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

Office Oversharing

If only there was a Control-Z in life, moreover, in the workplace. Sharing personal information with colleagues – or applying with higher-ups the noble law of honesty being the best policy – can feel good at the time, but the social ecosystem in the office is just as subject to the laws of the butterfly effect as is the outside world. One mindless comment to whom you thought was your friend might equal the vanishing of that overdue promotion. Leaving the subject to wonder: ‘was it something I said?’ Chances are, it was.

The issue: The failed deadline
What not to say: ‘I can’t help but feel that the word deadline should only be used when the failure to meet it actually results in death, ma’am.’
What to say: ‘I have a few follow up questions before I can truly let this rest.’

The issue: Being caught on social networking sites
What not to say: ‘Bare with me, I’ve got a live one I’m trying to reel in, and I must say the high-speed Internet connection at work is a true aid to the process.’
What to say: ‘I was trying to reconnect with an old colleague that may be able to offer the company some financial backing.’

The issue: Running late
What not to say: ‘Time is an abstract concept Brian, but I’d rather not talk about it while I’m still coming down.’
What to say: ‘I was attending the gas leak at the primary school across my street.’

The issue: Job abhorrence
What not to say: ‘I’ve nearly completed my company-wide voodoo doll set. You’d be surprised by their uncanny resemblance.’
What to say: ‘I’m so glad to have found the very position that reflects my beliefs as earnestly as it brings out my potential, sir.’

The issue: Dating
What not to say: ‘Have I ever told you it’s my personal ambition to make Gene Simmons seem comparatively prudish?’
What to say: ‘You know, no matter how much I apply myself, I just seem unable to find Mrs. Right.’

The issue: Hangovers
What not to say: ‘I’ve been on some benders in my time, but these last three nights have been the full 360 degrees.’
What to say: ‘I have a headache, they run in the family, and it is by no means anything that impedes my work.’

The issue: The sickie
What not to say: ‘My alarm went off this morning, as it always does. But I this time stared at the ceiling and asked, “What would Jesus have me do today?”’
What to say: ‘I had a highly contagious infection that science doesn’t understand.’ (Be sure to state aliments, mandatorily contagious, that pass in 48 hours – chest infection, viral infection. Apply the word infection liberally. But, in the off chance you’re telling the truth, refrain from getting into to the details of what occurs in the privacy of your own bathroom.)

The issue: The sickie return day
What not to say: ‘It was the most productive day of my life! And today? Dear me, I could climb a mountain!’
What to say: ‘However incrementally, I’m improving. Thank you for asking.’ (It’s imperative that your words – and performance – harmonise with your fabrication from the day before. Sniffle, sneeze, have scrunched up tissues in hand, if not your heavy head. Even hold on to the edge of your desk and act dizzy. Never forget that vertigo is an aliment so blessed that it should have its own national holiday. Pour blame on it generously.)

The issue: Weekends
What not to say: ‘I must admit I even thought about showering at one point, but being the endorser of Darwinism that I growingly am, felt that would interfere with nature’s will.’
What to say: ‘I caught up with season three of House Of Cards, and feel the supporting cast has really come into their own.’

The issue: Your relationship
What not to say: ‘We’ve recently taken to reading each other’s chakras telepathically, and have both felt a significant rise in our Kundalini energies.’
What to say: ‘We spent the weekend at a lovely B&B. The swordfish was particularly good.’

The issue: The work Christmas party
What not to say: ‘Good evening Mrs. Manager. That blouse is especially flattering. Would you like to dance?’ (Even if you’re getting the glad eye, it’s inadvisable to chat up your colleagues/employers. And – even if the room starts clapping in time to Last Christmas by Wham – equally so from removing your Santa suit by way of a strip tease.)
What to say: ‘I’m teaching Iyengar Yoga at 7:00. I need to leave by 6:00.’

