The first chapter of my (not quite yet) abandoned novel: Apocalypse. 3000 words.
The rattling of keys. A heavy click and the door surrenders. Ahead there is darkness and behind, the early evening sky is grey with pregnant clouds. The heavy boom of thunder. The squealing shrieks of a turning tram, grating and harsh. I sweep the door behind me and with a metallic sigh it swings until it clangs into place and the outside world is mute. I reach into my jacket pocket for my lighter. The flame offers the only light in the room. I inhale deeply. The sweet burning. A dancing curl of smoke. Home.
I take off my coat and black scarf and hang them on the rails I’ve fixed to the aluminium roller door next to the front door. I don’t have a car, so it might as well be a wall. The ground floor of my apartment is a mess of old computers and other busted or obsolete electrical parts. Amps and speakers and pedals and cables. The shit’s all in plastic boxes on towering shelves against the wall.
I pause at the base of the stairs. The top of the staircase is illuminated by an iridescent glow. The stench of moulding food and stale marijuana-soaked glassware slowly grows as I ascend. In the kitchen sink lie a week’s worth of dishes, stained and crusty with stale rice and gloopy orange curry sauce and melted chocolate and red tomato paste. The pot of coffee on the kitchen table emits a thick sweet bitterness that offsets the earthy burnt dope stink. I draw the last life from my rollie, then plunge it into a pile of a thousand other rollie butts clinging together within a glass on the kitchen table. I take a mug from the cabinet and rinse it in the sink then pour in the remainder of the contents of the coffee pot and take a sip.
Holy fuck that’s good.
The filth of the kitchen holds no interest for me in this moment. Now is the time for dope and for resting my brain. I’m not hungry but find myself checking the fridge. Fifteen Melbourne Bitter beer cans, three two-litre bottles of Coca-cola, three sticks of butter, an assortment of pre-packaged mixed alcoholic beverages, a Mars bar, three jars of pickles, five different kinds of mustard, an old vitamin container filled with capsules of MDMA, a saucepan half-full of rice, and three plastic takeaway packages half-filled with some Thai takeaway slop.
I open the freezer. Three frosted bottles of vodka, two trays of ice, two packets of frozen peas, and one packet of frozen carrots. I open the fridge a second time and remove the Mars bar.
Turning to face the far side of the room, I bite a chunk of the chocolate bar and take a sip from my coffee. The machines to my left are sleeping, though they still emit a dull hum and an electric blue glow. Against the far wall, below the shadow of the drawn curtains, slumped on a futon and covered by a faded green blanket, is George. That fucking goddamned blanky. He’s like an infant the way he clings to that thing. Even with his fucking blanky draped over him, anyone can see that the man is fat beyond the health of his body. George is my housemate. And for better-or-worse, my heterosexual life-partner. Till death do us part.
In front of George is a long coffee table. I bought it from IKEA.
Put it together myself.
On the table sits a still-smoking bong, a slew of chocolate and candy wrappers, nine empty beer cans, three glasses half full of soggy citrus fruit, and an empty bottle of vodka. George is lying down flat on his back and strapped to his head is a headset that covers the top half of his face. I take a seat on the couch perched against the wall, facing the large flat screen TV fixed to the wall on the staircase side of the room. I didn’t fix the TV to the wall. Had to call in a mate for that job. The mug of coffee rests atop my dog-eared and tattered copy of Cosmic Trigger. I chew down the rest of the Mars bar then roll a joint with the supplies left on the coffee table. I take a long draw. My muscles melt, and I sink back into the couch.
When I wake, George is still lying prostrate on the futon next to me. The TV is flashing violent neon images at my face and I can't recall if I was watching anything. The joint I half-remember smoking is crumpled in a glass on the coffee table. I consider climbing the final set of stairs to the third level and to my bed. No, I’ve had enough sleep. I flick through the channels.
Planet Earth. I fucken love Attenborough.
A crashing from below. Tell-tale high-pitched ranting. Verbal explosions. The content is incomprehensible, but it is unmistakably her. The door slams and it’s thick heavy heals on the staircase. Each heel is stomped down with violence. Her vortex rattles the dirty plates and glasses in the kitchen. She passes me without so much as a wink or a nod. Even a huff of disapproval would be something. She is taller than me, even without the heels, and she is impossibly thin.
Just eat something you fool.
Charlotte is older than me and George. Fast approaching thirty. She pretends she’s got her shit together. She doesn’t.
I watch her arse as it powers those fence pole legs that plant those impossible boots into the floorboards of the stairs.
A baby Iguana runs from a hundred snakes.
This is the most fucking intense thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Welcome to the world young lizard, now how badly do you want to live? My fuck, I couldn’t design a more terrifying, more ruthless, rite of passage. This is truly, survival of the fittest. I almost have a fucking panic attack. But the Iguana gets away, and I am overwhelmed with joy.
