Cover


Title Page


Copyright

Table of Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Moth

Worm

Putrescence

Skink

Beetle

Frog

Mayfly

Amphipod

Cicada

Duck

Mouse

Snail

Fish

Midge

Crab

Spider

Lamprey

Ant

Ovum

Grasshopper

Smorgasbord

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Also by Exisle Publishing...

Back Cover Material

For Cherry

Moth

Jack...

All right, that’s not his real name, but it is the one he tried to fool Cherry with, and for the time being it’s probably best if we all go along with it...

Jack first heard of the Bogong while sitting in the cab of a freight truck. He had been a teenager at the time, commuting between his parents’ place at Orford on Tasmania’s east coast and his boarding school eighty kilometres away in Hobart. Hitching a ride on the truck before daybreak on Monday mornings had been a chore, but it meant that Sunday nights could be spent in the country fishing instead of in the city watching telly.

The truck was controlled by his Uncle Dory, The Count, who also controlled the truck’s sound system. It was either John Laws on the radio or Slim Dusty on the cassette player.

Listening to Slim Dusty wasn’t nearly as torturous as Jack made out to his mates. Sure, there was infuriating fluff like ‘The Pub with No Beer’ and ‘I Love to Have a Beer with Duncan’, which was all his friends had ever heard, but there was also a wealth of genuinely clever material, much of it evocative and full of pathos. Among other things, Slim Dusty introduced Jack to Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson: it seemed that Slim had put their every rhyming couplet to music.

When Lawson spoke of rural outposts, he talked of isolation and adversity, alcoholism and despair, mud and hard-hewn mateship. Lawson’s poetry was as Spartan and rough-edged as the places he spoke of, but it was a style of writing that Jack came to deeply admire. Paterson, on the other hand, saw life as urban travellers usually do, through ‘rose-tinted glasses’. Jack originally found him to be as contemptible as Barbara Cartland, but the truth was that Jack was himself a romantic and he soon became addicted to the imagery in The Man from Snowy River.

Slim Dusty didn’t only record old ballads. Much of his work was original. As in ‘The Bogong’, a song about the pain experienced by a cattleman who, despite accepting the idea that making the High Country a national park probably made some sort of sense, wanted Australia to understand that the removal of the cattle was a euphemism for the destruction of bushmen’s souls.

Jack was a conservationist who abhorred the ongoing destruction of Tasmania’s wild places, but he also had an overwhelming need to interact with nature: he hated the idea of merely observing, of not being allowed to touch, of being a voyeur. By osmosis, then, the Victorian High Country became embedded in Jack’s sense of self.

He first visited the Bogong High Plains when he was twenty-three. It was a pilgrimage, and he wondered if the intensity of emotion he felt was the same as that experienced by the children of the immigrants who had worked on the Snowy Mountains Scheme when they finally took it upon themselves to ‘discover’ their parents’ homeland. Or was it more akin to the conflicting emotions felt by adoptees when, in their late teens or early twenties, they finally got to meet their biological parents?

Today, everything was as it had been on his very first visit. It didn’t really much matter what happened on the Bogong: it was the being there that was so important.

All morning he had been fly fishing the Pretty Valley Pondage, a shallow tarn surrounded by open moorland. Cool breezes riffled the water’s surface, and spotting the small brown trout as they cruised over the mottled substrate was a challenging exercise. Still, he had grassed and released quite a few fish. He had ‘natural ability’ on his side, and also the fact that the fish were alert for stray moths that were periodically crash-landing onto the water. Jack found that if he landed a big dry fly within two metres of a fish, it would be engulfed in less than a second, usually amid a dramatic eruption of spray.

An ugly cloudbank was welling on the western horizon, and Jack reluctantly decided to stop fishing and complete the task he had set himself. Assembled fly rod still in hand, world-weary daypack filled with cameras and lenses hanging lazily from his shoulders, he walked towards the granite outcrops that the local Aborigines called Bogongs, a name aeons old. The moorland—poa-grass tussocks and moss—was wet and spongy underfoot. The horizons were treeless, the air cool despite the blue sky and bright sun.

When he got to the boulders and crags—hard, scarred and weatherworn, projecting naked and proud from the soft moors, almost human—he saw something he didn’t expect and didn’t want. Another person. A woman.

He watched from an anonymous distance as she softly petted the vertical side of a cleft, and he continued to watch as the rock seemed to swell and settle as if sighing. He walked closer. ‘Hello,’ he announced.

