Beneath the peat bogs of Scotland flows a magical elixir that we call ‘peat bog water’ and it’s delicious.
LACK OF STARS: (Look, I’ve mixed the whole formula up. Stop crying)
My friends eighteenth birthday was held in the Sutherland Army Reserve base, because her dad was the Major or the General or the King or something. At eighteen I was fresh faced and innocent, approaching all experiences with a sense of wonder and dread. Parties had only just become legal drinking experiences, which meant I had to stop drinking whatever Lemon Ruskies some dudes older brother could smuggle in, and actually go to the bottle shop and make informed choices. I had to decide what kind of drinker I was going to be. So, I wandered into this party with my ten dollar bottle of Bombora coconut rum travesty and set about having a grand time.
I quickly discovered that the main difference between sixteenth’s and eighteenth’s, was that alcohol was a catered affair. The family actually provided booze to the punks and gutter rats that were frequenting the event. And provide they did – before my bamboozled eyes lay not only eskies full of chilled beer, but dozens of bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label. Now, I’d never drunk whisky before. At pubs and clubs, my drink of choice was often a Bourbon Whiskey, because of reasons unfathomable to me at this advanced age. I can only assume I thought it was cool. And along that vein, I rather thought that a Scotch Whisky might be dignified and awesome. So, I absconded with an entire bottle of the stuff and embraced the party. ‘Embraced the party’ of course means that due to the all encompassing memory loss of that night, I have no idea what I did, except for excerpts that people have related back to me.
  1. Me sitting on top of an army truck, screaming things along the lines of ‘Eat your heart out, Optimus Prime!’
    Woo! Defence budget.
  2. Me rolling around in the grass speaking to myself aka Gollum and Smeagol. Apparently I was quite good at this, and I’ve never really been able to carry off the voice that well again.
  3. Me rolling around in the grass and vomiting horribly.
Now, it was at this point that an ambulance was called for me. I can understand this from the perspective of a gang of gormless teens – they’d never seen anything so horrible. They were scared, appalled and probably didn’t want to deal with the manic spewing gollum that I’d become. Fair enough. But I would also like to point out, that it wasn’t actual alcohol poisoning. I didn’t need my stomach pumped. I have since been as sick, and even more so – I called it ‘University’.
And when the ambulance drivers came, they were understandably pissed off. Instead of saving lives or fighting demons or whatever it was that they enjoyed doing, they had to cart back some stinking vomit teen, who was still muttering about ‘his precious’. This is probably why in the middle of my rant about ‘taters? What’s taters?’, one of the ambulance men gave me a big old slap. My mate Bob was there, and was pretty shocked. I think the dude was probably justified.
Waking up in the hospital was pretty awful, in the sense that I’d clearly done something wrong. It was clearly a big deal, a major moment of badness. Although, because all they’d done in the hospital was hook me up to a drip, I actually felt fantastic. No hangover for me.
The strange end to this unfortunate tale, is that a day or two later I received a call from the General Dad or whatever in charge of the Reserve. He told me that me and some of my friends (I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t dealt gracefully with free spirits) had caused a bunch of mess, and that we had to come back and clean it up. Turning up once again at the Reserve, this time Windex and gloves replacing my coconut rum and bad decision making, we were led into the spotless army room and sat down. General Dad began talking about our lack of discipline, and then also about the shame of our unnatural lifestyle. I was still expecting to hear that I’d vomited on a flame thrower or something, so that it took me a little while to realise that the two other kids sitting with me, were also the only two openly gay kids in our year of school. Suddenly it all came together, and I realised what was going on. Looking at the other two, they had clearly pegged on to it earlier than me. We weren’t actually there to clean up puddles of day old vomit – we were there because this homophobic military douche was trying to get us to join the military to beat the gay out of us. I’d like to say that we stood as one, threw our pink dishwashing gloves down and marched out – but we didn’t. We sat there quietly for fifteen minutes and listened, desperately hoping this threatening and insulting experience would be over soon.
From that day on, the merest smell of anything whisky related made me feel incredibly ill. I felt no real qualm about not drinking it, because there was a whole world of other alcohol out there for me to drink. Until recently I was at a party, and the host, a mate of mine named Sam Cooney, wandered up to me in his nuns habit and kindly said ‘You need a drink!’
I agreed, and a large tumbler of Scotch was thrust into my hand. It was a loud party, and I felt obliged to drink it out of politeness, so I didn’t demur. And slowly, with great trepidation, I lifted the enormous glass to my lips and tasted the burning, petrochemical tang of whisky for the first time in almost a decade. And I found it good. Gone was the instinctive nausea. Gone was the psychological shame conditioning. Because I’d been shouting all night, I’d lost my voice earlier. Through the power of whisky, it miraculously came back. Whisky was amazing.
Words cannot how exciting this is for me. I’m one of those jerks who thinks deeply about his alcohol. I have a wine cellar. I know about ‘good years’. I drink boutique beers. I know what my martini proportion is. I’m ‘set’ in my preferences, I know what I like and I do everything I can to maintain this standard. And now I’ve been given a whole new family of booze for me to discover. I have no idea what kind of whisky I like, what kind of whisky is good. There’s a bewildering range of whisky’s waiting to get into my face. Do I like whisky on the rocks, or neat? I now have another reason to go to Scotland (there are three reasons, the first is CASTLES). When I’m out with people now, I get to shake them and scream ‘WHAT KIND OF WHISKY DO YOU LIKE!’ I’m just so excited. Thanks, Sam Cooney. Thanks for this great gift.
4.5/5 stars

