap, and adding to its two-star rating, our room had a balcony with a full view of the famous Pushkar Lake. We unpacked his bike and dumped our bags, and summonsed by our hunger we took to the streets.

With endless restaurants, hotels, clothing shops, and chai and chill houses, the narrow-winding laneways of Pushkar were unmistakably touristy. Maintaining the cultural balance, though, was the threatening racket of trumpets and drums from the Hindu wedding processions scuttling along.

‘This place is crazy,’ said Lior, ‘look at all the girls!’

He was right; for with as many westerners present as locals—and the western girls given, seemingly, little choice from the heat but to parade around less clothed than usual—this place was indeed crazy.

‘So what do you want to eat, mate?’

‘Her!’

‘Other than her?’

‘Her mate! You?’

‘Give me something normal, like a steak sandwich and a hamburger, hot chips and sausages…’

‘This country is vegetarian.’

‘Well f#&k’n fuck you!’

‘What?’

‘Sorry, mate, it’s just… it’s all getting to me, and if I eat any more rice I’m gunna fair dinkum turn into a giant grain.’

‘What does it mean, this “fair dinkum” that Aussies say?’

‘Ahhhr… I guess it’s an expression of authenticity, meaning really or seriously, for the most part.’

‘Is that right?’

‘Fair dinkum.’

‘Well, if you want to eat something different, why don’t we go to an Israeli restaurant?’

Lior took the reins, and soon led us down some stairs and through a beaded doorway of what appeared to be an underground Israeli lair. The room was smoke-filled and dimly lit, and had a dramatically low ceiling. It was packed with people; equally with the sound of Hebrew and the high falsetto laughs I’d grown to know of the Israelis.

We sat on a couch in the far corner, at which time I noticed, hanging on the wall above us, a small flyer: Traditional Indian Singing Lessons. ‘Could be cool?’ I thought, but it was here the thought ended.

‘You want a cigarette?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, subscribing to the airlessness.

‘So tell me, my Aussie friend, do you have a girlfriend?’

‘No, you?’

‘No,’ he said. The matter, in standard bloke fashion, opened and closed from one neighbouring second to the next. ‘But tell me, my Aussie friend, what does—’

‘—אח שלום’ said another man, interjecting. He’d clearly mistaken me as Israeli, and I gazed at him vacuously until Lior intervened. They conversed in Hebrew for a few seconds—the only word comprehensible to my ears being Australian.

‘Oh sorry, my friend, you looks like an Israeli.’

‘That’s cool, mate.’

‘Hello, my name is Eval.’

He was tall, tanned, and wearing a red shirt and a blue sarong. And the dark-haired girl standing next to him, wearing a yellow crop top and jean shorts that propelled her into the category of crazy hot, was so gorgeous she couldn’t but induce light-headedness. I tried to look away, but as though bound by an invisible neck brace, my efforts fell at least 180° short. ‘I’m Ariella,’ she said, leaning down and giving me an unexpected kiss on the cheek. ‘Can we share your couch?’

Lior and I exchanged a knowing look. This was definitely one of those situations where you found another bloke’s girlfriend a lot hotter than you legally should, but who were we to deny them respite.

The waiter brought us a round of hot milks, and Lior took charge of ordering food.

‘What’s this?’ asked Eval, clasping his mug.

‘It’s the juice of the desert,’ said Lior, taking a fearless swig. The rest of us shared a look of concern, giving me passage to further check out Ariella.

‘So tell me, how do you like India?’ asked Eval, sitting forward.

‘It’s fine, mate.’ I said, stifling a sudden hyena-like yawn. I was too road-fatigued for much in the way of philosophical discussion—and, possibly vexed he should be worthy of Ariella.

Lior eyed me over his mug, and when I noticed the dejection in his countryman’s eyes, I cleared my throat. ‘It’s a pretty broad question, mate.’

‘Do I seem like I’m in a hurry?’ said Eval, sinking back into the couch.

I took an apprehensive sip of the milk. ‘So how do I like India? It’s a two-sided coin, I s’pose.’

‘A love/hate relationship, yes?’

‘Yes.’ I said, turning to Lior. ‘This milk-stuff is alright, mate.’

Lior gave a solitary nod, as though more interested in elaboration than milk.

I turned back to Eval. ‘Yes, a two-sided coin; on one side it’s a zoo, a barnyard, the toilet of toilets. For all its corruption, never-ending dirt, and the fact that many of the locals would sell you their mother, India is hell.’

Lior shuffled in his seat.

‘But, because while I’m here I don’t have to stomach the six o’clock news, a cell phone, or laugh at my boss’s shithouse jokes, on the other side it’s heaven.’

Eval sat back up. ‘So why did you come here?’

‘It’s complicated.’ My invisible neck brace assumed default position, giving me a clear view of Ariella. ‘To be honest,’ I said, forcing back, ‘I sometimes feel like a pretentious twat having come here at all; like I’m trying to prove something to myself… or impress girls… or something…’

‘Fuck the girls.’

‘Ha ha! Fuck the girls!’ said Lior. I eyed him over my mug, making him default back to hiding behind his own.

‘And tell me also…’ said Eval, his voice dropping to a more confidential tone, ‘what do you think of us Israelis?’

I clasped my mug harder. ‘Honestly?’

‘Full honesty.’

‘Really?’

‘Really..’

‘I think you can be a bunch of dicks.’

‘What?’

‘You ‘eard.’

‘What?’

‘You asked me to be honest, mate.’

The three of them broke into fervent Hebrew—the only words comprehensible to my ears being Australian, and, fuckhead.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘I’ve found the few solo Israelis I’ve met, like my good man Lior here, to be totally cool, but in groups there just seems to be an inward vibe where youse stick together and come across as pretty cold.’

‘It’s true that we stick together,’ added Lior, ‘but when you come from a country with such division, it’s only natural.’

‘It’s like it takes a little time for us to warm to outsiders,’ said Ariella, now leaning forward, ‘but once you’re in, you’re like family.’

Eval turned to Lior. ‘Do you think it’s true that Israelis come across as rude?’ he asked in a tone that, ironically, sounded less than polite.

‘I guess so—but only because we don’t use please or thank you,’ he said, turning to me as though feeling the need to explain it to an outsider. ‘We don’t have these words in Hebrew; to us, politeness is expressed by the melody we speak in. So instead of asking in a dry voice “can I’ve a coke, please?” we’d ask in a more gentle voice “can I’ve a coke!” kind of kicking up the end of the sentence with a higher pitch. We don’t mean to be rude—we’re just framed by our Hebrew habits. Besides, please and thank you don’t mean shit! And the English-speaking world seems to use them like excuses, like it’s ok to go through life being an arsehole, as long as you say please and fucking thank you!’

‘But as for Israelis playing music too loud in hotels, and smoking a little weed here and there,’ said Ariella, ‘that’s because we want to blow off steam after military service.’

‘It’s mandatory for non-Arab citizens,’ said Eval, making me suddenly understand why every Israeli I’d seen was a picture of fitness and health. ‘Straight after high school: guys for three years, girls for two years. So right when everyone is set free, we’re thrown into military shackles. By the time that bullshit is over, we want to run like a dog with two dicks. Most Israelis come to India, others go to South America, and some to your Australia.’ (I’d previously learnt there could be as many as 50,000 Israeli tourists in India at any one time.) ‘So when did you finish your service?’ he asked, turning to Lior.

‘Six months ago.’

‘Exactly, and the first thing you wanted to do was leave that fucking place, right?’

‘Yes, but my good heart will kill me in the end anyway. If things at home get worse, and I get the call to fight, I’ll gladly do it. Fucking gladly!’

‘And what would happen if you didn’t go back?’ I asked.

The three of them went quiet.

‘Then when I return to Israel, as soon as I walk through customs—bang!—I’d be thrown into military prison.’

The waiter arrived with our food, and having eaten more rice of late than I wished to for the rest of my life, the sight of falafel, hummus, and chocolate balls, was a more than welcome one.

We sat around over a few more hot milks, until our guests stood up an hour or so later. ‘Shalom to you, brother,’ said Eval, handing me his email address, ‘if ever you come to Israel, you’re welcome in my house like family.’

‘See you again,’ said Ariella, furthering her spell by giving me another kiss on the cheek before they walked away.

‘Ah, man! I think I’m in love!’ said Lior.

‘Just give me a minute, mate.’

He sank back into the couch as we observed in respectful silence.

‘So anyway, mate, you were going to ask me something…’

‘What?’

‘Before they came along, you were going to ask me something…’

‘Ahhhr… you know what?’

‘What?’

‘I can’t remember it now.’

‘Don’t torture me with that!’

He brushed me off with his trademark dismissive wave.

We made our way back out onto the streets, which, as though by nocturnal command were alive with blokes and girls, and dogs and girls, and cows and girls—and, girls.

‘Man, I can’t get over all the girls!’

‘Mate, I’m in enough pain via my own eyes.’

‘Yeah, but look at her!’ he said, causing me to turn suddenly and meet eyes with another temptress dressed to hurt.

‘Fair dinkum, my neck can’t handle this.’

‘You want a cigarette?’

‘Yeah, give me two.’

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

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Chapter One: Breathe

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

The most profound experience that ever happened to me was in a dorm room of a hostel in Dublin, December 1999. But to explain its significance, I need first to go back.

All my life I’d been diagnosed as asthmatic, and from the dawn of my existence had been in and out of hospital with bouts varying from mild to life threatening. Apparently I flatlined when I was three years old.

But I was never saddened by my condition, as I’d never known life without it. As a kid, I’d run around playing cricket, footy, climbing trees, get subsequently wheezy, have a puff of my inhaler and get straight back out there amongst all the sights, sounds, and smells that constituted boyhood.

It was a similar story throughout my teen years. But around the age of eighteen, just as I finished high school, and, ironically enough, when young people are thrust into the pressures of adult life, the asthma medications that had served me until this point appeared to no longer work.

Standing in front of the mirror, I’d look myself square in the eye and puff and puff with all my might. But no relief would come. I assumed I’d become immune to the old medications, and I sought the advice of countless doctors and specialists who, for the most part, would scratch their heads and prescribe the same old stuff over and over.

Five or more very difficult years passed during which I continued to feel, quite literally, permanently unable to breathe, or at least unable to catch my breath fully as I could when I was younger.

In June 1999, I decided I was going overseas, independently, for the first time. Seven years earlier I’d visited Irish relatives in America with Dad and my older brother Stephen, but this trip was to have no guardian or restrictions.

My main objective was to reach the motherland of Malta and the fatherland of Ireland, where I had numerous relatives whose names were like folklore to us first-generation Australians down in Oz. The trip also included a chocolate-box tour of mainland Europe. But with the unwanted extra of permanent breathlessness, I less so relished sites such as the Eiffel Tower, St Mark’s Square in Venice, and the Alps of Switzerland, as I gazed at them with strained eyes and accelerated heartbeat.

I reached Ireland by December that year, and having caught an asthmatic’s nightmare—the flu—my breathing was at such a record low that I considered cancelling the rest of my trip and flying back to Australia. But barely having the strength to make the phone call, as opposed to that to endure the long haul flight, I settled into a dorm room in a hostel in Dublin.

