The Impregnator.

 

My name is Cassandra X and I want to tell you my story. Well, actually, that’s not true. I don’t really want to tell you my story at all. I’m only doing this because my family thinks it will be good for me. Better out than in is what they say to me, as if anxiety can be ejected like projectile vomit. But it’s not that easy, is it? Myself, I would much rather curl into fetal position and pretend that parts of this story never happened. But no one listens to me; and that’s the whole problem right there, you see. That’s it in a nutshell.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not what you might call a sad story, although a hell of a lot of stress came out of it before some kind of conclusion was reached. And maybe that’s how life has to be, a cycle of domestic dramas interrupted by the occasional joyful moment just to keep us coming back for more. The story concerns my daughter, Jasmine, who I have long suspected of being accidentally switched at birth with a similar-looking newborn twenty-five years ago. I can tell you for sure that she bears no similarity to me apart perhaps from an impressively deep streak of stubbornness. Let me sum up a few of our more obvious differences for you – she’s tie-dyed rags and I’m resort wear; she’s tattoos and painful-looking piercings and I’m understated make-up and plucked eyebrows; she’s a throwback hippie and I’m a post-apocalyptic survivalist; she thinks it’s the dawning of the age of Aquarius and I will kill any stranger who looks funny at my family. You get the picture. Generationally speaking, not so much a gap as an abyss.

From an early age Jasmine determined to travel the world. As an adolescent she had a chart on the wall listing all the countries she intended to visit; the list incorporated much of Europe, most of South America and the more life-threatening and politically unstable parts of Asia and Africa. If I had to pinpoint the exact moment at which I lost any semblance of control over my daughter it would be when the she turned to wave goodbye to me at the airport on her first trip to Europe. She was eighteen years old and wearing an oversized backpack and an enormous, delighted grin. It was as if something wild that had been held fretting in captivity was finally being released back to its natural habitat.

Over the next few years Jasmine passionately embraced the backpacker lifestyle and the backpacker lifestyle reciprocated by wrapping itself around her windpipe and throttling her right back. She was hospitalized with pneumonia in Brazil, robbed at knifepoint by drug addicts in Argentina, fined and threatened with deportation for busking without a permit in Paris, burst a couple of blood vessels in her eyes whilst bungee jumping in Thailand; she even had her backpack not only stolen in Cambodia but also returned intact the next day – I can only assume that after examining the backpack contents the thief concluded Jasmine was even more impoverished than he was. And that’s just the stuff Jasmine told us about; God only knows what else happened to her out there on the hippie trail; well, God, various Australian consulates and maybe Interpol.

Jasmine sailed through it all with joy de vivre or, to put it another way, suicidal recklessness. Yet somehow she would always return in one piece and invariably bringing what she liked to call ‘little goodies” for us. These mostly comprised of items of badly made Indian clothing or the sort of tacky silver jewelry that turns green almost before your eyes, leaving ugly skin rashes. And then one year she totally outdid herself in the little goodies department by bringing back a man. And not just one of the common or garden locally grown variety; he was a Frenchman. Quelle exotique! How she got him through customs I’ll never know. He was dressed in baggy harem pants, cheesecloth t-shirt and a waistcoat festooned with glass beads. Oh, and Moroccan camel leather slippers that curled up at the front. Let’s just nickname him Aladdin and be done with it.

She introduced Aladdin as her boyfriend and casually informed us that he would be staying with us for a while. Later we discovered that the phrase “for a while” translated as until he found a job, a place to stay, an education, a career, a life direction. Basically then, the idea was we were going to adopt him for the foreseeable future. And we didn’t say a word of protest. Which is preposterous, right? The only way I can explain it is that Jasmine has always had this knack of reassuring anxious older people with a few soft words, a smile and reassuring hug; she’s like some kind of horse whisperer for skittish parents. I should point out that she had a long history of bringing stray, mangy young people home for meals but this was the first time she’d moved a fully imported one into the house.

Mind you, I could see the attraction; once you got past the tattoos and piercings Aladdin was unarguably cute with dark sticky-date brown eyes and then of course there was the accent. I think we can all agree a French accent is the most irresistible mating call of any species, domesticated or feral. Then again, I suspect my husband wouldn’t agree at all. The continental cuteness and the sexy accent appeared to have absolutely zero effect on him.

I haven’t introduced my husband to you yet, have I? Well, let’s face it, he’s pretty much peripheral to this story anyway. All you really need to know is that he wears sensible cardigans and a tweed flat cap; that just about sums him up right there, say no more. Mostly he spends his days reading dusty old books and mumbling about the decline and fall of western civilization. We’ll call him Mr. Grumpy for no reason that springs immediately to mind. After introductions had been awkwardly made at the Arrivals gate the Grump-meister didn’t say much but his face was cast into a kind of lugubrious death mask that did not bode well. I could tell his tortured mind was swirling with dark thoughts about family dishonor and garlic-reeking foreigners; not just any foreigner, either, but one of those cheese-eating surrender monkeys, you know the ones, from that country with a notorious reputation for seduction and romancing the pants of innocent young girls. The drive home from the airport was a tense affair, let me tell you.

When we showed Aladdin to the guest room and led him to understand that he was expected to sleep there on his own, he stared at us incredulously. I was a little incredulous myself, I must admit. I mean, to assume these two healthy, attractive people of prime mating age were going to sleep separately under the one roof was just plain naïve. Although Mister Grumpy liked to pretend otherwise, I doubt whether Aladdin set a camel-leathered foot in that spare bedroom ever again after that first night. And so somehow we found ourselves in the bizarre situation of consenting to a strange man we barely knew shacking up with our daughter in her bedroom; a strange man, incidentally, whom she barely knew too if you discounted a few weeks of holiday romance.

Six months later Aladdin was still squatting in the house, or the commune as we now pointedly referred to it. The sarcasm was entirely lost on our squatter. I don’t know, maybe French people don’t do sarcasm; probably too busy doing seduction, I suppose. By now we were resigned to the wafting clouds of incense, Arabian Nights dress code and the endless meals of lentils and brown rice; in short, the ambience of peace, love and flatulence had become our way of life. By this stage Aladdin was working casually as a waiter in a restaurant whilst spending most of his free time with Jasmine in her bedroom. They certainly were inordinately attached to that bedroom; what they found to do in there for so long I really cannot say. Anyway, as far as we could tell the only people showing any signs of discontent with the living conditions were Grandmaster Grumpy and me. We put up a good front but the truth is the bohemian values were getting to us; the countercultural untidiness, the careless dribbling of candle wax over expensive furniture, the stench of Moroccan camel leather slippers; and yet so comfortable were Aladdin and Jasmine with the arrangement that it seemed as if we were living with them rather than the other way around. We almost expected to be asked politely how long we intended to stay on for.

One day we received an intriguing phone call from our surrogate son, Aladdin, requesting that we meet him for coffee that afternoon. This struck us as odd given we had all been drinking coffee together around the communal table earlier that morning and were in all probability destined to be sharing a communal meal and accompanying beverages later that evening at home. Clearly, the boy has something other than communal coffee drinking on his mind.

“This is it,” Mister Grumpy predicted, “they’re taking over. He’s going to ask us to move out of the house and never darken our doorstep again.”

We met in Aladdin’s lunch break and whilst we sipped our coffees he informed us with a proud smile that he was going to ask Jasmine to marry him. Mr. Grumpy took a sharp intake of breath that resulted in his cappuccino being inhaled into his lungs; for a while there we were distracted by the need to revive a distressed middle-aged man who appeared to have abruptly lost the will to live. When things settled down again we returned to the subject at hand; I tactfully suggested to Aladdin that as he and Jasmine had known each other for a mere matter of months there was surely no hurry. His liquid eyes sort of glazed over in a way I’d seen before whenever anyone declared an opinion that he didn’t agree with and didn’t want to hear. That was Aladdin’s modus operandi – he would never argue; he would simply ignore.

Mr. Grumpy was not to be fobbed off so easily. He regressed to his savannah hunter-gatherer antecedents and got down to the nitty-gritty.

“And how, pray tell, do you intend to provide shelter for a family? How will you put bread into the mouths of your children?”

But Aladdin had already thought this through.

“I have a plan,” Aladdin said, “I’m going to juggle fireballs in the streets.”

Awkward pause here. A case of lost in heavily accented translation, perhaps? Whatever did he mean? Mr. Grumpy was the first to grasp Aladdin’s new career direction.

“Are you talking about busking? People throwing money? Fireball juggling for small change as a career? That’s your plan? That’s seriously your plan? Dear God, man, have you given thought to a plan B?”

“Oh, yes, I have a back-up. The plan B, as you say – I will also to learn to swallow fire.”

Another awkward pause, this one pretty much lasting until Mister Grumpy and I got home and could wail and gnash our teeth and cover ourselves with sackcloth and ashes in the relative privacy of our share-house. Eventually we rallied and regained perspective. It wouldn’t be so bad; we could get night jobs stacking supermarket shelves; the future lay bright and clear before us – we’d spend our lives supporting Jasmine and Aladdin and God knows how many of their future brood until we drew our last labored breaths.

Oblivious to our somewhat agitated reaction to the marriage idea, Aladdin ploughed on at full steam ahead. He proposed, Jasmine accepted; soon after we held an outdoor wedding reception like no other I have ever attended. There was vegan food, which Mister Grumpy sarcastically described to our family guests as coming from the planet Vegas. Unconventionally dressed young people writhed ecstatically to pounding tom-tom drums; a pungent haze that smelt nothing like nicotine wafted over an unusually large group of smokers. Even our aged family members grooved along, arthritis permitting, with the harmonious vibrations. It was the Woodstock festival all over again but with awkward-looking old people in formal attire sprinkled amongst the hippie revelers. Aladdin, in a moment of irrational exuberance even juggled his fireballs for our entertainment. It happened to be perilously close to a canvas canopy, which was quite heart stopping for those of us who felt legally responsible for the safety of our guests. I waited with dread for the canvas to shoot up in flames at any moment, thereby incinerating the slower, more elderly family and friends; fortunately collateral damage was limited to the odd singed hair and scorch marks, all of it on Aladdin who was too deliriously happy to care.

Another three months passed. Little had changed. We were still sharing digs with a couple of unreconstructed hippies from the Summer of Love era. One day Mister Grumpy and I were sipping cappuccinos in our regular café when Jasmine rang me. After I got off the phone Mister Grumpy noticed I was unusually quiet.

“Well, what did she say?”

“I’m going to tell you, but first I want you to stop sipping your coffee.”

“Why?”

“Just do what I say. Put the cappuccino down and step away from the cup. Then, I’ll tell you.”

Mr. Grumpy put his cup down out of harm’s way.

I took a deep breath and said, “Our daughter…”

“Yes, yes, our daughter what? Get on with it.”

“She’s…she’s pregnant.”

“Oh my God. But how…?”

“How do you think, you idiot? They’ve been humping away every night in that damn bedroom of hers.”

Mr. Grumpy winced. I think the idea of his daughter humping anyone was too much for the poor man. “Whatever happened to self-restraint? What about a bit of planning? It’s just irresponsible, that’s what it is.”

“Oh, don’t be bloody ridiculous. They’re married, aren’t they? They’re being fruitful and multiplying. This is what married people do when they’ve got time on their hands. Obviously they’re far too cool to watch prime time television like the rest of us.”

“But they’re still living with us,” Mr. Grumpy said in a whiny tone of voice. “It’s not fair. Not only are they not moving out, they’re reproducing. They’re breeding inside our house. Where will it end? Ten years down the track we’ll be forced out due to the population explosion. Culled from our own house to keep the numbers sustainable.”

My own response was not quite as hysterical but no less anxious. I felt excitement of course and also a kind of sadness too; I knew something Jasmine didn’t know, something she was about to find out – the crazy recklessness, the exuberance, the spontaneity, the self-indulgent fun, all that was going to be set aside and the time of responsibility for a tiny little life had begun. As for Grandpa Grumpy, after he got the moral outrage out of his system he became strangely calm; maybe even fatalistic, although a clue to his frame of mind lay in the manner in which he insisted on referring to Aladdin from that point onwards as The Impregnator.

There’s nothing like a pregnancy to concentrate the mind. Everything seemed to change very quickly. Within a matter of weeks Jasmine and The Impregnator took us by surprise when they moved out of our home. All of a sudden we were no longer living in a squatters’ commune. I have to admit it felt eerie and empty for a while. I even kind of missed the incense but not the flatulence that tended to precede it. Meanwhile we had something else to worry about.

Of course Jasmine’s new abode was never going to be a conventional one in the suburban heartland; that was just not their style. Despite marriage and the pregnancy they were still stubbornly grooving somewhere in San Francisco circa 1960s with flowers in their hair. We knew this and accepted it. But did they have to move to a house on an island that was only accessible by boat? There were no roads, no bridges and the ferryboat service cut out in the early evening. Most of the island locals relied on their own small vessels, a motely fleet of weather-beaten, barnacle-caked, old tubs. God help them on a stormy night with choppy waters. All this was gleefully related to us by Jasmine and Aladdin. They were relishing the challenge and rejoicing in the lifestyle compromises; after all, it was the closest they could get to third world living conditions and still be just a ferry ride away from the nearest organic farmers’ market.

I saw things a little differently. To me it was like the opening scenario of a formulaic thriller movie. All the corny ingredients were there – isolated home cut off from the mainland, vulnerable young pregnant woman, local island community populated by alternative lifestyle eccentrics and a generous sprinkling of drunkards and nut jobs. But wait, it gets worse. Precisely at the moment in a thriller where they introduce that last fatal plot ingredient, Jasmine obliged with a twist of her own. She made a decision so loaded with potential catastrophe it would have had everyone in a movie theatre covering their eyes with both hands and issuing a collective groan of despair – Jasmine decided to have a homebirth on that isolated little island.

Mister Grumpy and I took the ferry over to the island in a last ditch attempt to talk some sense into Jasmine. The Impregnator and Jasmine proudly showed us around their new home. Apart from the dampness, some rodent droppings and the encroaching jungle-like vegetation I considered the house was almost bearable and perhaps even habitable.

