The Travelling Poet
He said he was a travelling poet, once, but hadn’t written for years. He’d taken up truck driving because it made sense, providing transportation and raw material in one hit. But things didn’t go as well as expected. His poems soon degenerated into claustrophobic highway ballads, rig-oriented and despairing. The open roads perceived from within an oppressively confined space marked his psyche. His lyrics grew violent and fantastic. Their only audience was hitchhikers he picked up on empty freeways, grateful itinerants who sat through the rhythms of his lunatic rhyme-schemes with polite interest and sweating palms.
I wrote a volume called Murdered Hitchhikers, he said, which seemed to hold their attention. They purchased signed copies without fail. Eventually my little narratives were relayed back to me in rural outposts where poems have a tendency to flower into mythology. Then there were news reports about missing hitchhikers and blood stains and body parts. I heard my own compositions recited by reporters on dusty highways and eyewitnesses in four-wheel-drives and survivors in calming blankets. My poems had taken physical shape, micro-Frankensteins haunting the tar-streaked outback, killing and maiming and terrorising. Falconio was my tortured couplet, Milat my Man from Snowy River. By the time I was taken in for questioning I’d already decided: poetry was murder and truck driving is terrible for posture. I gave them both up for a pension.
When asked to recite one of his poems he declined, saying: You never know what might happen.
Walking at night, I came, invariably, to a double-story mansion facing the esplanade, it’s garden glowing red and green with Christmas lights, no matter the season. My legs came alive, a throb for each kilometre travelled. The vigorous sea-air flooded my lungs and my heart leapt at being so near the object of my desire. When people were about – gardening or socialising or reading a book with wine glass in hand – I was furtive, a thin spectre flitting across the footpath, quickly observing the happenings within. More often I met with an empty street, which allowed me to leap the fence and skirt around the side of the house to a narrowing at the rear where the wall rose into a balcony. An accomplished climber, I’d then scale the trellis and gently pad to the balcony’s door. Each night I tested the lock, and each night I was disappointed. But I knew that one day soon the play would take a different turn. Each walk I took until then was of pious anticipation.
At the Theatre
A theatre group presented a one-act play every night. These plays usually went for a half an hour but would develop via repetition in a cyclical fashion as the night wore on. By midnight the script was redundant. Audience members were invited to shout the lines they’d heard repeated for several hours with slight modifications. Occasionally the participants deliberately distorted the line, provoking a radical change in plot direction, which sometimes led to near orgiastic chaos – violent outbursts, hooting, nudity. More often, the audience complied with the script unthinkingly, as though it spoke their own thoughts perfectly and even, in some cases, enacted their most intimate desires. For such an audience the play’s first cycle insinuated something indescribable, a sensibility they couldn’t quite grasp but which re-modelled itself subtly, over the course of the evening, until they recognised, at last, their inner lives being enacted on stage, to such an extent that when asked to participate they barely hesitated, as though they’d been performing all along and this later performance was merely the external depiction of a far grander narrative constantly evolving in their minds.
I recall climbing the stairs of my apartment block only to discover that the door to my room had disappeared. In its place was a flawless wall. I kept climbing until I came to the top floor where another door stood ajar. I knocked but received no reply. The room was very small, like a prison cell. There was just a single lamplight on a desk near the window sill on the far side. Disordered jottings were scattered across the desktop. I picked up a scrap and read:
As he sat at his desk tapping the keyboard in this his confinement he suddenly thought that something was missing although he knew not what that something might be.
The room was a mess, books and scraps of paper strewn everywhere. A curtain separated one corner from the rest. Behind it: a grimy woolen rug and a clump of children’s clothes. In addition to the desk there were two chairs, a stained sofa and a thin-legged kitchen table. The room was practically a cupboard, but the furnishings suggested more than one tenant. I tried to imagine the lives led in that room.
A skeletal woman emerged from a secret passage beneath the rug. She was astonishingly thin and pale and began to pace back and forth, pulling at her hair in frustration. I apologised for intruding. She gave an impatient jerk of her head and continued pacing. Her dark eyes shot widely around, back-and-forth and side-to-side. I kept very still to avoid provocation. After some minutes the atmosphere became stifling and I asked permission to open the window. She stopped suddenly and stared at me wide-mouthed. I expected her to yell murder; instead she muttered something under her breath and went back to pacing. The window was nailed shut.
Minutes later, a young girl no more than nine years of age emerged from the same passageway beneath the rug with an even younger boy in tow. He was crying and shaking, as though he’d recently been beaten. The woman grabbed him by the hair and dragged him into the corner. ‘You stay there,’ she screeched, before doubling over in a coughing fit. The children were thin and dressed in outgrown clothes, without shoes or socks. Their hair was knotted and they stank. The little girl crept over to her brother and stroked his sobbing face. When the madwoman finished coughing she began pacing and pulling at her hair again. The girl watched her mother with deep attention, as though reading in her movements a hidden sign of what was to happen next. Her sunken eyes glittered with intelligence and alarm; her gaunt face expressed perfectly the horror of being subjected to another’s delirium; her skin seemed nearly transparent.
After watching this scene for a few minutes I was completely unsettled. I got down on my knees and begged the woman to be more sympathetic to the children. She glanced at me disdainfully and snorted, then proceeded to murmur ‘sympathetic’ over and over, as though it were a foreign word she hoped to memorise. At last a man crawled through the passage and looked around the room. He was elegantly-dressed but filthy, his hair uncombed and his face grimy. He smelled of stale beer and sweat, with a tang of vomit. The man’s eyes lingered over his children sadly. Then he proceeded to beat himself elaborately around the face and head before tearing at his ears. I was startled when the woman turned and addressed him by my name.