With countless anonymous backpackers checking in and out, my makeshift ward was far from private, and taking my inhaler up to 30 times a day—which, although it would “work” by way of making my hands go shaky, but never would it relieve my breathing—I spent most of the daylight hours in bed. This was the first time in my adult life when I actually fretted for my parents. But as much as I was here, they were in Melbourne.

I’d been there for almost a week, successfully avoiding social contact, when an unsought voice made its way into my ear. ‘What’s wrong with you? You look terrible.’

‘Nothing. I’m fine.’ I said, wishing this man would catch the soonest bus to the universe’s outermost corner.

‘You’re not fine. I would know.’

‘How would you know?’

To this day his name eludes me. He was Indian, about middle-aged, and he was proud to tell me that he was a general practitioner in London.

‘Do you have asthma?’ he asked.

‘I do, but—’

‘—And have you taken your Ventolin today?’

‘Yes, but it doesn’t seem to—’

‘—Son, if we meet in 50 years, I want to hear you tell me that you take your inhaler two puffs in the morning and two puffs in the evening.’

‘I do, I’ve probably taken it over twenty times today, but it doesn’t—’

‘—Son, you have oversensitive airways. The inhalers relax them so as to facilitate natural breathing. This is why it’s so important you take two puffs in the morning and two puffs in the evening.’

‘I’ve been taking them all my life! But for the last five years I seem to have become immune to—’

‘—Son, another remedy is to wear an undershirt at all times, to avoid sudden changes of temperature getting into your chest.’

‘I sometimes do, but—’

‘—But more important is that you take two puffs in the morning and two puffs in the evening. In fact, it’s getting dark, you should take it right now!’ he said, gesturing towards the dorm bathroom.

I felt the ‘v’ of my forehead increase from lowercase to capital. ‘I’m not taking those stupid inhalers, mate! All they do is make my hands shake—’

‘—Son, come on! Take it right now. No more backchat!’

Feeling like a child being sent to his room, I snatched my inhaler from my backpack and stomped into the bathroom. I flicked on the light, belligerently; the only trace of compensation being that the door was heavy enough that I could grumble without him being able to hear me.

‘Stupid inhaler.’

I turned towards the mirror and looked myself square in the eye.

‘I should just change my flight and go home.’

I exhaled until my lungs were almost empty.

‘One more taste of this evil shit and I’ll vomit.’

I put the inhaler to my mouth, pressed and inhaled mightily.

What happened next was the closest thing to a miracle I’d ever experienced.

As though an invisible corset had been unfastened, or a padlock on my ribcage suddenly unlocked, I felt a massive pressure fall away from my chest where from one neighbouring second to the next, I could breathe! I could breathe! My god, I could breathe!

Propelled into a state of natural ecstasy, it was as though I’d swapped bodies, or had reverted to the blissful state of childhood. I stood there for some seconds, gazing with disbelief into the mirror, breathing deeply, freely, and relishing each full inhalation like a smoker does with a cigarette.

In disbelief, I walked back into the dorm room where my Indian friend was waiting.

‘Well?’ he asked.

‘It worked!’

‘Of course it bloody worked!’

‘Yeah, but… it hasn’t worked for like five years, and, like, I mean, it really worked!’

‘Son, if we meet in 50 years, I want to hear you tell me that you take your inhaler two puffs in the morning and two puffs in the evening.’

‘I’ll do that. I really will!’

I went to bed soon after, and as though an unconscious curse had been miraculously lifted, I remember waking through the night—in my squeaky top bunk bed—in such a state of bliss that it brought tears to my eyes. I woke the next morning feeling more rested and energised than I could remember ever, and just as the doctor ordered, I took my morning puffs.

I walked all around Dublin that day in what was, I guess, the closest state of enlightenment I’d ever known.

As though a veil, or constriction, had been removed from my senses, I could see, hear, taste, smell, and most of all feel with a heightened awareness that, for the first time in my life, made me realise I wasn’t a separate entity floating aimlessly in a callous universe, but an intrinsic part of some sort of singular collective consciousness that forms the universe and all life in it. Be it the collective squawking of the seagulls reeling above, sounding, to me, as pure as dripping glass, or the icy sea breeze blowing off the Irish Sea feeling like a life-giving coverlet brushing against my face, or the white rays of the winter sun feeling as though they were stirring me on a cellular level, every sensory experience seemed so amplified that it rendered me in awe of all life and the very concept of it.

Where there was once great heaviness, there was now tingling lightness, and as though doing away with an age of pain and blockage, I wandered until dusk through the streets of Dublin, and up and down the length of the River Liffey, coughing up an indescribable amount of rubbish from my lungs. Each fragment discarded making way for even more glorious capacity to breathe.

It was no mystery that my new condition was bequeathed via the portal of good breathing, but how the breathing had unlocked was an utter mystery. I mean, all I’d done, as I’d been doing hourly for however many years previously, was take a whack from my inhaler, and—bang!—I was fast-tracked to comparative enlightenment. The spiritually inclined would later suggest that through some sort of trick of the mind occurring inadvertently by the doctor having taken control, I’d had a massive release from my heart chakra. Whatever that meant.

I left Dublin the next day on the ferry, and as the only soul standing on its stern side; I watched the small windblown city, with its famous Poolbeg chimneys, diminishing in the distance. It had truly been the scene of a miracle.

I arrived in London the next day, to be told vivaciously by my friends how well they thought I looked. I told them the story, sparing the details, to which with faces that suggested they had no personal experience with such matters, they made a sincere effort to show interest. My victory was a personal one, though cherished nonetheless.

I lived in London for the next twelve months, existing day and night in a continual state of bliss.

Saturday mornings were a particular treasure—where I’d lie on my bed in Tooting, relishing the ability to breathe as though with every breath I was having a sort of healing-conditioner massaged through my soul.

With my head, my body, and most importantly, my heart, now completely clear, it was as though I’d become who I really was: my true untainted self according to spiritual hypothesis, which at the time I knew little about.

Around 7.30 a.m., I’d open my bedroom door, which opened onto the backyard, and wait, ritually, for the sun’s rays to creep around the brick wall corner. While listening to the sounds of Hindu music wafting from the shops of Upper Tooting Road, I’d sit on my floor and be filled with ecstasy by seemingly nothing—or equally—by something as inconsequential as watching an ant crawl up a wall. Along with meeting my doctor-friend in Dublin, it was perhaps here that my interest in going to India began.

There was no amount of money on Earth I could be offered to revert back to my pre-Dublin condition, which I referred to as the “cursed me”. As now, able to feel it in the very air around me, I resided in a permanent state of love; love for all life, love for all matter, and most importantly, love for myself. I would smirk at the thought of the old me as I would at the thought of a bumbling child, who, lost in the perpetual state of fear and tension that I was, would battle my emotions via my head as successfully as one dodges machinegun fire. I was hereby at the summit of health and happiness; for by whatever means people were trying to acquire it, I now had it. But all of this was about to be lost. I went back to Australia.

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

The Ashram

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

Although I’d come to India with one eye on freedom, and the other on seeking answers that could shake me off emotionally, I’d become deeply adverse to the leagues of try-hard western spiritualists I’d observed along the way. They were a dime a dozen, yoga pant-wearing enthusiasts donning beads and wristbands as though the official decoration of the spiritual soldier. Most seemed unable to tell you quick enough just how “into it” they were. I’d been privy to conversations so toxically pretentious, I sometimes wondered if I should check myself into an infirmary.

Many such exchanges took place, but none stood out as much as with one American bloke, who overflowed with pride as he told a room of some thirty people—mostly girls—that he’d found his way back to god by drinking his own piss; his self-serving homily closing with a look as if expecting a round of applause.

These types, I felt, constituted the perfect circle of contradiction, in that they failed with flying colours to understand that genuine spirituality is defined by the degree the ego is dissolved, not fed. That if their transformation from jeans and t-shirts—to loose pants and sandals—was done in the name of impressing others, they were walking through the backdoor of the very house they’d tried to vacate.

Ange was by no means one of these, but was a dignified student in the Earth School. The others seemed to multiply when they got wet, and I knew any ashram would be rife with their kind, hence I wanted no part.

The next morning, nevertheless, Ange convinced me to go for an inspective wander at the ashram over the river.

Leading us away from the racket of the street, we walked up the long entrance ramp, where its vast flowery grounds unveiled themselves like a grand opening. The gardens were dotted with shady palms and tranquil seating areas, and the sound of nearby monkeys carried on the breeze.

Set high above the street, we gorged on the panoramic view of the Ganges. Ange turned to me with a broad smile. ‘Why don’t ye toss the bike idea and stay here fur a while.’

‘I’m tempted, it’s just… I’m not currently asylum seeking.’

‘Och, don’t be such a Jessie.’

‘Me? What about this lot of whitewashers? They look as if they’d be hard pressed to make a cup of tea between ‘em.’

‘Don’t be such an erse.’

‘I’m just not such a fan of these spiritual types, folk into their star signs and chakras, and those who claim to be so connected they can’t sleep during a full moon.’

‘Ah’m like that.’

‘Three words: al-co-hol.’

‘Look, why don’t we go down the office and ask a few questions?’

‘I’ll come for a walk with ya, but that’ll be me.’

We entered the rudimentary office. The fly screen door slowly closed behind us, screeching a melody so unpleasant it could make a dead man frown.

‘Good morning, sir,’ said the man, rising from his desk.

‘Good morning, what’s the minimum stay, please?’

‘Fourteen days, sir.’

I turned to Ange. ‘Nah, that’s a bit rich, I’m going to head into town and start looking for bikes.’

She shrugged her shoulders.

I headed for the door, but it was perhaps from not wishing to hear it a second time that I turned back around. ‘Excuse me, are there any peanuts in the cooking?’ I asked, myself being deadly allergic.

‘Actually, in fact, probably definitely yes or no,’ said the man, in an accent so thick that without a personal linguist on hand I’d have done better with Pythagoras’ theorem.

‘Sorry?’

‘Let me explain more clearly, sir,’ he said, inhaling as though about to launch into a more thorough explanation. But performing a head wobble composed of neither a nod meaning yes, nor a shake meaning no, he fell to complete silence.

The silence drew on, and I frowned and puckered, and puckered and frowned, until some years later he spoke. ‘Have I made myself clear, sir?’

‘Crystal,’ I said, turning back to Ange, ‘d’you know what?’

‘Whot?’

*****

Dear Manuel,

I’m in Rishikesh, and much to my surprise I’m staying at an ashram. I didn’t really know what they were previously, other than some sort of hippy refuge sought by westerners seeking budget enlightenment.

The word ashram means place of aspiring, so if a crack o’ dawn rise, two times yoga classes, two times meditation sessions, and three times eating the same food each day, defines aspiration, then an aspirant I am.

There are about a hundred inmates in stir. Each gets a small room, a bed with no mattress, and a pillow less comfortable than a chip of Ayers Rock. It’s a bit of a contrast to the motorbike plan, but here goes I s’pose.

*****

We were still standing in the office, when—ding!—the man rang a bell, prompting two other men to enter. Both were armed with keys and blankets, and they eyeballed us with a fraction too much intensity to call friendly.

‘Follow me,’ said one, as the other said the same to Ange.

‘Hang on,’ I said, ‘can’t we get a room together?’

‘Men and woman are separate in the ashram.’

He led me onto a balcony with a generous view of the river. ‘This isn’t so bad,’ I thought, taking it in as he fished the keys out of his pocket. He unlocked the door and we entered.