Jasmine could not be dissuaded on the homebirth. She had lined up a midwife and all arrangements had been made. Mister Grumpy interrogated The Impregnator on the preparations.

“What happens if the baby comes in the middle of the night? Have you considered how you will get the midwife over here? And what if, God forbid, something goes wrong and there’s an emergency? In short, do you have a plan?”

“But of course. I have a plan. I even have a plan B as well, just the way you like.”

The Impregnator was making with the quirky continental humor but Mister Grumpy was not amused.

“O.k., what’s the plan?”

The Impregnator pointed a finger to the house opposite. “Our neighbor has agreed to bring the midwife over at any time of the day or night. He and his boat are on standby for us.”

He pointed another finger to the left. “The neighbor a few houses down will pick the midwife up from the jetty with his jeep and bring her to the house when she arrives.”

The Impregnator smiled and placed a reassuring hand on Grandfather Grumpy’s shoulder, which is never advisable, as the Grumpy One has been known to bite off people’s fingers. Do not pet the mangy, ill-tempered animal.

“And what about your plan B?” Mr. Grumpy asked.

The Impregnator shrugged and pointed a finger vaguely upwards. At first I thought he might be referring to God and some sort of divine intervention, but then he said, “Elroy.”

“Elroy? Who’s Elroy?”

“Oh, he lives up the top of the mountain,” Jasmine said. “He’s a bit of a recluse. We don’t see much of him but he said he’d come if we need him to drive the midwife here.”

I could tell Mister Grumpy was less than impressed with plan B. I think we were both picturing Elroy as some wild-eyed hillbilly off his face on moonshine and cabin fever.

“Oh for God’s sake, stop worrying,” Jasmine said, laughing at us. “People have been doing this in their own homes for thousands and thousands of years. Everything will be fine.”

Mr. Grumpy began to speak but I cut him off mid-flow. I could see he was about to lecture us all on newborn mortality rates over the last two hundred thousand years of human history, a subject he had been researching intently recently.

As the date of the birth neared I left Mr. Grumpy back home and moved in with Jasmine and Aladdin on the island. At night I felt so much anxiety I could hardly sleep. Every morning I was hugely relieved to know that the ferry service had resumed and with it our regular link to the mainland. Nothing seemed to bother Jasmine and The Impregnator. Not even when the baby was well overdue and the midwife recommended relocating the birth to the mainland. I begged Jasmine to move back in with us and have the baby at our house but she had set her heart on a birth in her own home on the island.

A week later I awoke to the sound of something mechanical roaring upstairs. I ran up and found The Impregnator using an electric pump to inflate the wading pool in which Jasmine intended to have her baby. She emerged from the bathroom at that moment and I will never forget the look in her eyes, a mixture of shock and panic.

“I can feel the head,” she said, clutching her groin.

I couldn’t come to grips with that. I’d had children. I knew how the whole thing worked. They don’t just pop out and announce, “Surprise! I’m here!” There’s a procedure, God damn it; it takes hours and there are stages of labor and birth protocols, breathing and panting and so on, that must be observed.

“You can’t be feeling the head,” I assured her, “ You’re barely in labor, right?”

Jasmine looked almost apologetic. “Actually, I think I slept through the labor bit. I felt really uncomfortable when I went to bed.”

She slept through it. Of course she did. Why would she do anything so conventional and conformist as to have a normal birth experience? That’s when I felt the thrill of dread rippling through me. The possibility that a baby was going to pop out of her at any moment yelling, “Surprise! I’m here!” suddenly seemed alarmingly less remote.

At this juncture I realized that I was living my nightmare, the situation I had feared the most. It was two am. We were isolated on an island, about to have a baby and the only person in the house not looking dazed and confused was me. To be honest, the only reason I didn’t look dazed and confused was because I was preoccupied being completely beside myself with fear and stress. So there we were, standing in a bedroom with that ridiculous purple wading pool, candles and incense sticks at the ready, missing only a midwife or someone who had the least idea how to deliver a baby.

Jasmine doubled over and emitted a scary, deep-throated moan that would not have been out of place emanating from the subject of an exorcism. She staggered over to The Impregnator and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck, which was awkward as he had a lot on his mind at the time. At the height of every contraction she constricted his throat like an anaconda and screamed, “Get off the phone! Help me! You have to help me! Get off the phone!”

The reason she was shouting about getting off the phone was because The Impregnator held a mobile in each hand and was attempting to dial both one handed.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked him.

“The neighbors. I’m trying to ring them. No one’s answering.”

“The midwife. Have you rung the goddamned midwife?”

He could only nod in reply given that Jasmine was simultaneously experiencing a strong contraction and throttling the life out of him.

I ran downstairs to get my phone and rang the midwife, just to ensure she was on the way. It’s not that I didn’t trust The Impregnator…oh who the hell am I trying to kid? At this stage I had absolutely no faith in anyone, particularly the entwined couple upstairs helplessly transfixed by contractions and constrictions.

The midwife was driving through the night at a mad pace to get there but she wasn’t happy at all.

“I told them to leave yesterday. She’s fourteen days overdue. She should be somewhere more accessible. When I heard they were still on the island my heart almost stopped.”

From this statement you could reasonably conclude that the midwife was panicking. And if the midwife was panicking that was surely the signal for everyone else in the delivery room to commence shouting incoherently and running around in ever decreasing circles. Right about then my heart was threatening to go one better than her heart and come to a screeching halt.

Back upstairs The Impregnator was still working the phones like a Mumbai call center operator on crack cocaine, but no one was picking up. Jasmine was intermittently moaning and yelling, ‘It’s coming, help me, it’s coming.”

At this point I knew I had two choices: I could take control and deliver this baby or break down into a panic-stricken, blubbering mess. Obviously I broke down into a panic-stricken, blubbering mess. Hey, be not quick to judge, delivering babies is complicated; people spend years learning how to do it right. I was out of my depth. We needed to get that midwife onto the island.

I went into the bathroom, splashed cold water on my face and spoke to myself in the mirror – “Cassandra, stop hyperventilating and get your shit together.”

This seemed to work. I rang the emergency line and asked for an ambulance. Then I remembered I was on an island and cancelled the ambulance and asked for the police. Then I remembered I was on an island again and cancelled the police and asked for the Water Police. Bingo. They agreed to pick up the midwife and drop her at the wharf. Now we needed to transport the midwife and her equipment to the house. Not as simple as it sounds because there were very few vehicles on this island; all the residents had their cars parked over on the mainland. And where were all these residents when you needed them anyway?

Around ten minutes or so later there was a polite knock on the front door. Thank you, God. I ran to the door and flung it open. A nice-looking, neatly dressed man stinking of strong liquor apologized for missing The Impregnator’s phone calls. He had been at a party on the other side of the island and had neglected to check his mobile. He looked nothing like a wild-eyed hillbilly but we had got the bit about being off his face on moonshine absolutely right. It was Elroy. Plan B had been activated.

“Elroy, thank God. Where is everybody else on this God-forsaken island? No one’s answering their phone.”

“They’re all at the party and mobile reception is a bit patchy on that side of the island. Can I help?”

“Elroy, you don’t happen to know how to deliver babies do you?”

“Good Lord, no. I work in IT. I’m afraid the best I can do is offer transport. I’ve got my car right here – no, actually, it’s just over there, against the tree. Must have rolled forward. I seem to have left it in gear.”

“Elroy, have you perchance partaken of a glass or two of alcohol tonight?”

“Pissed to the eyeballs, I’m afraid.”

“I did not hear you say that, Elroy.”

I rang the midwife back and told her we had lined up the Water Police and also a drunk driver to give her a lift to the house.

“O.k. I’m at the wharf. I can see the lights of the police boat. How’s Jasmine doing?”

“Well, she says she can feel the head.”

“You mean the contractions.”

“No, I mean the head. With her fingers.”

“Don’t panic. Keep calm. I won’t be long. When the baby comes, keep it warm.”

“O.k. See you soon.”

Hey, wait a minute. Did she just say the words ‘when the baby comes’? Note the critical conditional distinction. When, not if. Oh my God. Even the midwife thinks she’s not going to make it.

Back to the bathroom. More face splashing. I stared at my reflection and sternly told it to stop looking so goddamned terrified. We were going to deliver a baby and that was that. No more whining. I walked into the bedroom and right back into the middle of the exorcism with Jasmine intermittently growling and pleading for help and The Impregnator standing in the wading pool holding a hose.

“What the hell are you doing, man?”

“I’m filling the wading pool.”

“Forget the wading pool. You don’t need a wading pool right now.”

“What do I need, then?”

“An exorcist. No forget I said that. Get some towels. Clean ones. Jasmine, what are you doing?”

“I’m getting into the pool. I’m having this baby in the damned pool just like I planned and no one’s going to stop me.”

She said it with so much determination not to mention snarling ferocity that I knew this was no time to argue. I went to find the towels whilst The Impregnator climbed back into the pool to support Jasmine.

And then everything happened so quickly and so suddenly, just as the major things tend to do in this life. One minute there were three of us in the pool and then there were four as we were joined by a tiny head popping almost bizarrely out of Jasmine’s vagina. The creature from the amniotic lagoon. I felt like blurting out – hey, what’s that doing there? – so strange and miraculous did it seem that life should grow out of life inside my daughter in such a fashion. As the rest of the body slid out the midwife ran upstairs. Elroy stumbled and staggered right behind her under the weight of several bags of equipment or possibly he was just blind drunk. And everybody was so happy and relieved, And everybody cried, even Elroy. And it was one of those rare moments in your life when you are able to say, ah yes, then, at that precise moment I was utterly, unequivocally happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     

 

 

CHURNING.

(The Highlands Of Cruithentuath, Circa 600AD)

I

They had strayed far from their tuath following the spoor of a wily old boar. One of the hunters wore an evil-looking leather patch where his right eye used to be. His name was Balor, although some people called him Doom And Gloom because he expected the worst and was seldom disappointed. Then there was Cailen who had just one arm left to him if you chose not to count the stump of the other. The lack of arm made little difference to the look of him for he was a deeply unattractive man. Lastly there was Dubhlach, sometimes known as The Dafty; he had all his body parts, more or less, but it was said that he had been dropped on his head when he was a baby, which went some way to explaining why he was the way that he was. Saving these minor flaws, they were pretty much in the prime of their luckless, impoverished lives.

That cunning, grey-bristled boar, he led them though thorny briar and prickly bracken till they were scratched and torn to ribbons. Just as the night shroud fell steadily around them Cailen spotted a faint trail of smoke smudged against the evening sky. They followed it to a cottage nestled in a clearing surrounded by dense forest pines. It was a circular homestead made from mud-daubed wickerwork and crowned with a thatch roof overgrown with stray clumps of weeds.

A stockade made from iron-tipped wooden stakes enclosed the entire clearing and there was a gate guarded by three snarling hounds. A dazzling brightness spilled out of the house. Two women stood at the door, silhouetted against the interior golden light.A voice rang out, an old woman’s voice, cracked and harsh, calling out to the dogs. They instantly ceased barking and cowered away.

“For the love of Brighida,” Balor said, “we are in need of a night’s shelter.”

“All well and good,” the old hag replied, “but what do you offer in exchange for the shelter?”

“Our deepest thanks,” said Balor, “and the blessings of the Goddess Of The Hearth for taking in the strangers at your door.”

The two women conversed in low voices. Finally the old woman stepped forward. “This house is awfy small, not near big enough to be putting up three hulking brutes like yourselves. But we can maybe offer you the byre for the night, if you don’t mind sleeping with the cows. As for payment, you could do us a little service with churning the milk, perhaps.”

The younger woman remained at the doorstep of the house, the oil lamp in her hand illuminating a fine-looking face and fiery red hair. The lamplight seemed to caress her body, a figure so curvaceous that some might have called her fulsome whilst others might have considered her fat. The old crone came down the gate to let them in but they hardly noticed her. All their eyes were straining to drink in the sight of the woman standing like a shining goddess at the door, waiting to welcome them.

As they self-consciously shuffled past the red-haired beauty Balor was struck by the colour of her eyes; green they were, like the paleness of seawater on a summer day. Although the room was not nearly as small as the old woman had claimed it was cluttered with all the various tools of the dairy trade. A large churn made from oak sat in one corner. Against one of the walls lay a line of flat, shallow wooden dishes each filled to the brim with setting milk. Upon a small table they could see ladles, butter scoops and wooden skimmers all neatly placed in a row, like the ceremonial knives laid out by the Druids before the blood shedding of a bull or ram at Samhain time.

“I am the widow Rhona,” the young woman said, “and this is my grandmother, Banabha.”

Balor tried to reply but found that he had lost the knack of intelligible speech and had to make do with a throat-clearing grunt. Cailen seemed to be struggling too; his mouth gaped unappealingly and little drools of saliva glistened in the candlelight. Even Dubhlach, who barely noticed women as a general rule, appeared impressed. Indeed, it would have been hard not to take a shine to this widow-woman, what with her red locks rippling down to a bosom so munificent it appeared to be striving to burst out of the bodice and share its bounteous treasures with the company.

They sat around the hearth-fire on the green rushes carpeting the floor, for there were only two stools in the house. Balor’s eye followed the widow Rhona as she bustled around preparing refreshments for them. Occasionally the grandmother obstructed his view and at such moments he had to stop himself from wincing. She had a craggy face scarred by ancient boils and furrowed with deep crease lines; her nose was a great bulbous hook of a thing and somewhere along the way she had misplaced not a few of her front teeth; her body appeared heavy-set, most likely bloated by an over-indulgence in her dairy foods. Balor thought it was like dark clouds blown by an ill wind across the face of a glorious sun to see the two women together like this.

Rhona poured them each a cup of sour milk from an earthenware jug whilst they ogled the great pale orbs looming over her bodice. The milk could have been gushing forth from her breasts, so full and philanthropic they seemed, those marvelous glands. Balor wiped the sweat from his face. He was feeling the heat, most of it radiating from his feverish imagination.

