Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Sideways Glance

This is a story about a young woman named Emma.

Emma was beautiful person with a gentle and flowing presence. She had a quietness about her, a stillness that some mistook for confidence. But Emma was far from confident: she was a shy person who had learned to love her own company.

One day Emma had an idea that both thrilled and terrified her: she would have lunch in the staff cafeteria. With great hesitation she made her way downstairs and joined the stream of people heading towards their midday meal.

The noise and bustle of the cafeteria was a swirling phantasmagoria. Emma took a slow breath and joined the queue of tray carrying diners. She paid for her meal and found a table where she could watch as the crowd of people flowed around her. She was in the flow, but she was not part of it.

And then Billy walked in. Billy was a scruffy individual. Emma couldn’t decide if his clothes were unfashionable or too fashionable, and his hair was desperately in need of a comb. He seemed unaware of these things; comfortable with himself; okay with his place in the world. Emma smiled; and something moved within her heart.

The next day Emma hurried to the cafeteria. Excitement at the prospect of seeing Billy replaced the trepidation she had felt the day before. He was unique; she knew this; she knew that he was like her in this way at least. But when Billy arrived he looked different: his clothes were neat, his hair was combed, and he had a slightly self-conscious air about him. Emma didn’t know that Billy had seen her the day before: his new look was for her.

Emma went to the cafeteria every day. She harboured the quiet hope that she would once again see the Billy of that first day. Instead she saw a Billy who was slowly becoming more vacuous, more self-obsessed. He had gym muscles and clothes that showed them off. Billy seemed to be making the transition from unselfconscious, to extremely self-conscious. And then, as if he were taking some kind of drug, he became aloof.

Oh, if only Emma had known that these changes were for her benefit, she would have pushed aside her own disquiet and approached Billy without delay. But she didn’t know, couldn’t know. And so Emma watched as the old Billy was annihilated, and a new, more generic Billy emerged.

Emma remembers the day Billy asked her if she would have lunch with him. The request seemed to come out of nowhere, as if it were some sudden whim of Billy’s. Emma was tempted to ask Billy why he had changed so much, but she was too shy to say anything, except that she wouldn’t. Billy made the same request the next day which struck Emma as arrogant, and she was more emphatic this time. She refused him and let him know there was no hope in her direction.

Emma didn’t see Billy for some time after that. He disappeared from the cafeteria and Emma desperately hoped that she hadn’t been too hard on him. She was mortified by the idea that she had hurt him and longed to set things straight.

It was some time before Billy remerged. Emma could see that he’d changed. He was scruffy and dishevelled. But there was a gravity about him: he seemed to have made peace with himself. Emma smiled when she saw him; and something moved within her heart. She waved at him as he entered the room, hoping to make amends, hoping to get to know him as he really was.

But Billy walked right past her.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


The first time I saw Emma she was sitting at a table in the middle of the staff cafeteria. She was an eddy-current in a stream of mindless human activity. She was herself, and I was in love.

Emma was graceful and calm; stylish and elegant; carefree and sunny. She was perfect. To look at Emma was to see my own flaws, my own short-comings, in stark relief. I was suddenly and painfully aware of my own lack of style and grace. I was flawed and inadequate.

That night I went home and stuffed all but my best clothes into old boxes. My wardrobe was empty except for a two pairs of pants and three long-sleeved shirts.

Emma made me want to be a better person. I would see her almost every day, and every day I longed for her – to be a person she could love. I longed for her calm – longed to be at peace with myself.

The city library had an extensive section on meditation. I borrowed every book and practiced for an hour a day. I joined a gym and went six days a week. Other gym members would laugh at my intensity. “There’s no rush,” they would tell me. But there was.

For a year my life became very small, revolving around the gym and meditation classes. The occasional glimpse of Emma was all it took to keep my world turning.

My efforts started to pay off. My mind became expansive and focused, and I looked and felt much better than I had. But I began to realise what most people already know: I would never be perfect.

With this in mind I decided to talk to Emma.

I got up early and meditated for an hour, dressed slowly, and made my way to work. That morning’s work was a blur, and lunchtime arrived in a flash.

Emma was standing in the lunch queue when I arrived at the cafeteria. My ears were buzzing as I walked towards her. She looked uncomfortable as I approached, and when I asked her if she would go out with me she said that she wouldn’t.

I had spent too much time thinking about this to give up so easily, so I tried again the next day. This time Emma was more forceful, more emphatic. As she spoke my world began to crumble.

That night I sat on my bed and thought about Emma. I thought about how she’d shrunk away as I approached her. I thought about all I’d done to make her want me. I thought about what was left of my life and it didn’t seem like a lot. I sat there without blinking, my body numb, and a coldness forming in my heart.