The room, however, if such cells were worthy of the title, was little more than a white concrete box with a hard wooden bed, a hole-in-the-floor dunny, and metal bars on the windows.

‘Any chance of an upgrade?’

‘Lunch is at twelve o’clock,’ he said, handing me a blanket and rulebook. ‘Don’t be late.’

It was 11:50 a.m., and feeling like a prisoner unsure of his crime, I sat on the hard bed. ‘Because this is far more fun than a motorbiking tour?’

I changed into loose white attire and made my way to the eating hall.

The hall was long and yellow; it had a grey tiled floor, and on the wall was a small music box playing a crackly Hindu mantra. There were as many westerners present as Indians, and all sat cross-legged on the floor, eating by hand from their metal trays.

I spotted Ange in the far corner. I walked over and sat next to her, as happy to see her as though we’d spent a lifetime apart.

‘Good’arvo, my name’s Dave. What are you in for?’

‘Illegal importation of Aussie zoomers.’

‘What’s a zoomer?’

‘Someone of an unstable disposition.’

Sitting opposite was an older western man. He was both handsome and ugly all in one, leading me to think he was French. ‘G’day, Pierre.’ I gestured by a raise of the eyebrows, to which he broke eye contact at record speed.

‘Wanker..’

‘He’s in silence, ya eeejit.’

‘Why? Frog got his tongue?’

‘Cat ya uncultured galoot! Anyway, shut it with yer Aussie piss-fartin’ aroond. We’re supposed tae be quiet and reflective.’

‘On what?’

‘Oan things.’

‘What things?’

‘Any and all things. Now shut it!’

‘D’you know what?’

‘Whot?’

‘You’d think they could have thought of a better name for it than sticky date pudding?’

‘Everybody silent!’ said one of the chefs, standing in the centre of the hall. All closed their eyes and fell pin-drop quiet.

As though psyching himself for the gig of his life, he closed his eyes and palmed his hands into prayer position. I kept one eye open, and several long seconds passed before he began singing some mantra. His voice, however, perhaps the very thing used to convert the ashram’s milk into curd, was about as in-tune as a cat being castrated with a can opener.

Trying not to think of Ange, I sat on the cusp of a total laughter breakdown, and I ran a scan of other-things-to-think-about-in-case-of-an-emergency. It would have been to my advantage to think about global warming, or the escalating concern of housing affordability for young Australians. But with the sound of Ange struggling to my left—and the chef wailing upwards as gracefully as a chicken, with a cape, trying to take flight—an avalanche gave way and I spurted aloud.

He stopped abruptly and made firm eye contact.

I tried to disguise my laugh as a cough, by intentionally continuing it and beating myself on the chest. Unconvinced, he held the stare, until after a few long seconds he turned away and recommenced.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said to her when he finished, ‘but it’s like needing a wee during hide-and-seek.’

‘Dear me…’ she sighed, ‘I think I ought tae be reprimanded fur bringin’ a fannyboz.’

Everybody started tucking into their food—a hotchpotch mix of clotted rice, lentils, and stuff that looked like a hybrid of the two.

‘This is pure mingin’,’ she said.

‘Is that Scottish for shithouse?’

‘Aye.’

‘Not a trace of Viagra in it.’

‘Maybe it’s the very thing that groond the French bloke tae silence?’

‘Maybe.’

The French bloke sneezed aloud, making me wonder if he’d just broken his vow.

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

Birthday truth bending

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

The majority of my birthdays escape my memory, but the one that’s burned into my brain most is when I turned 30 in Rishikesh, India.

It was September 28th, and the day was as hot and colourful as you’d expect from India. Myself and my Scottish friend Ange walked along the bustling roadside, during which a young local boy ran up to us with a cricket bat in hand. ‘Hello, mister! Your country?’

I told him.

‘Australia is number one! Shane Warne! Glenn McGrath!’ he shouted, giving us his best air-bat before running around a corner.

We reached the Ganges soon after, and with kids swimming and locals whack-washing their clothes, its banks were as lively as the images that had lured me here. The riverbank sand had a glittery metallic quality, and I walked ankle-deep into the water. ‘Shit! It’s freeeeezing!’

‘Aye, whot were ye expectin’?’

‘This is India, everything’s supposed to be balmy!’

‘Aye, but we’re near the Gangotri Glacier.’

Anytime I’d imagined the Ganges I’d envisioned an unsavoury picture of decomposing bodies and contaminated water, but with Rishikesh nestled in the Himalayan foothills, this section was as unspoiled as you could wish for.

‘I think I’ll go for a swim,’ I said, ‘but I dunno if I should take my pants off here?’

‘Why no’, huv ye got varicose veins?’

‘No, coz I’ve only got these translucent undies on.’

‘Och, ye’re in India the now, nobody cares!’

‘You coming in then?’

‘Noo, ah’m no’ strippin’ aff in front of these blokes over here.’

She was right, for the notion of privacy being utterly alien in India, as always we’d attracted a crowd. It was even common for western girls, daring to swim or suntan, to catch local lads wanking themselves in the reeds of the riverbanks.

I swam around until the holy water washed away enough old sins to make room for new ones. When I got out and dried off, the growing crowd circled in. ‘Hello, sir, will you be my friend?’

‘No.’

I sat on the bank, and Ange turned to me, her eyes seeming expressly occupied. ‘Can I ask ye something?’

‘I guess you just did.’

‘Don’t be daft. Why exactly did ye set oot oan this trip?’

I felt a familiar tension come over me as the inner breathing article loaded onto the front page of my head.

‘I’m not sure I want to bore you with it.’

‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘anyway, ah’ve been sittin’ here watchin’ the river, and thinkin’ aboot yer birthday, and I dreamt up a wee verse I wannae sing tae ye.’

She inhaled.

‘Ange?’

‘Aye?’

‘I’d prefer birthday bashes with a loaf of salami.’

‘Och, ah’m only jokin’, ya numpty! I knew it would get up yer kilt.’

‘Aye.’ I said.

‘Well, happy birthday and all. Ah’m gonnae heid up the hill fur arvo yoga, ya comin’?’

‘Nah, I’m going to hang down here. But I’m dead proud to hear you using the word arvo. I mean, why go to all the trouble to saying three syllables when you can achieve the same desired effect in two?’

‘Dave?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Ssshhh..’

She walked off, and as I strolled along the same cricket-kid from earlier ran up to me. ‘Steve Waugh!’ he shouted, giving me his best air-bat again before running around a corner. Curious, I followed, to find a group of some twelve kids playing street cricket.

With an old crate for a wicket, and a plank for a bat, their equipment was as elementary as you could imagine. Standing at the crease—having marked it in the dirt with his bare foot—was my little mate.

‘Sachin Tendulkar!’ I said, to which when the ball met with his bat it shot down the street and smacked into a cow.

It was still my birthday, so I figured I’d indulge in a self-bought present. I walked into a nearby clothes shop. The merchant smiled widely, and followed me around at a proximity close enough to be grating.

I browsed for a matter of time, until I spotted an item of interest. ‘How much for this orange shirt, please?’

‘One hundred rupees, sir.’

‘I’ll give you fifty.’

‘No, sir, one hundred.’

‘I’ll give you sixty.’

‘No, sir, one hundred rupees, last price.’

But the notion of fixed-prices being blatantly un-Indian, I was offended by his obstinacy.

Trounced, I resolved to leave, but it was then that one small question passing his lips would change our dynamic forever. ‘Your profession, sir?’

A little-imaginary-devil-with-little-fluttering-wings appeared at my left shoulder. ‘I’m a professional cricketer, recently drafted.’

It was hard to know if it was from excitement or nerves, but a muscle began to twitch in his temple. His brow grew damp, and having shot some command at his wife, she brought out a tray of chai in under a minute.

‘So tell me, sir,’ he said, dusting off a stool, ‘do you know Ricky Ponting?’

‘Yes. He is my cousin.’

‘Really?’

‘And I was best man at his wedding.’

He broke into girlish laughter, clapping his flippers like a delighted seal. ‘And tell me, sir, are you in India for the Test Series?’

‘Yes,’ I said, having precisely zero idea that the Australian team was currently in India.

He gathered his children for a group photo, and knowing that somewhere in hell Satan was dusting off another stool in preparation of my coming, I smiled for the camera.

Conversation turned back to business.

‘Please, sir, have this orange shirt, no money for you!’

‘Now now, I don’t want to be unfair, or least of all dishonest. I’ll give you fifty.’

‘Ok! Ok!’ he said, inserting the word between his shortening inhalations.

I was in his shop for half an hour, and I acquired a bundle of clothes at a heart-warming price. I could have let myself feel guilty, but figuring it was my birthday I was quick to grant myself pardon.

We parted with a reverent handshake, and as I exited his shop I noticed, a couple of doors along, the same group of kids still playing cricket. The little Tendulkar-batsman was again at the crease, and I acknowledged him with a faint nod.

My intention was to keep walking, but the merchant, moseying out of his shop, announced to the kids I was an Australian cricketer. My heart stopped as their faces lit. ‘Shane Warne! Jason Gillespie!’ they yelled as they exploded into mergers of child and pogo stick. I smiled dumbly, and although I’d hoped the moment would pass without consequence, one of the youngsters threw me the ball.

I stood with the ball in hand, but for the one, single, and inarguable fact that I bowl with the finesse of an orangutan, I was quick to chuck it back. ‘No, mate. I’ll bat.’

I stood at the crease with the bat in hand. Dozens of folk had gathered, and none were watching closer than the merchant, leaning against a wall with his arms folded.

I swallowed hard as the bowler took his run up. ‘Steve Waugh! Ricky Ponting!’ his teammates yelled as he unleashed like a muscle arm shotgun. My hit had to be a belter, for to be discovered as a fake could result in the burning of my effigy. The ball hurtled towards. My whole reputation was on the line, my whole career—perhaps my fear of clowns had returned, when—whack!—I belted it high.

Relieved, I stood back, and watching the ball soar through the air, it—plop!—landed in the Ganges.

‘Yyyaaayyy!’ the pogo-kids burst into a choir of approval, and guilty only of being in character, I lay the bat down and pointed their way.

‘Good luck at the game, sir!’ said the merchant, the twitch in his temple having resumed.

‘Thanks,’ I said, re-entering his shop for some subsequent bargains.

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

Irish Houdini conquers Alcatraz

It was July 1999 when myself and Dad decided to take the tour of Alcatraz prison, San Francisco.

True to legend, the boat ride to The Rock was distinctly choppy, raising the old questions about how the three men, who escaped in 1962, could have possibly made it to the mainland alive. The tour was headed by a frustrated stand-up comedian, who spent the duration of the boat ride repeating his joke that New York was full of Italians named Tony, simply because Italian immigrants in the 1920’s were required to wear badges that read ‘To NY’. I couldn’t tell what was more the cause for seasickness, him or the waves.

We arrived at the island soon after. It was the embodiment of bleakness—cold, blustery, practically treeless. Even the resident seagulls looked as though they were wondering why anyone would choose to disembark onto their downcast abode. We did as such, whereupon a subsequent guide bellowed at full American volume, ‘Welcome to The Rock! Those mugs might have slipped the net in ‘62, but you bums don’t stand a chance!’ I smiled politely in return as I walked past him, trying to dissuade the rising feeling of boredom that I felt on school excursions long ago.