Rhona noticed the dried bloodstains on Balor’s tunic.

“Ach, it’s nothing at all,” he said. “Just a few wee briar scratches from chasing a boar all the long day. I’ve had worse.”

“I have some bad cuts, myself,” Cailen said. He pulled back the tunic sleeve on his one good arm. She rose and went to Cailen. He shot a triumphant leer at Balor from around her skirts.

“The thorns have bitten deep,” Rhona said. She reached over and lightly traced a finger down the length of Cailen’s arm. Cailen ceased to breathe from the excitement. Balor wondered whether the fool might ever breathe again.

“And I know just what you need for it, too,” she said with a lazy purr to her voice. “After supper I could dress your cuts, if you like.”

She bestowed a glance upon him with her languid eyes and that was about that. He looked more than ready to paw the ground and maybe whinny some mating cry before launching himself upon the good widow in a rutting frenzy. Only Dubhlach appeared capable of resisting Rhona’s considerable charms, which was only to be expected given the man had been dropped on his head when a baby. “You are a little out of the way hereabouts,” he said, “surely you would be better off moving into a larger settlement with other folk around you?”

The smile slipped from Rhona’s face

“We like to keep to ourselves,” she said. “We see plenty of the settlements when we travel the roads selling our white-meats. Happy enough they are to buy from us, but there is always a lot of envy too. Our goods are far better than any, and so there is gossip.”

The grandmother said, “There are jealous folk in the nearby settlements. They would be making our lives a misery if they could. They envy us, you see, for the richness of our produce.”

“Jealous neighbors are an ill thing to have around you,” Dubhlach said. “That is why, maybe, you have those three hounds from hell prowling about inside your fence of sharpened stakes.”

The old woman nodded. “Aye, most folk are harmless enough; they buy from us and moan behind our backs. But there are always the odd one or two who won’t let it be at that. They are quick to blame us if their cows sicken or their butter doesn’t take. They accuse us of bewitching the udders, making them draw blood and pus instead of milk and other such nonsense.”

“Let’s serve up supper,” Rhona of the shining green eyes said. “You’ve walked far today and have the look of famished men.”

And so they ate. A banquet of milk dishes conjured up from bowls, buckets and barrels. Rhona filled their cups with ropey milk, the cream skimmed off cow’s milk left to set for three days. Next, she handed Balor a bowl of fluffy clotted curds. Their fingers touched when he took the bowl. A bright white tingle, like a tiny fork of lightning, passed between them. It filled his head and his heart and his belly with warmth as if he had drunk many ale tankards.

After this she filled their cups with whey, the pale green liquid left in the bowl after producing curds. They finished with wheels of hard cheese, the creamy white smoothness resembling the color of Rhona’s shoulders and breasts, or so Balor thought anyway. The lamplight wavered, discharging wisps of smoke to curl up into the haze clinging around the bog-pine rafters. Rhona seemed disinclined to talk much about the past. Of her late husband she said little except that he had not been a vigorous man.

“He toiled away by day and by night helping Grandma with the churning,” Rhona said, “and then he just seemed to wither away.”

Cailen clenched his hand and flexed his one sturdy arm. “Here is another that is ready for to help you with the churning, mistress Rhona. And I will not be withering away, I can vouch for that.”

Rhona smiled. “Ah, but it is hard work, the churning on this farm. Not many have the strength for it.”

Cailen looked her full in the face. “Mistress, you maybe noticed I have only the one hand left to me?”

“I noticed,” Rhona said.

“Nonetheless,” Cailen went on, “I swear by the two hands of my father and by the four hands of my grandfathers and by this one left hand of my own that I will churn for you by light of day and dream of night. There now, how does that strike you, my shiny-eyed mistress?”

Balor could see that for once Cailen had stumbled upon the right words. It was as if he had found a key and turned it in the lock. Rhona’s shiny eyes were talking to Cailen and to Cailen alone. I am yours, they were saying, I am yours, you one-armed, silver-tongued rogue.

II

When they had eaten their fill they went over to the byre where they were to spend the night in the straw alongside four lugubrious-looking cows.

“I’ll be seeing you in the morning, then,” Cailen said.

“And where is it that you think you are going?” Balor asked.

Cailen paused at the door, shaking his head slowly. “It is a bad sign for your manhood, Balor, that you should be asking such a question. The heifers grow big where there are no bulls and Rhona is your proof. You ask me where I’m going? There’s a widow woman in that house who knows her milks right enough. But anyone can see she’s crying out for the milk of human kindness that only a man can give.”

“Great Gods, man,” Balor said, “why would she be wanting anything from the likes of you?”

Cailen smiled. Not a pretty sight with his yellowed fangs and raw-boned face. But there was a kind of ugly charm to him that could be considered quite manly. In bad light. After several stiff drinks. If you were pure desperate for the company.

“Did you not see how she was looking at me?” he said. “Maybe if you weren’t one-eyed you would have noticed how those lovely green orbs were speaking to me. Ach, you could easy see there’s something between me and Rhona, just waiting for the spark to light up.”

“I won’t argue with that,” Balor said. “She is like a heap of bog-fir splinters. Any man could light that fire. No bother at all.”

“Here,” Cailen said indignantly, “don’t you go talking like that about the good widow. The man who disrespects her will answer to me.”

“And why should you care?” Dubhlach asked.

Cailen smiled a little shyly:

“Well now, we’ll just see. But don’t be surprised if I decide to stay on here. Maybe settle down. I could lend a hand with the churning.”

He winked at them and left.

Balor pointed at the door. “There he goes, a fool of a man thinking with the thing dangling between his legs.”

Dubhlach nodded. “Ach, I wouldn’t say but that you are right; and there’s nothing new under the sun about that. When it comes to the houghmagandie, every man’s brain can be found in his ballocks. And yet what the devil is it but a lot of squirming and pushing, the same as any beast in the field?”

“That’s one way of looking at it,” Balor said. “Others prefer to see it as something more than that.”

“Aye, they would,” said Dubhlach, stretching out on a makeshift pallet of straw. “It is something high and mighty, they would say, all wrapped up with the tenderness of sweethearts; and so the bards sing of it and the lads and the lassies moon over it. But when all is said and done – it’s just whopping it in, is it not?”

Balor pictured Cailen getting his leg over the widow and he had to agree with Dubhlach’s conclusion. The vision of Cailen thrusting away for all he was worth seemed hardly the stuff of bards and sentimental ballads. Nevertheless, when he lay down on the straw to sleep, he took a moment to think about the pleasure opening up to Cailen right about then. Soft and moist and velvety, she would be, like clouds of clotted milk curds.

III

It felt to Balor as if he had scarcely fallen asleep when he was abruptly shaken awake. It was Cailen.

“Eh man, is it morning?” Balor said, rubbing a hand through his hair and staring bleary-eyed around him.

“No,” said Cailen, “it’s the middle of the night yet. But you must wake up, both of you. For it is a pure desperate situation.”

“Have you finished your business with the widow already?” Dubhlach asked in between yawns.

Cailen leaned back against the wall of the byre as if he needed the support. Balor thought he looked a good ten years older than the last time they had set eyes on him.

“What happened to you in there, man?” Balor asked softly.

Cailen emitted a sound that might have been a stifled sob. “It was awful, just awful. You’ve never seen the like in all your years.”

Balor raised a hand. “Stop you, and start from the beginning, man.”

Cailen nodded and took a deep gulp of air. “Ach, I couldn’t see a thing, it was pitch black in there; and then Rhona crooned my name, leading me to her pallet. I made out that I wanted her to put a salve on my cuts like she offered before. But it turned out I didn’t need any excuses at all, at all.”

“She was willing?”

“Willing?” Cailen said with a dark and bitter laugh. “I wouldn’t say willing. Ravenous for it, more like. She dragged me under her blanket without a word. Like a fox takes a hen. You’ve never seen such a swollen appetite for houghmagandie. Just awful.”

“The good god preserve us,” Balor intoned.

“Holy hole in sacred Brighida,” Dubhlach blasphemed.

Balor gave Dubhlach a swipe across the ear without looking at him and said, “Go on, Cailen.”

Cailen groaned and tried to cover his face with his one hand.

“It was…it felt like I didn’t go into her but that she went into me. She handled me like I was a child’s raggedy doll. And then…”

he shuddered, “…the churning began.”

“The churning? churning, did you say?” Balor said, hoarsely. “Don’t spare us the details. Unburden yourself, man. Tell us everything. All the details, mind.”

“Just so,” Dubhlach said, nodding vigorously. “Don’t leave out a thing. Get it off your chest, man.”

“Aye, I will,” Cailen said. “Now where was I?”

“The churning,” Balor and Dubhlach breathlessly said as one.

“Ach aye,” Cailen resumed. “She put me into her and tossed and stirred and whipped and shook me all about. There was a good deal of jiggling too. Whatever came into her head that pleased herself. Never in all my long days of making the beast with two backs have I been used like that by a creature of the female species.”

“And tell me now,” Balor asked with just a hint of a tremor in his voice, “did she have any clothes on at all, at all, while this was going on?”

Cailen shot him a suspicious look. “And why would you be asking that? What in the world would that have to do with anything?”

“Ach, nothing, nothing at all,” Balor said lamely. “I was just after wondering, is all.”

“Well?” Dubhlach prompted, “Did she or didn’t she?”

Cailen glared at the pair of them. “Well, if you must know, and I’m seeing by the tongues hanging out of your heads that you must, she was as naked as the day she came into the world. Well, from what I could tell by the feel of her, anyhow. Massive thighs, a belly like an overstuffed, feathery pillow and great jugs for boobies with nipples the size of door handles. There, is that enough detail for you?”

They nodded dumbly.

“But see me? I couldn’t care less what it was she looked like,” Cailen said. “ She had my one arm pinned against my body the whole time. I was pure helpless to stop her using me like one of her kitchen tools. The muscles on that woman are unbelievable.”

“Of course,” Dubhlach nodded, sagely. “That would be from all the daily wielding of churn staffs and ladles and the like.”

“Aye, well, she wielded me like a staff tonight, right enough. My organ feels like it’s been mixing in the churner half the night, it’s rubbed that raw. And the worst of it is, she wouldn’t stop after she milked the seed. No. That wasn’t enough for her. She made me do it…twice.”

Balor looked aghast. “Twice? No. Never. Surely not?”

Cailen’s head bobbed up and down at agitated speed. “Aye. Twice. Two times. One time after the other.”

Balor placed a hand on Cailen’s trembling shoulder. “Man, man. You must be near destroyed by the churning.”

“Dear God,” Dubhlach cried, “What was she thinking? To torture a body like that?”

“The good god preserve us,” Balor said, looking piously upwards, “and keep us safe from women of monstrous appetites, one of those who isn’t satisfied with just the one churning but goes against nature by expecting it…”

Balor was so overcome that Dubhlach had to finish it for him – “…twice. Ach, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Where’s the humanity?”

The three of them nodded sadly.

Balor asked, “And how did you get away from her?”

“I told her I had to take a piss,” Cailen said. “And even then she was awfy loath to let me out of her sight.”

Balor nodded towards the house. “So she’s still in there, waiting for you?”

“Aye, she is. And it is a long time she’ll be waiting too. If I never see her again it will be too soon. The libidinous trollop. She should see a Druid about that. It just isn’t natural.”

“Cailen, my gallant friend,” Balor began, aware that he was about to touch on a delicate subject, “you know of course that you must go back in there? That you have to finish what you’ve begun with the widow Rhona?”

“Finish be damned,” Cailen said. “It’ll be the finish of me if I creep back under the blanket with that insatiable woman. And what is there to be finishing in any case? Has she not poked me into her twice in the one night? Is that not one time more than any woman has the right to expect? It just isn’t natural, I’m saying.”

Balor gazed upon him sternly. “Get a hold on yourself, Cailen. It is a tricky situation we are in. They might set the dogs on us. Or maybe worse. There’s something about that old grandmother crone, Banabha… something witchy that makes my skin crawl. ”

“Aye,” said Dubhlach, “and don’t forget the stockade of sharpened stakes and the gate that is guarded by the dogs. It may be they are intended to keep folk in when it is needed as well as keeping folk out.”

Cailen shook his head vehemently. “I don’t care. I’m not going back in there. It will be the death of me. One of you will have to take my place. It’s dark in there; she’ll never notice the difference.”

“Really?” Dubhlach said, “and you think she won’t notice that the man coming back to her bed has sprouted an extra arm since she last saw him?”

“Forget the extra arm,” Cailen said. “Whoever goes back into that house of never-ending houghmagandie, it will be an extra willie he’ll be needing.”

No one spoke. It was irrefutable logic. Finally Balor said, “What about the grandma Banabha? Where was she during all this?”

Cailen waved his hand dismissively. “She didn’t make a sound. The old hag slept through it all. She’s not the problem.”

“But she might be, “ Balor said, “ if she wakes in the morning and finds that you’ve upset her granddaughter. I wouldn’t like to cross her if she really is a witch, as her neighbors seem to think. Surely you can go back and let the widow have just one more churn? She’s a fine-looking lass, that Rhona, after all.”

Cailen looked Balor straight in the eye. “There is nothing you could say to make me go back in there. Nothing at all. You’ll have to do the churning yourself. I’ve done my bit.”

“Me, is it? Ach, I’d love to,” said Balor, looking faintly alarmed nonetheless. “I’m fair champing at the bit; is it not me that is itching to have a go? But of course I can’t.”

Dubhlach looked worried. “You can’t? Why can’t you?”

“Why do you think, Dubhlach, you great coof? Have you forgotten that I am married? And not just to any old wife but to Sequana who can throw a spear further than any of us can and has been known to drop a rat with a carving knife at ten paces. Do you have any idea what Sequana would do to me if she smelt the faintest whiff of unfaithfulness?”

“Aye, well, it would be something painful,” Dubhlach allowed, “If I had to guess I would say severing your bollocks. She said something along those lines when she caught that tavern wench on your knee, did she not?”

