Many years ago now I went away for a couple of weeks, perhaps to Fiji, and left my then flat in the care of a friend of friends. This fellow, whom I hardly knew, was himself about to head off for Amsterdam and needed a place to stay until his flight left. Well and good. But when I returned ... actually, I didn't see the full extent of the disaster, because someone else had generously come in and done the bulk of the cleaning up before me. R had been in the habit of eating while sitting at my desk, then throwing the crusts and other food scraps into the top left hand drawer which had, naturally, been colonized by cockroaches. The bathroom was filthy, the toilet unflushed. The kitchen ... no dishes had been done for days on end, so the cockroaches were enthusiastically sporting in there as well. He'd somehow managed to leave an element burning on the stove. It was no surprise to learn that he had also read through my diaries - they were left lying open on the desk top. And he'd taken, by mistake, my black pointy toed suede Beatle boots with him, leaving his own pair behind. This was the one ray of sunshine ... mine were a touch small for me, but his fitted perfectly. Couple of weeks later, I had a letter from Amsterdam, regretting the loss of his boots and asking me to forward them to him. I never replied, why would I? But one passage from early in that letter has stuck in my mind. I probably owe you some explanation for the state in which I left your flat, he wrote. Now, about my boots ... increasingly this seems to be indicative of my own mental state, as well as the state of the world at large. We owe an explanation, to somebody, for something; but all we really want is our boots back.
PS I was singing the Nancy Sinatra song in the hearing of my sons the other day, when one of them, the younger, said: That doesn't make sense, Dad. What else would boots be for? Kicking? I offered. He thought about it. Yeah, maybe, he said.
For weeks now all I have done is re-read my own work, looking for errors, infelicities, omissions. Not big picture mistakes, those are irredeemable now, however distressing the contemplation of them might be. After a while even the halfway decent sentences blur into a fog of prepositions, adverbs, copulas and the like. I become aware of words I perhaps over use; like perhaps. There are odd discoveries. Coruscating, which for years I have thought of as a synonym for corrosive, as in coruscating doubt, turns out to mean something completely different: to give forth flashes of light; sparkle and glitter. Well, I was pleased to find that out. But most revision is unedifying, as if those flashes of light were tamped to darkness by some grim implement held in a dead hand. The end of the process is not a perfect text but one abandoned to its fate out of exhaustion. And the impulse to write seems at the same time to fade or diminish, to become lost in the welter of the already written. Even my dreams have gone awry: night after night I am troubled by a recurrence of one I have had for years now, in which I must move, against my will but without any other choice, into a decayed and leaky mansion inhabited by ghosts of people I hoped never to see again. (This is clearly the House of my Work.) It's like the rot has leached into my very soul. As melodramatic as that. Today, walking back after my yearly visit to the doctor for a check-up, I found myself planning how to employ myself over the next fifteen years ... fifteen years! I who never used to think more than a week or so ahead. Anyway, now I can take a break for a few days, hop across to New Zealand, and come back to, more or less, a clean slate. Of course, perverse as I am, the thought of the lack of a defined agenda of work is almost as enervating as what I have just been doing. Almost. But there is an image that has been floating before my mind, that might be the beginning of something. It is of a man washed up unconscious on a beach, barely alive, who once he is rescued is found to have no speech, no identity, not even a name. This being Australia, he will be called, what else, an asylum seeker. But is he? Or is he something else entirely? Perhaps, that word again, he is from the Andromeda galaxy, our near neighbour, only 2 million light years away. Perhaps he is from the past. Or the future. These are the kinds of things you think about in a doctor's waiting room in Ashfield, surrounded by the multicultural poor with their infinity of ailments and their histories that span the globe and seem both timeless and irretrievably time-locked; with their obdurate patience and their unquenchable, hopeless hope. The doc said there's nothing I can do about the wear and tear but that with a proper regime of daily maintenance, I should be able to keep this up ... for a while. Long enough perhaps to find out who that stranger may be.
pic: another view of Andromeda.