Necrotic Flesh

This is a story that I read at 
Project 52’s
 Story Club, a fantastic event where people read amazing things at your faces. It occurs every month, much like my feelings of inadequacy!

EDIT: I recently read this story as part of the ‘Sick As’ reading at the National Young Writers Festival 2013, which was an absolute blast.

Unless your job is romping joyfully with puppies in a bouncy castle made of heroin and boobs, everyone has those days where you just don’t want to go to work. Maybe there’s a heavy workload and tight deadlines. Maybe you drank seven bottles of wine in the park the night before and yelled at teenagers about Captain Planet. Maybe the moon is out at the same time as the sun, and that makes you grumpy – and a bit scared. Regardless of the reason, one of the best ways I’ve discovered to overcome this funk, is by thinking back on the most horrifying jobs you’ve ever had. Not just the dull monotony of your high school fast food experience or the casual awfulness of telemarketing. I’m talking about that one workplace that isn’t so much a memory, but more of a deep pain that you carry somewhere in your ballbag. The idea is that this experience was so utterly soul destroying, that whatever you are currently undergoing feels like a jaunty walk through a cupcake.
For me, this was a summer job that my uncle kindly got me at a retirement village in North Sydney. Thin decrepit skeletons shuffling around and smelling of death and whisky – and that was just Milsons Point. No one really needs me to explain why a retirement village is upsetting, unless you are the kind of person who is uplifted by the idea of a place where people slowly lose every memory dear to them before dying. But I thought I was prepared for that level of sad. I’d practiced my understanding face in the mirror and developed a soothing tone to speak with, inspired by that movie The Horse Whisperer which I’ve never seen, and fundamentally misunderstand. And yes, these people were old, batty and sad but what I didn’t bank on, was the fact they were old, batty and sad rich people.

Much like a pickled onion, rich old people are like them. My primary job, after washing industrial loads of dishes, was to serve food and then remove the scraps. Sometimes I served tea. As a polite young man bought up in a house and not by sea-wolves, I felt infinitely qualified to do this. According to the aged tycoons populating this village, not only was I unqualified, but my method insulted every dead Anzac. Like in every ABC period drama ever, I would be sassed by old ladies for serving tea on the left side rather than the right, or not bowing as I exited the room or not pointing the multi-coloured mush they ate towards the sunset. Furthermore, because they were cashed up and possessed only a tenuous grasp of time, the majority of the residents drank like Hemingway all through the day. Or perhaps because they were old and in a retirement village, they knew exactly what time it was and not one fuck was given. While this might sound fun to you, this just means that when I served breakfast at 7am, many of the old people were a horrifying mix of fighty drunk, shouty drunk, sad drunk and most disturbingly, amorous drunk. And as anyone who’s worked in aged care knows, the delightful myth we propagate about old people not having sex is completely made up. In fact, there’s a huge problem with the spread of STI’s in old folks homes. But I’m not even talking about that – they can do whatever they want to each other. But because they all are stinking drunk, mostly blind and I am kinda pretty – I had to fend off the inappropriate gropings of old men all day. One dude motioned me over, got me to bend down, and then whispered in my ear

‘I can see your nipples.’

The worst thing was, after that I realised that he could actually see my nipples, as my shirt was indecently sheer.

There were of course some lovely people there, who were always perfectly delightful and polite. There were also the genuinely mad ones. Only two are really worth talking about. One was a lady named Beryl, who no matter what, always looked absolutely immaculate. Pearls, dusty mauve Chanel suits, a perm that could repel bullets. She also wasn’t allowed cutlery, because she tends to go for the eyes. When I served, she would sit bolt upright in her chair and stare unblinkingly at me, only her head moving fractionally as she tracked me around the room. Her mouth would quiver slightly, due to the intensity of her frustrated rage.The other was a lady named Fran who adamantly claimed she was a Polish princess and would make ‘special tea’ out of pot plants and pot pourri. I liked her a lot, because while she was off in a whole other world, it was a great world and she was happy there. Also, there was the outside chance that she was a Polish Princess, and she might leave me her castle in her will.