“Aye, she did. That amongst other unpleasant things.”

“ A passionate wife, you have there, Balor. And uncommonly good with spear and knife, as you say. I wouldn’t ever want to cross the good woman.”

“So you see my point then,” Balor said.

“I suppose I do, aye.”

“Which means, god help us, it’s up to you, Dubhlach. Just you get in there, man, and churn up a frenzy.”

Dubhlach looked horrified. “Me? Churning? Impossible. It’s out of the question.”

“And why would that be?” Balor wanted to know. “Are you not a man? In a manner of speaking. Using the word loosely. So then, are you not itching to commence with the churning?”

Dubhlach grimaced. “Actually, no. The truth is, you see…I’ve never been awfy keen on it.”

Balor sighed and shook his head. “Here we go. All right then, which bit, exactly, are you not keen on?”

“The bit where you have to actually do it,” Dubhlach said. “I don’t mind thinking about it. The idea of it. But when it comes to the actual houghmagandie…the beast with two backs…churning. Whatever you want to call it. I find I’m just not as interested in doing it as I should be. I’m not much of a man for the lassies. I’m used to being on my own, you see. I’ve been a goatherd for most of my life, remember.”

“Bleeding ballocks,” Cailen interjected here, “ What the feck is he trying to saying?”

“I don’t think I want to know,” said Balor. “Look Dubhlach, you’re going in there and you’re going to churn up a storm with Rhona. No excuses. You don’t have to like it, just do it.”

“Just pretend you’re with one of your goats,” Cailen suggested.

Dubhlach looked affronted, “What the devil do you mean by that? I’ll not have you bringing my goats into this, Cailen,”

“For god’s sake, let’s forget about the goats,” Balor said, “goats have nothing to do with this; goats are not the problem here. Now just you two concentrate on the matter at hand. You will go over there, Dubhlach, and copulate like you’ve never copulated before, which by the sound of it is not going to be too much of a stretch of the imagination for you. And that’s all there is to it.”

Dubhlach swallowed hard, bit his lip and left the byre.

IV

Balor and Cailen waited by the byre door for a good hour or so but all was quiet in the cottage so they went back to the straw and fell asleep. Balor awoke some time later to the sound of ragged panting. It was Dubhlach. His eyes were glazed and bulging out of his head but aside from that he seemed in fair shape given the circumstances.

“You were in there forever, man,” Balor said, giving him an approving pat on the back. “A solid session of the houghmagandie, that one. So then, how many times would it have been?”

He had to repeat the question and lightly slap Dubhlach around the face before he revived sufficiently to reply.

“Times? I can’t say for sure. It all sort of ran together in one continuous churn. I just thought about something else and let her get on with it. I think it was three times. Aye, that would be about right; around three times. It’s all a painful blur.”

“What?” Cailen said, “I don’t believe it. You couldn’t poke it in once to save your life, let alone three times.”

Dubhlach shrugged. “Whatever you say yourself, Cailen. I’m telling you I whopped it in three times and nearly killed myself into the bargain.”

“And did she notice it wasn’t Cailen who came back, what with your extra arm and all?” Balor asked.

“Didn’t seem to bother her. I couldn’t see a thing. She just dragged me onto her and then…and then…”

“The churning,” Cailen said hoarsely.

“Aye,” Dubhlach said. “I’m red raw from it.”

“So she let you leave?” Balor said.

“Aye, but I had to promise to send you in to finish.”

“What? Who? Me?”

“Aye, you, Balor, you. For who else could it be? We are running out of willies and we must finish, else what was it all for?”

“Finish? Finish what?”

“Why, the churning, of course. You ken fine well yourself we have no choice, Balor. The woman is insatiable. I’m destroyed from the churning. I wouldn’t be surprised at all at all if my wee member were to fall off right here and now. Aye, just drop to the ground and lie there like a skinned snake.”

“I think you mean worm,” Balor said. “I’ve seen the size of it.”

“She was slowing down towards the end,” Dubhlach went on, oblivious, “I think a couple more times should just about do the trick. Best of luck to you, Balor. Remember to pace yourself and you’ll do all right.”

“No, no, I can’t do it.” Balor said.

“What? Not you too?” Cailen said, “Not the goats, is it?”

“Don’t you like doing it either?” Dubhlach enquired with sympathy.

“Of course, I like it,” Balor said, angrily. “I’m a regular at it, so I am. I can’t get enough of it. There’s nothing I’d rather do…except…well, maybe eating…”

“…and drinking …” Cailen said.

“…and sleeping…” Balor added.

“…and a bit of slaughtering in a nice, juicy clan feud…” Cailen said.

“All right,” said Dubhlach, “so apart from all of that, there’s nothing you’d rather do than a spot of churning, so why can’t you go over there and get on with it?”

“Because I made a vow, a marriage vow. I must stay true. To Sequana.”

“What, because you’re afraid of her?”

“No. Because I care for her. And, yes, all right, I may be a little wary of her.”

Dubhlach said. “I can’t blame you for that, I wouldn’t want to cross Sequana what with that spear-throwing arm of hers. But we’ve done our bit, Cailen and me, and there’s no other choice. It’s up to you now.”

Balor opened his mouth to argue back but nothing convincing came to mind. He knew there would be no way out of this. He had that sick, sinking feeling, as if he’d just drawn the burnt fragment of barley bannock that marked him out for the ritual sacrifice under the Druid’s knife. Like it or not, his time had come; it was his turn to be The Dedicated One.

V

Two hours later Balor left Rhona’s house in a state of elation he had not felt in many years. The darkness had at first been unnerving, with Rhona lurking like a predator in the gloom. But then they had melted together the way a hand might perfectly fit a glove. The climax came quickly and powerfully for both of them. Afterwards they lay in each other’s arms under fur rugs, their warm breath commingling. Rhona seemed sated. All the poor wee lass had wanted, Balor reasoned, was a caring man who knew how to say the sort of things a woman longs to hear; things like “shall I stop now?” and “Have you had enough yet?” That sort of thing. Rhona soon fell into a deep sleep punctuated by her gentle snores and endearing flatulence. Balor slipped away, thinking with satisfaction that it had been a job well done.

“What? Back already?” Cailen said when Balor returned to the barn. “You’ve hardly been in there at all, at all. That’s not fair. Why should you be the one to get away with it?”

Balor patted his shoulder with just a hint of smugness. “I expect it was because I know how to please a woman. No need for second and third tries. You just have to get it right the first time around. Don’t be so hard on yourself, Cailen. Look at it this way: it’s a talent. Some of us are born to churn in and others must just get by as best they can.”

“Ach, rubbish, you got off lightly, thanks to me,” Cailen sniffed. “Most of the hard work was done before you got in there. See me? I’m a champion of the churning, so I am. Did I not leave her begging for more?”

Dubhlach nodded. “Aye, she was begging all right, Cailen, but it wasn’t for more; not from the likes of you, anyway. The way she tore into me you could tell she was glad to be rid of you. Three times, Cailen. One more than you and, I suspect, thrice Balor’s effort. And at considerable personal cost, too. She’s ruined me for life, so she has. I shall never churn again in this world.”

“Ach, that’s just as well,” Baor said, “for I doubt you’ll ever again find someone who is willing, unless maybe you meet a soul mate amongst your goat herd.”

VI
The next morning Grandma Banabha led them down to the gate with her three growling hounds of hell shadowing them all the way.

“And are you sure you wouldn’t like to stay for just one more night?” she said.

“Aye, well, it’s a tempting enough offer, there’s no doubt,” Balor said. “But, we must be getting back home for we are doubtless missed already and there will be a searching party. Now then, about the payment for the food and shelter…”

“You paid for that last night,” the old hag said.

“Aye,” said Balor, “I suppose we did. Speaking of which, would you give our fond farewells to the lovely Rhona? Tell her please that last night was… unforgettable, so it was. Is that not right, lads?”

Dubhlach and Cailen nodded warily.

“So you enjoyed yourselves then, did you?” Banabha asked.

“That we did,” Balor said.

“Glad I am to hear it,” the old bag said.

“Aye,” Balor said, “a night to remember, so it was. We would tell Rhona ourselves but she doesn’t seem to be around.”

The old woman shrugged. “Aye, well, she never stays here after dark. She has her own home nearby.”

Here, there was a moment of strained silence.

“Home?” Balor said, “But I thought this…”

“ Ach, the house is too small for the pair of us and in any case she says that my snoring and farting would keep anybody up all the long night. So she has a cozy wee cottage in the woods behind my own home where she lived with the weakling husband before he died.”

They left without another word. When the homestead was well out of sight, Cailen said, “That’s me destroyed, then. I will never again be able to do it in the dark without thinking…without thinking of…”

Balor raised a hand. “Enough. Not a word more. Let us just pretend it never happened. Although doubtless we will wake up screaming with the memory for years to come.”

They walked on for the next hour or so in silence, the three of them preferring to retreat into their hooded cloaks, deep in thought.

Finally Dubhlach said, “It is just as I told you. Ach it doesn’t much matter who we are, be it prince or peasant, comely or plain, it is all just fumbling and squirming and grunting away under the covers. For the life of me I cant see what the fuss is all about. Eh man, in truth, is it not all just a wee bit…foolish?”

The other two said nothing in reply. Balor had to admit to himself that, for someone who had been dropped on his head when a baby and then went on to spend his formative years amongst the goats, Dubhlach The Dafty occasionally came out with something resembling common sense.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING

As an adolescent I was exiled for unspecified crimes to a deeply unfashionable Australian suburb and I never really got over it. This suburb orbited metropolitan Sydney like a lightless, joyless lump of rock grimly hanging on somewhere in the outer reaches of the solar system. Just about the only reason for its grimy existence, as far as I could tell, was to serve as an artery pumping industrial traffic to and from the city. No young person in his right mind would have wanted to live there. All the sane teenagers gazed longingly north to suburbs where the salt-tanged sea breezes blew and surf culture ruled supreme. The working class, the low-paid, the new migrants, we were stuck out west, twenty miles from surf, sand and teenage popularity.

There was a nursing home in my suburb that I visited a few times with a church fellowship group. We were supposed to entertain confused old people who were pretty much past all entertainment. We would line them up on the porch that faced out on to the main road where the semi-trailers, trucks, and vans roared up and down all day; the theory was that we were magnanimously giving them something to stare at apart from walls and ceilings. I don’t know if it did them any good. Mostly they gazed open-mouthed at the cavalcade of noise and fumes thundering westwards; at the time it seemed kind of funny the way their heads moved in unison from left to right, following the traffic, like plaster clown heads in a carnival side-show, crying out for a few well-aimed rubber balls to stop up those sad, toothless maws. That sounds heartless, doesn’t it? And yet, it accurately reflects my state of mind at the time. I just couldn’t see the point of old people.

However, one old fellow drew my attention. For a start, there weren’t too many men in the nursing home, given the brisk turnover in males after a certain age. But this old guy, he had beaten the odds and here he was, reaping the rewards, ensconced within his very own cognitively impaired, wrinkly-assed harem. But the other reason he caught my eye was that he spent the entire time hugging and kissing one particular emaciated old woman. He was positively obsessed with her. Difficult to say to what degree the affection was reciprocated. She didn’t resist or appear to be distressed by his extravagant caresses but, who knows, perhaps she was merely indulging this geriatric lothario.

I did a little research with the nursing home staff and found out that the old lady was not his wife. In fact, they were both widowed; she had buried two husbands in her time, he had but recently seen off his only wife. So then, I guess you could say they were kind of recent sweethearts. How quaint, you might be thinking, but actually it had the opposite effect on me.

There was too much of the touching going on for it to be considered truly touching, if you see what I mean. The nurses seemed reasonably confident it was a mutual attraction, as far as one can tell of these things with a couple who literally did a lot of drooling over each other but not exactly in a romantic kind of a way. At sixteen, this really played with my head. I mean, what was going on here? Were they just a pair of senile, old fools mindlessly aping a romantic attachment? Without much in the way of mental engagement or even conversation, could this still be called love? Maybe love was just a fancy romanticized word for the skin-on-skin contact sought by our particular species of gregarious hairless apes? And what of the bittersweet irony should they truly be in love, having discovered each other whilst teetering over the precipice of mortality? When one of them died the survivor would lose everything that had made life almost bearable, all the hugging, kissing and God knows what else they got up to when the nurses weren’t around to prise them apart.

The thing that disturbed me most about them was the core insight they had forced upon me; here I was at the beginning of life, aching for love and romance and physical affection; and there they were at the end of it all, a road map to the final destination. A seed was sown. I learned of a thing I could never erase because you can’t unlearn a memory – I learned that love has a way of decaying with time just like everything else in this world and that it must end sadly with a parting one way or another because, of course, there is one final existential parting that we can delay for years and years but never ever deny.

Summer, 1970. In my mind I am walking again through the streets of my suburb, like a ghost. It is midday and the sun is deep-frying the shoppers; mostly they are weather-beaten, middle-aged women and old ladies with blue-rinse perms. There are no old males in my suburb. Or, if there were, I can’t remember them. I think that, as with certain species in the insect world, their female mates devour them when they can no longer take out the garbage and/or change the odd light bulb. It is important to be useful. Men who forget how to be useful soon forget how to get up in the morning and from there it is but a short transition to forgetting how to breathe. Or so men are taught to believe.

Besides the steps that lead up to the railway station there is a fruit shop. It lurks like an exotic organic trap for unwary train commuters who are drawn in by sweet, pungent smells and tropical hues; strangely, not once have I seen anyone actually come out; perhaps they disappear within its cool, shadowy recesses never to be seen again. I too am drawn to this shop almost daily but not exactly for the fruit. On closer inspection the fruits on display appear sticky with oozing juices, as does Mrs. Manoli behind the cash register. Her husband bustles around emptying boxes, arranging fruit, whistling energetically and making loud small talk interspersed with poor jokes. It is unclear whether he truly thinks he’s funny or feels it is incumbent upon every fruit shop owner to at least try to be. Either way, his repartee is awful.