She turned her head towards him, but didn’t make eye contact.

He tried again. ‘Did you find the moths by accident? Or did you come here intentionally?’

She turned her head back to the crevice and said nothing.

Weeks later, when he tried to re-imagine her, this was the image he found easiest to recall. In his mind’s eye he could see her long dark hair, her soft facial features, her dark eyes, the sun-weathered skin, the pleasing roundedness of her body. But he could not recall what she was wearing. Perhaps she made a point of not allowing clothes to define her. Perhaps it was just that the enigma inside the body was more intriguing than anything he’d seen in a long time, moths included.

‘I don’t want to interrupt,’ he offered politely, ‘but I’d like to take a few photographs before I leave.’

He was close by now, could have reached out and touched the crevice, or her, but did neither. He looked at the moths. A sprawling blanket, thickly knitted, each individual oriented more or less skywards, each with its head well tucked under the wings of the moth in front, each partly overlapped by the wings of its comrades on each side.

‘The clusters are usually said to resemble tiles on a roof,’ he observed. ‘It’s a crude analogy I think. Don’t you? Exceedingly out of context up here, so far away from anything human.’

‘They do look like tiles. Perhaps not terracotta ones. Timber shingles. As grey as the rocks they rest on. With mottling reminiscent of black mould and sepia lichen, just like the patterning you see on the old bush huts and High Country homesteads.’ She paused, then added, ‘Moths, rocks and timber huts: they belong here, aesthetically and historically. All bring me a certain comfort. Despite your prejudices, the tile analogy is a good one.’

She sounded cold, like a textbook, but it was confrontation without malice or intent. Or emotion for that matter. She had a New Zealand accent, he noticed, a little-girl’s voice that seemed slightly at odds with her self-assuredness.

‘To me they look like nothing so much as fish scales,’ he replied defensively.

She nodded noncommittally.

It wasn’t just the individual moths that looked like scales, but the way clusters of moths within the group made up larger scales within the overall pattern, in much the same way as paving rocks are laid on old European streets. An analogy no more worthy than one dealing with terracotta tiles, he realised. He changed tack.

‘The Aborigines used to come up here in the summer to feast on the moths. Did you know that? I knew an old farmer nearby, he’s dead now, whose grandfather knew the places where the last corroborees were held. He could speak some of the local language. Said that the feasts were called urri arra.

She looked at him now, but not into his eyes. ‘Bunyip? Bunyip Jim?’

Despite her dark complexion she reminded him of John Wyndham’s Midwich cuckoos, more the way they were described in the book, not quite the way they appeared in the film, Village of the Damned. It was her eyes. They were dark brown rather than alien gold, but even from mandatory oblique angles, he could sense that they were cold, that they were always looking through him or, maybe, into him. They were compelling and unknowable; addictive and, let’s be realistic, unlovable. ‘Bunyip: yeah that’s what the old farmer called himself. Not so much a name as a cliché, eh?’

‘It is a beautiful name,’ she contradicted.

He watched as her hand began fossicking around, blindly, in the poa tussocks, looking for something she knew was there. She was studying him while her hand explored, absorbing every square centimetre of his body, except his eyes ... and then she held up a stone. ‘What shape?’ she asked.

Was it a trick question? He didn’t think so. He squinted at it. The stone was remarkable not so much for the shape but for its perfection. ‘It’s a cube,’ he gushed.

‘But it is not, you see.’ And as she rotated it he could see that no two sides were the same length. Indeed, the longest was fully three times the length of the shortest. The illusion of being a cube was nothing more than a mischief of perspective. She had tricked him after all. He felt betrayed. Then ashamed for feeling betrayed.

Seeming not to notice his discomfort, she kept talking wistfully into the void. ‘A cube, viewed from the distance which separates you and me, could be any one of several thousand shapes, yet the whole world sees only the cube, not the possibilities.’

Was that a heartrending loneliness in her voice? Or was he trying too hard to locate a chink in her armour-plated exterior? He went back over the conversation: disjointed, impolite, forever jumping out of context. It wasn’t normal. He quite liked it that way.

They sat in silence for a while. The breeze died away. The air heated. A few scales in the fish skin of moths shuffled once, and a single swell of movement rolled slowly across the rock face.