With Dad at my side, we were led up the steep ramp from the harbor to the prison’s main entrance, where we were each given a cassette walkman with which to take the tour. I’d never taken an audio tour before, and as I put on the headphones, pressed play, and listened to the voiceover of ex-inmates commence, I felt as delighted as Benjamin Franklin with his infamous kite. Dad, known to root around with all things technology-related until those privy to the spectacle feel inclined to leave the room—bypassed the convenience of simply pressing the play button and proceeded to remove the cassette from the walkman, hold it up to the light and grumble that, ‘this bastard of a thing doesn’t work!’ With my eczema relapsing on cue, I decided, this time, not to be of assistance, but to push on independently with mind to meet up with him at the end of the tour. And so I did.

As a school kid that never enjoyed the everybody-behave,-listen,-and-stick-together nature of school excursions, I found the independence of taking the tour on my own exquisitely liberating.

At the centre of the prison, nicknamed “Broadway”, was the main prison hall—the grey ominous inner belly, constituted of stacked rows of cells where each night the prisoners would tuck themselves in with hearts full of broken dreams. Pouring into my ears were cell-by-cell descriptions from ex-inmates, talking of failed escape attempts, of the tears cried on New Year’s Eve when the wind would carry the far-off laughter from parties on the mainland, and of the dot-to-dot trail of the successful escapees of ‘62. With my love for the plight of Andy Dufresne hereby awoken, I couldn’t deny that I found the fugitive’s industriousness, their will-to-live being—to them—a higher authourity than that of their prison guards, and, ultimate victory, consummately satisfying. Recounted also, as I walked further along to the cafeteria—its entrance nicknamed “Times Square”—was the infamous dinner riot, when prisoners decided that 30 days in a row of pasta with no sauce, was 29 days too many. Al Capone, equally, was as great a focus on the tour as he was an alpha prisoner in his day.

After the cafeteria was the building that housed the solitary confinement cells. We were encouraged to enter one individually, to experience first-hand the desolation they specialised in.

I entered, warily, and with the darkness inside less like that of a forest at night, than that of a general anesthetic, I made awfully sure not to let the heavy door lock itself behind me. Its width was little more than an arm-span, and with my redundant eyes looking towards my ears, I clung to my in-ear ex-inmate as the only form of company on hand, as he explained—in an almost emotional voice—the lengths of time some of the less well-behaved prisoners spent in stir. He talked also of the things some would do to distract themselves from the mental torture; such as picking off a shirt button, throwing it on the floor, and spending the necessary time required to find it, before doing it all again. I was in there for a minute or less, before I felt a primal need to abort, but when I sneezed and in the deafening spray lost my bearings, I found the task of locating the door that bit more alarming.

We were next led out of the solitary cell building, through the prison exercise yard, and into the corridor of a smaller building where the tour concluded. Like cattle being driven into a shed, I watched the throng of nameless visitors take off their headphones and hand in their walkmans. I did the same, and figuring Dad would turn up sooner or later, I leaned against a nearby wall. But as the crowd thinned—and there was no Dad seen—I grew concerned.

I approached the tall security guard, standing in the corridor, and giving him a vague physical description, asked if he’d seen the old boy. With an air of concern less than heart-warming, he shrugged his shoulders and suggested I stand to the side. I did as ordered, and continued to chew my fingernails as the crowd withered down to the official wooden spoon taker, a short portly fellow, as much my father as my mother. Panic rose within me, and making the tour’s end worryingly official, the guard sectioned off the corridor with red cordoning rope, and hung off it a “do not enter” sign.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘my Dad is still on the tour!’

‘The last boat is leaving in twenty minutes, young man.’

‘Did you not hear me?’

‘I did, but it don’t change the fact none. You’d do well to make your way down to the harbour with these nice folk.’

Wondering if he had a certificate in unhelpfulness, I proceeded to walk away, but when the guard turned his attention to an old lady asking him a question, I quietly unclipped his rope and snuck back into the belly of the tour.

Inadvertently doing the tour backwards, I first walked through the prison exercise yard, but calling out to Dad was met with nothing but the sight and sounds of curious seagulls basking in the failing light.

Pressing onwards—in the nonsensical order of a frantic fox terrier checking its weemails in the park—I next made it back into the cafeteria, which apart from the ghosts of a thousand inmates passed, was utterly soulless. Everything about being in here felt wrong, and taking the advice of the goosebumps on my arms, I quickly kept on.

‘Dad?’ I yelled out as I walked briskly along the series of corridors in the Broadway prison hall. ‘Daaad?’ I yelled again, waiting for any potential unseen staff members to come out of the steelwork and reprimand me. But with the only response being the echo of my calls, neither him nor stranger was seen.

With about ten minutes left until the last boat, and knowing that with every footstep I was walking deeper into hot water if caught, I was split at seam with instinct to head for the harbour and duty to find Dad.

Getting angrier with him by the footstep—and further losing track of time—I wondered if the visual of seeing him rooting around with the walkman would be the last I’d ever see. But seeing in my mind, also, that of him locked in one of the solitary cells, I subscribed that blood was thicker than authority and pressed on to the building that housed them.

‘Dad?’ I hollered, closing its large main door when I entered. ‘Daaaaaaaaaaad!’ I squawked again, walking quickly along the row while trying each individual cell door. They were locked; making me wonder if behind one was he, laying in fetal position, or worse, playing the shirt button sanity game. The last cell door, however, was unlocked, and just for old time’s sake; I proceeded into the all-consuming darkness.

I stood there for a few seconds, allowing myself to feel the full force of the cell and Dad-stress combo, when a loud foghorn pierced the air. I could fair assume it was the last boat’s boarding call, or worse, departure call, and wondering if I was about to spend the night eating sauce-less pasta with ghosts, I proceeded to run towards the prison’s main entrance.

Struck by both the fresh air and the dark when I exited, I ran down the steep hill to the harbour. I arrived in a sweaty mess to see the loud guide from earlier pulling away a short walk-ramp from the pier to the boat, the boat idling in the bubbling foam from its engines.

‘Stop!’ I said.

He turned around and shook his head quietly to himself. ‘Hurry up kid! Are you insane?’

‘My Dad is somewhere on the island!’

‘What?’

‘My Dad! He never finished the tour! Can you help me find him?’

‘Kid, visitors, and even staff, are forbidden to stay on the island overnight!’

‘I get that, but he’s clearly lost, or worse has locked himself in one of the cells!’

‘And why would he do that?’

‘Because he’s Irish!’

‘Sounds like something an Italian would do.’

‘Can you help me or not?’

‘I’m sorry kid, but I have no choice but to order you to board this boat.’

‘But what about my Dad?’

Although his eyes offered traces of sympathy, he shook his head firmly. ‘It’s out of my hands, kid.’

Reluctantly, I boarded the boat, and stood pale on its stern side as its engines wound up and it slowly pulled away. In genuine disbelief, I watched The Rock shrink into the darkening horizon, all the while wondering if the disappearance of the old boy would become as infamous as the lads of ‘62. I wondered, also, if a league of armed police would resume looking for him at first light, and if he, like the Houdini hat trick, would ever be seen again.

But seen again he was, as still rooting around with the walkman—that he wasn’t, in fact, supposed to have pocketed—there he was standing on the mainland harbour pier. ‘Where the farck were you?’ he hollered as I disembarked.

‘Where was I? Where the farck were you! I nearly earned a night in there because of you!’

‘Well I’ve bloody well had chest pains because of you, ya prick!’

I shook my head, failing to understand how this was remotely my fault. ‘So are you conducting an autopsy on that thing?’

‘What?’

‘The walkman!’

‘Ah the batteries in the bastard mustn’t have been working properly..’

I took it off him, and pressed the play button, whereupon it ever so magically came to life.

‘Oh,’ he said.

‘So did you even do the bloody tour? Or did you swim back?’

‘What?’

‘The tour?’

‘Nah, it was boring as bat shit. I felt like I was on school excursion.’

I exhaled heavily, having no choice but to submit to the notion of like father like son, and sensing as such, he waved his personal version of a white flag. ‘Well, we can have a blue, or a beer. Up to you.’

‘Fair dinkum, I’m gunna be grey before I’m 25. Let’s get a pint then.’

By David Kerrigan

 

The day of the London Bombings

Ten years on and the memory of this day has faded little. I imagine it never will.

On the 7th of July 2005 my alarm went off when it always did, at 7:45 am. And although I wished for nothing else than a few more million-dollar seconds of shuteye, I rose to the beat of another working day in London.

Aiming to catch the 8:17 am overland train from West Ealing to Paddington station, after a shower, shave, and a habitual cup of earl grey, I left the house by 8:15 am. Running later than usual I barreled up the footpath at a large pace.

Having checked my phone for the time, I proceeded to run, but making it to the station just in time to hear the platform voiceover – ‘this train is now ready to depart. Please mind the closing doors’ – I had narrowly missed it. ‘They’re just going to have to wait,’ I thought, surmising that I was most likely going to be late for work. Although I wasn’t too concerned at the time, little did I know that missing that train had put me on course to an ill turn of events to follow. Having loitered around the platform until the 8:30 am train arrived, I hopped on, secured a seat, and with the world streaking past in a flash of colours, was soon barreling towards Paddington.

We reached Paddington at 8:45 am, and beginning the second leg of my commuting journey, I disembarked the overland train and made my way down into the bustling innards of the neighbouring tube station. Waiting for the Circle Line train, I was just one soul standing among the crowd of thousands on the open-aired platform, and with the London sky looking as upset and close to the point of tears as usual, it was then that it started to rain.

While standing in the vicinity of where the train’s second carriage would moor, I couldn’t help but notice an exceptionally attractive girl standing to my left. She had dark curly hair, and was wearing a red dress and white scarf. As though acting via a certain magnetism to her, I caught myself drawing nearer to her position. I was, as a result, now standing at the furthest end of the platform, and when the 8:49 am eastbound Circle Line train pulled in, both myself and the girl with no name boarded its first carriage. ‘This train is ready to depart. Mind the doors.’

The doors closed and the train departed, and balancing myself by hanging onto the handrail above, I stood with my back leaning firm against the passenger side of the driver’s cabin door. I grew as bored and unconscious as on every other tube journey, and as the train barreled towards Edgware Road station – with the screeches and hypnotic rhythms of the tracks clattering beneath – I failed to even notice we were underground.

The train barreled and the tracks screeched, and while looking over some guy’s shoulder – reading in his newspaper about London winning the 2012 Olympic Games – still I stood there hanging onto the handrail. The train barreled and the tracks screeched. I looked over at the red-dress-girl from the platform, herself sitting nearby. The train barreled and the tracks screeched. I looked down and noticed there was a large manhole cover in the floor of the train. The train barreled and the tracks screeched. I looked at my phone to check the time – then – bang!

Causing the train to rock with impact – and submerging it in a great flash of yellow light – a loud cracking sound thundered through the carriage. My heart sank and rose simultaneously as the train screeched to a massive halt, and with the inside of the carriage having fallen dark, it was only when a dim blue emergency light switched on that I even realised we were inside the tunnel.

Filling with fumes, the carriage felt as though it were beginning to shrink, and having no idea if this airborne substance was flammable or poisonous, panic, like electricity, began to shoot through me. ‘Are we going to be gassed? Is another train going to hit us from behind?’