When I think about Mr. and Mrs. Manoli I can smell mangoes and the sickly odor of overripe pawpaw. It is a smell I will never forget, permanently bonded with a cycle of memories. Mr. Manoli likes to handle his fruit selections personally, rearranging displays, sensuously squeezing the firm round fruit. He does the same to Mrs. Manoli whenever he passes the front counter. She squirms under his touch but this doesn’t stop his groping.

How to describe Mrs. Manoli? Her gleaming hair is always pinned back; she has what you might call a prominent nose but I prefer to describe it as Roman and aristocratic; her eyebrows kind of arch up thanks to bold and imaginative plucking, something you don’t see that often in my suburb; her languid eyes regularly reduce me to speechlessness. She would be just about perfect if not for the dark mustache but I am prepared to live with minor imperfection the way one overlooks the detached arms on the Venus de Milo. In case you haven’t guessed by now I am madly, utterly, irreversibly in love with Mrs. Manoli, hirsute upper lip and all. The fact that I am sixteen and she is, I don’t know, a woman of a certain age, let’s say, matters not.

The disparity in our ages is not the problem here. Neither is the mustache. I can live with the mustache. I have a mustache just like it, so that gives us something in common, right? The real problem is Mr. Manoli. I despise him for his sleazy sexual handling of the lovely Venus (O.k., her name really wasn’t Venus but it should have been). The terrible thing about the situation is that I’m all too aware I’m not so different from her brute of a husband; I too am full of demeaning lust for this faintly furry goddess of fruit and vegetables. The troubling nexus between sex and guilt and lust and love is off to a roaring start and it will take me years to muddle through the mess and arrive at a morality I can live with. But the real twist of the knife into my heart occurs on this very day when I walk in and catch her ardently embracing her husband. She likes him. Good God, she may even love him despite the fact he is a low-life, sleazy Neanderthal; or, could it be, because of that very fact? And so I begin to see that love isn’t sane or fair or particularly romantic or noble and that we live in a topsy-turvy world in which Beauty can be unaccountably drawn to the Beast.

Let us flee from this disturbing Venus fruit-fly trap and make our way to the graffiti-covered bus shelter outside the bank, for this is the place I wanted to bring you, reader, our destination. I fell in love in this bus shelter. I fell hard and fast. It quite took my breath away. The French call it coup de foudre, the lightning strike that is love-at first-sight. Of course, the whole notion is ridiculous; of course it is entirely physical attraction, which in itself is basically the urge to copulate with a suitable mate. But that is just your brain speaking and who listens to your brain? Certainly not your heart that is racing to some crazy jazz beat syncopation, or your hormones that are leaping to the steps of a phallic fertility dance. Shut up, brain, the rest of you choruses in unison, and just let us get on with it.

She was waiting for a number 504 bus and I prayed so hard that no such bus would come that day, just to stretch out the perfection of the moment. Dear God, grant me only this, that the 504 bus might take a wrong turn and hurtle off a cliff; and if fifty or so hysterically screaming passengers have to go over that cliff along with the bus and its driver, well, so be it. Her name was Francesca Bugini. I always remember the surname because there was an Elton John song at the time containing the lyric, “blue jean baby, L.A. lady”, which synchronized in my mind with the sound of her surname and, well, you know how it is, the urge to romanticize anything remotely connected to one’s sweetheart even when the connection is so tenuous as to be in reality virtually non-existent. Lord, what fools these mortals be. Suffice to say I was smitten.

Once more The Bomb had dropped out of a clear suburban sky, blasting me to atoms. But this was not like my childish infatuation with Venus Manoli. Of course it wasn’t. This time, it was different. This time it was Real Love. Why do you smile condescendingly, reader? How can you be so cynical? Francesca Blue Jean Baby L.A. Lady Bugini smiled at me as well, that day. She smiled whilst I gawked at her in desperate yearning; she smiled at my pathetic attempts to initiate a conversation, she smiled when I asked for her phone number and she kept right on smiling when I asked her out for a drink. Looking back on it, that girl could really smile. She had long black shiny hair. Between the hair and the smile she looked like one of those cartoon heroines out of a Disney movie.

Let us now proceed to my first date with Francesca. In my suburb when you talked about going out for a drink you meant a milk shake at Dimitri’s Milk Bar. The ambience was unparalleled in its greasy burger joint authenticity, the cuisine reliable in that one could just about guarantee to locate a strand of suspiciously pubic-like hair in one’s burger. Francesca and I sat at my usual table close to the counter serenaded by the sizzle of frying fat and occasional banging of a basket of French fries to shake off excess oil after it had emerged from the vats.

In the lull between slurping our milk shakes we entertained ourselves eavesdropping on the colourful conversation being conducted by Dimitri and his formerly lovely wife Sophia. I say formerly lovely because she had a front tooth missing and I don’t know about you but I think that missing front teeth tend to detract from overall loveliness. Mind you, Dimitri was no bed of roses either. He was one of those classic milk bar proprietors, now sadly rare in the industry, who somehow managed to combine a sort of avuncular baldness with the hairy-chested virility of a leering satyr; dirty old Uncle Dimitri; although I must say in his favor he was in possession of all his front teeth even if they were yellowed and crooked.

Dimitri and Sophia were speaking volubly and loudly in their native Greek tongue, so I had to translate for Francesca in furtive whispers, trying not to blow my cover. I had been coming to this milk bar for years and the proprietors had never suspected that the boy waiting for his burger and fries could understand every scalding, lacerating insult they lobbed back and forth like a game of derogatory tennis played with verbal grenades.

‘What’s she saying?” Francesca eagerly asked me.

“Well,” I said, “It’s a bit…kind of personal.”

Francesca rolled her enormous Disney animation eyes. “I know. That’s why I’m dying to hear it. What’s she saying?”

“She’s telling him he’s not a real man, he’s a…a whore who runs after his friends every night and does whatever they ask him to do whenever they ring up to go drinking or gambling…”

“Oh my God, “ Francesca gasped, “Dimitri is a homosexual prostitute.”

“No, I don’t think so,” I said hastily, “I think the whore bit was a metaphor. And, I mean, look at him, he’s not exactly the homosexual prostitute type, is he?”

“I see your point,” Francesca said, “now what’s she saying?”

“…I’m afraid I can’t quite follow…her accent’s hard to understand,” I said, blushing at the unrelenting tirade of obscene filth spewing out of the sewerage pipe mouth of the formerly lovely Sophia. That woman could certainly swear. Perhaps she had served a spell with the merchant marines or maybe a decade or so as a bartender in the rougher parts of the Piraeus district.

“I think it must have been one of those arranged marriages,” I said, sadly, “I suppose it’s hard to recapture that first fine careless rapture when you’re flipping burgers twelve hours a day.”

Francesca Blue Jean Baby L.A. Lady Bugini and I went on to enjoy a serious, long-term relationship that lasted eight weeks, after which she dumped me. I’m not sure what Francesca was thinking about over those eight glorious weeks but I spent much of the time wringing my hands, staring out of the window whilst listening to Leonard Cohen’s first album and asking myself questions about the nature of love. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know how to nurture it; I didn’t know what you’re supposed to do with it once you had it. As a consequence I became moody and taciturn and generally tiresome to be around if you happened to be an adolescent female who uncannily resembled Snow White out of the Disney movie.

Francesca couldn’t understand the problem. Her idea was that we should keep things simple, show each other off to our circle of friends, indulge in impossibly prolonged sexual foreplay up to but never exceeding the point at which my testicles turned blue (always a warning sign) and let the big existential questions answer themselves in the fullness of time. In retrospect of course Francesca was absolutely right. I must have had rocks in my adolescent head. I blame Leonard Cohen. I was never the same after listening to that first self-absorbed, maudlin album.

Breaking up with Francesca Blue Jean Baby L.A. Lady Bugini proved to be devastating for me. Francesca, however, seemed to positively bloom at the end of the relationship. Somehow, by the act of rejecting a brooding neurotic like me she managed to imbue herself with new vigor and confidence. Kind of like those mate-devouring insect species, I guess. She was growing as a person and moving on in life, leaving me to wallow in self-pity and Leonard Cohen. The power of love had manifested itself and I was on the painful receiving end of the power nexus. And it really, really hurt.

Ten more years or so were to pass before it occurred to me that the attachment we call love varies from person to person as does its intensity and durability, that there never has been or ever will be a one-size definition that fits all of us. It’s a bit like our personalized perception of reality – in the same way that the observer affects every observation, so too is every experience of love uniquely interpreted by the individuals giving or receiving that love.

Maybe we are all looking at this emotional phenomenon way too analytically. Maybe when we look too closely this whole love thing melts away in our mouths like pretty, sweet cotton candy. Maybe love can’t be dissected forensically. Maybe when we wield the scalpel of the intellect we’re using the wrong instrument entirely. Some emotions don’t bear close examination; feelings are rarely rational. In which case, where does that leave us then? Right back where we started, of course. In a bus shelter praying that the 504 bus never ever comes to interrupt this sweetest of moments.

Nearly twenty years later I met Francesca Bugini again. She was walking out of McDonald’s looking harassed and clutching the hands of two whining children; I was walking into McDonald’s looking equally harassed and clutching the hands of two other whining children. I’d put on a few kilos and lost a lot of hair; she looked heavy-limbed and her beautiful long black hair had wound up on some hair salon floor. We stared at each for a moment but neither of us stopped to speak, what with the whining children and all. But I’m sure it was her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EASTER REDUX

“Can we go to the Easter Show, Daddy?”

No one says that to me anymore. And no one will ever again. Which is kind of sad. You know, I never thought I’d miss it. There was a time in my life when I looked forward with relish to the day when the whole Easter Show shenanigans would be consigned to the garbage can of family history along with weekend sport at the crack of dawn, endless rounds of kids’ birthday parties and the transporting of sundry offspring to a mind-boggling array of after-school activities. And then, quite suddenly, or so it seems now in rheumy-eyed retrospect, the whole merry-go-round came to an abrupt halt and everybody rushed off to find more challenging entertainments.

The Easter Show is a family rite of passage for every Sydney parent and child. It comprises of an agricultural show, an amusement park and a fair. For two weeks the farmers come to Sydney and those two ancient antagonists, country and city, pretend to get along and even sort of quite like each other on the strict proviso that the traditional antipathy will resume after the fortnight. Essentially it’s a showcase for the agricultural industry to promote its products and an opportunity for city kids to pat a cow. Behind all the backslapping and bonhomie lies the usual human obsession with comparing and competing. Preened and cosseted pedigree livestock parade the arena for the ultimate accolade of a First Place at the Show; abnormally curvaceous pumpkins are pitted against each other in the vegetable equivalent of the Miss Universe beauty pageant and members of the Country Women’s Association go head to head in no-holds-barred contests in cake baking. It’s all very serious and gladiatorial; a whole lot of metaphorical and not-so-metaphorical blood, sweat and tears are shed over the awarding of certificates and prize ribbons.

But of course the Easter Show is not merely dedicated to the proposition that my organic heritage cucumber is longer and more voluptuous than yours. Around this unwholesome competition in wholesome foods has grown a children’s paradise of amusement rides, sideshow alley stands and sample Show bags full of junk that kids don’t need and can’t afford to buy unless they happen to be Richie Rich. A giant pavilion is dedicated to these Show bag stands; its wide, welcoming doors are conveniently located down the boulevard of broken dreams where a tidal wave of determined kids dragging their unhappy parents behind them are flooding in whilst doughty bands of determined parents dragging their unhappy kids behind them are staging a desperate bid to get out.

Anyway, what I thought we might do today, you and I, is take the kids to the Easter Show one more time. Just for old time’s sake. Not in real life, of course – I mean, good God, who does anything in real life anymore? – but just as a sort of virtual trip in our minds, all from the comfort of our various digital devices and wherever we happen to be on the planet or (let’s be optimistically inclusive) the surrounding galaxies. So then, let’s get a move on, shall we? Don’t forget your virtual coat and, maybe, a virtual hat. Sydney autumns definitely seem to be getting cooler. Virtually speaking.

We herd our brood into the car and set off for the Sydney Show Ground. The children are full of joie de vivre; only they don’t know it as they are not as effortlessly au fait with fancy French expressions as their pretentious parents. Pretty soon the energy level in the back seat is bordering on hysterical and we have to pull over when the youngest member of the party has to urgently empty his bladder due to all the excitement. This will be the prevailing theme of the day: toilets. Where to find them? Are they in hygienic condition? Do we have to queue? And what is it with children’s bladders, anyway? Why can’t they store up the urine for a couple of hours like the rest of us? Before this day is done it will begin to seem as if a decent public toilet for our borderline incontinent kids is all we have ever wanted out of life.

O.k. so now the traffic is getting heavier. This will trigger the usual argument we have every single time we go to the Easter Show. Why didn’t we use public transport? What on Earth is wrong with us? Why did we jump into the car and inflict gridlock hell on ourselves just as we did the previous year and the one before that? Pretty soon it is bumper to bumper and all the cars around us are filled with grim-looking adults chauffeuring children all of whom are caroming off car ceilings, bouncing against car windows and beating each other dementedly with soft toys. This is what happens when parents insist on entombing children in a tin shell for more than an hour at a time – sweet little angels metamorphose into gremlins whose superpower is attention deficit disorder.

An hour later we abandon the car with a mixture of defiance and desperation beside a no parking sign two kilometeres away from the Show Ground and begin The Long March to the entrance. By the time we walk through the turnstiles the children are looking sweaty and exhausted; and, truth to tell, we don’t look much better. The first exhibit we feel like visiting is the first aid tent to seek treatment for dehydration. Damn, it’s hot. Unseasonably hot for a Sydney autumn. I know exactly what you’re thinking: why were you stupid enough to listen to me when I suggested you bring that damned virtual coat and matching virtual hat, currently hanging off your arm like an albatross? Hmm, good question. You’ll thank me in the unlikely event the temperature drops precipitously over the next couple of hours.

