The Beginner's Guide to Living (17 page)

BOOK: The Beginner's Guide to Living
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“I don't mean to. It's like there's two of me. Things get out of hand.”

Another tear falls down her cheek.

“I'm such a shit.”

“No, you're not. It would be much easier if you were. But I've got to look after myself.”

I notice the beginnings of a bruise on her hip. If only I could rewind a couple of weeks. Even further back than that—before my mother died. But I know I can't. This is where I am now.

As I climb out the window, she raises her hand. Her wave is like a small death.


and doesn't notice anything about the car. Adam skips breakfast. Cherry calls.

She's waiting for me beneath the tunnel, a plastic bag in her hand.

“Check this out,” Cherry says, removing a spray can and a book. She opens the book and turns it toward the light slanting in from the end of the tunnel, her finger on a folded page inside, on the line
People living deeply have no fear of death
. “What do you think?”

“Who wrote it?”

“Some French chick called Anaïs Nin. She wrote a lot of erotic stuff.”

There's a metallic screech and for a moment I think there's another train coming but there's no telltale wind—must have been a car on the bridge. My quote from Nietzsche is still half-finished on the wall.

“It's good but I'm not really up for this.”

“Why not?”

“I feel like shit.”

“Come on. Don't be so lame.” She's drumming her fingers into my chest, trying to get in under my arm. I grab hold of her hands. “Cherry.”

“That's my name. So why did you come then? Did you think I could cheer you up?”

“I don't know.”

“I've got something here…” She digs around in her bag, and pulls out a small plastic bag. Lined up at the bottom, some white pills.

“It's all right,” I say, “I don't need that kind of cheering up.”

“Well, what kind do you need?”

I look at her eyes, too fixed on mine, and wonder what she's already taken. I bend down to her face, my body lifting her against the wall as I press into her, her mouth dry and hard, tasting of cigarettes.

“Hey.” She turns away from me, her hands against my chest.

“What's wrong? I thought this is what you wanted.”

Cherry laughs and shakes her head. “You're such a kid.”

“Fuck off.”

She staggers, her boot catching on the rail. “Look, forget it. I'm feeling pretty messed up today myself.”

She pulls a cigarette out of her bag. I want to ask her what's going on but I can't right now, there's no room.

“Go home, Will. This isn't your kind of place,” she says, an echo of Taryn in the words
go home

*   *   *

Jigsaw night made up of pieces of sleep. The dawn of my first exam.

*   *   *

It's the silence that gets you, the blank page, everybody else with their heads down, a few hours to prove yourself worthy. Of what? Passing through to the next stage. As if the proof is finding a few quotes, showing I know how to analyze a text. Is this all I've been doing these last few months? Grabbing a few choice words from philosophers, singers, poets, reading a handful of books, half of which I haven't even finished, like preparing for an exam, no true understanding, just enough to get me through.

But what if I fail?

17. Is it possible to find something to live and die for in words on the page?

Yellow house. Taryn answers the door, wearing a dressing gown.


“I wanted to see you.”

“Come in.”

At her room, I linger by the door, remembering the last time I was here.

“What are you doing here?”

“I had my first exam today.”

“I know. And?”

“When I finished I got thinking about what's important.”


“Do you need some time, is that it?”

She shields her eyes with her hand. “You have no idea.”

“But, I do. I've been a shit…”

“It's not just that.”

“Then, what?”

“I can't tell you, not with exams…”

I enter her room. “Forget exams. What is it? Tell me.”

“My period's late.”


“By four days. I'm never late.”

“But how?”

She raises her eyebrows at me.

“I mean … I thought you were on the pill.”

“You know I am, but I was sick a few weeks back. After the party.”

“I don't understand. What's that got to do with it?”

“The pill doesn't work properly if you throw up. I read it in the instructions last night. And we didn't use a condom that one time.”

She jerks a tissue out of a box by her bed as I remember that day, thinking that there was something about the way we were together that always made me feel we were immune. “Who knows?” I said.

“Nobody yet, except you.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Wait. Hope it's a false alarm.”

“And if it's not?”

“I don't know, Will.”

Taryn leans back on the bed. She buries her face in the duvet, careful not to lean against me. I go to touch her but her body says no. “My parents will be home soon and I don't want them seeing you here. I told them we've stopped going out for a while. There'll be a million questions, and I can't handle that right now.”


“Please, Will.”

I put my hand on her head anyway and suddenly she's beside me. “You know I still love you?” she says.

I nod as I realize it's true, for both of us, but if I say the words, they'll hang there, they won't go where they should. “You call me,” I say, kissing the top of her head.

18. Can one life replace another?

Nobody's home. Dad's meant to be here, it's his turn to cook. Adam's at some thing. Don't know if I'd tell him anyway. There's nothing to eat in the fridge. Nothing in the cupboard either, except a package of chocolate and peanut cookies and a can of chickpeas. What kind of meal is that? What's happening in this house? Why hasn't Dad done the shopping? Or Adam? I can't be expected to do it, I don't have a license yet, and I've got exams. Anyway, where the hell is he? What kind of father…? Jesus! I can't be responsible for bringing a life into this world when I have no idea about my own. Dad must be working overtime. He said he wouldn't tonight as it's the day of my first exam. Said we could talk about it over dinner. Wonder if it's a boy or a girl? Guess it doesn't make any difference. Will we get rid of it? Does it even exist? I wish Mom was here because I reckon I could tell her, especially since … Whoa, that's what I call radical therapy. We finally have the kind of relationship we should've always had. Now that she's dead.