Only further encouraging the instinct to abort, an alarm began to siren throughout the carriage. ‘Get out! Kick a window! Run!’ I thought, but noticing that the dark walls of the tunnel were only a few inches wider than the actual train, I realised that even if we were to kick out a window there would be no way to fit around the train. At a complete loss for what to do, I clung to the handrail above, and with my hands shaking so uncontrollably that they were rattling it in its top socket, never before had I seen myself so physically overcome by fear.

With all the usual familiarities so abruptly replaced, this was the most dramatic shift in reality I’d ever experienced. One second we were commuters on our way to work, and then, with the typical sounds like the scrunching of newspapers suddenly replaced by those of people moaning and screaming – some distant, others close – and the usual look of bored faces replaced by those wide-eyed with terror – most coughing and blackened with ash – the next second – like a computer game stage where everything suddenly switches to a contrasting environment – we were in this.

I looked over at the red-dress-girl from the platform, herself now crouched down in a ball of tears, and feeling as though I knew her, and that this might be the last interaction of my life, I wanted to console her. ‘Why am I here? I thought, wondering if this was some sort of karmic retribution for having so narrowly missed the South East Asian Tsunami. ‘There’s a fair chance I’m going to die. What do I need to do? How do I die properly?’ I had an inkling to crouch down on the floor.

‘Mayday, Mayday!’ a voice said. It was that of the train driver on the other side of his cabin door, and several of us passengers, firmly demanding he open up, began frantically banging on his door. He responded at once, and when seeing, through the train’s front windscreen, the light at the end of the tunnel, relief like I’d never known flowed through me.

The blast had engulfed the entire front section of the train, and if not for the windscreen – shattered inwards from the blast – having remained intact in its plastic outer, the driver would surely be dead. He had white hair and a short white beard, and standing there looking visibly shaken, was so covered in soot that his lips were as dark as though he was wearing black lipstick. There was train wreckage strewn on the tracks in front, and with someone having spoken the words circuit failure, the last thing I thought at the time was that this had been a terrorist attack.

‘What happened?’ I asked the driver, the both of us standing in his cabin.

‘I don’t know!’ he said, wiping his brow with a trembling hand, ‘but there was a large yellow flash up ahead in the tunnel.’

‘How far up does it end?’

‘It curves around, but it’s only about 150 yards to Edgware Road station.’

Having suggested he get on his PA and tell the other passengers (there being an estimated one thousand souls onboard) that we were near to the next station, he picked up his phone and in a shaky voice announced for all to stay on the train until routinely evacuated. With his eyes wide with terror, he hung up the phone and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Stay here,’ he said, before pushing open the cabin’s heavy exterior door and running up the tunnel. Everything around us fell eerily quiet, creating an environment further conducive to the audibility of distant groans.

It was after a minute or so that I stuck my head outside the cabin, and only then realising this was a double-width tunnel, I noticed there was a second train stopped alongside us. Through its windows, also smeared with ash, could be seen that it was full of passengers of its own, many of which were recklessly banging on the windows; some crouched down in tears, and others, with their bare hands, trying desperately to pry open its doors. Drawn by perverse curiosity, I stepped down onto the tracks, and it was while standing there amongst the twisted wreck of metal and glass – inhaling the noxious smell of burning electrics – that I saw in the dark what I wish I hadn’t, as there, among the wheels of the other train – resembling something more akin to charred animal carcasses than human form – was a scatter of bodies.

‘Somebody?’ said a faint and nearby voice. ‘Somebody? Help me?’ It was coming from underneath the other train – on the other side of the bodies, near the tunnel wall. ‘My legs are broken! I’m in agony!’ It began to escalate in panic. ‘Heeelp mmmeee! My legs are gone! My fucking legs are gone!’

I knelt down to see, but in the dark couldn’t make out to whom the voice belonged. ‘What’s your name, mate?’ I yelled across, and having told me I began to explain that we were close to the next station and that help was on its way. I had no idea how long it would actually be, but felt that leading him to believe it would be sooner than later was a more consoling thing to offer.

(His name was Danny, who, from a documentary televising the one-year anniversary of the event, I later learnt had been standing only eighteen inches away from the suicide bomber on their train. At the split-second the two of them made eye contact – only a few seconds after their train had departed Edgware Road station in the oncoming direction to ours – the bomber (a highly regarded primary school teacher from Leeds) reached into his rucksack and pushed the button. In what Danny described was like the flash of a million cameras, he was blown out of the train, against the tunnel wall, and bounced down onto the tracks where his head landed only inches clear as his train rolled past. With the carriage doors blown completely off, their full force hit him in the legs – severing one on the spot – and paramedics, eventually reaching him in the crawl space where he lay, determined that his other leg would need to be amputated if he was to be successfully evacuated. He also lost an eye, his spleen, had three heart attacks on the day, and finding, in the course of their work, small change from his pocket having been blasted into his thighbone, when he was eventually taken to hospital was operated on for five hours by a team of four surgeons. Learning to walk on prosthetic limbs, he remained in hospital for the next eleven months. )

‘I’m in agony! My legs are gone! Heeelp mmmeee!’ he kept screaming on the day, a scream that has never left me since. My heart went out to him. Independent of race or religion, it could have been any one Londoner in his position that day. If the bomb had been activated as little as one second later the spray of debris that landed in front of our train would have been blown through our carriage, causing twice as many fatalities. We were just so close.

The sound of running feet approached from up the tunnel, and from the swelling glow of bouncing torches, a cockney voice barked hard. ‘Get back on the train, Sir!’

‘There’s a man stuck under the train!’ I said, the squadron then arriving. ‘He’s against the outer wall,’ I knelt down and informed him that people were here to help. He didn’t respond.

With the staff having set up a small stepladder from the cabin door to the track, the evacuation began, and in a row of bouncing flashlights we were led, in single file, through the dark tunnel. We soon came up to street level at Edgware Road station. I looked up at the sky with new eyes, and as I took a rebirthing breath I could have kissed every grey cloud in it.

Within minutes people were pouring up onto street in their hundreds – most blackened with ash, some with their clothing stripped and burnt, and others holding improvised bandages to their heads. One lady, who’d suffered serious burns to her face, rose to the street wearing a makeshift face mask – an image captured by a photographer that would later become the most famous from the tragedy. Most were on their phones, probably to boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, while others were slumped on the footpath in a heap of tears.

The street was soon a flurry of police cars and ambulances, emergency sirens pierced the air, and as I sat on the footpath, feeling vague and disjointed – and coughing up black liquefied soot that looked like car oil – I still had precisely zero idea that this circus was the result of a terrorist attack, thinking, at the time, it to have been nothing more than an electrical problem that caused an explosion.

Opposite the train station, a Marks & Spencer department store was allowing people to seek refuge in its foyer, and as though on auto I walked inside. ‘Please Sir, take a seat,’ said a voice. ‘Sir, please take a seat!’ Though offering no response, I walked upstairs to the bathrooms, closed the door and flicked on the light.

The mirror presented a version of myself I’d never before seen, as head to toe I was so caked in soot that I looked little dissimilar to a soldier on the battlefield. My lips were entirely black in colour, and my nostrils looked as though they’d been stuffed with Vegemite. Though despite my condition, I, in some form of self-preserving denial, resolved I was fine, and that as far as I was concerned it was my job to wash up, get to work, and get on with my life.

With my lips pursed with determination, I removed my caked jacket, hung it on the door hook, and in a flurry of soapy water began washing my hands, neck, face, inadvertently tasting the soot running across my mouth. With my chest tight with resistance, I gargled some water, spat it into the sink, drank some more, my mind all throughout racing with memories from the tunnel – the charred and broken bodies, the wide-eyed face of the train driver, the screams of the guy caught under the train. With my lips pursed and chest tight, my mind seemed particularly obsessed with the task of washing my hands, and I scrubbed them at a maddened speed, until then – when catching my eye in the mirror – I stopped abruptly.

I walked back out onto the street soon after, where the mayhem of sirens and police lines had only doubled, and acting not out of loyalty, but that I didn’t know what else to do with myself, I figured I may as well head into work. It was about 9:30 am when I hopped on a double-decker bus bound for Liverpool Street station.

The bus was packed to capacity, and it was only when I overheard some guy talking on his phone – ‘Whot? There have been three bombs on the tube?’ – that I realised the incident in the tunnel wasn’t some one-off electrical accident, but was a terrorist attack. ‘You fucking idiot!’ I thought, infuriated at myself for having survived a train bombing only to put myself on a bus. I rang the bell, frantically yelling for the driver to stop. He did, and as I disembarked I passionately advised the guy on his phone that he should do the same. He returned my remark with worried eyes only, staying onboard as the bus continued deeper into the city.

Along with the thousands of others moving at what felt like an even greater pace than usual, I walked headlong up Oxford Street. Gripped to my phone, I was trying to establish the whereabouts of several friends, but with three quarters of London all doing the same, all lines jammed.

I stopped at a street corner, where hundreds had gathered around a display of televisions in a shop window. Having pushed my way to the front, I got a clear view of the BBC headlines – London Under Attack. It was official.

‘I was on one of those trains,’ said a voice near to my left ear.

‘So was I, mate.’

His name was Larry, a born and bred Londoner.

‘So it was a terrorist attack, for real?’ I asked.

‘Yep.’

‘What? Like planted bombs?’

‘No mate, suicide bombers! Prize twats strapped up for the golden ticket.’

I took a second to think about the individuals that sacrificed themselves, wondering how they could count down their last seconds and bring themselves to push the button.

‘Come on mate,’ he said. ‘We best get outta the city.’

Having joined forces, we continued east up Oxford Street, coming, after a few minutes, to a major intersection where hundreds of people were running towards us. ‘What’s happened?’ I asked some lady.

‘A bus has just been blown up down the street! The police are pushing us back this way!’ she said, still running as she spoke, and halting where we were, Larry and I froze, until an armed policeman came running towards us. ‘Go back! I’ve got good reason! Run! Go back!’ To what felt like a contradiction to all logic, we were now running in the direction we’d just come – back into the guts of the city – and like sheep caught in a panicked flock, the two of us were being dragged along, until, pushing us back on ourselves a second time, we reached yet another police blockade ordering us to go back.

With thousands herded into one intersection – and being told by police to go back in three out of four directions – we must have looked, to the helicopters above, like a human simulation of a smashed ant nest. Black cabs were caught in the throng, police horses, wet with sweat, were backing up on themselves, and yelling ‘Get out of London! Get out of London!’ businessmen with briefcases were running this way and that. ‘Get out of London?’ I thought. ‘We’re 30 miles deep in the place!’ We couldn’t have been more in the centre of it if we’d tried, and with the sound of ambulance and police sirens growing by the second, my hands began to shake like when I was back in the tunnel.

‘Back away from the bus Sir!’ a policewoman barked, making me only then realise I was standing next to a packed double-decker pulled over on the street. Confused, I backed away, and causing them to near rip its doors off in accordance, she ordered all remaining passengers to swiftly evacuate. It truly felt as though nowhere was safe, and pulling our heads together – figuring we should keep away from all banks, major retailers, tube stations, street bins, bus stands and the like – Larry and I went into some sort of survival mode. We decided to head to Hyde Park.