Mentioned are a mere handful of injudicious examples, but why people overshare is a curious matter. I’ve heard it said that the mind is classically split into two halves, with which you – not dissimilar to Gollum talking to his reflection – have a constant conversation. In theory, the more aware of this reflection we are, the more we’re able to combat its need for constant validation. But for those driven by the voices, the need to boast, outdo colleagues, i.e. balance unconscious inferiority; this insensible habit may occur daily.

Social media is in no way helping. In a world where what you’re up to matters hourly, people are simply expected to overshare. Besides, how exactly would Twitter survive without society’s need to talk about its latest Ikea purchase?

In summary, the age-old adage might be the mantra of choice: less is more. Sure you want to tell the hot girl who sits next to the water cooler that you ran a half marathon before work this morning – and that you stopped only to help a stray dog deliver eight perfectly healthy puppies – but fail not to remember the butterfly effect reaching your line manager down the corridor. In that he – the one who’s working on his next heart attack – tends to warm less to those interested in fitness, than those concerned by the height of the hamburger they conquer each day. Chances are, the more oil you spill, the wider the clean up operation.

Wait Up For Davo

Some time back my wife, her good friend, and myself signed up to do a 5km running event around Lake Pflugerville, Texas.

5km being a fairly modest distance, I gave the event barely a thought leading up. But when last weekend the big day dawned – and I awoke tired, with a sore back, and horribly cold – I felt as inclined to do this run as leap out of bed to get singing to the lord at Sunday church.

We arrived at the lake. And when we hopped out of the car, and my bone marrow filed for divorce courtesy of the wind blowing with the sort of chill that could make a polar bear lose faith, there was not a cell near or far that was happy to be here. But warming my heart as it were, as I gazed around the 400-strong Kenyan-less crowd – as much an assembly of Olympians as myself a ballet dancer – a solitary thought rose: ‘I could win this thing..’

After half an hour of small talk with the locals, the front-page headline being how each was going to regain the power of their fingers when they got home, the event coordinator hollered into his megaphone. ‘Slower runners at the back! Faster runners at the front!’

‘Fast runners?’ thought I, the delusions of grandeur setting herein. I felt so smug in fact that I stood not just near the front, but was the very first person at the start line. ‘Ready, set…’ – the man’s starting gun failed resulting in him crouching down and farting about with it like a weakling trying to remove a jam lid – ‘goooooo!’

Like greyhounds out of the gate we were off, and as I streamed out front the only company I was interested in sharing this run with was the five little guys in my headphones, them being Iron Maiden. ‘Run To The Hills’ galloped wholeheartedly along, as I, by hook or crook, counterfeited the same. I quickly looked behind, taking in the sight of the rumbling throng a good distance behind. The first kilometre was gone, time – 4:00. I was in good form. ‘Just four more of those and I’ll do something I’ve never done before – win!’

I’ve often been asked if I find running to be a lonely endeavour. But with the council in my head always, during running, jumping at the opportunity to commence open debate, the answer has always been, most certainly no. This time was no exception, and as I clicked over the two kilometre mark, time – 3:58, an old voice rose again. ‘Wait up for Davo!’

The comment, relayed to me by schoolmate Xave McMahon some ten years after we finished school, was in reference to when in Year Nine the class would go cross-country running, and sports teacher Gerry Brown, heading the run, would instruct the group of some 50 teenage boys to stop at the top of Rose Hill Road and wait for the class running dunce – me. I never knew it at the time, and regardless of my marginal running improvements over the remainder of my sentence at the Christian Brothers penitentiary known as St Bernard’s, Xave McMahon, Simon Lynch and Julian Senserrick always remained the Bob Hawke to my John Howard: one step ahead with looks, with girls, and namely, with running. ‘Wait up for Davo ey? I don’t think so!’ thought I, on this day of the lake run as I looked to my left and my right; my eyes filling, in turn, with the most exquisite of sights – nobody.