‘The distance which separates you and me might not be as great as you think.’ He was being defiant, not affectionate.

‘Once when I was a very small child,’ she lamented, ignoring him again, ‘my mother found me staring at the tray of a matchbox. I had been looking at it for a very long time, rocking back and forth, configuring and reconfiguring all the things it might be, too scared to touch it lest it turned out to be the simplest and least exciting thing possible. My father came home from work and I heard my mother say, “George look at her: I think, I’m sure, she’s the same as Jenny.” I think my mother buried her face into my father’s chest after that, because I could hear muffled sobbing, but I do not know for certain because I could not take my concentration off the box, could not blink. If I did, the possibilities might disappear. Even then I was becoming aware of the fact that, despite all the potential in the world, the tray of a matchbox was always shaped like the tray of a matchbox. The world was settling out, as silt in a flooded stream. If my parents could have known what was happening, I suppose they would have been reassured. But I was afraid; so very, very scared. I could feel my imagination—my optimism and enthusiasm—degenerating. I expect it was like the terrible realisation that an older person might have when they first recognise that they are in the early stages of dementia, except that the fear I felt was a child’s fear.’ After a melancholy pause, she reiterated, with unusual emphasis, ‘There is nothing as intensely bleak and physical as a child’s fear...’ and then her words seemed to trail off into some personal void.

It was hard to think of anything to say. ‘Why did you come here?’ he eventually asked.

She opened up her palm. The rock was still there. ‘I do not like cities and houses and manufactured stuff. Here in the High Country, a cube is unlikely to be what other people expect it to be. Here I am free to be a child again.’

‘But why here, in this particular part of the Bogong?’

She looked at the moths. ‘When I was a child I had a picture of Bogong moths on my living-room wall.’

He waited for her to elaborate but she didn’t. ‘I came here for the moths too,’ he offered.

She giggled, taking him by surprise. Was she being affectionate? He had taken her to be mildly autistic, and yet...

‘My mother was wrong,’ she explained as if reading his thoughts. ‘I am not like Jenny, not exactly. What do you do for a living?’ The change in her demeanour was even stranger than her original strangeness.

‘I’m a photojournalist. I’m sick of doing mundane magazine articles though. I’ve decided on a little private project. I want to record something about the things fish eat, something poetic.’ He couldn’t hide the self-consciousness in his voice, but he continued anyway. ‘Trout foods are seasonal at best, and often sporadic or intermittent. The project may well take years to complete.’

‘Mid-life crisis,’ she deduced out loud, matter of fact. ‘What is your favourite book?’

Her request was so surprising that he struggled to think of an appropriate response. ‘Er ... Midnight’s Children —’

‘Oh come now,’ she scoffed. ‘A safe choice, being the Booker of Bookers and all. No one would dare call you a philistine. Still, it betrays a conservative nature you do not have. Be more daring. You do not have to try to impress me. I am not going to let you have sex with me anyway, and we will never see one another again after you leave this place, so you have nothing to lose. Go on, think of something adventurous. Dangerous. Tell me, what is your favourite Australian book?’

I am not going to let you have sex with me anyway. The presumptuous little...

‘Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus.

She laughed at him again.

‘Tell me your favourite book then,’ he pouted.

The Thousand and One Nights.

He liked that, the way she’d trumped his two books about storytellers with the grandfather of the genre. He recalled how, long ago in primary school, he had enjoyed Scheherazade’s tales to her sister, which were always undertaken in the presence of the murderous King Shahryar, about Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin. He loved the way Scheherazade left each instalment on a knife’s edge: one clever little seduction after another, each enabling her to survive one more night, until finally, despite their worst intentions, she and the king realised they had fallen in love with each other.

The fly fisher looked at the moth woman and smiled. She turned her gaze so as not to meet his eyes, and smiled too. A nice smile.

‘It is true though,’ she insisted. ‘Not Antoine Galland’s version of the stories, or any adult translation, but a picture book called The Arabian Nights from my childhood. The text ran to just a few hundred words. It was the pictures that intrigued me. They inspired me to paint. If I had not learned to paint, and to sculpt, well...’ her voice died out.

‘I don’t know your name,’ he ventured.

‘Cherry.’

‘You made that up.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Cherry, Scheherazade. Don’t pretend it wasn’t deliberate.’

‘Well my name is Cherry. Cherry Cooper. What is your name?’

