My first jacket (Or the time I went to the Arctic and burnt things)

I read this at The National Young Writers Festival 2013 as part of the ‘First Time for Everything Event’ which was maybe my highlight of the festival? Who knows.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my time on this moist round planetary mass that we affectionately refer to as ‘Earth’ or sometimes ‘The fantastic spinning volcano orb’, it’s that everyone has a weakness.  A weakness that we can identify and exploit for business reasons.  Now I’m not talking exclusively about Limpy Joe and his shattered femur – sometimes a person’s weakness is less obvious, and less awesomely accessorised by a sword-cane. A weakness can be a soft spot for corn-based foods, a hatred of tight hats perhaps. For me, it’s a psychotic desire to own pretty jackets. You’re probably saying ‘plenty of people like jackets, just the other day I wore a jacket to work, Patrick, you’re a fool, I won’t stand for this, I won’t stand for the beautiful lies coming out of your vile yet enticing face-hole.’ And you have a point, my pompous hypothetical friend. Lots of people wear jackets – it’s one of the top five established garments. Number one is pant. But few people lose their entire shit immediately when confronted by jackets like I do. I am normally a mildly fiscally responsible person, due to never having much in the way of fiscals, but I have, and probably will again, spend every dime I own on a neatly turned lapel, leaving me without the ability to pay the rent or feed my cry hole.

This all started when I was eighteen, and on a jaunt in the city with some of my new university friends. Everything was fresh and startling, and I was enamoured by catching public transport and drinking midday beers and feeling fresh spring breezes on my stupid innocent face and also having friends for the first time ever. We spent the day browsing shops in Newtown, and at one point wandered into a place called Gallery Serpentine, which was full of elaborate Victorian era goth frocks. At this point in time I earned my coin by folding cardboard boxes in the loading dock of Target Miranda, and assiduously trying not to get involved in the crime ring that operated from it. Money was not a plentiful thing in my life, the cardboard box folding industry being a skilful job with few rewards. So it was with great surprise that I walked out of that shop fifteen minutes later with a beautiful Victorian Priest’s coat that had cost me five hundred dollars.  It was a full length jacket, which flared out slightly at the hips, with a high collar. If you can’t visualise it, think of what Professor Snape wears in the popular Harry Potter movies. Now you also know what I dress up as for Halloween every year.

But at that point, suddenly deprived of my ability to pay for basic essentials, I had to somehow validate my impulse purchase. Since I already knew there was a vast dearth of Victorian weddings for me to officiate any time in the near future, and since I also possessed a flagrant inability to travel back in time, this meant I now simply had to wear my ridiculously formal coat everywhere. Starting with my very first university house party on the upcoming Friday night. I felt there was certain symmetry to wearing my first expensive article of clothing to my first ever house party, proving that I had no idea what the word symmetry means.

partty

The party was at a sharehouse nicknamed ‘Gaynor’, a clever reference to the fact that it was a house on ‘Gaynor Avenue’. Gaynor was the quintessential sharehouse – large sprawling rooms in various states of decay, rumours of a ghost, a certain odour, a tobacco stained roof. Once I spilled an entire bottle of red wine onto the carpet, and when I came back with some paper towel, I couldn’t find the stain. The carpet was… thirsty. It was the kind of house where once I went over and one of the hosts was super excited about a roast dinner he was cooking. The whole place smelled amazing, as he’d been slow roasting all the meats and vegetables in the oven for the majority of the day. Finally that night, we all crowded around in anticipation as he opened the oven and pulled forth the tray, only to discover that somehow, in a mystery unsolved to this day, a basketball had melted over the top of the roast, ruining the entire meal.

But none of this had happened yet. It was my first house party, and I entered it dressed like a scary penguin, armed with two bottles of Passion Pop. Immediately I discovered one of the greater faults in my long list of ‘why it is a stupid idea to wear a $500 jacket to a house party’. And that was the fact I was terrified of getting it dirty. Someone reeled towards me, splashing red goon with wild abandon. A giant naked man, smeared head-to-toe with blue facepaint tried to hug me. Later on I held my friend Jimmy’s hand as he peed in the middle of a freeway, and managed to avoid him getting run over by a truck, or worse, wee-wee on my coat. I soon lost all sight of having fun, and instead viewed the party as an elaborate scheme to ruin my coat. I was like a mama bear, protecting her baby bear that she really couldn’t afford in the first place.

As you have predicted by my sneaky ‘smoking gun’ writing technique, I later drank those bottles of Passion Pop. Now, I’m not saying that I can’t hold my alcohol – eh, I can’t even lie. I’ve never been able to hold my alcohol. I got spectacularly drunk. And the majority of the rest of the night comes mostly from corroborated sources, who delight in telling this story over and over and over.

At some point, it became increasingly obvious due to the large line of people with giant inflated bladders, that somebody had locked themselves in the bathroom. After a bunch of hollering and knocking, it was decided to knock the door down. This was unsuccessful.  Then my friend Willis was taken outside and boosted through the window, ignoring its protective layer of glass. Once Willis dodged the razor sharp panes and extricated himself from the sink, he discovered the bathroom had been transformed into a place of rare horror. Judging from the descriptions, it sounded like someone had gone to great pains to vomit on every surface available. The floor, the walls, the mirror, the toothbrushes. That someone was me, and I was passed out in the bathtub.

There are people at parties, who no matter how drunk they get are still great forces of organisation and sanity. One of these people decided they had to get me out of my vomity clothes. My shirt came off, as did my shoes, but when they got to my pants, they discovered I possess a kind of unconscious kicking instinct. In the face of such stout opposition, they very rightly gave up, leaving me facedown, half naked in a bathtub in the middle of winter, junk exposed, unconscious.

Now this is where things begin to get weird, and where I begin to remember stuff again. I woke up, and I was cold. I was shivering violently, my face pressed against something icy and white. I raised my head as much as I could, and saw only whiteness stretching out infinitely in front of me. With all the sexy power of hindsight, I now realise I was simply looking at more bath, but in my inebriated state, I decided that what I was looking at was the vast snowy wastes of the arctic, or perhaps the Antarctic, I couldn’t remember the difference. How did I get in the Arctic? Why was I naked? Why did everything smell of bile? These are all excellent questions that I didn’t bother to think about due to my fear of dying from hypothermia. Now what happens next I can’t justify with any sort of logic, but I can only ask, what would you do if you were suddenly dying in the arctic? A little bit of empathy, please. Because with great difficulty, I managed to find a lighter in my pocket, and proceeded to set my own hair on fire. It wouldn’t catch – so twisting my body around, I saw my saviour hanging on the wall – a roll of toilet paper. Let’s ignore the incongruity of toilet paper hanging in the arctic – let’s ignore it, because I have already set it on fire. It quickly spread to a pile of magazines and gross urine splattered books and old toilet rolls. The fire might not have generated enough warmth to save my life, but it did create enough smoke to alert the rest of the party who then came in and rescued me, or as they saw it, stop the drunken psychopath from setting things on fire.

thearctic

The next morning I glumly helped mop up the vomit, sweep up the shattered glass, scrub the burn marks from the wall and help re-screw the door onto its hinges, and amongst all the devastation and filth, untouched and pristine in a neatly folded pile, was my jacket. My stupid, beautiful, jacket.

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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.

 
I HEART POISON.
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.