Friday, November 13, 2009

O'BLEAK short fiction by Larry Buttrose

I look into the glass of milk. I look into it for a long time, so deeply that I begin to see it in its molecules, with the oily stuff between them, which I suppose is life. Whoever would have thought you could see life, but there it is, slimly stuff in my milk.

I drink the milk. I do not know how long it is since I poured it. I cannot recall whether it was even me who did so. Perhaps someone else poured it, someone unknown to me. Perhaps they drugged the milk, which is why I took so long to drink it, and what I thought was the oily stuff of life between the molecules was really some drug. Certainly, someone has drugged me. Someone is always doing it; I am always drugged, I live my life drugged.

I am aware of getting off a bus. It’s a big red double-decker. I’m in London, I realise, getting off in Charing Cross Road, up past the bookshops, just before Shaftesbury Ave. I step down onto the pavement and breathe in the shellgritty London smog. A man perusing newspapers on a stand outside a shop seems to sense my presence, and looks up.
‘Artie!’, he says, ‘Artie O’Bleak! Well, this is a surprise.’
‘Why?’ I ask.
‘I had no idea you were in London. Are you staying here long?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Susie will be delighted to see you. You will come to supper, won’t you. We have two children now you know.’
‘Yes. Gemma and Louisa, the twins, eight.’
‘I see.’
‘Must be ten years since we’ve seen each other,’ he says. 
‘At least.’
 I don’t reveal to him my suspicion that I am living my life in a permanently drug-induced state at the hands of persons unknown, and fortunately he seems to give no sign of intuiting it. We sit down and have coffee in Soho and I feel almost normal, even though everything Richard tells me about himself surprises me. I realise I have never met him. Certainly my name is not Artie O’Bleak.

After we part I go down through some narrow streets, near Covent Garden perhaps, and end up in a deserted alley jammed with tables set up for lunch. The scene somehow disconcerts me, and I turn off into a Tube entrance, down a long, dirty tunnel. There is only one person inside it, a bearded old busker with a guitar. He looks at me, muttering something in a gruff voice, which I don’t like. I never like to look at people directly; it makes me feel uncomfortable. But the man keeps on staring at me and I feel myself backing away, and striding back towards the light.

When I get there I am at a window. I am in a hotel, a ramshackle old one, out in the desert by the looks. I am on the first floor, looking down on the few streets of what would appear to be a deserted old mining town, a belt of red rocky earth scything away to the horizon. It’s late afternoon, evening just coming on, the sun slanting orange through the window in front of me. I am trying to ring my wife on my mobile phone but there’s no signal and it’s useless. I need to tell her I won’t be home tonight, that I am not sure where I am, but not to worry. I think she is fairly used to this kind of thing by now.

I would like to discuss with her my suspicion that someone is drugging me, that I am living my whole life in a drugged state and never quite emerge to the surface of clarity and normalcy. I wonder what she would say were I really ever to tell her that. Perhaps she would say that she knew it, that I’d been behaving very oddly for some time. Perhaps she would say it was her giving me the drugs, for whatever reason, or that I had simply forgotten that I had been prescribed drugs for years, and took them myself every day.

I can’t tell whether I have indeed been behaving oddly, whether in fact I have ever, or have always, behaved oddly. I have lost my sense, I suppose, of what is odd. It is all a continuum of behaviour now, my existence, and I go through the motions of it because what else is one to do, and whoever it is that drugs me and keeps me drugged, in my food, in water, in a glass of milk, must have good reasons for doing so, I suppose. It is just possible that I am mad, that I am dangerous to others. I have to admit to this possibility.

Sometimes I find myself questioning how I know that I am drugged. After all, if I am drugged all the time, how could I distinguish my state from normal waking consciousness, if there is such a thing. My answer is that I cannot believe that other people live life in such a shallow-lit and fragmentary way, of half impressions gone before they fully register, of thoughts dissipated into formlessness before they are properly realised, of a general torpor of the senses. Sleep is a grey shroud, half-done, unsatisfying and dreamless. My answer to my question is I know I am drugged because I can still remember a time when my life was different, when days were properly linked one to the other, and there was a rationale to it. Now I simply live it, eyes slitted against what might come next.

My wife plays a curious role in this. One night as we sat together watching a film on television, she murmured something I didn’t quite pick up.
‘What was that you said?’ I asked. ‘You said something. What was it?’
She yawned. ‘I said sex is cheap and love costs too much.’
‘That’s what you’re getting from this film?’
‘It’s what I get from everything all the time.’
‘Does that mean you don’t love me?’
‘No. It means I do.’

In the morning I watched unnoticed as she put something in my coffee. When she kissed me before I went off to work her mouth tasted metallic, as I imagine mine did to her. Sometimes my tongue feels made of metal, my teeth and entire mouth, though that may be entirely normal.

