Authors: Craig Cliff
We will now discuss in a little more detail the struggle for existence.
On the Origin of Species
When Aaron was five and a half he had an imaginary friend called Groucho. They had a great time together, getting into mischief, making potions from the cleaning products underneath the washhouse sink, pretending to be aeroplanes in the autumn winds.
But then Groucho had an identity crisis.
He could, at a stretch, concede he might only exist in the head of someone else — but he could not fathom the statistical improbability that, out of all the people on earth, he would ever run into his creator,
, even less likely, that it would be his only friend: a small boy named Aaron, who liked to climb the neighbours’ fence but didn’t have the moxie to climb down the other side.
And so Groucho left poor Aaron in search of answers, never to be seen again.
Happiness in Aaron’s teenage years depended on the
availability of one thing — not friends, not video games, not good report cards, just a box of Kleenex on his bedside table. This may be the time for authorial comment (read: disapproval) but Aaron’s happiness was genuine, and who am I to quibble? The author?
creator? Please. It’s damp. The walls are damp, the floor is damp, my monitor is thrushed with water vapour, and probably-cockroaches scuttle beneath my keyboard, upset by these keystrokes. They are
not because they’re probably there — oh, they are, believe me — but because I’m only pretty sure they’re cockroaches as opposed to some other insect. The doubt is seeded by their size. They aren’t the Cameo Creme-sized cockroaches in your nightmares (maybe they’ll be Aaron’s nightmares?) — they’re smaller. Juvenile specimens ranging from the size of the ‘O’ on my keyboard to the entire tab key. As they crawl out from under my pulsing spacebar, they look as if they could grow up to be something else, some other kind of beetle. Maybe one could become a moth if it could build a cocoon. Perhaps, if these probably-cockroaches could only figure how, they could become something other than insects — a patch of lichen, an Alsatian, an MP3 player. But the thing is, for all their potential, they will just become bigger bugs, and that comforts me as I squash them:
fkajdagho ih fij e oijpewoijdeoj cwojoij
No. Aaron did not have nightmares, of cockroaches or otherwise. He was happy most of the time and, when not, he was patient, and soon enough he was happy again. He would marry the fourth girl he slept with, and they remained married until he slept with his fifth. Aaron was
unhappy throughout the divorce proceedings — not one for upheaval or seeing other people cry — but he knew that if he waited, happiness would one day return.
On his thirty-seventh birthday, he was on his knees pulling up the ragwort and burdock which had appeared in the garden since Isabelle moved out. He knew weeds bothered his mother, and since she was the only one kind enough to visit on his actual birthday, it was the least he could do. When he was halfway down the row of what used to be Isabelle’s azaleas, he realised he was wearing his good trousers. The weeding had been a whim, the vigour of which, had he actually changed his trousers, would have faded and been replaced by the need to straighten fridge magnets or find his recording of Debussy’s
, which he knew his mother liked. Instead he was weeding the garden and muddying the knees of his good trousers.
Aaron slowed down his movements so the weeds would last until his mother arrived and the mud would need no explanation. He took the time to investigate each weed. As he inspected the leaves of an oxalis — the shape reminded him of a clover; the texture of a dried apricot — he became less and less sure this was, in fact, a weed. He was almost certain it had not been planted there, but was it really so bad? He liked the way the pinky-yellow, five-petalled flowers reminded him of a propeller, but then he had never seen a five-bladed propeller before.
He thought about Groucho, his fleeting imaginary friend. He could be anywhere right now. No, more than that. He could be any
right now. Who’s to say that an imaginary friend doesn’t change with time, mature, evolve
into something else? This seed of his imagination could now be a butterfly or a set of measuring spoons. The figment formerly known as Groucho could have taken root in someone else’s imagination, encouraged them to hold Toni Love’s hand that day on the school bus, or suggested playing with that box of matches. He could have joined forces with other dislocated imaginary friends and formed a general misconception, like: you shouldn’t swim after eating.
Aaron looked down at his hands and realised he was pulling the petals from the oxalis. In the deep regret he felt, the sympathy he could generate for this probably-weed, he realised happiness was returning.
‘Thank you, Groucho,’ he said, looking up into the branches of the neighbours’ blue gum.
‘Who are you talking to, Aaron?’