The 3-kilometre mark ticked over, time – 3:59. My delusions of grandeur were hereby turning into concrete certainty. ‘This thing, this every-so-foreign thing known as victory is mine! It’s mine! It’s all miiiiiiiiine!’ I wanted it so bad, I wanted it good, and I wanted it in every way I could. But it was then, the disbelief rising in me like a Sunday morning curry, that the most dreaded of sounds made it to my ears – alien footsteps. I looked to my right – nobody, I looked to my left – nobody. But when I looked behind, I saw a guy, younger than me and with a fire in his eyes as red as his t-shirt.

Like a threatening rhythm, his footsteps grew louder from behind as I pushed hard, as hard as I had, decreasing them by a decibel or less as we crossed the 4-kilometre mark, time – 4:02. Just one more kilometre ! I would not let him deny me this most paramount of birth rites. But it was then that a glimmer of red t-shirt appeared in the corner of my eye.

With sweat steaming off me like dying racehorse, I accelerated with the last of what I had, grunting like a lactose intolerant swine as he came up alongside me. I thought about tripping him over, or claiming the long overdue retribution of probable-relative Nancy Kerrigan and clubbing him in the knee. I looked to my left, to fleetingly take in the image. This lad, terribly confident in demeanour, was less man than gazelle.

He inched in front, exhibiting the logo on the back of his red t-shirt, whereupon I learned he was no stranger to a full-length marathon. ‘But neither am I..’ thought I as I hit the gas – everything I had equalling a gain of being neck and neck. The two of us were panting like wild animals as the finish line came into view. I would not be Michael Keaton denied my Oscar! I would not be Birdmanned! I would not! I would not! But it was then that the clouds broke open and God looked down and laughed – ‘Tis you my son! Tis you! You are the second coming! Not the first, but the.. (he belly laughed aloud) second!’ Like Keanu reeves in Point Break, I felt the world’s longest annunciation of the word ‘noooooooooooooooooooo!’ pierce my heart as the red t-shirt wearing gazelle – probably thinking ‘wait up for Davo!’ – swanned past to claim 1st place. ‘Fuckety! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’

The man with his megaphone – still farting about with his starting gun – announced my name as official 2nd place runner. My official time was 20:19. The medal ceremony was soon after, and spoiling hopes that I could swing by Home Depot on the way home and make right the wrong by way of a can of gold spray paint, I was awarded not a disc-like medal, but a small silver trophy in the unmistakable shape of – No.2. I scanned around for the Royal Box, but with Her Majesty nowhere to be seen I was bestowed with my trophy a lukewarm round of applause from the icicles present (family and friends still battling the cold) and, more prestigiously, a hotdog. The 1st place runner looked over and smiled. ‘Wait up for Davo ey?’

By David Kerrigan

Answering the Best Man Bat Call

I’ve heard it said, that if a girl walks into a bar and sees another girl wearing the same dress, she’s instantly devastated. But if two men wearing the same shirt sight each other from across the room, they may end up being each other’s best man.

So you’ve just been asked to be best man, at which point you instantly learn there’s a special room in every man’s heart that houses the fear released at the sound of the question. Whether conscious of it or not, any male with a heartbeat has a faint understanding that the speech required of him is a one-time, match-deciding, penalty shot in the Social World Cup. The crowd will be hushed, and the arena floodlit.

The honour is instant, and your answer is required at similar speed. Of course you say yes, hiding from your mate all traces of reluctance. But when the phone hangs up, instead of pouring yourself a congratulatory gin, or then and there putting pen to paper, you likely flee to a movie, throughout which you’re so full of worry that you fail to even notice that Prometheus is set in space.

So how are you going to do this? Can you do this? And will your pants stay up as you do this? Regardless of who you are, of your wealth of public speaking experience, or desolate lack thereof, your mind will categorically turn to these questions.