I didn’t go to the gym after that and I gave up on meditation too. I would fall asleep in my clothes and go to work without changing. I seldom showered and the closest I got to cleaning my teeth was gargling gin. I didn’t shave. I lived on pizza and beer. I kept away from the staff cafeteria.

Time passed without measure, until one day I found myself doing something I hadn’t done for a long time: I was looking in the bathroom mirror. There was something different about me, a kind of gravity and seriousness that suited me. I wasn’t graceful or elegant, but I was something else: I was broken and still standing.

That day I decided to have lunch in the staff cafeteria. My hair was a mess, I was unshaven, and I’d slept in my clothes again.

Then something unexpected happened: Emma had seen me as I walked into the room, and as I moved near her, she smiled at me and waved. I was tempted to walk up to her and say hello.

But I didn’t.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Rosetta Stone

We were people with a purpose, Carly and me. It was as if we shared a common language; an arcane tongue learnt from the walls of our souls. Our early conversations were a revelation: she was my Rosetta Stone and I hers.

Through Carly I began to understand, to see, life’s possibilities: a future far greater than I had ever dreamed. We talked of greatness, of the burning desire to be the best; the intangible feeling that we could achieve whatever we set our minds to. And we talked of the struggle; wasted effort; paths that led nowhere; failing to find our place in the world. Grief became our secret mark of honour.

We would wake early and run beneath the predawn sky. Our spirits seemed to mingle together and soar amongst those clouds from heaven.

This closeness made our first argument feel so much fiercer than perhaps it was. But we both fought to win: win at any cost. We each used knowledge of the other as a weapon, and were both deeply wounded as a result.

After a few days, when things had cooled down, we met at a café and made peace. I think we were both secretly pleased that our argument had been epic; had been great. But we made a vow never to argue again, which, looking back now was a mistake.

We became too careful with each other. We didn’t speak of dreams, or passions. We never talked of greatness or the burning desire to be the best. We talked about cornflakes and TV shows, celebrities and toothpaste. We got comfortable. We stopped running and started to put on weight.

This transition, this descent, happened slowly, so slowly that neither of us realised what was happening. Then one night, as we sat watching TV, I caught a glimpse of the reddening sky through a picture window. Something in me stirred. I told Carly I was going for a run, got changed, and headed out the door. Birds were settling their day’s last disputes and the sky was luminous. As I ran, fresh cool air filled my lungs: I felt alive.

I returned home exhausted but elated. Carly was on the couch in her pyjamas, eating chocolate from a half empty box. She didn’t look up when I entered the room.

We argued.

As we argued life began to flow through us. We argued for hours, blaming each other for what we had become. I called Carly a name and she slapped me across the face. I tasted blood, and it was good.

Carly was shocked by what she’d done, but I told her it was the right thing to do.

And we talked.

We talked through the night, remembering our passion for life and for each other. And, as dawn lifted night’s veil from the earth, we whispered a solemn oath: that we would never again forget ourselves; and we would always make time to argue.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Plan

The tension in Mark’s back spread upwards. Tension crept into his shoulders; his neck; his jaw; and the corner of his left eye. Mark tightened his grip on the steering wheel and frowned: gridlock.

It had been a tough day: finished things had been undone, and unfinished things had become more complicated. It was a day in which tense people forgot their manners and tension spread throughout the office.

Mark relived every troubling moment of the day while he drove. By the time he got home he was exhausted and tired. He unlocked the front door and headed straight to bed.

As he entered the bedroom he caught a glimpse of his own care-worn face in a full-length mirror.

“This is your fault,” he whispered.

And then anger gripped him: tension and weariness were evaporated by the fierce fire that rose within him.

“This is your fault.” A shout this time, flecks of spittle flying.

Mild mannered Mark became a god of fury.

“You’re a joke; a has-been. You’re nothing.”

For the next hour Mark raged at his own reflection. Strong language; derision; mocking and hurtful words: Mark was a river in flood.

Many hateful things were said that night as Mark recounted all the times he’d let himself down. He told himself that he was ugly and useless and a failure.

“The world would be better off…” but he didn’t finish the sentence. Instead he shrugged his shoulders, and sat down.

He sat with his head on his knees, thinking about his life; about his plans; about the things he’d hoped would happen that hadn’t: and the things he never dreamed would happen that had.

Outside, night fell, and a cricket began to chirp.

Slowly Mark raised his head. He could see his sad reflection in the bottom of the full-length mirror.

“Truce?” he whispered.

He got up and walked over to a cupboard that stood in the corner. He opened the door and pulled out an old exercise book that had the words ‘The Plan’ written in big bold letters across the front. Mark remembered the young man he had been; the young man with the big ideas: the big plan.