All I’ve done so far is set the scene. I’ve created a challenging ambience, a shitty backdrop to stage an amateur musical society’s version of ‘Cats’ on. Because while getting up at 4am every morning and coming to this place was depressing and hard, I was getting paid for it and I thought I could deal. Until Olga happened.

Olga worked in the retirement home as a nurse. Nurses are generally the most bad-ass, tough as nails, admirable people in the world. Olga was something else entirely. When I think of Olga, she’s always smoking the bitter end of a cigarette. Even though I understand that she couldn’t have been smoking inside, the complex pit of wrinkles and deep yellow stain that took the place of her mouth seem unimaginable without a cigarette in it. Olga had an accent which I can only describe as ‘generic Russian spy’. And she was the most depressing woman in the world. Perhaps because of the constant imaginary cigarette or more likely due to the sheer unholy weight of melancholia physically weighing her mouth down, Olga only ever spoke in clipped sentences. And it was awful.

‘Good morning Olga, how was your weekend?’

After waiting just long enough to make you think she mightn’t have heard you, she would exhale a long breath of stale smoke and then look at you from these dull, yellow eyes. Oh, and I apologise to the entirety of Russia for my attempt to mimic her accent.

‘My weekend was… not distinguishable.’

‘Bye Olga, I’ll see you tomorrow.’

‘Perhaps… perhaps you will.’

Olga got into my head in a bad way. I started having nightmares about her looking at me and saying things. I’d hallucinate her dry, joyless cackle. She was one of those people who only laughed when there was bad news. One day I was serving a resident tea and blood started gushing out of this old ladies mouth. I was horrified, and ran to get the nearest nurse. Unluckily it was Olga, who listened impassively as I explained the horrific nature of the medical emergency, took another drag on her cigarette, meditated silently on the problem and then while stubbing the butt out on the window pane, said ‘Ah, she always does that. I’ll get to her in a minute.’

By the time I came back, another nurse had tended to the woman, and I discovered the problem was actually a minor dental issue, rather than the lung rupture or heartsplosion that I’d diagnosed her with. But my problem with Olga and the job wasn’t just making me depressed and dispirited – I was scared. I developed an eye tic and once woke up in the night and vomited randomly after dreaming of Olga doing the crossword. I thought that maybe I’d calm down over the weekend, but knowing that I’d have to go back for another week of terror kept me sleepless and nervous. My skin went an interesting shade of translucent.

As I went in to work on the Monday morning, I honestly prayed that the train would derail itself or the place would burn down or my eyes would start bleeding spontaneously just so I wouldn’t have to go through with another week. I’d never felt so bad in my life, my fear and depression seemed to be manifesting at this early hour of the morning as some kind of feverish fugue and prickling pain in my neck. And when I got into work, one of the nurses, a lovely man who was saving up to buy a $9000 kareoke machine because why not, looked at me and kinda screeched,

‘What the hell is that on your neck?’

I’d thought I had a rather vigorous pimple, so was understandably abashed when he called over all the nurses and doctors to have a look at it. When I kept protesting that I was fine, he looked me in the eye and said ‘Listen, if there’s one thing you learn to spot a mile away when working in this place, it’s necrotic flesh. And that’s what the wound on your neck is.’

It turned out that I’d been bitten by a White Pointer spider, whose bite actually kills off your flesh, a bit like gangrene. If not cut out and treated with antibiotics, even the smallest bite can actually spread and kill you. If I get stressed, sometimes you can see the place where the bite was on my neck. So, it turns out that it wasn’t just my emotions that were making me feel bad, but also a bunch of poison. Things had gone from bad to worse, no?

But actually, the point I’m trying to make, that I’ve laboriously made my way to, is that the moment when I was told that I had to go to hospital instead of working at that retirement village, was probably the happiest I’ve ever felt in my entire life. The most pure explosion of joy to have even been transmitted to me via the medium of speech.

And that’s the lesson I want to impart to you all. A rare glimmer of hope in the seething pit of hardship that we call existence. Miracles can happen. Good things happen to good people – and also to people like me. I want you to go forth tonight with the knowledge that next time something awful happens to you, when you’re in a horrifying position that seems inescapable, you too might be lucky enough to get bitten by a flesh eating spider, which will somehow solve your problems.