Miraculously, the sights and smells of the Show seem to revive the children. Adults are in the minority here and this bestows upon the kids a kind of empowerment. Swept along by the prepubescent zeitgeist our timid objections are swiftly overturned and a junk food orgy ensues. They gorge on scary-looking hot dogs, clouds of violent pink fairy floss, greasy French fries and the sort of soft-serve ice cream that looks as if it is made with non-dairy ingredients whipped up in a petrochemical plant. It all tastes pretty good though, according to the kids, and taste is what it’s all about in an amusement park, right?

And then they want to try the rides. Not just any rides, of course. They want to go on the most stomach-turning, gravity-defying death capsule ever to screech upside down on rickety rails. Our youngest, a sweet little fellow barely out of diapers, stages a tantrum when we refuse to let him ride on some macabre contraption going by the name of Buried Alive that purports to be a motion simulator which simulates, logically enough, being buried alive. This is what passes for fun these days. If their lives aren’t under serious threat the kids feel like demanding their money back.

O.k. things are getting out of control here. The time has come to assert parental authority. We explain to our progeny that we are disinclined to pay for the privilege of watching them throw up in a vehicle hurtling hither and thither in the stratosphere. This seems to surprise them. We firmly lead the them to a traditional merry-go-round with appealing horses that go up and down whilst the children hold on to candy striped poles. How lovely they look. How lovely we look looking lovingly on at how lovely they look. It is, needless to say (but I will anyway), an idyllically lovely tableau. Let us take a mental snapshot for our virtual family album and entitle it “What We Did On Our Holidays.”

A few minutes later the attendant stops the merry-go-round because one of the fruits of our loins has thrown up over the appealing horse and candy stripe pole. In fact, he is still throwing up as we lead him off the merry-go-round. Such a lot of vomit. And colourful, too. Quite mesmerising. Not to be outdone, our other child is turning what nowadays would be described as a Shrek shade of green and is clutching his stomach. Oops. Look out. Here it comes, another river of technicolor vomit to match if not exceed the best efforts of his older brother. Oh well, better out than in. They both look at us accusingly. Their eyes are saying, “Why did you let us eat all that appalling food? And why did you make us go round and round in nauseating circles on that murderous merry-go-round? Aren’t you supposed to be responsible adults? What are you trying to do, kill us?” It is a low moment in parent-child relations.

Desperately casting about for a distraction we take them to the show bag pavilion. It is a gaudy temple to juvenile consumerism. There are literally hundreds of bags for sale in here but one and only one is going to be acclaimed by Sydney’s children as the must-have show bag of the year. This will be due to some plastic toy that would be totally overlooked by an adult. It could be a pair of ninja turtle handcuffs or a headband with wiggly extra-terrestrial ears or a cap with luminous antenna attached. It is impossible to tell. These decisions are made in the mass subconscious of our children. But it is certain that if our children do not purchase the right show bag there will be no turning back. This is a once a year deal. Get it wrong and we will have to live with our mistake for, I don’t know, maybe the rest of our pointless, blighted lives. Yep, that’s how high the stakes are here. We will have to put up with our child’s inconsolable grief because he is the only child in Class Three Blue who does not own a pair of Easter Show hot pink neon sunglasses that glow in the dark. No wonder all the adults in the show bag pavilion look so tense.

No Show experience is complete without a visit to the animal exhibits. This is where we get to stroll amongst the country visitors chewing on a strand of straw and passing knowledgeable comments on the prize bulls. The scrotal size of these beasts has to be seen to be believed. We’re talking cannonball dimensions. God knows how they manage to reproduce without doing themselves or some hapless female of their species an injury. The children are a little shocked. They may require counselling. A prize bull’s ballocks are a far cry from the gentle reproduction cycles of the birds and the bees in the picture books we have at home. Best to move the children along to the milking cows before the awkward questions get out of hand. Inevitably, it is the prodigious peeing and crapping that catches the children’s eye. They are fascinated at the casual voiding of bovine bowels and the resultant great, steaming piles of turds. Due to our brutal and repressive toilet training techniques it hasn’t occurred to them up till now that al fresco bowel movements are, like, an option. This changes everything, particularly for the youngest. It will take us weeks to break him of the newfound habit of taking a dump in the garden and peeing insouciantly over the flowerbeds.

And now, all too soon for the children and not too soon enough for us, it is time to leave the Show and make the reverse Long March back to our car, always supposing it will not have been towed away by the authorities in the meantime. And as we battle through the traffic snarl of homeward-bound families the usual curious phenomenon begins; already we find ourselves busily snipping out the bad bits, discreetly dropping them on the cutting-room floor until all that is left is a neatly edited highlight memories package of another wonderful family visit to the Sydney Easter Show. Thank you for taking this virtual trip with me. Let’s do it again some time. How about next Easter? Same virtual time, same virtual place. Perhaps it might be a good idea not to bring the virtual coat and hat next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I WAS A 97-POUND WEAKLING

To tell the truth, back in my pimple-encrusted adolescence I was more like an 87-pound weakling. Maybe less. Which was doubly humiliating because according to my childhood mentor, legendary American body builder Charles Atlas, it was generally recognised that the industry standard for weaklings should be set at 97-pounds. In the weakling department, therefore, I was in a class of my own.

I first encountered the legendary Charles Atlas, self-styled “world’s most perfectly developed body” some time in the mid-nineteen sixties. At the time he was a fixture on the back pages of the British comics I used to read regularly. He would grin back at me from grainy photographs featuring a backdrop of some exotic beachside locale. The backdrops always made a big impression. We lived in Glasgow at the time and pictures of sand and surf tended to inspire an almost religious awe.

This was shrewd marketing on Charles’ part. The Charles Atlas ads tapped intravenously into the very heart of my generation’s aspirations. He understood us better than we understood ourselves. We craved sunshine. We dreamed about palm-fronded beaches. We were pale, skinny, spotty-faced sun-worshippers condemned to endure a sunless existence. As a consequence our bodies had failed to emerge from the maggoty larvae stage and malingered shamefully at the 97-pound point of our life cycle. Or 87-pounds, in my particular case.

Charles’ advertisements deftly summed up everything I wanted to be, everything I manifestly wasn’t. The ads featured the classic cartoon illustration of a skinny, bespectacled youth suffering the ultimate humiliation – yes, the old sand kicked in the face routine. Hovering over the weedy kid with the concave chest was the archetypal muscle-bound bully taunting me – did I say me? I meant of course him, the bespectacled weakling – with a maddening sneer. Completing the tableau there would of course be a bevy of bikini-clad females looking on piteously and thereby making my – that is, the weakling’s – humiliation complete.

And then, the killer punch line: a photograph of an avuncular Charles Atlas hovered above the cartoon asking the very questions that tormented my soul by day and by night:

“Tired of having sand kicked in your face?”

Tick.

“Ashamed of being an insult to manhood?”

“Sick of being Soft, Frail, Skinny or Flabby?”

Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Of course, in reality no one had ever actually kicked sand in my face; I don’t think I’d even seen any sand at that point in my life; but I just instinctively knew that if the opportunity to attend a beach ever presented itself in the future, sure enough, some muscle-bound jerk would promptly materialize before my face and kick sand into it.

Boy, that Charles Atlas, he really knew how to get to the heart of the matter. It was as if he had read my tortured, angst-ridden adolescent mind. And, in a way, he had. For Charles had been there, too, down amongst the myopic, emaciated losers, or so he revealed in his bracingly frank tell-all advertising copy. He himself had once been a “pathetic 97-pound runt”, a “skinny failure” and – oh the bile and bitter humiliation – a “wallflower”. Hey Charles Atlas, I would have said to him – had he by some miracle of teleportation materialized in the living room of our dingy Glasgow tenement – don’t be so damned hard on yourself.

So you see, he had felt my pain. We had a connection. Which was a bit of a miracle when you think about it. I mean, there was the age difference for a start. Judging from the photo, Charles looked to be around forty albeit a vigorous and virile sort of forty. I, on the other hand, was thirteen years old and by no stretch of the imagination could I have been considered a vigorous and virile thirteen. Myopia, laziness and a phobia of contact sports had conspired to deprive me of any glory on the sporting fields or indeed anywhere else. So then, definitely not a good thirteen. In fact, to be ruthlessly accurate, you would have to say I was like a thirteen year old trapped inside the body of a feeble eleven year old. The babushka doll of weaklings.

Then of course there was the issue of the Charles Atlas underwear. I believe the accurate name for them would be briefs. They were short; they were tight; occasionally they were leopard skin. Charles was inordinately fond of the briefs, insisting on wearing them to the exclusion of any other form of clothing. This was fine on the beach, obviously, but Charles seemed set on making a dress code out of a fabric scrap scarcely larger than his groin circumference. With a body like that, he could have cut a swathe through Madison Avenue in a grey flannel three piece suit, but no, Charles would have none of it. It was to be the briefs or nothing (I believe he did a stint of nude art class modelling in his youth). I will confess that the briefs caused me to have my doubts about Charles early on in our association. My main objection was to the flaunting of the privates, the tool kit, the family jewels, (insert own euphemism). The Charles Atlas briefs accommodated a prominent bulge that looked very much as if he might be concealing an oversized banana about his person. Disporting himself in his underpants in the back pages of comics, well, it was all a little racy for my puritan tastes of the time.

There was also the peculiar case of the unnatural skin. On the black and white page, Charles’ skin was possessed of a strange sheen; it appeared to glow eerily as if exhibiting the after-effects of some form of radioactive exposure. It just didn’t look right. One day I realised that the condition Charles had contracted was what the rest of humanity outside of Scotland called a ‘suntan’. In my defence, the thirteen-year old Glaswegian version of me had seen little of that particular dermatological condition. A suntan as in, like, from the rays of the sun? Good God, who knew such things were possible?

Despite our glaring differences vis-a-vis groin flaunting and radioactive skin, Charles Atlas had stumbled upon a central image that crossed the barriers of age, dress and geography. Every adolescent in the country understood skinny, underdeveloped bodies. A whole generation of moderately undernourished British kids reared on fish suppers, egg and chips, potato crisps and sweets could look at that cartoon and identify with the gaunt little wimp in the National Health spectacles staring forlornly into the mirror. Charles even helpfully provided a checklist of body parts so that we could tick those areas requiring the most emphasis. Did we want a) broader chest and shoulders, b) iron-hard stomach muscles, c) tireless legs, d) more energy and stamina e) more magnetic personality.

It was a case of ticking every box and sending off my money order to 10 Chitty Street, London W1. Over the course of the next twelve months I received thirteen Charles Atlas Health And Strength lessons, every one of which I treated with reverence, as if it had been a tablet of Mosaic law handed down from on high.

The essence of the Charles Atlas program revolved around what Charles was wont to call “the secrets of dynamic tension”, a technique that allegedly came to him out of the blue whilst observing a leopard stretching itself at the local zoo. Personally I don’t believe a word of it. Sounds like advertising copy hooey to me. But at the time, to a thirteen year old, it all made perfect sense. Every superhero must have his moment of epiphany, the turning point after which nothing in his life will ever be the same again. If Charles had been a comic character he would have called himself The Leopard or maybe Claw or Cat-man and there would be much leaping from tall buildings clad in leopard skin briefs with maybe the face-saving addition of a pair of lycra tights and a cloak, for decency’s sake.

Charles’ “secret” comprised of pitting one muscle against the other as well as variations of push ups and sit ups. Basically, then, a set of exercises that could be done on the cheap without expensive equipment and in the comfort of one’s own tenement slum. As such, it had much to recommend it to the average Glaswegian runt. Of course, there were teething problems. I wonder whether Charles anticipated the horror with which Scottish youth would have greeted his instruction to strip down to underpants in order to perform the exercises. We just didn’t do that sort of thing all that often, particularly in the depths of a Scottish winter. I imagine Charles worked out in a sunlit bungalow where an individual might go for years without sighting a beard of frost attached to a membrum virile (once again, insert your own euphemism), and where thermal long johns were largely unknown outside the circles of Florida retirees of a certain age. I wrote to Charles at length on this matter citing the risk of frostbite and pneumonia to dangerously under-dressed Scottish adolescents but no reply was forthcoming. I took this to be a sign from the guru to his acolyte that I should stop whining, man the hell up and learn to love my y-front briefs.

As the lessons arrived, roughly on a monthly basis, a pattern emerged, a profile of Charles Atlas and the values he held dear. He took a strong stand on drugs. The use of tea especially seemed to enrage him. Charles never mentioned cocaine or pill popping, but he did warn us repeatedly against the evils of tea. Who knows, perhaps this goes some way to explaining why there are so many coke-snorting, amphetimine-fueled, fitness fanatics around who wouldn’t be caught dead drinking tea. I struggled with the tea issue. I imagine most of Charles’ British students did the same. Coming off a lifetime habit was never going to be easy. And yet Charles would not budge on this, once more not deigning to reply to my frantic letters on the subject. His only suggestion in the lessons was to replace the morning tea ritual with a glass of hot orange cordial. And so, thanks to Charles Atlas, I learned that there are few beverages more unspeakable than hot orange cordial. I still gag a little when I think about the taste.

On the other hand, Charles was hugely enthusiastic about milk, perhaps recklessly so. We were expected to drink a glass of the stuff each hour of each day for a week; but wait, there’s more; the following week we had to increase this to a glass of the wretched cow juice every three quarters of an hour every day for a week; but wait, there’s still more; during the third week we were instructed to up the ante to a glass of milk every half an hour of every day for the week. Just to sum up, then, drink four hundred and eighty glasses or so of milk over three weeks. Presumably the diet ends here because most of the students have to seek hospitalisation. And God help the lactose intolerance brigade, for I suspect Charles would have slapped the snivelling wretches down with a stern admonition to man the hell up.

When Charles wasn’t busy trying to hook his students onto an intravenous milk drip he would wax lyrical on another of his passions – the application of a wondrous liquid guaranteed to cure a comprehensive list of the world’s ills. We speak here of olive oil. Olive oil, Charles? What, you mean, like the salad dressing? I never quite understood this peculiar obsession until I recently discovered that the real name of the man I knew as Charles Atlas was actually Angelo Siciliano. Now it all makes sense. Who else but an Italian olive fanatic would seriously encourage young people to drink a glass of olive oil every day, rub copious quantities into the hair to stimulate the scalp and even inject it into the rectum before an enema (outlined rather messily in Lesson Three).