He sat down and began leafing through the book. Every now and then he would tear out a page, crumple it up and throw it over his right shoulder. Then he took a pen and began to write. He wrote for several hours before collapsing into bed, tired but happy.

Mark slept well.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


James’s mother corners me the moment I enter the room.

“James is in New York,” she says.

Apparently she thinks that no further introduction is required; nothing need be said to bridge the decade long gap since I had last seen James, or his mother.

James had been a thin, slightly anxious child. He was very different from the other, more rambunctious, boys his age. Consequently, James found it hard to make friends, which is where his mother stepped in.

James’s mother thought he should associate with popular kids. She would ring there mothers and arrange for James to go to their houses after school.

This didn’t go down well with the popular kids. Their frustration at James’s mother was probably the reason James copped such a tough dare: walk through the school’s swimming pool, fully clothed.

It was a sunny day in the middle of summer and a gentle breeze was playing music in the tree tops. James slowly lowered himself into the waist-high pool and stood on tip-toes by the edge. A group of onlookers sat nearby calling for James to get on with it. He began to walk, but soon realised that his shorts were in the water, and the water wasn’t getting any shallower. He stopped walking, clearly trying to decide whether he should continue, or return to dry land and forfeit the dare.

James forfeited the dare.

The rules of forfeit dictated that he must tell the group the name of the girl he loved. James squirmed for nearly quarter of an hour before divulging that he loved Fiona, the sun bronzed Australian-Diplomat’s daughter with the sparkling white smile. I think we all loved Fiona, we were just too young to realise it. So we teased James, running around chanting “James and Fiona up a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”

That night, James’s mother phoned all the popular kids’ mothers: James was not to be teased.

There was a fair amount of grumbling in the playground the next day, but no one dared tease James: everyone was afraid of the repercussions when they got home.

“James is in New York,” James’s mother repeats.

James’s mother’s is an anxious woman; I hadn’t realised that when we were kids. There is an unnerving desperation, a deep sadness around her.

I reach out and touch her arm.

“I’m very sorry,” I say. I pause a moment before leaving the room.

It’s a warm sunny day in the middle of summer and a gentle breeze is playing music in the tree tops.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


This was a gentle evening in late spring. The sun was sinking over a friendly sea; the world was a slowly turning kaleidoscope; the world was a once hot fire slowly cooling; and there was peace.

We sit on the deck, watching as the spectacle played out before us, pondering the beauty of life, and the inevitability of endings.

We talk of childhood, conjuring up images of days long past: unending holidays in the sun; exploring, free from the prying eyes of parents; the joy of a river fast and wide; a fishing rod that couldn’t catch fish. We remember a brighter world, an enamelled world, that shone with adventure and possibility; a world where magic existed, if you knew where to look.

Later, as night wraps her inky cloak around us, we talk of lost dreams; of painful metamorphosis; of childhoods end.

We talk of teenage rebellion; long hair that mimics the rock stars we will one day be; our desperate struggle against mediocrity; our stoic belief in magic.

We were cooler though, I say, cooler than rock stars. We were young and the flame of youth was still upon us.

The moon is a lantern in a hermit’s hand.

We talk of becoming adults; hair cut short; nine to five; the lure of money; responsibilities; the tearing, cutting nature of life.

Despite the dark, I know your eyes are sad.

You say “As enamel chips away, cold cast-iron is revealed”

And we are silent.

The sea plays her soft music and a meteor flashes across an untouchable sky.

We are smaller now, I say, but we still _are_, brother.

And, as we head to our beds, there is still hope in the world. And, despite the dark, there is still a flame upon us.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Track

The track leads through the darkness of a winter’s night; up the side of a step hill; past noble trees; up-and-up into the emptiness of no trees; along a treacherous ridge; and finally – out of breath and exhausted – the track leads to the place where earth and æther coalesce.

Ancient light shines through the aching corridors of space. To me the unsure twinkling of snow-crystal stars is more solid than the burning city lights I left behind. Lying beneath that vast emptiness – all those light years of darkness – brings me comfort.

For millennia mankind has been casting questions into the inky well of space. Some questions become satellites; they drop out of orbit and land in the deepest part of the ocean. Other questions have broken free and are winging their way to distant galaxies: who knows if they will return answered?

My question is old.

I know it is old.

But still I ask.


My question bursts out of my chest and flies through the darkness with meteoric speed. My question is a gentle creature riding a fiery dragon. My question breaks through the stratosphere and disappears from sight.

I feel lighter as I stand to leave. I wrap my coat around me; set my feet upon the track, but before I leave, I turn my face to the sky and whisper:

“Good night.”

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Quad

Dave and I were standing in the lunch queue chatting, when Dave suddenly went quiet and started making sideways nodding movements with his head that I took to mean, “Look over there.”