His mother had arrived. She made him change his trousers, but it didn’t matter. Happiness was already at work, glazing over the bad, the annoying, the regrettable, turning even the most floury fruit into candy apples. Now — even if his keyboard and shirt pockets and coffee mugs were full of cockroaches — Aaron could see the wonder in a nightmare.
He saw the wonder when his house was flooded and when his second wife was concussed by a falling tree branch.
When his kidneys failed and he had to be hooked up to a dialysis machine.
When there was a power cut and the batteries failed and he slipped away, wearing the biggest smile you would ever see.
Glen was thinking about infinity. Not the concept so much as the symbol, ∞. He felt as if he was at the point where the two O’s came together. The nexus between growing up and growing old, coming and going. Until now the process of aging had seemed infinite. But infinity was just a reclining figure eight. Just another integer. He saw that now.
I am twenty-one, he thought. Perhaps this is only the first crossroads of many in the chain of my life. No comfort there.
He tried curling his toes but his sensible shoes hugged tight.
A new wave of lost-youth cold snaps. A five-minute span playing Smurfs by himself before being taken to the hospital to see his new baby brother. The car-crash hit of the day he drove past the cemetery and wanted to stop and visit his grandfather’s plot, but didn’t.
Just memories. A mix of water and sugar, like Raro. A
thousand plugs fighting for a power point, and struggling to separate from the coiled mass of cords seeping away glacially.
He ran his right thumbnail under the nail of his left index finger, then knocked the collected grime from the edge of the nail with his other thumb. He asked himself if he could recall a specific time he had performed this act before. A time, a place, a song in the background? No. But he had done this a thousand times — all had melded into one. An amputated memory. A sense more than a memory. He wondered if these were the only permanent memories.
I have been to Auckland.
I have eaten lamb with mint sauce.
I have farted in public.
A breath and the first steps towards articulating his deep woundedness. At first it was only words.
. Hardly a haemorrhage of original themes. He was home for Christmas, home from Melbourne, home from his first full-time job, home after five months away. Five months of acclimatising, of no friends yet but working on it, of
The Price is Right
Bert’s Family Feud
. He had been looking forward to comfy old En-Zed, but there were friends who didn’t make the effort to see him at New Year’s in Wellington, then promised to come up to Palmy, but didn’t. His younger brother, Warren, was house-sitting and chose to spend the time with his girlfriend rather than with Glen. Skipping town and breaking Warren’s idol worship five months previous, he’d felt pangs of cruelty. Now, being snubbed by his brother, he felt the idolater.
Worse than the snubs were the smotherings. The way
his mother sought him out when he was in a different room. The way he absolutely must hug his grandmother on arrival
departure. Where had all this affection suddenly come from? Though all the hugging was slightly alien, it wasn’t the act that really bothered him: it was the thought that if he had not left, there would still be no hugs. Was his family finally trying to become a family rather than a set of subsidiaries, bound by fiscal responsibility to appear at certain prearranged meetings? If leaving put a value on his head — made him a huggable commodity — what would death do?
For the first time in four years he thought of suicide.
As a teenager, he’d had flushes of sadness. Great upswellings of distaste for his life. Times when he would wrap the pull-cord for the lounge curtains around his neck (acne then, scars now) and lean forward, researching what it would take to hang himself. Rehearsing suicide. He kept putting off learning to drive because he could not be sure he wouldn’t yank himself into the oncoming lane. His great wounding shyness almost defeated him and he chose to bear it all himself. But tied up with this shyness was a form of pride. He knew he was smart — that he emanated this smartness — and had noticed a certain uncomfortable reverence others paid him. This pride often held his comments back — perhaps the words would not meet his standards — so he retired to the corners of the classroom. And though this pride had a lot to answer for in getting Glen into his lonely and over-thought quagmire, it wouldn’t let him stop kicking.
But now he was sliding back in.
Amidst this rush of thoughts, a sentence articulated itself.
I’m stuck for years unhappily.