You are, in essence, required to be a stand-up comic for some ten minutes, and including, of course, the joy in the simple fact that your mate and his lady are making a public declaration of their love, weddings can in fact hinge on a best man speech. A good one will galvanise the occasion, a bad one will leave the guests talking about the buffet.

In the spirit of peacocking, the social perks are plentiful. It’s your one chance to simultaneously impress 150 people, to spilt the sides of your mates present, to make the groom’s parents want to adopt you, and, most capitalistically, to make tangible headway with the bridesmaids.

But the one, the only, and the molten droplet rule to know is, drum roll… that it’s not about you. This is not a medium by which to road test your unrelated amateur stand-up material, but is a chance to illustrate, in a candid, yet, crediting fashion, who this bloke getting married really is. Your mate is a Christmas tree, and it’s your job to decorate him publicly.

Of course there will be references to yourself, but veer down this path only in the name of facilitating a story about him. Equally, discredit him only with the intent of ultimately crediting him. If today he bares an athletic physique, it’s ok to talk about his old suit being made out of enough material to circumnavigate the Taj Mahal. If he still lives on a diet of Mars Bars and KFC, you’d do well to leave it out.

As a brief outline, it’s probably useful to talk about when and how you met. If you tell it well the uninitiated will find it interesting, if you tell it poorly they’ll barely commit you to memory. Next you could talk about the wonder years in which together you cut your social teeth, bearing in mind not to go into unnecessary detail about ghosts of past girlfriends.

Another tricky, but necessary one, is to talk about the bride herself. She and the best man share an interesting dynamic, for to quote Jerry Seinfeld; ‘If I’m the best man, then why is she marrying him?’ Be sure on the night to make a point of how lovely she both is and looks, but do it by no means with a twinkle in your eye. Last but not least be sure to talk about their glistening future together.

Technically you have three options. First: zero preparation, known as winging it. Second: cue cards. I’ve seen a bloke stand up, the wind blow, and along with the cards his whole life blown away in the blinking of an eye. Or third: a fully written speech. Each to their own of course, but I’ll take number three thanks, and if you opt similarly be sure to print out two copies on the day. Lest one get eaten by the chapel Rottweiler.

In all likelihood the occasion is going to include not only alcohol, but that in its finest incarnation, free alcohol. I’ve had the honour of being best man three times, at which I can accurately, depending on intake of the aforementioned, graph the effects.

I was so nervous on the virgin occasion that I spent the pre-speech hours drinking intravenously. Luckily the stairs weren’t too challenging as I stepped up on the day. But the letter ‘n’, tricky little bloke that it is, managed to sneak its way into words whose spelling otherwise exclude it. No longer was the city of reference Adelaide, but Adenlaide.

The second time I drank not a drop, whereupon my voice shook as though the microphone was running through a tremolo effect. Gig three, consisted, thankfully, of the perfect play. Just one glass of red wine; the nervous system tweaked to perfection.

But my opinion, or advice – dirty little word that it is – is worth little unless I divulge details of live fieldwork.

The most recent one I was asked to do was in March 2012. The mission, if I chose to accept it, would include a three-leg flight from London to Melbourne, followed by a four-hour drive to rural Victoria where the wedding would take place. It was the tallest of tall orders, but although the week before I suffered panic to the extent that I nearly picked up the phone to tell the groom-to-be ‘I simply cannot do this’, I knew if I could I’d be knighted amongst our clan. I knew too that the regret in declining would deny me sound sleep for the rest of my life.

I arrived in Australia six weeks later, whereupon the blood in my veins had to give way to the jet-lag running through them. I’d never before believed in jet-lag, thinking it to be no more than a wanker’s way of telling you they’ve been on a 747. But when on the big day my brain struggled to discern the difference between Near Year and New Caledonia, my opinion was forcibly changed.

The setting, on the Howqua River in Victoria’s high country – boasted Australia at its best. The ceremony was held on the riverbank, and was conducted by the groom’s father. My mate looked like a million bucks, and the bride – the autumn leaves falling on cue as she walked out – looked like ten million or more.