Should he disclose it? This Cherry person was intriguing, but distinctly weird and perhaps obsessive. What if she started stalking him or something? No, he didn’t think she would do that; still, she possessed a distinct aura of danger. He felt like he was trapped in a lifeboat with a tiger. ‘Jack. Jack Salmon.’

It was her turn to laugh. ‘ You made that up.’

‘What do you mean?’ he said, feigning outrage.

‘Do not pretend you do not know Mr Salman Rushdie.’ Then looking at his fly rod, ‘Mr Salmon the trout fisher.’ She emphasised the silent ‘l’.

‘Are we really lying to each other about our names?’ Jack asked.

She fended his question with another. ‘Do you believe in coincidences? The interconnectedness of everything?’

God, this conversation was hard work, but Jack refused to be intimidated: ‘When I studied English in high school, my teacher, Zanzy we called him...’

Her eyes darted at him at the sound of the name, but she quickly checked herself and Jack noticed nothing.

‘...he asked us if we thought Dickens’ plots were too interwoven, too implausible. None of us thought so. And Zanzy said that was probably because we lived in Tasmania where, he suspected, most people experienced no more than two degrees of separation. He said he used to get different answers to the question from Melburnians and Sydneysiders.’

‘I am glad you like Dickens.’

Jack considered this. ‘Okay, I’ll agree to call you Cherry.’

‘And I shall agree to call you ... Zachary.’

They laughed again, easily this time, and without standing she began plucking clumps from dead poa tussocks and piling them up on the small patch of bare earth that separated her from him. Anticipating the question forming uncomfortably in his mouth, Cherry said, ‘Yes, I am making a fire. You said that Aborigines ate the moths. So did I once. I am going to eat them again.’

‘I wouldn’t if I were you.’

She ignored him.

‘No really, I wouldn’t,’ he insisted. ‘I know a bit about insects. See that strip of dead grass. It’s died from arsenic poisoning. From the moths. What happens is that the moths absorb arsenic from pesticide residues on the lowland farms. It stays in their bodies when they come up here for their summer sleep-over. Heavy rains flush dead moths from the rock crevices and the grass beneath them dies—’

‘I know about the arsenic.’ She sounded as if she did.

‘I did some work up here at the turn of the millennium—’

‘I know about the arsenic,’ Cherry reiterated.

‘You are what you eat, you know. Do you want to be poisonous?’

‘You have read Midnight’s Children.’ Clearly she was surprised. ‘Did you like that bit where Naseem mixes her life’s bitterness and ill-will into the food she prepares for that book’s Scheherazade?’

‘I didn’t particularly like that bit. The idea’s become a bit hackneyed of late.’ He’d given it his best shot, but deep down he knew that he could never be as proficient as Cherry in the art of confrontation.

‘As in Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, you mean?’

‘And in Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel,’ Jack elaborated.

Como agua para chocolate. Do you like Spanish-speaking authors? How about Aphrodite by Isabel Allende?’

He couldn’t hide his appreciation of her apparent love of literature. ‘I think I remember it. That was the one subtitled The love of food and the food of love, wasn’t it?’

Bonding by books.

By now she had added a few sticks from some woody shrubs that were wasting away within arm’s reach, and had produced from her small black backpack, as travel-worn as his own, a box of matches. Soon a blistering conflagration was reducing itself to ashes.

‘Perhaps we are not what we eat, but we eat what we are,’ Jack mused.

‘An example?’

He had been thinking of the trout he’d been catching in the tarn, the way they had been eating moths that had been kamikazeing onto the water, and the fact that colonies of moths resemble fish skin, but what he said to Cherry was, ‘Mammoth hunters ate mammoths because they were physical and bestial. I doubt that they would have settled for a quiet life domesticating lentils. They could only have become farmers if they themselves had already become somewhat domesticated.’

Cherry scooped a great swath of moths from the rock, and tossed it into the ashes. She and Jack grimaced at the moths’ brief panic, then watched more intently as wings, legs and body scales began flaking from plump bodies. Cherry withdrew from her daypack a small mortar and pestle.

‘They really are poisonous—’ Jack started.

‘I do not care—’ Cherry seemed to realise how determined she was sounding, and stopped mid-sentence.

‘Go on,’ Jack encouraged. ‘I can keep secrets.’

‘No, it does not matter. I did something recently, something unforgivable and—’ She checked herself again, and her maudlin tone became suddenly upbeat. ‘Well, I am planning to kill myself by eating Bogong moths.’ She smiled cheerfully. ‘What do you think of that?’