He was in the lounge of his house-sitting brother, so it was his auntie’s lounge, really. In Australia they felt the need to call this a lounge-room, never just a lounge. He had tried to convince workmates it was inefficient — ‘You don’t say kitchen-room’ — but no one was ever prepared to get into semantics with him. His brother and his new girlfriend — her name was Kelly with an ‘i’ or Katie with a ‘y’, something abnormal to match her enormous eyes — were sitting on the couch and Glen was on the reclining chair which could swivel three-sixty degrees like an owl’s head. They were watching E! and he decided he had seen one too many over-exposed pop-tartlets, spun in his chair one full revolution and stood up with a slight wobble. Kelli or Katy laughed a little. He walked to the ranch slider and out onto the balcony, sliding the door shut behind him. One step, then he scissored over the railing one leg at a time — the way Big Sexy Kevin Nash used to enter a wrestling ring — and was on the edge of the balcony. It was narrower than he’d thought. Two inches? What’s an inch? He could only fit his toes or half a heel on the edge. He faced the house first, so his toes were on the edge, his heels hanging free, but this hurt so he turned and faced the trees and the river, two hundred metres away, but hidden and silent. Perhaps that wasn’t so telling. You can never hear the Manawatu River, even when you are in it. He remembered being told in school how Manawatu is supposed to mean ‘still heart’. How a chief was being chased and he came to the river and it made his heart stop.
something peaceful about it. Innocuous. I can’t believe I nearly drowned in it.
This thought was not accompanied by an image. It had become a sense rather than a memory.
I have broken bones.
I’m allergic to shellfish.
I have been extremely sad.
Glen leant forward, his hands holding the rail behind him, less and less of his heels on the narrow edge. He looked at the strip of garden nestled against the house. A bush with small pink flowers like roses, but can roses be so — bushy? Can I clear it? Is the ground too hard to jump? Too soft? I might leave a big dent. Is Warren’s car too close?
Leaning out from the balcony, he sized up the jump. It’s only one storey. It’s nothing. I’m going to jump.
Young Heart, Easy Living,
the slogan for the Manawatu region. Is there anything easy about living with a young heart, always thirsting for something else, something hidden like the river I want to be immersed in right now but I’m still on the balcony? Still sizing it up. Once I jump, what then? Walk back into the house like nothing happened. Katey or Kelley will think I’m damaged. What if I break a leg? I have to leave tomorrow. Go back home. Is Melbourne home or is this home? This is my auntie’s new house and I’ve never been here before and I’m gonna jump off her piddling little balcony and walk away like nothing’s happened. I’m gonna jump and slip over and get trapped under the front wheel of Warren’s Escort and him and Kelz or Kat will have to take a hand each and pull …
He turned around, toes on the edge, heels — the muscles
above the heel — resting. He looked through the ranch slider. Warren had his arm around his girlfriend. They weren’t even looking at him. The sun was about to set and inside it was gloomy — the TV was starting to flicker on their faces but their expressions did not change with the colours. Their expressions should change with the colours. I’m going to jump off this balcony and they are going to look up in the ads and wonder:
Where did he go
He turned away from the house quickly and nearly slipped off, but didn’t, steadied himself to jump, but didn’t, and turned around again. He didn’t look through the ranch slider in case they were looking at him spinning around and maybe laughing at the weird older brother. He looked at the sky — like wet cement. He imagined being on top of the State Insurance Building — maybe the Farmers’ Mutual Building is taller? But the State is so much cooler to jump off, it has proper ledges.
He summoned the appropriate wind for that height. Thirty storeys? No idea.
He kept his eyes to the dumb grey sky and felt his way around to face the river once more — heels on the edge, toes and arches with nothing below — and jumped off the State Insurance Building and landed on his auntie’s lawn and his knees hit his chest and his bum hit the ground but he was okay and standing and breathing real New Zealand breaths two steps away from the moderate impressions his feet left when they hit the ground and didn’t really sink and didn’t slip at all. He patted the Escort he didn’t get trapped under and ran his hand through the pink flowers which he had avoided and which probably
He heard the ranch slider open. Warren leant over the balcony, perplexed but smiling.
‘Did you just jump off?’
Glen was enjoying his big New Zealand breaths. He nodded and lifted his shoulders and invisible strings pulled his elbows with them, like wings.
‘You shook the whole house,’ his brother said, still smiling. Katy hadn’t come out. Glen smiled back at Warren and turned his prolonged shoulder lift into a shrug.
‘My bum hit the ground but I stayed on my feet.’
Whether it was the jump itself or having jumped,
had turned on a great light in the grey sky and the river was making roaring sounds like a hydroslide and the still heart was flooded with blood again.