But I think my faith in Charles was most seriously undermined by his attitude to women. Even an 87-pound runt could see that my milk-guzzling, oil-smearing mentor was a tad out of step with the Swinging Sixties raging around us. He subscribed to a morality just left of the early church fathers from Saint Augustine onwards in that he did at least draw just short of blaming women for all carnal temptation. That is, I think he did. I can say with certainty that he was a great believer in cold baths in the morning, hard beds and early rising, all of which were designed, one gathers, to prevent us from succumbing to the demeaning temptation of self-pleasuring. I can also say with equal certainty that none of these measures worked. At thirteen, self-pleasuring was high on my agenda and, indeed, I would have had no hesitation in giving it priority in any list of the seven habits of highly effective teens, such was my dedication at the time.

At no stage in the thirteen lessons did Charles mention women directly but one was left with the unmistakable impression that the female of the species represented a distraction from the real centre of attraction in the world according to Charles Atlas – one’s own endlessly fascinating physique. Like all body-builders Charles must have been self-absorbed to an extraordinary degree in order to achieve such physical development. That, after all, is the name of the game. Little wonder, then, that his lesson program espoused a way of life leaving no room for any other obsessions. In his private life, I later learned, Charles was happily married and devoted to his wife. I just wonder how he found the time in between the exercising and drinking all that milk.

Charles Atlas drifted out of my life in the late 1960s when I began to realise that his Spartan regimen belonged to a different era than my own. Possibly it was the olive oil enemas. Or maybe the prudish allusions to the sins of the flesh and that vile devil’s brew lurking in a teapot. The briefs didn’t help either; definitely not what they were wearing in San Francisco during the Summer Of Love, 1967. In fact, Charles was even more out of step with the zeitgeist than I knew. Those grainy advertisement photos of a beaming forty-year-old man were deceptive. Angelo Siciliano was born in 1893 and would have been in his seventies when I subscribed to his health and strength program. So then, he wasn’t even a father figure. More like a grandfather, actually. He died in 1972 at the age of seventy-nine, not that old for such a relentlessly healthy exercise enthusiast. I still have all the lessons. Now that I live in Australia I go to the beach a lot and I can testify with every confidence that the Charles Atlas health and strength program absolutely works – over the last forty years or so not a single muscle-bound bully has kicked sand in my face or attempted to humiliate me in front of anyone clad in a bikini.

HOW TO HAVE A BABY.

(The following information has been compiled specifically for the first-time father. It is a kind of idiot’s guide for dummies. It is not appropriate reading for first-time mothers. Should a first-time mother accidentally come into contact with the contents, immediately get her to fresh air, open doors and windows wide and apply cold wet towels to the face until the sobbing subsides.)

 

First of all, let me say that I know exactly what you’re thinking. It’s the same thing every first-time father has secretly thought since time immemorial – all this birth malarkey; all this fuss and bother about having babies; it’s a tad overdone, is it not? I mean, for goodness sake, how hard can it actually be? After all, our species has been doing it for the best part of one hundred thousand years. What is the big deal? Simply read the appropriate instructions, follow the guidelines and hey presto, there you have it – one baby, express delivered, just sign right here on the dotted line. Right?

Try very hard not to say the above sort of things in front of your heavily pregnant partner. It is in fact the kind of reckless crazy talk that could get you killed. You really have no idea, do you? Clearly, you have much to learn and little time in which to learn it; the nine months have just flown by (well, for you anyway) and now here we are preparing to initiate launch sequence. Only, it’s not going to be that simple. There are no buttons to push, co-ordinates to calibrate or computer screens to consult before this eagle has landed. Mostly, it will be seat of the pants flying, relying on gut instinct and reflexes. Forget the baby books, the antenatal classes, the heart-warming film depictions. By the time you’ve finished reading this article you will know all that it is necessary for you to know about delivering babies.

Your first problem will be to establish when the mother is in labour. Studies indicate that a large proportion of your time in first stage labour will be taken up with the following questions – is she or isn’t she? When do I take her to hospital? How far apart and how long are her contractions? Do I have time to order pizza?

O.k., let’s start with the pizza. Best not to mention it in front of the mother in labour, particularly during the onset of labour pains. Yes, I do realize you are ravenous after skipping lunch just to be here for her. Trust me, she’s not going to understand. Get used to it. Nobody cares how hungry you are. In fact nobody cares about you that much at all. You are not the lead character in this performance. You are not even the understudy. You are merely the father. Apart from the generous donation of a teaspoon of seminal fluid some months ago, your contribution to this event is basically minimal.

Of course, you will be expected to drive her to the maternity hospital at some point. So go easy on the alcohol. Yes, I know you’re agitated and could use a couple of drinks but, believe me, suggesting that your partner might agree to be the designated driver on this particular occasion (the birth) is not one of your better ideas. As for the onset of labour and the right time to proceed to hospital, there are no hard and fast rules. First stage labour in some cases can be tricky to measure or even detect. I see that surprises you. You’re obviously a sensitive new age kind of a guy; one who is attuned to the nuances of your partner’s every mood. I mean, if she’s moaning and/or screaming her tonsils out then chances are she’s in labour. Right?

Wrong. Moaning and screaming turn out to be unreliable indicators of early stage labour. For a start, not everybody does it. Some women are simply not as demonstrative as others in the moaning/screaming department. As a general rule of thumb, if your partner is a moaner/screamer during the moments of heightened passion that precipitated the pregnancy then chances are she will bring this winning attribute to her labour and you will know exactly how she’s feeling. For the rest of you who are dealing with the strong, silent birthing types – go ahead and order pizza. This is likely to be a long day and there is no sense in going hungry.

O.k., now here’s a red-hot tip – the experienced father knows that there is one, and only one answer to all the myriad questions regarding the onset of labour.  That solitary answer is that there is no answer. Without wishing to sound critical, I must say that both baby and mother often behave uncooperatively, displaying scant concern for the collateral impact on the male partner. The baby will be delivered from the mother’s body when the two of them damn well feel like it and no amount of massaging, regulation of breathing, cajoling or pleading will alter this, no matter how fatigued and eager for pizza sustenance the expectant father happens to be.

Eventually, at a certain point in the proceedings it becomes obvious to even the most casual of observers that the mother’s labour is transitioning to the next stage. You will be alerted to this primarily by the banshee-like wails of raw, blistering agony emanating from your partner. Her eyes may roll back in an alarming manner; she may froth at the mouth and twist her neck and torso into convoluted, unnatural positions. It will cross your mind that what she needs right at that moment is not so much an obstetrician or midwife but more along the lines of a Vatican-appointed exorcist. Try not to get upset. Chin up. Our species have been reproducing like this for over one hundred thousand years remember. Have a slice of pizza.

At this juncture it might profit us to consult the checklist:

Are her contractions rolling in with increasing frequency and gut-wrenching ferocity? Tick.

Have her waters ruptured? Tick.

Finished your pizza? Tick.

O.k. Houston, I believe we have lift-off.  If you haven’t yet taken your partner to hospital, then this might be a good time to do so. To be honest, you’re a little behind schedule and will need to get a move on if you wish to avoid an unassisted birth occurring in your vehicle on the side of the road during peak hour traffic. Another red-hot, insider’s tip: avoid delivering the baby on your own if you can help it. These back-seat deliveries are never as heart-warming and uncomplicated as they sound. For instance, you would more than likely be required to cut off the newborn’s umbilical cord with your teeth, amongst other biological hazards. Yuck.

Let us assume that you make it to the hospital. Let us also assume, hypothetically, that despite all the stress and panic, you avoided leaving the birthing mother behind back at the house (happens all the time, you’d be surprised). The midwives will probably take her into the delivery room. We now come to the tricky part of the whole procedure. Brace yourself. Things are about to get totally crazy.The correct protocol in the delivery room is as follows –

1) Speak only when spoken to. Respond to commands instantly e.g. fetching glasses of water, applying wet cloth to the feverish brow (hers, you fool, not yours). No doubt you have been eagerly poised to coach the mother’s breathing utilizing the panting techniques you rehearsed together at ante-natal classes. For the love of God, do not attempt this. You have to understand – that is not a rational human being lying spread-eagled on the delivery bed. Your partner is going to be distracted, in considerable pain and may act as if she has something else on her mind at that precise moment other than listening to your foolish prattling about breathing. She may seem peevish and out of sorts; she might even say something along the lines of  “Don’t tell me how to breathe, you motherfu##er, I’ve been doing it all my life without needing any help.”

2) Do not be offended by some of the shocking insults and salty sea language that may pour from your partner at the height of each contraction. Much of her vitriol will be aimed at you because logically enough she holds you responsible for her current condition and this has caused the marked decline in your popularity. She might even appear to loathe you. Try not to take this personally. It may console you to know that it is not really you she hates with a passion but the part of you that is responsible for her condition and, arguably, most of the world’s problems – your testosterone-charged reproductive organ. So, be reassured that she still loves you the rest of you, just not your penis.

3) Attempt to deflect her rage and frustration. This is optimally achieved if you had the forethought to engage a male obstetrician to oversee the birth. As soon as he makes his entrance your outraged shout of “where the hell have you been?” will focus your partner’s resentment on a substitute male target. No matter what time the obstetrician saunters in he will be considered criminally late by the mother in labour, so you are on safe ground here. Sure, it’s tough on the obstetrician but what’s the point of paying him astronomical fees if you can’t insult his professional competence and make veiled threats about medical negligence? Let the obscenely rich bastard sweat a little.

4) Cry. The nurses will feel sorry for you and may even assist by loosening your partner’s demented grip from around your neck. For some reason labour pains make mothers want to wrap their arms around the nearest male and squeeze the life out of him, much like an Amazonian anaconda. At some time during second stage labour you might notice another curious phenomenon in your partner’s behavior. At the height of every contraction she may seek emotional release by taking a swing at someone. Unfortunately for you, this tends to be the father as the midwives are far too experienced to walk into a series of southpaw jabs followed by a vicious right uppercut as the birth reaches its climax. All you can do is keep your guard up and resist the urge to retaliate. Once again, do not be offended. Try to imagine it is not you personally that your partner is punching with ruthless accuracy but every man in general. If possible, attempt to interpose the obstetrician between yourself and your partner’s devastating right hook.

5) It is absolutely vital that you heap lavish praise upon your partner immediately after the baby is born. Your first instinct, of course, will be to say something along the lines of “Thank God that’s over, when are you coming home?” or “Wow, I don’t know about you but I’m starving. Let’s order pizza. Shall I get family-sized?”

Don’t do this. Your thoughtless comments born, understandably, out of stress and a healthy appetite, will nevertheless be trotted out regularly by your partner in the years to come and used in evidence against you whenever the subject of your appalling insensitivity happens to arise (which, trust me, it will, with monotonous regularity). Remember, this is an important historical occasion. Could you imagine Neil Armstrong announcing to a hushed world – “That’s one small step for a man, Thank God that’s over. Who’s for pizza?”

See what I mean?

Finally, some parting advice. Naturally enough, the sympathy and attention in the delivery room is going to be focused on the person doing all the screaming and shouting i.e. the mother giving birth. So try to keep your own screaming and shouting down to a manageable level. No one cares about your anguish in a maternity ward. If they did, it would be called a paternity ward, wouldn’t it? The question is, what do our partners want from us? The answer is, they simply want us to suffer right alongside them, to feel just a fraction of the agony inflicted upon the birthing mother. Someone (undoubtedly a female) once suggested that every father should be strapped down next to the mother in labour and, at the height of every one of her contractions, a nurse wielding tweezers should extract clumps of his pubic hair with short, sharp tugs. My own theory is that what every mother subconsciously wants is an apology; a sincere, heartfelt apology from the father for his physiological inability to share the pain and bear his part of the biological burden. So go ahead and apologize; say sorry and say it often.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE WEAKEST LINK

“My rosary has broken, my beads have all slipped through.”

(‘Sixty Years On’ Elton John/Bernie Taupin)

When I was seventeen I fell in with the wrong crowd. Former boy scouts, Inter-School Christian Fellowship types, Sunday school teachers. I blush to think of it. What can I say? Seventeen is an impressionable age. It’s hard to believe now, observing the suave, mature and confident fellow that you see before you today, but at the time I was lonely and unloved.  As a result I guess I kind of lost my amoral compass.

This is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky – either you are ‘in’ with the rebellious In Crowd where all the sex and fun is happening or you are at real risk of being drawn into the gravitational pull of the pimple-encrusted, essentially unlovable Out Crowd. So it had come to this. Without considering the consequences of my actions I sought friends wherever I could find them; church fellowships mostly, the sort of low dives in which you could find yourself hanging out with preternaturally polite adolescents who stood every chance of getting on well with your parents. Now that unquestionably has to be a bad sign, right?

It wasn’t easy associating with these relentlessly decent and disturbingly well-groomed youths. For a start, there was the very real problem of wild, hedonistic sex. The problem being of course  – we weren’t getting any. The closest we got was ogling girls in their best Sunday dresses whilst feigning interest in bible studies at Church Fellowship. Let me tell you, the repressed sexuality accumulating in such a concentration of bright-eyed and bushy-groined young Christians was positively explosive and I mean that in a thermo-nuclear sort of way. A whole lot of drooling going on and lascivious glances, not to mention lolling tongues hanging out of gaping maws – and that was just the girls. It was a minor miracle the Fellowship meetings didn’t end up in a rutting frenzy, such was the intensity of lust in our sinful hearts.

I think this explains why it was we took to the Great Outdoors. We were simply seeking a release for all that pent-up, testosterone- charged frustration. The former boy scouts led the way in this and I found myself swept along with the rest of the clean-cut kids, albeit with some trepidation. It was to be a three-day hike into a national park, a test of physical and spiritual endurance in which we would carry our own food and tents; hair shirts and flogging flails were optional. The ostensible idea, I believe, was to sweat the immorality out of our sinful skins and return from the wilderness cleansed of loathsome thoughts, particularly the ones about Christian Fellowship girls in various stages of undress.