He said nothing.

‘Have you ever done anything unforgivable?’ she asked.

Of course he had; everyone had. But there were two things that burned especially deep, so deep that at times they threatened to overwhelm him. The most recent event was when he betrayed his five-year-old ‘niece’. The other event happened three decades ago, when he deliberately shot a fellow angler in cold blood. He wasn’t about to admit to either.

‘Okay, do not answer me,’ Cherry pouted.

Jack watched as Cherry picked moth bodies out of the ash, one by one, placed them in the bowl and began mashing them into a paste. When she had finished, she held the bowl towards him, and pouted again when he declined her offer. ‘Go on, they taste nutty, like cashews or walnuts.’

‘They say the same thing about wattle grubs in Tasmania,’ he offered. ‘I used grubs for trout bait when I was a kid. I sampled one once. It tasted like rancid butter. I had a severe allergic reaction and earned an ambulance trip to hospital for my troubles.’

‘Oh well,’ she mused, sliding her index finger around the bowl, delivering a generous scoop of moth paste to her lips.

Jack sensed something reckless in her and felt protective. Gently he took her chin in his right hand and turned her face to look at him.

‘I cannot!’ she protested savagely, almost inhumanly, making him recoil.

When she finally spoke again, she sounded distracted, almost as if she was talking to herself. ‘When I look at a cube and see all those shapes, that confusion of possibilities ... it is a type of storm, but a manageable one. There is a certain joy in storms, something invigorating. Eyes are much more evil than cubes and storms. They are calm like oil, full of swirling toxic colours.’ She could sense that he didn’t believe her. ‘I mean it Zachary: it would be much easier to drown, or suffocate, in a sea of tranquillity than in a maelstrom.’

And it was true: in the years to come she would never, could never, look into his eyes, not once. Not even when...

After an uncomfortable silence she said, ‘You should go now.’

***

Back at the lake, he tried to fish but his thoughts were elsewhere. Bogong moths: troublesome things. So despised that farmers on the lowland pastures west of the Dividing Range call the caterpillars ‘cutworms’, for the way they slice off crops at ground level. And it’s not just the farmers who voice malice either. In spring, when the young adults fly to the Alps seeking refuge from the heat and dry, they are often blown by the winds over the mountains to Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney, where they are attracted to lights and cause inconvenience at sports grounds, and also block up air-conditioning systems. The media report the havoc gleefully. Why, the blighters even had the audacity to interrupt the Sydney Olympics. Well good on them, Jack thought. He liked nature’s anarchy, its little flights of resistance. He wasn’t misanthropic; it was just that, like Cherry, he didn’t much like clinical environments. He was a lot like Cherry, really, more than she could know.

Fly fishing was what he did better than all else. His peers often said he could think like a fish, but he couldn’t. What he could do was think like a mammoth hunter. Obliquely. From reflex and instinct. He saw things civilised people could not sense, things they could not even imagine.

Sometimes he wondered if he saw some of the things his brother, Yarg, saw. He remembered Yarg as a baby, decades ago, looking with wide-open eyes at a spinning top, rocking back and forth. Like an imbecile, said all those people with normal imaginations, hopelessly narrow ones. Poor Yarg: he didn’t ever ‘come good’, not like Cherry. He never learned to recognise the fiction of reality from the truth of endless possibility.

When most anglers looked at a stony lakebed beneath a rippled surface, they saw indecipherable complexity. When Jack looked, he instantly distinguished fish from rocks. Despite the epilepsy of shadows generated by the wavelets, he noticed the whites of feeding mouths, faint black tail tips, every fishy anomaly. That was his singular talent: his ability to see likelihoods and certainties rather than be blinded by prospects. There was, he felt, a certain yin and yang about him and the moth woman.

He watched a trout leap out of the water and take a moth in mid-air, and didn’t bother casting to it. He began walking back to the car, one kilometre away.

You couldn’t really kill yourself by eating Bogong moths. Could you? After all, the trout in the pond he had just left all seemed healthy enough.