*   *   *


My mother's naked body. I'm almost thirteen. She pulls a towel to her chest, says, “It doesn't matter,” but it does. Her body seems older than I remember it, less sure of itself, not wanting to be noticed. It has hair on it, a triangle above her legs. I shudder. The place from where I came.

*   *   *

My next exam's not until Tuesday. I need to get the hell out of here. I stick a note to the fridge with a fish magnet:
I'm fine. Don't come looking for me. Will



Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.

I will meet you there.




♥ Will



I took the train out to the end of the line, maybe when I was a kid. The sun's going down, sloping in the window—it's been a long day, and it isn't over yet. In my backpack, a bottle of water, a lighter, a couple of bread rolls I found in the freezer, Mom's camera, my notebook, a shirt, a spare pair of boxers. A book about a French philosopher titled
Foucault for Beginners
. In my pocket, thirty bucks. The train's got a few suits in it, probably heading home after Friday drinks. Maybe that's what happened to Dad. In the next seat, a guy and a girl seriously into each other's tongues. They couldn't give a damn about their audience but all I want to do is to stare down the suburbs as they race past. Try to imagine Taryn being here, but when you're pregnant you can't sleep rough. Pregnant. Shit, that's a big word. Besides, this kind of thing you have to do alone. I read that somewhere but some things you don't need to read about, you know they're true.

*   *   *

The station is lit up. A bunch of kids are waiting to catch the train to the city, making a lot of noise but I can't be bothered looking to see why. I'm hungry but I need to save the two rolls for breakfast. Hope it doesn't rain. The forecast could be wrong. I could also be attacked by a serial rapist or a feral cat. Lucky I brought my coat.

Some of the shops are still open, cheerful lights, clumps of people sitting outside bars. I go into a fish-and-chip shop and order a hamburger. There's nobody I know, don't know why there would be, here on the outskirts. I study my sneakers. I should've worn my hiking boots. Should've, should've, should've.

They call my number and I take my hamburger and sit at one of the round metal tables outside. There are four kids about my age at the next table. One of the guys nods at me. I nod back, watch traffic as I eat. Where do they all go?

The national park's not far up that road. Ten, fifteen minutes' walk. I'll finish this hamburger and then I'll go, make a bed out of branches and leaves. I remember thinking about this stuff when I was a kid, how I'd survive if I got stuck in the bush, what I'd eat. Problem is, I haven't got a clue what will kill me and what will keep me alive. I'd better get some food from the supermarket across the road before I head off. How many mystics went to Safeway before they set off into the wilderness? I guess I'm blazing a new path.

19. How many mystics does it take?

It's night by the time I find the track—I forgot to bring a flashlight and my lighter's not much use. The moon's full but beneath these colossal trees it barely takes the edge off the dark. At least everything's dry. There's nobody around, but there's noise: distant cars, wind in the trees, night sounds. I try to imagine this track during the day, in full sunlight, how it wouldn't threaten at all, but I can't—every rustle, every snap, seems like an omen, a reminder of how I've messed things up.

Everything reduced to one question: where the hell am I going to sleep?

*   *   *

I am lying on my jacket about twenty meters off the track. I put some dry fern on the ground under me—I know it's a national park and you're not meant to pick anything but there seemed to be a lot of stuff moving on the ground, and, well, sometimes necessity outweighs the rules. It's about survival now. I try to calculate how many spiders there would be in a square meter of bush but I know nothing about the mathematics of spiders. The moon is bright above my head, too bright, but at least I can see. I'm about two Ks from civilization but it feels like the rest of the world has slipped into another realm.

*   *   *


Family picnic. I'm about four. Dad and Adam are kicking a football around a clearing between the trees and Mom's asleep in the sun. I go exploring, pick my way through parched scrub, the scent of eucalyptus expanding in the heat. I hear a rustle in the leaves and follow it, hoping it's a lizard and not a snake, but I soon lose its track. I can't remember which way I came. I listen out for my family but hear only the sounds of trees. By the time I find my way back to the picnic, nobody's there. I wait, the trees rising higher and higher, till I hear them calling, their voices like invisible bush creatures carried on the wind. I stare at the impression of my mother's body in the grass.

*   *   *

Warm fog: 6:30 a.m.

After a five o'clock wake-up, I burned leeches off my leg, singed some hair while I was doing it, and ate my two rolls. Finished half of my water. Then I heard people go past on the nearby path and hunted down a couple more leeches and burned them off.

This is not what I expected, but, considering the sum total of five minutes I spent thinking about it before leaving, I shouldn't be surprised. One should plan for spiritual enlightenment. At least bring a flashlight.

I'm still hungry, but only because I have a finite amount of food in my bag. Maybe I can find something to eat in the bush. The Aborigines ate berries but I can't see any around here. Maybe they preferred possum; I heard enough of those last night, like chain saws, screaming in the dark.

BOOK: The Beginner's Guide to Living
7.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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