But all throughout the ceremony, which included mothers and mothers in-law gently battling tears of pride, and cousins and aunties with their heads poignantly tilted to the side, my nervous system kept reminding me that perhaps my speech to come, the opus of fart jokes that it could likely be, was truly inappropriate.

And it was just a couple of hours later that came the sound I’d been dreading for weeks: ‘ting ting!’ – glass and spoon – ‘and now ladies and gentleman, a round of applause for the best man.’

With my palms sweaty, and my heart beating at a personal best, my head descended into war: ‘I can’t do this! I can do this!’ I approached the microphone, which as though on cue fed back in the key of embarrassment. ‘I can’t do this! I can do this!’ I’d recently seen The King’s Speech, and as I struggled to remember my opening words, I was herein starting to feel like royalty.

I’d written my speech word for word; but although I felt it was the safest option, I was equally concerned that I’d sound as contrived as a ten-year-old girl reading poetry to the classroom. ‘I can’t do this! I can do this!’ I swallowed hard as I felt genuinely overwhelmed by the simple choice of holding the microphone in my hand or leaving it on the mic stand.

But as I stood in front of the hushed crowd, I realised what my fear was comprised of. That it was the fear of being shown up. That the actor that I am, in the drama that is my own life, would be seen for all the weakness he actually possesses.

Equally, it was the fear that came with comparison: namely that with the father of the groom, who had spoken before me. He was beyond effortless: an experienced statesman whose glasses rested regally on the tip of his nose. He hadn’t just spoken his speech but had performed it with zero notes on hand.

‘I can’t do this! I can do this!’ Something within me relaxed and the ‘can do’ half slayed the other, and like taking the first step onto a high wire, I put my notes down and adlibbed the first line.

The crowd looked instantly engaged, and I realised then that I was speaking not to a room full of social adversaries, but to people here on common purpose; those that despite their own experience with public speaking likely understand that it’s no easy feat.

At around the one minute mark came the most orgasmic sound my ears had ever heard: a room full of people laughing on my account. The relief was almost too wonderful for words, like every cell within had transformed from a pair of clenched fists into a pair of clapping hands.

I referred to my notes loosely, which remedied the contrived tone of a word-for-word read, and with more laughs came more confidence to further adlib. The joy was exponential.

As I pressed onwards, the notion of time became particularly distorted, like each minute was filled with an hour’s thought. I felt too that I’d spilt into two halves: me the doer, who – like a swan appearing graceful on the surface, but with its legs labouring under the water – was hard at work making the actual speech. And me the watcher, who could barely believe it was happening, or was thinking about tomato soup and other topics unrelated.

The doer had his hands well and truly full, but the watcher was intent on the crowd: noticing the old ladies leaning forward so as to hear adequately, and the little kids basking in the joy of being in a room full of happy adults.

It was my observation also, that just as people would laugh in the parts that weren’t meant to be funny, I’d be deafened by the sound of crickets during those I’d planned to be the funniest, at which no one laughed. Often the room was more so full of grinning faces, as opposed to audible laughter. But I’d set myself the rule to keep moving forward no matter what, especially if I got emotional.

It was over in the blinking of an eye; a blink that I was later told went for as long as fifteen minutes. Although I didn’t want to get off stage, suffering, as I was, delusions of grandeur in which I wondered if stand-up comedy was the very road for me, I was nonetheless intoxicated with relief.

Looking back, accepting the accolade of best man is one of the highlights of my life, and I will wear with pride this bravery medal until I’m an old man with a grey moustache.

So when your mate with the same shirt rings you with the best man bat call, and you see yourself standing plum in front of goal at the Social World Cup – floodlit, crowd hushed – what’s your answer going to be? Hit or miss, you’re about to make history.

By David Kerrigan.

She loves me, she loves me not.