O.k., time for a confession – this may surprise you, but I’ve never been the outdoorsy type; cliffs, caves and forests are strictly off the activities schedule due to my fear of heights, enclosed spaces and getting my clothes dirty. On one occasion during a family walk through a national park, I even experienced what I believed to be an attack of agoraphobia that resulted in heightened anxiety and irrational mood swings, although my family claimed they couldn’t tell the difference. Now then, I’m telling you all this, not so you will snigger and make mockery of me (so just cut it out right now), but in order that you might better understand how hard it was for a self-confessed wimp and feckless shirker to join a gang of monk-like misfits on a weekend hike that could best be described as what hell would be like if it had scenic hills.

Which brings us to the abseiling. I hadn’t realized until late in the piece that there was going to be abseiling. And when I did pick up on this casually mentioned fact I had no idea what abseiling really was. The other guys helpfully organized a practice session on the nearest dangerous cliff. Basically, the equipment comprised of a rope and a friction hitch that allowed the rope to be gradually paid out as one descended, swinging hither and thither whilst laughing gaily like a swashbuckling Errol Flynn in one of those old pirate movies. Well, that was the theory anyway. Even though it was all carefully explained to me, I was having a lot of trouble with the concept. In fact, I had to ask for the whole idea to be repeated over and over, such was my incredulity. Surely there was some mistake? Who in their right minds would undertake such a thing? One was actually expected to turn one’s back to a cliff and blindly walk off it, clutching nothing more substantial than a length of rope lashed around a hopefully sturdy tree. This, whilst every instinct one possesses is screaming out that walking backwards over a cliff is a really bad idea under most circumstances.

The secret of abseiling, I discovered, is to think counter-intuitively. You must focus on that part of the rope which is wrapped around your back and gradually paying out through the friction hitch, rather than the main section of rope which is before your eyes comfortingly attached to a tree somewhere above you. The mind has a curious way of playing tricks, however, making you want to clutch with hysterical intensity onto the wrong bit of rope, that is, the length lashed around something solid like a tree rather than the friction hitch rope which is doing all the real work. Of course if you were to surrender to panic and ditch the friction hitch in favor of hanging on for dear life to the main rope, well, I guess that would be just about the most idiotic and life-threatening course of action a novice could come up with. And so, inevitably, that is exactly what I did.

My dilemma caused quite a stir amongst our expeditionary party. One of the ex- Boy Scouts – let’s just call him Our Glorious Leader to protect his identity and pre-empt any libel suits – seemed to take it as a personal affront to his professional competence.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he shouted.

Well, it was obvious wasn’t it? I was dangling by a smidgeon of rope halfway down a cliff without a safety harness. I tried to reply in a calm voice tempered with just the right hint of urgency given the situation at hand; but all that came out was “Shit, Shit, Shit.”

Then I abruptly stopped shouting “Shit, Shit, Shit,” because I recalled that this, according to statistics, is the last word uttered by most people before they die in accidents. It’s true; just read the transcripts of black box flight recorders capturing the jolly banter of pilots as their planes go down; it’s all “Shit, Shit, Shit’, trust me.

Meanwhile, back to my own aerial disaster, Our Glorious Leader assumed command, as he was born to do. He began by offering reassuring advice.

“Whatever you do, don’t let go of the rope. Just hang on.”

Hang on. Of course. Why didn’t I think of that? Excellent.

As they scrambled about organizing a rescuer to drop down beside me I willed myself to stay positive even though I was one faltering handgrip away from doom. I remember that the most positive thing I could think of as I looked down was that even if I somehow managed to miraculously escape death from such a fall, I would be left with so many broken bones my life would hardly be worth living. That, in a nutshell, represented the positive thought. I became so paralyzed with terror from the positive thought that I never got around to considering the negative thought and went back to shouting “Shit, Shit, Shit.”

Our Glorious Leader abseiled down until he was alongside of me. I clung to him like a baby. I may even have whimpered a little. I dare say you would have too, reader. Be not quick to judge. We were dangling in mid-air off a cliff, for heaven’s sake. Glorious Leader was having none of this emotional claptrap. He sternly told me to pull myself together.

“Look at me,” he said.

I looked at him.

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” he said. “Do you know what I’m saying?”

I knew what he was saying.

“Now, you say it.”

Clearly, I was dealing with an autocratic madman. I said what he wanted me to say. I would have said anything at that particular moment if it meant getting off the cliff-face in one piece.

Glorious Leader winched us down to terra firma in an annoyingly swift and efficient fashion. After drying my tears and regaining control of my trembling lower lip not to mention my bowels, I requested that I should be excused from the abseiling part of our upcoming expedition.

Glorious Leader shook his head with infinite sadness. Then he frowned ferociously at me and called me a Goddamn hairy fairy. I was letting the side down. I didn’t care. I was never going to walk backwards off a cliff ever again, even if that did make me the weakest link in some megalomaniac’s chain.

A week later we were in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, staring down into a steep canyon at the bottom of which flowed a shallow creek. There was excited chatter amongst the guys. I stood a little apart, unable to partake in their manly camaraderie because of my decision not to abseil unless my life depended on it; and even then it would need to be a catastrophe – say, hunted by Nazis in the Alps alongside the Von Trapp family for crimes against Austrian folk music; that sort of thing. Our Glorious Leader made it clear that as far as he was concerned I had incurred a dishonorable discharge due to dereliction of duty. We had not been getting on very well over the past week mainly due to his propensity to address me as Hairy Fairy at every opportunity. I admit my flowing locks were rather fey and whimsical at the time, especially compared to his neatly trimmed heritage haircut from the 1940s or thereabouts. Putting two and two together he’d come up with this feckless, hippie image of me that was all the more galling for the fact that it struck even me as being a perfectly reasonable and accurate assessment.

As the lemmings marched compliantly backwards over the edge into the canyon far below, the Hairy Fairy contingent (me) took the long way down by a bush trail that ended up at the canyon floor where the others would wait for me. After half and hour or so of walking alone in the bush the mind begins to play tricks on you. Or at any rate, my mind does. And remember, this is the Australian bush we are talking about. Out here, nature can turn against you in the blink of an eye. People get lost and die of thirst or exposure, dingoes snatch babies, everything is either poisonous or rips you to shreds, there are packs of killer koalas, kick-boxing marsupials and all sorts of indigenous flora and fauna itching to take a shot at you. Don’t take my word for it; there is an entire Australian cultural tradition in book, paintings and film dealing with the visceral fear aroused by this collision between a hostile landscape and the incursions of colonial intruders.

All of which represents my limp excuse for how I managed to get lost on a clearly sign-posted main track into a popular national park. Some people just have the knack, I guess. I tried retracing my steps but succeeded only in getting even more hopelessly disoriented. Somewhere along the way, I conjectured, I must have taken a detour track without realizing it. Or, to put it another way, I was hopelessly lost. Do not panic, I reminded myself. A cool head would be required to get out of this one.

After throwing myself to the ground and shouting “Please God, I don’t want to die,” and sobbing for a good while, I recovered sufficiently to make an inventory of my supplies. I had brought enough cans of spam and baked beans to last me a week. By that time, I reassured myself, I could surely expect to be rescued, always supposing I had not been speared by hostile natives or torn limb from limb by predators. Meanwhile I needed shelter. Fortunately I had a one-man tent that I resolved to set up before it grew dark. Easier said than done. After wrestling unsuccessfully with various pegs and poles and bits of nylon cord I concluded that the singular disadvantage of this particular one-man tent was that it required two men to put it up. I certainly couldn’t manage to get the job done on my own. Surely this was a design flaw? Why in God’s name anyone would manufacture a one-man tent requiring more than one man to erect it was beyond me. Kind of defeated the purpose, one would think.

I comforted myself with the fact that things couldn’t get much worse. At least the weather conditions appeared clear. I opened a tin of baked beans and ate it cold straight out of the can. The sun disappeared. Clouds rolled in. It began to rain. Things had just gotten much worse. I hurriedly slung a rope between two trees and hung the tent canvas over it; then I stretched the cloth out and weighed it down with a few rocks. I sat inside the makeshift shelter feeling quietly pleased with my improvisation until the rain grew heavy and gradually the canvas slipped out from under the rocks, bringing the two sides of the cloth closer and closer until they were almost touching my body. I responded by curling into fetal position, partly due to the tiny space left to me, but mostly out of extreme psychological trauma. I tried telling myself that this time things really couldn’t get much worse. It was around about then that Our Glorious Leader poked his deeply unattractive, rain-soaked head into my shelter.

“What the hell do you think you’re playing at?” he snarled. “We’ve been waiting for you for hours.”

It was a classic double bind situation – relieved to be rescued whilst loathing the rescuer. This was not doing my extreme psychological trauma much good.

I explained about missing the main path and becoming lost on this detour track. He in turn explained that there was no detour track and this was in fact the main path all along. I felt slightly foolish.

“And what in God’s name is this supposed to be?” he said, casting a dubious eye over my crude abode.

I told him this was what you get when a one-man tent requires two men to set it up.

“This is not a tent,” he said, “ A tent has pegs and poles. What you have here is a washing line with a canvas cloth thrown over it. You really are an idiot.”

It is amazing how idiotic you can be made to feel when someone looks you in the eye and pronounces you an idiot.

“Now for heaven’s sake, pull yourself together. You’re jeopardizing the trip for everybody. Remember what I said? What are you?”

“An idiot?”

“No. Well, yes. Obviously. But you are also The Weakest Link. And did I not tell you a chain is only as strong as its weakest link?”

It was at this point that I developed the nervous tic that was to dog me for the next couple of decades whenever the words ‘weakest’ and ‘link’ happened to coincide in a sentence.

Of the next two days of rain and mud and toiling through bush tracks, I shall draw a merciful veil, not wishing to relive what was in essence a death march led by a petty tyrant who delighted in haranguing me every chance he got. Finally, on the afternoon of the third day we reached our last obstacle, a precipitous climb up the rocky track that would take us back to the top of the valley. Civilization. One last Herculean effort requiring every ounce of my stamina and I would be free at last. Our Glorious Leader set a brisk pace I had no hope of matching and soon the members of our expedition disappeared one by one from view far above me. It was getting late in the day and the only thing that kept me going was the fear of being alone on this steep ascent in the pitch blackness of night.

But every man has his limits and it wasn’t long before I collapsed on the path, exhausted. I had no idea how much further I had to go at that point. All I knew for certain was that I had expended every last ounce of energy and my legs were refusing to take even one more step. My rucksack was cutting into my shoulders and felt like it weighed a ton. I had been jettisoning cans of spam and baked beans along the trail but to no avail. I even tossed out that damned useless one-man tent. Dehydration was a looming problem and I tried to conserve my limited water. My relations with the rest of the party had so deteriorated over the last three days I had no faith any of them would come back for me. I began to think some sort of alpine rescue involving a helicopter and winches might be neccessary. Had I thought to bring emergency flares I would have set them off long ago. All I could do was hold on until help arrived. And now I must confess that I began to cry, feeling tremendous pity for myself, and wondering whether I would see another dawn.

And there I would have remained until nightfall I suspect, if a couple of small children hadn’t skipped up the track followed by their parents. They were day-trippers carrying a picnic basket and a blanket, enjoying an afternoon bushwalk. The children stopped and stared at me curiously for a moment before trotting past. Their parents nodded pleasantly, and one of them even went as far as to say, “lovely afternoon for a walk.”

I was flabbergasted. It was as if Scott of the Antarctic had written his last words with frostbitten fingers – “For God’s sake, look after our people,” – and just then some fellow walking his dog had popped into the hut to say, “Perfect skiing weather out here.”

As I watched this nauseatingly cheerful family striding up the winding pathway it occurred to me that my situation might not have been quite as desperate as I had assumed. Specifically, it couldn’t have been too much further if a couple of prepubescent kids were trotting up to the top without pause for a breath, or a self-pitying weep for that matter. And if they could do it, probably lots of others were doing it too. So then, you might say that I was succumbing to the elements and lying down to die in a popular picnic spot. I began to feel just a little bit silly. And, miraculously, my legs no longer felt quite so exhausted, the rucksack seemed to grow lighter and I managed to make it to the top without recourse to further sobbing or mild hysteria.

Our Glorious Leader was waiting for me.

“Where the hell have you been?” he said. “Thanks to you we’re going to miss our train home. What did I tell you? – a chain is only as strong as…”

And that is when I hit him, I’m afraid. Well, tried to him, actually; he ducked, I missed and we both ended up on the ground. A couple of the others dragged us apart whilst we were both doing our very best to murder one another by strangulation. I’m not a violent person by nature, but something kind of snapped in my head. The chain broke, I guess. Yes, that was it. The weakest link snapped and the chain flew apart.

There were consequences. Word got around at the Fellowship meetings and I was subsequently ostracized from the Out Crowd. Best thing that ever happened to me. I wandered in the social wilderness for a time, but soon I came across other friendless exiles and we gradually coalesced into a new tribe, the chief characteristic of which was social awkwardness. We self-deprecatingly referred to ourselves as the Pseudo-Intellectuals. Where previously we would pretend to read bible extracts and religious tracts, now we pretended to read Nietzsche, Kant and Sartre. And, incredibly, it worked. Turned out that certain females are actually drawn to weedy, needy pseudo-intellectuals for reasons that don’t make a whole lot of evolutionary sense from the hunter-gatherer perspective, but what the hell.  As for Our Glorious Leader, he later attended military college and rose rapidly up the ranks in the army for a number of years until his reputation became sullied in an enquiry into bullying of cadets and he retired early (no, really; true story). As for me, to this day, dear reader, I can’t look in a mirror without seeing The Weakest Link staring mournfully right back at me. I don’t mind. We’ve become accustomed to each other, grown old bones together, and I might even go as far as to say that I’m quite fond of the lugubrious loser.