I didn’t go to work but went to a shopping mall and walked around. I was in a cinema watching a film and when the couple kissed my wife’s words came back to me, about sex being cheap but love costing too much. She was telling me how much she had paid in life to love me of course, and it is true, she has. I recounted that to a person in a wine bar, a drunk woman sitting on the next stool to mine, and she rested her hand on my leg and laughed. It’s odd to observe the effect alcohol has on other people, when I can discern virtually no effect in myself from it, being already drugged.
‘It’s funny how you look at me,’ the woman giggled. ‘Kind of oblique, like a bird or something.’
‘Is it really?’ I asked, hoping for a reply.

She suggested we go back to her place for a little while. When we got there she took off her clothes I saw her body was heavily tattooed. This surprised me as I had picked her as some sort of newly sacked corporate executive on a bender, but then, I considered, no doubt lots of corporates have tattoos beneath their tailoring. When I looked more closely I saw that the tattoos were like a gallery of Persian miniatures, of what appeared to be erotic scenes from the Arabian Nights or somesuch. Her skin was extremely pale and served well as a canvas for the tiny works.

She asked me what I did for a living, and when I told her that I was a plainclothes police officer she giggled ‘very plain’, and started taking them off me. As she did so I said that I had been joking, that I wasn’t really a police officer, but that I was married and it might not be the right thing for me to have sex with her, to which she replied she was married too and that on the contrary it was exactly the right thing to do. I pondered aloud why she would bother having sex with me anyway, as I was hardly attractive, and began relating my concerns that someone was drugging me, at which she laughed loudly and said she had spiked my drink in the bar to get me interested. Then she got onto the bed and started taking off her underthings. I said I had to go to the toilet, and excused myself into her ensuite. It was very dark in there and I couldn’t find the light, and when I did I was in the car, switching on the interior light, looking at an address on a slip of paper. The drug thing again: sometimes it could get very tiresome, always in fact.

I drove to the address and found I was home. When I walked in my wife had dinner ready, roast beef with baked potatoes and pumpkin. We watched television and went to bed. I confessed to her at last my fear that I was drugged all the time, but she only shrugged. I realised I may indeed have mentioned it before to her, quite often perhaps. I asked her about it some more and she said it was better that way. ‘You wouldn’t want to try being you without it,’ she said, turning out the light.

In the darkness I mulled over her words, and realised again how deeply she cared for me, and how much I loved her. What else matters, in the end, I thought, and settled my head to sleep, troubled intermittently though in wondering how a magnet spinning in an iron collar can possibly create electric power.

Previously published in Wet Ink magazine, issue 16, September 2009

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


For a show that purports to concern itself with intimate relationships between people of different races and creeds, John Safran’s Race Relations seems instead to be a freewheeling cultural bulldozer hurtling out of control across the globe.

One can only sit cringing, amazed, often hardly able to watch, as the weedy Aussie suburbanite blacks up and pops in on some fairly committed black issues blokes in the US - who from his bizarre appearance almost sniff him out straight off as a white rat - but wins them over and even sings them a rap song about a Melbourne tram. Not to undersell his own chutzpah, next he is onstage at a rap venue apparently wowing the crowd with his tram rap, engineering a near race riot at a Chicago restaurant, speed-dating black women and setting up a possibly more lingering assignation with one, and preaching to a black congregation, climaxing with the impassioned “I am John Safran, and I am a proud black man”.

The previous week’s stunts had seen him secretly nicking soiled panties from Jewish and Eurasian women for a "smell test" to see which ethnic type he preferred - episodes about as real as any “reality television” - and pulling off a sperm bank donation quinella to taint notions of race in both Israel and Palestine.

But is Safran anything more than a jerk-off, albeit a smart one? What is he trying to pull beyond a splash in the great cotton wool void of tele-suburbia? He’s shown us that he’s willing to be crucified to get followers: mind you, he might say it worked for Jesus Christ, so why not?

Back when Safran’s career ignited on Race Around the World, and in his TV incarnations since, the method has hardly varied. There is the faux-naif interest in some religious, racial or cultural taboo or bugaboo, followed by a suitably tangential, bizarre and often confronting stunt for the camera, pulled in a feigned earnest search for truth by a man we all know is far more clever by half. Or at least, so say his nods and winks.

Thus may he sniff the filched panties of ten women, and go out among African Americans as one of them in the worst black face since Al Jolson, looking nothing more closely than a demented Trekkie.

It’s all very naughty and lots of fun; it’s a little bit denigrating and more than a little bit patronising to the people whose confidence he betrays, but who gives a bugger because they’re far away now and would never spring for the fare to come here and get him back. Oh, and it makes for terrific television.

But is there any deeper purpose to Safran’s shows, or is he merely yet another carpetbagger, hawking his own brand of snakeoil from an open-topped wagon? One might suggest this question that is constantly present in the viewer's mind is the abiding appeal of Safran, and that it is why he fascinates and tantalises us, and as such fills a sorely needed religious-cultural transgressive niche in our media and society. Or such.

But the answer, really, is no. He is the jester in the court of our cultural correctness, indeed, the clown in the cathedral, the fool we crave and the gifted child trying to shock his parents with dress-ups by going just that much further - all that he is, yes. But in the end he is the huckster of one and one thing only pertaining to the spirit: one hundred percent proof John Safran. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, as another Jewish funnyman was wont to say.