After the trip to see Katie in Austin in April 2014, I was 100% sure I wanted to marry her, but was unsure if popping the question, when we met up in Melbourne two months later, was a bit soon for her liking.

I decided to buy an engagement ring regardless, knowing that whether I used it in June, or at a later date, I was intent on placing it on her finger.

And so I wandered the streets of Hatton Gardens; London’s premiere engagement ring hot spot, as the most confused man on earth.

Katie and I had never talked rings, but modest and unmaterialistic in nature, I gathered she’d be disinclined towards something bold and showy, or something even diamond based at all.

I walked into an antique ring shop.

‘Can I help you Sir?’

‘I’m ahhrrr…’

‘Looking for a ring?’

‘Yes!’ I said, delighted to have gotten this far.

‘Do you know what you’re looking for?’

‘No,’ I replied, hating putting myself in a position of additional vulnerability.

‘We have a lovely range of diamond rings!’

‘No, not diamonds,’ she looked at me strange, ‘I mean, not diamonds, I think.’

‘You think?’

‘Yes, I mean, I’m sure Katie would have seen Blood Diamond, and that didn’t exactly work out too well for that lot did it?’

‘I see. So is she ostentatious by nature?’

‘Well she’s from Austin. Does that help?’

‘No. So how about something antique?’

‘Yes!’ I said, having meant to say that from the beginning.

She brought out three trays of rings, and choosing gifts for others – let alone who I hoped would become my wife-to-be – being far from my forte, I only just resisted the urge to default to eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

‘See anything you like?’ she asked.

I felt the sweat gathering on my brow.

I quickly scanned Katie’s Facebook page, in the hope of finding photos of her wearing rings, but all I found, of course, were those of lovely her and her ten little naked fingers.

‘We had a sale on yesterday!’ said the lady, ‘50% off everything!’

‘Thanks,’ I returned, wondering in what way she felt the comment could assist. ‘I think I like this one?’

‘Do you want to frighten her away?’

‘No! Why?’

‘Then definitely not that one.’

‘Well… what about this one?’

‘Depends on the message you’re trying to convey, I guess…’

Defeat was near, but it was then, like the quiet achiever amongst its loud counterparts, that I spotted a modest looking ring with a blue thingy in it.

‘This one?’ I asked tentatively, as though it was the lady herself I was buying it for.

‘Ah yes! Sapphire. The jewel of September!’

‘Well both our birthdays are in September!’ I said, feeling the victory at hand. ‘And I know that she has a blue t-shirt that she sometimes goes to the gym in?’

‘And?’

‘And I’ll take it!’

Six weeks later I arrived in Melbourne, and four days after that Katie followed. I couldn’t have been more proud to introduce her around, to my parents, brothers and mates, and adding to my inclination to pop the question, the reviews were rave. Still the devil and the angel battled it out at my shoulders. ‘What are you afraid of man?’ probed the devil. ‘Just ask!’

‘Now now… perhaps you should consider she might not feel quite ready at this time?’ affirmed the angel.

Previous to arriving in Australia, I had racked my brains for weeks, that, if I were to ask, how I would do it. ‘Where’ was the easy bit, it would be on the small footbridge at Jubilee Lake in Daylesford, near the holiday house my family had when I was a kid. But ‘how’ continued to be a bone of contention.

Katie had often talked of her childhood fascination with The Wizard Of Oz, not dissimilar to mine with Big Trouble In Little China, and so I brainstormed on ways I could incorporate it.

There were many terrible first drafts, such as envisioning myself dressing up as the scarecrow and jumping out from behind a tree, which I knew would frighten her shitless and result in a flat ‘no’, or learning to play We’re Off To See The Wizard on guitar. Even though we would be ‘in Oz’, and perhaps it could be argued that I was the wizard, I knew that any gesture with that much cheese couldn’t but be nauseating.