Thirty minutes later she emerges. Short tartan skirt. High black boots. Black tank top. Jacket tied around her waist. Her arms are murals of counterculture symbology and they flail about in the thick air of the room. She is not talking but her face is concentrating and there are the plugs in her ears, so she must be listening to something. There is a small hoop through her nose. It was infected for a fortnight when she first got it. It’s clean now. She fails to acknowledge me, she fails to acknowledge George too, though he barely acknowledges himself, as she strides past again, then down the last set of stairs with a clump and a clump and then out the door with a slam.
At the slam, George stirs. He clambers up to a seated position and removes his headset. He turns to me, burps loudly, and then nods. His eye sockets are puffy and black, like his brows are carrying bags of coal. There are crumbs in his beard. Greasy hair sticks to his face.
‘Murmph,’ he mutters, then loads up the bong, sucks down the smoke in one hit, and slumps back into the recesses of the futon that has taken his shape like a clay mould.
Fuck this morning cold. It freezes any potential smile before the lips have a chance to curl. Instead the face must remain hidden, the neck arched, the back hunched. I flick up the collar of my jacket. I can see only a few feet in front of me. I toss a ciggie butt to the ground. Rubbish upon rubbish. There is a crumpled street beggar lying to my left. I stop. He’s facing the wall. A bottle of red wine has soaked his blanket. Further ahead are waking bums. They ask for spare change. I don’t apologise anymore, I just keep on walking. I like the bums. They add character to the place. Without them, the delicate balance of grunginess would flip over into hipsterness. And we can’t have that. We can’t let the ramen-houses, the burger-pop-ups, the vintage clothing stores, the supermarkets, the up-scale restaurants and the exclusive cocktail bars take over. We must preserve the dive bars, and the old footy pubs with the soaked carpet floors, the Turkish produce sellers, the long line outside the Centrelink Office. I like walking past gang-members and whores. I like it when the sidewalks are splattered with the blood and pus of junkies. I like it when shopfronts are painted in brutal red graffiti. The spray-painted cocks are the best.
The tramlines squeal with great urgency and rusted grating harshness. I enter the tram and stand. I survey the people. Posers. All of them are slaves to the machine. All of these scumbags are asleep. They don’t know what’s going on in the world. They don’t even know they are slaves. Fuck. I don’t want to go to the office. I want to be a writer. There’s a narrative going on in my head all the time. It’s not something that I can turn off. I've got plotlines and characters and everything. They're all there in my head. There’s one in there right now. Look at all these slaves. This tram is full of them. I take out my phone and stick in my headphones.
I arrive at the office before nine. It always looks like a goddamned surgery in here. There’re only a few robots around at this time. The office is open-planned. There’re a few visible heads, already sinking into their screens. It’s not the kind of office where you’d say hello to someone that doesn’t sit next to you. I like to get into the office early so that I can clock on and start the timer on my day before management notice I don’t do anything productive with the first hour of the day. I stand above my desk and I look down at my goddamned computer.
I flick it on and then walk to the coffee room. I hover at the kettle. A plump woman in high heels approaches. I don’t know her name.
But I know that I hate her.
‘Good morning James,’ she says smiling.
I smile back and nod. She darts a disapproving glance at the edge of my shirt cuff where the leading edge of the tattoos on my skin curl out from underneath the fabric. She notices that I have noticed her glance. I look at her with my what the fuck are you looking at face? She turns and leaves me alone. The kettle whistles and I pour the boiling water into my mug.
The mug says: World’s Best Dad.
Two heavy scoops of instant coffee, two heavy scoops of milo, two heavy scoops of sugar. The milo and sugar take the edge off the sour cat-piss taste of the coffee. It’s bitter. It’s shit. But it feels like paradise. I take another sip then walk back to my cubicle.
There is a bag on Polly’s desk.
She must be off chatting to the girls in accounts. Polly is a pain in my arse. I’m halfway through his coffee and already it has become a different pain in my arse. I was hoping to make my morning trip to the toilets to shit before Polly arrived. I don’t really care. But I’d rather not endure the awkwardness.
The Jolly Roger is full of tramps. It’s dark, it stinks of sweat and grime and piss and stale beer, it’s loud, and I fucken love it. Charlotte works here on the bar. So, it’s cheap rum. I sip mine. Heavy rum. Fresh lime. Coke. I’m not interested in anything else. George and I are sharing a couch. George is explaining to me about the CIA’s involvement in 9/11. George works in a lighting factory. He reassembles faulty light fixtures that’ve been sent back. He basically listens to conspiracy podcasts all day.