Having jogged through the streets for several miles, by the time we made it to Hyde Park we were well out of breath, and in great contrast to the events of the day – and even greater contrast to the Live 8 concert held here only five days earlier – the grassy park was as serene as imaginable. I tried to call Dad in Australia, but with my phone still out of service, Larry slung me his. My fabrication was rehearsed, and although I was hoping to leave it on his answering machine, he answered the phone.

‘Dad. It’s David.’

‘Where are you?’ he gasped, in a tone revealing he was aware of the events.

‘I’m in London, but I’m nowhere near the trouble. I’m in my lounge room at home.’ Of all those things that happen to other people, on this day I was one of them, and after the ordeal I’d put my family through with the tsunami, there was no way I was going to tell them the truth.

It was now around 11 am, and like a Monopoly board shaken in its box, London was a messier version of its usual self. I decided to walk the long trek home, and firm in my resolve not to board any form of public transport, I didn’t care if it took me three weeks to get there. It was a hot July day, and having said farewell to Larry back in the park, I’d been walking through the suburbs for several hours when – bang! – I jumped from a new fright. Holding my hand to my chest, I had no idea what had happened, until – riding past on his bike – I realised some smart-arse kid was setting off firecrackers on the road. I turned purple, and although I wanted to chase him down the street, instead gave him a vivid demonstration of use of the c-word. Some five hours of walking later, I reached my house in South London, walked in and slumped on the staircase. After what had been a day that I would never forget, finally I was home.

Already feeling as though it was another lifetime ago, as I sat on the stairs my mind was quick to shoot back to the train incident. I struggle to describe the force of the blast. It was as though while being the size of an ant, a fist the size of a house had slammed itself down only metres away. Or, a more realistic description could be illustrated by the effect on the manhole cover in the floor of the train. At the split-second of occurrence, I happened to be gazing at it, and the force outside the carriage was such that it caused the manhole cover to pop about a foot into the air. People had been killed only metres away; I was truly lucky to be alive, let alone uninjured.

Of the range of emotions I experienced that day, anger was not one of them. I wasn’t angry I was caught up in it, nor was I angry with the perpetrators themselves. Not angry, that is, until I flicked on the telly to see the media’s routine salivating. At one point the broadcast crossed over to an onsite reporter ‘live at the scene’, and delivering his hot story with that archetypical smug voice and singular raised eyebrow – busy gaining from a situation founded entirely by loss – I was utterly sickened by his inability to contain his excitement. I’m aware of my sounding overly critical, and aware, too, that at the end of the day, someone has to report the facts, but it surely doesn’t take an understanding greater than average to know that smugness and self-elation have no business in the presence of sensitive issues.

What happened on July 7th 2005 was the big fish – the tug at the end of the line that the media are always waiting for, and to capitalise on the fear and maximise the drama is all part of the media’s job. Not – employing any form of discretion – to film an onsite reporter in front of a plain brick wall, but with the addition of dissonant music and dramatic sound effects, to do it in front of a Scotland Yard sign. Not – being clear in the delivery of facts – to explain at the beginning of a news story that there was a ‘false alarm at Heathrow Airport today’, but to say in big capital letters ‘TERRORISM SCARE!’ and giving the viewer a few minutes to let their imagination assume the worst, throw to an ad break before further clarifying. The terrorists plant the seeds no doubt, but the media – through the brilliance of their sensationalising work, and providing the personalised service of delivering the fear straight into the heart of the public – largely water them. Imagine, hypothetically, no one batting an eyelid in the face of a terrorist attack; the act would be rendered ineffective and would consequently dissipate. But it being the media’s foremost objective to pitch tents and transform every given opportunity into a circus, no such impassiveness can be exercised. And, in perhaps my overly swollen opinion, it’s my feeling that continuously filling, with their sensationalised bile, the very space within us that in order to reach higher levels of inner peace needs so desperately our emptying, the worlds of media and marketing are largely answerable for the escalating decay of humankind. And attributes of the like – of greed and self-serving manipulation – are, ironically enough, just a couple of those that the Islam world is well within its rights to abhor about the west.

If I could speak with the terrorists themselves I’d ask them straight – ‘What it is you really want? Do you even know? Or are you wholly blinded by the romance of your quest?’ Bearing in mind that most of the perpetrators are little more than impressionable kids, I guess going down for a glorified cause to then score a fat list of afterlife perks, is a fairly attractive package.

But instilling in me considerable doubt of his great selflessness, having since watched the prerecorded video of the gentleman that blew himself up at Edgware Road, claiming that through his martyrdom, he’ll be guaranteeing himself a place in the paradise he so ardently believes in, I can’t help but feel that his motives were less based on the greater position of Islam, than on his own personal validation at the end. Would have you still been as willing if the final station on your journey wasn’t such a golden carrot but was instead a one-way ticket to spend eternity flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s? Or perhaps even less attractive, an eternity of picking up the broken bodies of those killed in terrorist bombings, and while having to look their parents directly in the eye, inform them that because you had a point to prove the child they’ve loved and reared from his or her first breath is now dead? Probably not. I don’t think we’ll be seeing each other any time soon mate, and nothing personal and all, but having killed yourself, six others, injured hundreds, and denied yourself seeing your own baby daughter grow up, I can’t help but think you’re a just few steps leftward on Charles Darwin’s Origin Of The Species.

I’ve got nothing more against the fundamentalism of Islam than I do against that of Christianity, or any religion that spreads a virus into the mind and soul. For it’s not the warhead, or the bomb behind the jacket, that poses the true threat, but the righteousness that makes the finger push the button. And be it between individuals or entire nations, all destruction stems from one belief system trying to stamp out another. Although religions – the dangerously influential belief systems they are – might, in their own ways, generate a sense of community and other traces of good, to quote the lyrics of Sting – ‘without the voice of reason, every faith is its own curse.’

It’s easy to grow bitter, and when thinking about the personal suffering induced, to wish for bold retribution, but terrorism is by no means an act entirely devoid of motive. With the west’s scales tipped far more self-servingly, and seeming in its arrogance to consider a western life of infinitely greater value than that of an eastern, there is much basis for Easterners to resent the west. Attacking the likes of London and New York is just a means to strike the jugular vein of the enemy, and for people non-western, perhaps the only way to get the giant to listen is to swing an axe into its foot. But although terrorism may make a justified point, compared to the peaceful means employed by Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama – means that inspire people to fight their battles within not without – it’s a fabulously ineffective way of actually changing anything. Killing 50 people in London isn’t going to make the other 6,999,950 stop living. It’s not going to make them quit their electronic jobs, stop drinking and sniffing coke, stop indulging in premarital sex, or put an end to capitalism, etc. In fact, the notion of trying to cut away a sector of life with intention for it to be lastingly neutralised – never again to reinstate itself in that particular area – is about as ineffectual as trying with a giant knife to cut away a piece of the ocean without view that its surrounding water won’t simply pour into its place.

9/11 shook the shores of America and the world overall, but in steep contrast to what the terrorists wished for, the repercussive effect didn’t equal the city of New York lying down and dying. In fact, having only achieved the unification of their enemy, it, if anything, made America even more stubborn in its self-righteousness. Terrorism, as a means to change anything, is about as constructive as quarrelling children knocking over each other’s sand castles at the beach. And the higher reality is this – the fear it imposes is subject to the law of impermanence, where no matter how horrific the act, its reverberations will only ever last a few days or hours. I would also enlighten the perpetrators with this one simple truth: life overall will never be stopped by the threat of death – life will always go on. Human biology is an infinitesimally small part of an infinitely vast universal intelligence, and in the reality of this picture our religious, social, and political differences are even less significant. We can knock each other down like dominoes, but even if in a fury of human conflict the planet is nuked to a cinder, a new blade of grass will eventually sprout – life will always go on. And as a myriad of new life again evolves, subsequent belief systems – some uniting, others dividing – will evolve with them. You can kick, punch, and senselessly maim, but never can you put a dent in this one truth.

These days I hold my hopes to the sky, for what better time than now for aliens to attack. Comparable to when a bully from another school threatens a kid from your own school, and all the internal gangs unify to whip the arse of the external threat; if the ominous belly of a UFO came through the clouds, all the world’s leaders – east and west, north and south, reformed and still happily addicted – would sit down with a stiff drink and ponder: ‘How best, can we together, as ten-fingered, two-legged, tax-dodging citizens of the planet, whip these avocados?’

By David Kerrigan

 

Brisbane-gate

It was September 12th 2001 when myself and my Irish mate Lewis were walking through central Brisbane, discussing the apocalyptic state into which the world had fallen just the day before.

Talking also of our desires for a new direction away from our respective quarter-life crises – we were just two young lads strolling around a street corner, when an attractive girl, of similar age, handed us a pamphlet. ‘Have you thought about your future?’ she asked, with an easiness that stopped us in our tracks.

Lewis and I exchanged a cross-examining look.

The pamphlet was almost entirely blank, except for large pink type reading – Free IQ and Personality Test.

‘Have you ever wondered about your potential?’ she asked in a tone digging deeper, ‘and the things you could accomplish if it were tapped into?’

I could almost physically feel the seduction begin. ‘So how does it work?’

‘Just as the pamphlet says, it’s a test to determine your IQ, your personality type, and in what direction you should invest your energies.’

‘And it’s free?’ asked Lewis, any good Irishman resistant to taking his wallet for an excursion outside his pocket.

‘Yes, free,’ she said.

Lewis and I swapped a fleeting look, revealing our mutual bewilderment of the timing and sheer relevance of this encounter, and spontaneity being the religion of our kind – the backpacker – we agreed we could think of no better way to gamble our day.

‘The centre is just around the corner,’ she said, ‘the address is on the back.’

I turned the pamphlet over, sighting above the address a nameless logo I’d never before seen. It concerned me little at the time.

We arrived at the main door of the centre just minutes later. ‘Welcome!’ bellowed a group of some twenty people as we entered the main room.

‘Ahhhr… g’day.’ I said, tentatively. ‘We’re here for the IQ test?’

‘Then you’ve come to the right place!’ said a nicely dressed lady in an oddly robotic tone.

She led us to a large fluorescent-lit room off the main room, far too classroom-like for my preference, and Lewis and myself sat next to each other like strangers at the start of school year. ‘Are we going to get the strap if we flunk?’ he asked as he settled into his seat. ‘If so, I hope it’s from that lass that gave us the pamphlet.’

The robot-lady placed two booklets on each of our desks. Lewis picked up his, and had a casual flick through its pages. ‘You know, I swear I’ve seen this logo before..’

‘Gentlemen, before you are your IQ and personality tests. You’re encouraged not to cheat, as cheating will just produce inaccurate results. You have thirty minutes for each test, and are free to do them in whichever order you prefer. Any questions?’

‘Yes,’ said Lewis, ‘I was wondering why we’re the only two takers present?’

‘It’s been a quiet day. Your time starts now.’

I remember the contents of the tests very little, but I do remember the robot-lady, sitting in the corner, and keeping a keen eye on us throughout.

Some time passed before I put up my hand, feeling almost nervous to do so.

‘Yes?’

‘I’m finished.’

‘So am I,’ said Lewis.

Looking almost disappointed, she swanned over, swooped our papers, and exited the room with military-type urgency. Perplexed, Lewis and I exchanged a look.

She returned some twenty minutes later.