In time I came up with the idea of acquiring a ring box that played Somewhere Over The Rainbow when opened. I found exactly what I was looking for on line and ordered it immediately. Though it proved to be a crying shame that, for the sake of scale accuracy, Amazon didn’t photograph the item next to a dead cat, as when it arrived this ‘ring box’ was in fact a jewellery box whose size was not dissimilar to that of a weapon of mass destruction. My plan to hide it in my pocket, on a casual walk through the Australian bush, was as trumped as old Donald himself.

I booked us a weekend retreat in Daylesford ahead of time, knowing that even if the question wasn’t popped when the great day cometh, Daylesford was a place I wanted to show Katie. It felt like a year away when I booked, but testament to the hourglass from Days Of Our Lives, soon came the day where we woke up in Daylesford.

‘This was the day I was going to ask?’ said a voice in my head.

‘But you’re not going to are you?’ asked the angel.

‘Sure he is!’ replied the devil.

‘What are we doing today?’ asked Katie, yawning.

‘Ahhrrr… I was thinking…’

‘Thinking what?’

‘Thinking that we could ––‘

‘–– Do you want to go to that bakery in town?’

‘Maybe.’

‘And weren’t you thinking of taking me to that lake today?’

‘What lake?’

‘That lake you said has some footbridge you wanted to show me?’

‘Um.. yes. I was.’

As already stated, my resolution to marry her was 100%, but the agony regarding the timing was just as strong. The pros to asking that day was that it was in a place of special significance for me, and, providing she said yes, that my friends and family would experience the occasion with us when we returned to Melbourne. But still I asked myself if it was good for Katie.

We packed to go to the lake, and just for safekeeping I brought the full proposal package; the special blue ring, the supersized WOZ jewellery box, apples and bananas, and a backpack to conceal the whole affair.

As per her wish, we first went to the bakery in town, during which time she talked about a range of things that I altogether failed to listen to. I was far far away, in a land of pure irresolution, a mere on-listener to the inner debate feuding in my brain.

We finished up and continued on to the lake, and as we pulled up and hopped out the car, I could barely believe I was here at the scene I’d been visualising for so long.

The lake was as pristine as always, and perfectly mirroring the Australian bush framing it, there was not a ripple on its surface. It had been some years since I’d been here; but clearly oblivious to time, the cockatoos and rosellas sang the same old song.

Katie walked down to the lake’s edge, and I retreated to the campsite showers to quickly organise the proposal package, should I use it. The task at hand was to place the ring in the tray of the jewellery box, that in a plastic bag so the ring wouldn’t fall out and get lost, and the entire armoury in the backpack.

I walked down to the lake edge with her.

‘What’s with the backpack?’ she asked.

‘I brought some apples and bananas. We’ll be going on a bit of a walk.’

‘But we just had lunch?’

I opted not to reply.

We proceeded to walk slowly along the lake’s edge, step by step inching towards the footbridge, where, should I ask, I was going to. Katie had resumed the same conversation as in the bakery; the same in that it had the identical muffled sound of monologue not being at all listened to.

‘It’s too soon! She’s going to say no! And you’re going to feel like a right knob and never ask again!’ said the angel.

‘Ah what’s wrong with you man? Are you getting distinct shrinkage from the cold?’ inquired the devil.

‘What’s the name of that bird over there?’ asked Katie.

‘Impatience has always been your problem!’ said the angel.

‘What?’ I asked.

‘That bird?’ repeated Katie. ‘The red one?’

‘Come one man! You’re nearly 40! What are you waiting for?’ said the devil.

‘Ahhrr.. rosella. It’s a rosella.’ I said.

‘You’ve got your whole life to ask, why rush it?’ said the angel.

‘And what about that black and white bird up there?’ asked Katie again.

‘What are you gunna do? Propose when you look like Gandalf?’ probed the devil.

‘It’s a magpie.’ I said.

‘Are you feeling ok?’

‘Yeah. Why?’

‘I just get the feeling you’re not listening to me.’