In Tasmania, in the 1980s, he had helped investigate a fish kill in the heavily forested Florentine Valley, home of giant regnans trees, known as mountain ash in Victoria, the tallest flowering tree in the world. The first thing he had noticed when he reached the riverbank—you could hardly not notice it—was that the dead fish were bloated, all floating belly-up. Back in the lab he found that they had been feeding heavily on gum beetles. Could you gorge yourself to death? Well, it turned out that the reason that so many gum beetles had fallen on the water was that they had been killed by the pesticides that the Forestry Commission had been spraying on the trees. The trout had not died of gluttony; their food had poisoned them. A fraction of what they had eaten would have done the job.

Cherry was suicidal, he realised, she really was. Lyrics from the Slim Dusty ballad ‘Mountain Man’s Girl’ filled Jack’s head, and he simply couldn’t ignore the danger implicit in the bit about moths being drawn to candles.

He rushed past the only other vehicle in the small parking area, failing to notice anything about it, not the colour or make let alone the registration number, and threw his expensive rod onto the back seat of his own battered old car. Then, without locking the doors, he turned and ran all the way back to the Bogongs. The only thing left up there was the fire, and it was cold. A storm was brewing directly overhead: blue dissolving into grey, swirling and thickening.

He realised that he still had his backpack and was now free to take all the photos he wanted. In perfectly exquisite light, too.

Cherry. It probably wasn’t her name. He guessed, correctly as it turned out, that she would never leave a signature on the internet. It was his turn to feel desperate.

***

It would have been best if someone had reached through the open window of his car while he had been gone and stolen his fishing gear. If they had, he would have thoroughly inspected the vehicle and might have noticed the message, written on a small scrap of paper, tatty as a moth, which had been left on the dashboard but had fluttered with a breeze onto the passenger-side floor, where it lay quite conspicuously atop a neat pile of official reports and half-hearted prose writing, surrounded by empty cardboard cups, all stained with coffee, as well as assorted chocolate wrappers and cigarette packets. But the rain had started falling even before he had finished his photography and had steadily increased throughout the walk back. Upon returning to the carpark Jack had jumped into the driver’s seat, wound up the windows, turned the ignition key and driven off.

The rubbish on the floor wasn’t Jack’s. Mostly it belonged to his mates and assorted hitchhikers. Even though Jack was by nature a reasonably orderly man, he was careless about what other people did to his car. In fact, he more or less ignored the condition of his vehicle altogether. The outside got dirtier, the windscreen more cracked, the lights more faulty, the tyres more bald, the interior more cluttered, and he really didn’t notice. His mind was always filled with places to go, things to do, problems to solve, things to write.

The rain was bucketing now and even with the windscreen wipers going full pelt he was struggling to see. He started thinking about Zanzy, his old English teacher.

It wasn’t until fairly recently, a decade or so ago, that Jack was made to realise that having a perfect memory of one’s childhood was a ‘gift’. That’s the thing with autistic traits, he lamented: they are seen as gifts or burdens, never as just another part of one’s unique personality.

Jack’s memories stretched so far back that some pre-dated his ability to talk. The sounds were so well recorded that he could delve in and identify words he didn’t understand at the time, though this was dangerous territory because with age it was becoming more difficult to discern original memories from reconstructed ones.

He concentrated on memories from high school. He remembered being fifteen and sitting the final exam for English composition. At the time he had been wholeheartedly sick of the education system. He thought about the tattered cream-coloured paint on the brick walls of the neglected exam room, and recalled waiting for the burble of fragmented conversations to die down.

He still had a copy of his final composition at home, and resolved to send it to Cherry, if he ever found out where she lived. He didn’t need a copy for himself: he could remember every word, every punctuation mark.

‘You may turn over your examination paper,’ the supervisor had said.

‘And you, Mrs D, may turn over in your grave,’ Jack had mumbled under his breath. God, the very concept of the exam had given him the shits. Produce art ... now! How dumb.

‘Did you say something Mr Salmon?’

She had ears like a bat, old one that she was.

‘Sorry, Mrs D.’

‘There will be no talking during this examination.’ Mrs D had scanned everyone in the room. ‘He who does will be instantly dismissed from the classroom, and sent to explain himself to the Principal.’ She continued talking to the whole class, but her eyes settled on Jack. ‘I need hardly remind you that this examination constitutes eighty-five per cent of your total assessment in English expression. You should endeavour to use the whole two hours of allotted time. You will not be allowed to leave the classroom until one hour and forty-five minutes have elapsed. Your time starts ... now.’