‘Which one is David?’

‘Me.’ I said.

‘You stay here with me, and you..’ she looked down at the papers, ‘Lewis, you take your papers into the next room and an assessor will run through your results.’

With a parting glance, Lewis upped and left, making the silence of the room that bit louder.

‘So, David,’ she said, ‘I’m happy to report your IQ result was 125.’

‘Is that good?’ I asked, my ignorance probably bumping it down to 120 by default.

She handed me a pie chart, on which I was happy to learn I dwelt in a dignified slice.

‘But your personality test, well!’

‘Well, what?’

‘Well, let’s just say that you’ve got some serious work to do!’

‘Like what?’

‘You’re a walking disaster, young man!’

‘Sorry?’

‘Unresolved, agitated, overly passionate..’

‘Could you be more specific?’

She continued to chop me into a platter of critical pieces, and I found the look of disappointment on her face, as I proceeded to agree, exquisitely empowering. She then went on to explain that the good news is they can help me. (I guess one of two reactions occur: folk laugh it off and walk, or fall to their knees at the prospect of someone offering assistance. I was, I guess, somewhere in the middle. I gave little thought at the time, too, as to whom exactly were they).

She led me back out into the main room, where Lewis was waiting.

‘How’d you go, mate?’

‘IQ result, 128.’

I was positively wounded to be beaten.

‘Somehow I suspect they’re trying to flatter us.’ I said.

‘So do I, but they’ve balanced it nicely with the personality test, I’m told I’m a focking train wreck.’

‘Me too, mate.’

‘Perhaps that’s why we get along?’

‘Gentlemen,’ said the robot-lady, interrupting, ‘cynicism is merely testament to your healthy IQs, but please be reminded that we can help you.’

‘How?’ asked Lewis, his tone split perfectly with suspicion and curiosity.

‘We offer two-day counselling courses that will have you both walking away as new men!’

‘I see.’ I said, quite open to psychotherapy, yet aware of the extortionate charges that come with it.

‘So how much?’

‘$14.99.’

‘Per hour?’

‘No, $14.99 for the two days.’

Lewis and I exchanged another passing look, revealing our bafflement at the lack of expense.

‘Well it’s not like I’ve got any plans for the next couple of days,’ he said under his breath.

‘Me either, I guess.’

‘Excellent,’ said the robot-lady, in her trademark detached tone, leading us into a small office where our personal information was tapped into a computer. ‘We’ll see you tomorrow morning then, 9am sharp! And gentlemen, whatever you do, don’t be late.’

The next morning came, and like colleagues already fed up with the job, we found ourselves barrelling through the streets of Brisbane at a mighty pace.

In a flustered mess, we arrived at the centre at 8:57am. ‘Welcome!’ bellowed the usual group of people as we entered, before we were escorted into the same fluorescent-lit room as the day before.

The room was, on this day, however, packed with students, all seated and full of solemnity, and standing at the front was an older and emaciated man, so pale and heavy-eyed that one could fair assume he’d spent the last few decades glued to the toilet with the runs. On his desk was a sign, Henry – Senior Instructor, and with a polite, yet firm eyeball, he instructed us to take our seats.

‘Christ,’ said Lewis under his breath as he lowered himself down, ‘your man Henry looks like he could do with a bowl of solids to get him in good stead.’

‘Counting down,’ started the instructor, ‘10, 9, 8…’

‘We off to meet Neil?’

‘Neil who?’

‘7, 6, 5…’

‘Neil Armstrong?’

‘3, 2, 1, eyes down!’

The class obeyed his command with machinelike accuracy, obliging Lewis and I to do the same, in turn feeding my suspicion as to what – and who – exactly we were falling in with.

On my desk was a different booklet to the day before, titled – The Analytical and Reactive Mind, and, oddly, a dictionary. I turned to page one and skimmed the first paragraph, but when I looked up, old Henry came barrelling over at breakneck speed.

‘Which word did you get lost on?’

‘Sorry?’

‘When someone gazes up from the page, it typically means they’ve encountered a word they don’t understand, hence have lost their way with the intended meaning. They become bored. This is why they look up.’

I was sceptical, but with Henry making me read the paragraph quietly to him, and quizzing me on the likely problem words throughout, I realised he was right. That, much like a car taking the wrong turn, at any juncture I didn’t understand a word, I was completely off course as the reader.

‘Hence the dictionary?’

‘Hence the dictionary,’ he said.

Regardless of Henry’s desperate lack of sex appeal, it made good sense. He left me to it, and I continued reading, using the dictionary each time I hit a literary roadblock.

I soon came to a section called – The Two Minds: The Clear. It had a picture of a young man walking past a Labrador on the street, and in the thought bubble above it simply said – ‘Labrador’. Its point eluded me.

The next page was titled – The Two Minds: The Pre-clear. It featured the exact same image, but in the thought bubble above it had a knock-on chain of negative thoughts, not dissimilar to the rabbit hole down which most do our cerebral processing. ‘Labrador… I remember that time when I was bitten by the neighbour’s dog when I was eight… and Mum got angry and forbid me to play there anymore… and the kids at school picked on me for being a wimp and excluded me from the group… and this… and that…’

I looked up, taking a second to digest what I found to be quite interesting, to which of course Henry came darting over. He pointed at the word Labrador. I assured him I knew its meaning.

We broke for lunch soon after, at which time Lewis, along with his booklet, was taken into a separate room. I wished to follow, but got the feeling it was a strictly private meeting.

I walked towards the kitchenette, noticing that next-door to it was what appeared to be a large office. It was the personification of stateliness, with plush red carpet, a mahogany desk, and a giant world globe in the far corner. Mysteriously, though, it was cordoned off like a crime scene.

The robot-lady, from the day before, was in the kitchenette.

‘Hello,’ I said.

‘Hello,’ she returned, with a tone that suggested she had zero memory of me.

‘I did the testing with you yesterday.’

‘Time is all around us,’ she said.

‘I see. So I was wondering about the office next-door, it’s very fancy.’

‘That’s for when Elrond returns?’

‘El who?’ I asked, my mind turning to the works of J. R. R. Tolkien.

‘The boss.’

‘So he’s away?’

‘Yes, you could say that.’

‘And is he back in today?’

‘He could be back at any time.’

Lewis and I – and the host of grey-faced others – reconvened in the classroom shortly after, at which time Henry – a man who with every hour looked more and more in need of a slice of bread and cheese – reprised his Nasa countdown. ‘3, 2, 1, eyes down!’

I pressed on through the booklet, getting to a section called – Auditing. It had a picture of two people sitting opposite each other, performing a sort of intense face-to-face interview where one person (the Auditor) fires deliberately provocative questions at the other (the Pre-clear). I found the subject immensely interesting, and simply had to look up to summons Henry over for more info.

‘Which word did you miss?’ he asked, having nearly tripped over himself.

‘None. But I’m curious about auditing.’

‘Good!’ he said.

‘So what is it exactly?’

‘It’s a process that brings to the surface unconscious memories that may inhibit the subject’s natural state.’

‘Like hypnosis?’

‘Quite the opposite, in fact. Man is asleep, our objective is to wake him from his stagnation.’

‘I see,’ I said, still wondering who exactly formed the word our.

‘And this is how we become a Clear, right?’ asked Lewis.

‘Yes,’ he answered, kneeling down between our two desks. ‘I think you boys are ready.’

‘Ready for what?’

He led us to a tiny room, perfectly empty but for two plastic chairs and a small lamp in the corner. ‘So boys,’ he said, switching on the lamp, ‘this is where begins the day from which you’ll never look back.’ There was a small part of me that was excited, but a larger part that was desperate for answers. ‘You’ve both read the chapter on auditing, so audit away!’ he said, closing the door behind him as he departed.

Lewis and I broke into the laughter of two ten year olds holding in a conjoint fart.

‘So what do you make of this joint?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know, but it’s a bit like Fantasy focking Island!’

‘And why did they usher you off at lunchtime?’

‘They offered me a job.’

‘You’re kidding me on?’

‘For real! They didn’t talk pay or specifics, but they reckon I’ve got a mind for this stuff.’

‘Perhaps I should be offended! So do you reckon you’ll sign on?’

‘I don’t know, I’m still trying to figure out what this stuff is.’

‘Me too, I can’t tell if it’s complete frog shit or genius. That bit about the Labrador was pretty sharp.’

‘It was, and seeing they said we’ll be new men within 48 hours, I guess we’ll be Clears by end of play tomorrow.’

‘I guess, but I didn’t know we were qualified auditors.’

‘Neither did I.’

‘I feel like two kids left to fly a 747.’

‘Should we fock it off and go for a pint?’

‘Let’s have a fly first.’

For the next three hours we sat in that cell-like room talking the sort of total, complete, and utter shite that led us as much to a state of enlightenment as having a wank upwind. Our deadline to be Clears was fast approaching; yet the speed of our progress was a very contrasting matter.

The next morning we arrived at the centre, disastrously, at 9:15am. The usual greeting from the door choir was replaced with hostile looks, and the robot-lady, looking well keyed up, was quick to mince over. ‘It’s my duty to inform you that unpunctuality is considered a breaking of The Code!’

‘What code?’ asked Lewis, defensively.

I felt myself getting hot with concordance.

Henry then appeared, dismissing her from an answer, and with his firm and heavy eyeballs looking even firmer, he sat us down in a corner of the main room. ‘Now, I’m expecting big things from you boys!’ he said. ‘Have you ever wondered about your potential? And the things you could accomplish if it were tapped into?’

Feeling that his homily sounded strangely familiar, it was then that I noticed an older lady, sitting in the opposite corner, being grilled similarly by a different grey-faced subordinate. She was crying openly.

I turned back. ‘Henry, what exactly is this place?’

‘Look,’ he said, gazing down at my papers to check my name, ‘David, we’ll get to that, but every path, no matter how epic, must be travelled one step at a time.’

I was as equally impressed by his poetry as I was insulted by the deflection.

‘I think maybe we should do the bolt,’ said Lewis, standing up. I stood up also.

‘No!’ said Henry. ‘Maybe it was premature of me to leave you boys to attempt auditing on your own yesterday.’

‘Henry, it’s been emotional, but we’re off.’

‘But you want to become Clears don’t you?’

Lewis and I met eyes, momentarily.

‘How many times do you even need to do the auditing before becoming one?’ he asked.

‘Why don’t the three of us go back into the small room and ‘ll get you started,’ answered Henry, deflecting again.

As though arriving at the same disgruntled conclusion, we exhaled forcefully. ‘Well I suppose we want our $14.99 worth,’ said the Irishman.

‘I suppose.’

Henry took us into the same tiny room as the day before, flicked on the small lamp, sat himself down and invited Lewis to sit in the chair opposite. Like a lower ranking cop in the interrogation room, I stood with arms crossed in the corner.

‘Hold these,’ he said, handing to the Irishman two silver probes hooked up to a small machine.

‘What’s this?’

‘It’s an E-meter.’

‘Like a lie detector?’

‘Something like that.’

Lewis looked up at me, genuine fear having risen in his eyes.

‘I’ll count down from ten before commencing the audit. As I do I ask that you not break eye contact with me, and that when I reach one you close your eyes. 10, 9, 8…’

Although I was glad it wasn’t me in the sacrificial chair, I felt suddenly like a coward that it should be my mate.