We were now walking along the trail, away from the lake, when the most momentous of things happened, the footbridge came into view. I stopped dead, and although it was a piercingly cold day, I felt myself getting hot.

‘It looks a bit muddy to kneel in I reckon?’ thought I, clutching at reasons to postpone, but it was then that I felt myself grow brave, and a feeling of resolve entirely take over. ‘I’m going to ask! Yes I am! Yes I definitely am! Yes I definitely am! I think?’

We inched towards the footbridge, as the devil and angel resorted to a degree of violence that the Australian Football League could only describe as, “a bloody disgrace!”

Whack!

The footbridge was just a few feet away.

Boof!

The footbridge was upon us.

Smack!

We arrived, at which point the most awful of things happened, I lost my nerve altogether and we walked right past it.

‘You limp! Floppy! Wilted sack of ––‘ said the devil, withering away like the Wicked Witch of the East.

‘–– It’s smarter this way! Much much smarter!’

After two months of anticipation; of having chosen a ring, of having thought out a proposal, and knowing full well that there would never again be our first trip together to Australia, with all the excitement of just having met my family and friends, there were no words to describe the disappointment I felt as our moment was washed away.

Feeling sick to my stomach, we kept walking along the trail, until after about fifteen minutes we discovered a solitary mineral water pump in the middle of the bush. I had forgotten all about it, only then remembering that we used to come here and fill up plastic bottles when I was a kid.

The pump was on a slightly raised area of earth, and circumnavigating it was a clearing, creating an almost natural circular altar. Katie walked over and stood on the highest part of the ground. I followed, and having slipped the backpack off my shoulder and placing it at my feet, I faced her.

We were completely on our own, and immersed in silence, save for the sounds of birds near and far, and the air, or cessation of the battle of the voices in my head, created a marked stillness.

‘You know,’ said Katie, ‘if ever we got married, somewhere like this would be perfect.’

The devil rose up from the grave and kicked me in the place of distinct shrinkage. ‘That’s your cue man! Fffuucckkeenn aaassskkk!’

With my heart thumping in my chest, I leaned down to the backpack and unzipped it just enough to see the plastic bag with the proposal package. Katie, looking the other way, proceeded to tell a story about how this spot reminded her of a place in Louisiana where she used to play when she was a little girl.

With one hand, I managed to break the plastic bag so as to get to the jewellery box within, yet as though by some trick of the angel, when I stood up and presented it to Katie, in my hands was not it but the apple.

She faced me with a look of detached bewilderment.

‘So… ahhrr… do you want an apple?’ I asked.

‘No.’

‘What about a banana?’

‘No, thanks.’

‘But really, I have a banana also, and I think it’s a good one in that it’s definitely yellow.’ I said, mustering any excuse to justify leaning down to the backpack a second time.

I did just that, but as I fumbled for the jewellery box, I bumped it hard causing it to play the singular first note from the Somewhere Over The Rainbow tune.

‘What was that?’ asked Katie.

‘The birds.’

She looked away as she continued her story.

This was it, this was really it, the big moment had come, the moment where I was to utter four words in a particular order that I had never uttered them before.

With the box firm in hand I stood up. But where I had meant to hold it in front of me, open the drawer, reveal the ring, and then pop the question of concern, in a flash of panic I instead hid it behind my back.

‘What’s that?’ she asked, having stopped her story.

‘Nothing.’ I said, focusing on warding off the heart attack in my ribs.

‘What?’ she asked, as though sensing more.

‘Ahhrr…’

‘What?’

‘I was wondering if…’

‘If, what?’

‘I was wondering if you…’

I brought the box around to my front and opened the drawer.

‘I was wondering if you would marry me?’

It was surely the most fumbled proposal in the history of them; so much so that I was certain I had accidentally replaced the word marry with Harry, but the four words that came out of her mouth then after proved otherwise.

‘Of course I will,’ she said.

By David Kerrigan