Charlotte approaches our table. She’s chewing gum and she’s smiling. She’s obviously drunk and certainly high on the goddamn amphetamines. Sometimes she can be a total prick when she’s high. But not now. Her hands are resting on the table and she’s looking us both up and down with a warm grin. I prefer when she’s like this.
‘To what do we owe the pleasure?’ I ask.
‘Just seeing how you’re doing,’ she says, though she clearly has a purpose here.
‘I was just explaining to Jimmy why 9/11 was an inside job.’
Charlotte rolls her eyes.
‘That’s what I said,’ I say.
‘So,’ she says. ‘Do you butt-pirates want coke tonight?’
‘Does Pinocchio have wooden balls?’ says George.
‘Sweet,’ says Charlotte, flicking what would be her hair if she hadn’t shaved it all off. ‘Stevie is gonna go get it.’
‘Not fucken Stevie,’ says George. Stevie is a goddamn golem.
‘You idiots want it or not?’
‘Of-course we do,’ I say.
‘Cool. I’ll tell Stevie.’ She makes to turn and walk away but pauses. ‘Jimmy? Can you cover me?’
There it is.
‘Yeah, of-course, no worries.’
Stevie is at the bar, sitting in the corner on a stool. He’s a white-faced, hunched-over little creature. A decrepit ghost. His skin, that which is visible, is sickly white. His face is shrivelled and pocked and flaky. He hunches over. His eyes dart. He is a fiend. Charlotte approaches him. They talk and then the golem slinks away.
After an hour of conspiracy theory from George, I notice the golem return. Charlotte darts around to his side of the bar and they lurk in a shadow for a few moments and then she saunters over to our table and sits down on the couch next to me. She pulls a bag out from between her tits and tucks it into the pocket of my jeans. She lingers with her hand on my leg, looks at me intensely but very briefly, then gets up and shakes her arse back to her station behind the bar.
‘George, as much as I’m enjoying listening to your analysis of contemporary culture, I’m going to disappear to the dunnies to powder my nose.’
Every inch of the men’s toilets is plastered with gig posters, pictures of naked women, and graffiti. I step into a free cubicle. First, I take a piss, flush, then close the lid and sit down. I take out the little baggie in my pocket and sit it on my lap. I reach into my side pocket and take out my wallet, then remove a fifty dollar note. I roll up the note at a slight angle, so I’m left with a thin tube that has a sharp scoop at one end. I hold the scoop-tube in my right hand and pick up the little bag with my left. Using my left thumb and middle finger I push each end of the baggie away from each other so that the little bag opens up. I place the scoop-tube into the bag and draw out a scoopful of white powder. I cover my left nostril with the thumb of my left hand, carefully place the end of the scoop-tube into my right nostril and suck up strongly. I open and close my mouth widely and blink rapidly. Plastic drug-gunk runs down the back of my throat. I repeat the process until I feel that one fleeting moment of pure, golden bliss on the toilet seat of this grimy, piece of shit dive bar, and then, sufficiently buzzed, I pack away my instruments, step out of the cubicle, splash my face with water, and stride back out into the bar.
George and I stay in the Jolly Roger until close, discussing various ways to save the world from impending thermo-nuclear death, between regular trips to the toilet, and with that familiar cocktail of adrenaline, euphoria and anxiety.
We drink with Charlotte and her work crew after close and then the three of us stumble back to the apartment. George retires to bed, but I’m still wired so I stretch out on the couch and roll myself a dart. Charlotte finishes in the shower then slips downstairs. She blows a kiss to me as she passes, on her way to the kitchen. I light my dart and sink into the pure joy of the smoke. Charlotte returns with two vodkas. We drink and then Charlotte rests her head onto my shoulder. Her hand lands onto my thigh. I finish my dart and crunch it into an empty beer can.
‘Hey Jimmy,’ she says. ‘I don't have the money for rent this fortnight.’
I should care. But for some reason I don’t.
‘I'm really sorry,’ she says. ‘My sister needed money. Her piece of shit boyfriend stole her credit card. I promise I’ll have it next week.’
‘No worries,’ I say. I smile at her. She really is kind of beautiful. Despite the hoop through her nose and her shaved head and her pale skin and all the tattoos and all the swearing and bravado. She sticks her nose under my ear and nuzzles my neck then inhales, as if trying to extract some essence from my skin. She kisses my neck softly. Her hand moves up from my thigh to my crotch. I don’t want to be, but I’m already hard. Charlotte swings over onto my lap and licks the flesh on each side of my neck. She grinds against me, then shimmies down to the floor between my legs.
‘Don’t,’ I say.
She unbuckles my belt and fly and then pulls my jeans and underwear down to rest at my ankles. She looks up at me and then takes me into her mouth. I close my eyes and lean back into the couch.