Jack turned over the paper:

Write a short story on one of the following:

Loneliness

The death of a pet

What I did in my holidays

‘Spare me,’ he had whispered to himself.

‘Was that you, Mr Salmon?’

He had mouthed a lame apology to Mrs D. There had been no point in reading the other options. He picked up his pen and began to write.


LONELINESS

by Jack Salmon

I’m sick of school.

I wrote this essay last week, knowing that the topics you were likely to give us would be inane and multitude and that whatever I wrote would fit in somewhere. We are in grade ten, for Christ’s sake—in the top English class—and you ask us to write an essay on what we did in the holidays?

That last sentence wasn’t planned: he had put it in on impulse.


No one understands how much it hurts to love people who don’t love you back, not properly love you back, not sufficiently.

My Pop, Mum’s father, taught me to love woodwork as much as I already loved fish and words and numbers. He died a few months ago on the 7/7/77. My Mum said, rather melodramatically I thought, that it was a comfort that he died on the date he did. ‘I’m not superstitious, mind, but imagine if he’d passed away on the 6/6/66.’

Of course she’s superstitious: we’re all superstitious.

When I was seven, Pop taught me to play crib, a card game in which pairs score two points, and every permutation of cards that adds up to fifteen also scores two points. You get additional points for other things, but I’ll try not to get too carried away with the rules—except to say that you are dealt six cards, you have to discard two, and then the fifth card you need to complete your hand is determined by chance when the pack is ‘cut’.

One of the very best crib hands comprises four sevens and an eight. At Springvale boarding hostel, on the 7/7/77, it was precisely 8 a.m. when the senior housemaster gave me the news.

Humphrey: just for the record, I hate you! Everyone knows you’re a vindictive closet-poofter, which, even though you won’t admit it to yourself, is the only bad type of poofter. You’re a coward, and your God won’t forgive you for what you did to Zanzy.

That last paragraph was on impulse too. Maybe it wasn’t autism he should worry about but Tourette’s.


Crib is all about mathematical permutations, and that’s why, as a child, I liked the game as much as I did. Maths is one of the things I have an affinity with. I like the patterns, the rhythms. Consider the fact that odd numbers, when added together one after the other, always result in square numbers: it’s as satisfying as a good pop song. And how about prime numbers? They’re nothing if not orchestral in their ability to inspire and satisfy.

To my mind, the most musically perfect crib hands are comprised of threes, sixes and nines. Try it for yourself: work out the scores for, say, two threes, two sixes and a nine; or one three, three sixes and a nine. There is, you must agree, a certain poetic symmetry about the way these integers fit together.

There is a widely held belief that life is governed by sevens, like the ones my mum was so grateful for. I mean, we give credence to the Jesuit maxim, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man’. We also accept that adolescence begins at fourteen, and that we come of age at twenty-one. They’re even using cinefilm to document, to prove, the importance of these pivotal epochs in life. Have you seen Seven Up! and 7 Plus Seven?

For me, ever the non-conformist, the rites of passage are more easily recognised in threes:

THREE: the best, most exciting Christmas ever.

SIX (one of those evil sixes my mum is so wary of): the beginning of primary school at Orford.

NINE: the beginning of middle school at Triabunna.

See? Three, six, nine: just like crib.

So, the original idea for this essay was to compare my life to my favourite crib hands. I assumed I could extend the analogy in increments of three all the way until I found a common denominator with the sevens:

TWELVE: I finish middle school.

FIFTEEN: I sign off from high school with this stupid essay and, as a result, throw away any prospects of a rosy future.

EIGHTEEN: I reach the age of consent and drink myself into oblivion.

TWENTY-ONE: I cross some other sort of threshold.

But what threshold could I really cross at twenty-one when I had already drunk myself into oblivion, when civilised society had long deemed me old enough to be sent away to kill the enemy, and to be killed by the enemy?

To further undermine the analogy, I couldn’t even make the crib hand score the numbers I wanted to use. Four threes score twelve, but what would I select for the fifth card? One six and one nine add up to fifteen, but no matter how hard you try you can’t score fifteen points with any combination of threes, sixes and nines.

Life doesn’t fit into neat categories. Not sevens, not threes, not anything else.

I’m over crib. I have been for a long time. By age eleven (not nine, not twelve), I knew by rote all the scores of all the possible hands, and also the probabilities of cutting up the missing card. There was no challenge anymore. Perhaps, said my sister, you should try chess—but mark my words: chess will be one of the first games computers will master, will out- grandmaster. The moves, you see, are mathematically finite. I’m bored with the game even before I learn how to play it properly.