‘7, 6…’

‘Excuse me?’

‘5, 4…’

‘Excuse me?’

‘3, 2…’

‘Excuse me?’

‘What?’ snapped Henry, glaring upwards.

I diverted my attention to Lewis. ‘Are you sure you want to be doing this mate?’

‘I’m Irish. I have no fear of the bender; liquid-kind or otherwise.’

He swallowed hard as Henry recommenced, ‘10, 9, 8…’

I guess I had the best seat in the house.

‘3, 2, 1…’

Lewis closed his eyes.

‘What is your name?’

‘Lewis.’

‘Your full name?’

‘Lewis Jacob Kelly.’

‘Where were you born?’

‘Sligo, Ireland.’

‘What year were you born?’

‘1974.’

‘What year are you in now?’

‘2001.’

‘What is your earliest memory?’

He paused.

‘What is your earliest memory?’

‘Ahhhr…’

‘What is your earliest memory?’

‘I have several, I don’t know which is the earliest.’

‘Do you have any siblings?’

‘One older sister.’

‘What is her name?’

‘Janet.’

‘Do you love her?’

‘Yes.’

‘What is your earliest memory?’

‘Ahhhr… Janice is arguing with my mother.’

‘What year is it?’

‘1977, I think.’

‘What are they arguing about?’

‘Me.’

‘Why?’

‘She’s telling my mother she should stop babying me.’

‘Babying you how?’

‘I’m not sure.’

‘How do you feel?’

‘Suffocated.’

‘What’s happening now?’

‘My mother is pointing at her with a kitchen knife.’

‘What are you doing?’

‘I’m crying and reaching up.’

‘And what are they doing?’

‘They’re both reaching down to me.’

‘Who do you go to?’

‘My mother.’

‘Was this your preference’?

‘No.’

‘Then why did you go to her?’

‘Through fear.’

‘Fear of what?’

‘Repercussion.’

‘And what is Janet doing?’

‘She is leaving the room, crying.’

‘Do you love her?’

‘Yes.’

Henry leant back in his chair, as though happy with his work. ‘Open your eyes.’

Lewis opened his eyes.

‘What year are you in now?’

‘2001.’

‘And what is your name?’

‘Lewis Jacob Kelly.’

Henry stood up from his desk. ‘This is but a slight example of auditing, and is the mere tip of the start of things.’

‘What things?’

‘Come with me.’

He led us back out through the main room, walking at an excited pace that left us behind.

‘I’m not sure what to make of that, mate, but it was pretty trippy to watch.’

‘And even trippier to experience. I feel pretty elated I guess, but no more so than after a good whinge with a mate at the pub.’

Henry took us into what appeared to be a small viewing room. It was dark, but for a faint glow coming off the large screen on the back wall.

‘It’s time for you boys to know.’

‘Know what?’

‘The truth.’

He pressed several buttons on the console and the screen awoke. It read – Testimonials.

‘I’ll be outside.’

For the next 20 minutes we sat, just the two of us, watching a range of individuals claim how ‘the centre’ had saved their lives. Every sort of person seemed to feature – Mike the plumber. Denise the engineer. Susan the nurse. Alfred the mechanic. John the actor. Most were in plain sight, and others were in silhouette. It was as tacky as it was tedious, and we passed the time by giving an unflattering commentary to each. It held our attention little, until, that is, at the end of the video something happened that we didn’t expect; for along with the nameless logo that we’d come to know from the pamphlet and booklet, rose in big golden letters – The Church of Scientology Welcomes You!

‘For fock’s sake!’ said Lewis, ‘we’ve stepped on the web!’

‘What?’

‘This is a focking cult!’

‘Call me old-fashioned, but what’s Scientology exactly?’

‘What? Do you live up your own arse? How have you not heard of them? Tom Cruise! John Travolta! That’s who those silhouetted fockers were!’

‘But why the panic?’

‘Did you ever see that Koresh fella at Waco strutting his stuff? Well this lot make him look rational! We’re in the lion’s focking den!’

Lewis barrelled for the door.

‘Wait!’ I said.

‘What?’

‘It might be best that we don’t go out there with guns blazing!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘As in, the more shocked we act the more they’re going to try and contain us.’

We stood there chewing on our fingernails and brewing on our options, when the door opened from outside and standing there – his wilted look seeming to now make more sense – was Henry. We put on our best faces and proceeded to walk past him.

‘Well?’ he asked, putting a hand on my shoulder. Lewis kept walking.

‘Well, what?’

‘What did you think?’

‘We’d like to get going, Henry.’

‘We’re not big on people leaving early for the day.’

‘We’d like to get going regardless.’

‘You can’t just go.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because he disapproves of impulsive thought.’

‘Who’s, he?’

‘The boss.’

‘Elrond?’

He smiled, the first time I’d seen it in two days.

‘You mean, L. Ron Hubbard. A truly brilliant man.’

‘And he’s coming back in today, right?’

‘He could be.’

‘Could be?’

‘He’s been gone for some time.’

‘How long?’

‘Since 1986.’

I shook my head and exhaled. ‘So where did he go?’

‘We don’t know where, we only know how, which was through a stroke.’

‘So he’s dead?’

‘No! Definitely not. Just in transition.’

This was all sounding a lot stranger than your average fiction, only increasing my desire to head for the door. Lewis was standing just by it, but was cornered by the robot-lady.

‘So has he ever even been in this office?’ I said, gesturing towards it.

‘No, but in every Scientology centre is an office set up for his return.’

‘Henry, can I ask you a question?’

‘Yes.’

‘How long have you worked here?’

‘24 years.’

’24 years?’

‘Yes.’

‘So you’re a Clear, right?’

‘No, not yet.’

‘How, if you’ve been here for that long?’

‘It can take lifetimes to become a Clear.’

‘I was under the impression we’d achieve it by the end of the two-day course.’

He smiled again, temporarily masking the deep sadness I could sense from this man. Although he was far from young, I wondered if his parents even knew of the path their kid had strayed on to.

‘But working at the centre is a huge asset!’ he said. ‘All members get free auditing, and there is much work to do on all of us.’

‘Fair enough, and so how many days a week do you work?’

‘Seven.’

‘I see.’ I said, hiding my astonishment of the possessive power of a promise. By my observation, old L. Ron, not dissimilar to the Nazi camps, had set up a system run by the very people it oppresses.

‘Well it’s nearly 4pm, so it’s time to get going.’ I said.

‘Will you be back tomorrow?’

Like trying to back out of a disastrous date follow up, I found myself genuinely scared to answer.

‘If you’re having doubts, we’d be obliged if you’d at least conduct an exit interview.’

I was less than interested, and intended to politely decline, but it was then that Lewis walked over with the robot-lady by his side. ‘It’s a sticky old web this,’ he said under his breath, ‘we’re going in; best get your story ready.’

Escorted by our personal bodyguards, we were taken into a large room at the back of the centre, where, low and behold, sitting there was the attractive girl that had given us the pamphlet on the street. As though summonsed to the foot of Galadriel herself, she signalled us to sit opposite. Reluctantly, we obliged.

‘So,’ she said.

‘So,’ we returned.

‘Welcome to the Church of Scientology.’

‘Do you not think you’d do well to let folk know exactly where you leading them before you point ‘em this way?’ said Lewis, with a discernible amount of heat coming off his head.

‘I understand your frustration, but we find it more effective to guide our people in small steps.’

‘Guide them where, exactly?’

‘Only at the completion of each level, are our people exposed to the learning’s of the next.’

‘So how many levels are there?’ I asked, unsure whether it was a forbidden question.

‘There are eight known Thetan levels.’

‘Known?’

‘There may be others, but we’re unacquainted until he exposes them.’

‘Who? L. Ron?’

‘Yes.’

‘And are all of them $14.99 each?’ asked Lewis.

I smiled in response, always a fan of Irish wit.

‘No, the graduation level, which is conducted on the Flag Ship, requires a payment of $100,000.’

‘I’ll take two!’ said Lewis, inspiring in me, in that moment, a feeling of true love for the man.

‘Can I ask a question?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is this place a ––’ I stopped myself.

‘What?’

I was sweating with anticipation; unsure whether what I was about to ask would result in two men in white uniforms cow-prodding me from behind.

‘Is this place a, ya know, cult?’

Henry coughed, while the robot-lady became demonstrative enough to actually make a tutting noise.

‘He forbids us to say that word.’

‘L. Ron?’

‘Yes.’

‘But he ain’t here..’

‘Oh yes he is.’

It was then that an older, and much fatter man, appeared in the doorway. He had blonde hair and was dressed in a sharp suit.

‘Is that him?’ asked Lewis under his breath.

‘Are we making progress?’ asked the man in a loud and authoritative voice.

‘Yes Sir,’ said the girl, ‘they are both asking the relevant questions.’

‘Very good.’

He turned and departed.

‘Who was that?’ I asked.

‘That’s Brian; he’s the centre’s manager. Regardless of your initial struggles, we continue to be impressed with both of you, and would like to offer you both full time employment at the centre.’

‘Pardon?’

Henry looked over; giving a self-conscious smile that seemed split with welcome and an air that warned against treading the same path as he.

‘And what would we be paid?’ I asked.

‘$49 a week.’

‘Thanks, but no thanks. I have commitments in Melbourne.’

‘And me in Sligo.’

‘But they don’t matter anymore,’ said the girl.

‘I’m afraid they do.’ I said, as the two of us finally stood up, turned and headed for the door.

‘Wait!’ she said, ‘have you ever thought about your future?’

We kept walking, and never went back.

For the next ten years – having foolishly plugged my personal info into their database on day one – I was bombarded with enough of their propagandist mail to make even the Dalia Lama do his nut. I rang countless times, demanding they cease, but sensing my agitation through the phone, I received not their cooperation, but their unsolicited advice; ‘Sir, we can help you with that anger!’ It was as utterly frustrating as it was self-perpetuating, and it continued for years until eventually I got a young kid on the phone that obliged. It was a strange phenomenon too, that where before the Brisbane-gate experience I’d never so much as heard of Scientology, from that day forth they and their flashy logo seemed to be everywhere. I’ve seldom told anyone about the experience, I guess through fear of being regarded as one of the infected, but my desire to write this article was motivated, in part, by a need to purge it. I have, perhaps nostalgically, remained mildly curious, and I’ve watched at a positively safe distance, learning startling quotes by L. Ron, such as this little beauty from 1980; ‘You don’t get rich from writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, start a religion.’ Is it any coincidence that an ex-science fiction writer worked into his doctrine the theme of aliens over the hill at Thetan Level Eight? I’m not so sure. I’m pretty open to things that promote self-realisation, and flushing the mind and body with consciousness in order to disempower physical and mental ailments (which is essentially the goal of meditation), but at the price of systemised ownership? Perhaps not. I was astounded by how methodically – and, misleadingly – the Scientology seduction machine was tuned; tell someone they’re a walking disaster, offer inexpensive help, and that’s them having stepped on the web.

A couple of years ago, purely to test consistency, I mustered the courage to walk into the Scientology centre in Melbourne.

‘Welcome!’ bellowed the group of minions by the door. ‘What is your name?’

‘Count Von Rothbart. Can I speak to L. Ron, please?’

‘Ahhhr… he’s not here at the moment.’

‘And is he in later today?’

‘He could be.’

By David Kerrigan