Do you know what computers can’t do? They can’t write stories. It’s not simply because they can’t suffer pain, hate and love; it’s because they can only provide answers, not questions.

Nor will a computer ever be able to produce fine woodwork. Oh, I’ve no doubt that computerised saws and nail guns will be able to build ‘perfect’ tables and chairs, but they’ll never infuse them with skill, workmanship or emotion.

For fuck’s sake, why do all you teachers want me to be a lawyer or surgeon!! These are soulless tasks that would be better done by computers. I would respect you so much more if you encouraged me to be a social worker or nurse. You know what I want to do. I want to work with words or wood—and I want to do it next year, not ‘after I’ve finished uni’! These ‘lowly’ skills are nothing to be ashamed of. And how about this: if I could ever see a way of making a modest living out of it, I’d do nothing but fish! You think that would be a waste of my talent, don’t you?

Tell me, can you sing? Perhaps you could write me a story about it some time—I’d like to know what it feels like to be able to have one’s excess love and anger flow smoothly out of one’s body, instead of having it build up and burst forth corrosive and merciless like liquid-hot magma.

When I was six, I wanted to sing—so badly I wanted to sing—but, although I could hear the songs perfectly well, my brain could not translate what I heard into voice. Musical notation made no sense to me either. Perhaps that’s because I see notes as colours. I could paint you an angry pop song or devastating concerto: truly, I could. But I wonder if you’d be able to hear what I painted. I’m colour-blind, you see. Reds and greens, purples and oranges; they become so mixed up and confused that they turn into big brown stains, like the shit my autistic brother smears on his bedroom walls.

But I can see and feel things you cannot see. I can see and feel how numbers form patterns. How words fit together. The possibilities and limitations of a piece of wood. Where fish swim and hide beneath the water.

I recently read a story about an autistic boy who sees—not calculates, but actually visualises—prime numbers. He recognises all of them out to infinity, as obvious as supernovae. You can’t see them because these are red stars set against a dark-green universe and you, you poor simple examiner, are numerically colour-blind.

I put it to you that the only reason the idiot savant interests me and you is that prime numbers are vitally important to us: me for reasons of aesthetics, you because of their value in maths and computing. We covet the idiot’s ability because we think he can give us answers.

My brother, Yarg, was able to poke matchsticks through pinholes in the wall faster than anyone on earth. He could throw things in the fire even quicker than that. He was the supreme magician of ‘disappearing’ things. Perhaps—admittedly, this is a long shot—perhaps, in doing these things, he has been framing the questions we should be asking. We’ll never find out. Yarg can’t explain how he feels, and no one wants him to. They want him to be normal, to be exactly like everyone else. He has literally been beaten into submission, and now he lives his life compliantly, in a state of incomprehension and fear. Just like Crib. Not crib the game—Crib the poor doomed faithful dog in Robbery Under Arms.

Crib and Yarg suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. Just like you.

Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss Examiner, listen to me very carefully: I will never be what you or my family want me to be. You will never, ever scare or beat me into submission.

Fuck. Cunt. Clitoris. Big black donger. Assess those words for me, why don’t you?
The end

Jack remembered looking back over his paper and worrying that all those taboo words wouldn’t be enough to disqualify it. Nor the fact that he had plagiarised that idea about computers not being able to ask questions. Not even the fact that he had insulted Humphrey. This was why he had ended up rubbing out ‘Loneliness’ and re-titling the essay ‘Just Like Crib’. He had been smart enough to know that no one else in his class would write a story as good as his, and that his teachers (sans Zanzy, poor Zanzy) would be falling over themselves to give him the coveted English prize. But they wouldn’t be able to because, by not sticking to one of the nominated topics, he hadn’t written within the rules. It would drive the poor bastards completely bats.

Okay, he had been kidding himself, and he knew it even then. He had been as big a coward as Humphrey, had known all along that his teachers would eventually convince themselves that rubbing out and rewriting the title was a brilliant piece of performance art or some such crap. If he had really wanted to flunk, he wouldn’t have written anything at all. He had known that they would give him the prize anyway, and that he would have earned it, and that’s what he had always wanted. He remembered despairing that perhaps he’d had the rebellion beaten out of him already.