I looked in the direction his head was pointing, but couldn’t see anything in particular; so I looked back at Dave and his eyes were wide, asking me a question I didn’t understand; so I pursed my lips and gave a barely visible, Soap-Opera like, shake of my head, trying to let him know that I didn’t know what he was on about.

“That’s her,” he hissed.

I tried on my best quizzical look, which seemed to work because Dave responded with, “You know, the one I was telling you about.”

To be honest, Dave had been going on about some girl for weeks. He’d first seen her walking across the Quad at interval, and I think he’d skipped a few classes to wait down the Quad “just in the hope” as he called it.

Dave had started head gesturing again, so I had a good look around, and this time I saw her.

“Oh,” I said.

“Oh?” Dave fixed me with a stare that said “If you know anything about her, tell me now.”

“Yeah well, I asked her out is all.”


“Yes,” I replied.

“Well, what did she say?”

Dave was starting to fidget like an ADHD kid on raspberry cordial. I don’t think he noticed that my cheeks were glowing red, or that my hands were getting sweaty. I looked down at my feet, trying to hide my face, and pushed my hands deep into my pockets. I remember there was some moss growing between the paving stones, and a flattened white drinking-straw near my right foot.

“Well?” Dave repeated: almost a demand this time.

“She said she had a boyfriend,” I mumbled. And then I said “I just remembered I need to be somewhere.”

Dave didn’t want to let it go.

“Perhaps she just told you that because she didn’t like you?” Clearly my feelings were not Dave’s top priority.

“Thanks mate,” I said and started to turn away. I’d forgotten about lunch and just wanted to be on my own.

“Tell me about it later then. I’ve got to get her to go out with me.” Dave sounded exasperated.

She was looking at me as I started to walk away.

Her eyes were sad. She gave me that smile that’s not really a smile, where you press your lips together and look the other person right in the eye.

In my mind the lunchtime Quad was silent: just her and me. And there was an ache in my chest, and tension between my eyebrows.

And in that moment, I knew I wasn’t a kid anymore; I felt older; I felt pain; I felt alive.

I walked on.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

A Fist Full of Fingers

Every Friday afternoon, at four o’clock on the dot, someone would plonk a frosty bottle on Shane’s desk, smile at him and say, “Beer o’clock mate,” as if they’d just invented the expression.

Shane would twist his lips into a smile, give a thin, watery, “Thank-you” and turn back to his work.

At five o’clock on the dot, Shane would drop the unopened bottle into his rubbish bin, and head home.

Shane always watched the same movie, a Western, he knew it by heart.

An unforgiving sun bakes a barren landscape and highlights every line, every contour, of the face of a man with no name.

The camera holds this unflinching face, the hero’s face, far longer than is polite. The face is strong and stoic, brave and uncompromising. It is the face of a man who has no doubts and no rules. It is the face of a man not afraid of who he is.

At the end of the movie Shane finds he is still holding the remote, his thumb still on the play button. He looks down at his arm, his hand, and is reminded that he is not a man with no name: he is Shane.

Every Friday night Shane dreams the same dream: a lens-flare world; a wind blown street; a faceless crowd; a gun fighter; an empty holster. There will be a shot. He will fall to the ground. Rattling spurs will come towards him; and the Man with No Name will be standing over him.

One Friday afternoon, at four o’clock on the dot, Shane swivelled his chair at precisely the same moment as a beer was landing on his desk.

“Not tonight thank-you,” said Shane with force.

“But it’s beer o’clock.”

Shane narrowed his eyes and turned back to his work.

At five o’clock on the dot, Shane headed home. He watched the same movie, had the same realisation and went to bed expecting the same dream.

But that night the dream was different. The hot wind felt the same, and his holster was as empty as ever. The same jangling spurs were coming towards him as he fell to the ground. But as he looked up he didn’t see the Man with No Name: he saw himself.

Shane woke-up happy.

Friday, July 30, 2010


Emma wanted to be a cool breeze on a hot day. She wanted to be happy and free: but she wasn’t.

Life was much heavier than Emma had hoped, much more sticky and spider-webby than she had once thought; life was beginning to wear on her.

Every morning Emma would go to _La Petite Café_ to think. She would order a coffee, and write in her diary. She wrote slowly, occasionally gazing out the window, trying to find the right words to describe her feelings. On this day she wrote, “My heart is not a spring in a box. My heart is like a rower on a midnight lake.”

She closed the little diary and slowly stirred her coffee, looking at the swirling liquid as one might stare into the embers of a dying fire.

She sat this way for some time, then shook her head, and picked up a novel. The book had been loaned to her by a colleague and she felt obliged to finish it, despite it being far from her own taste.

A loud bang broke her reverie; a young man had pushed the café door closed when he was trying to open it. Emma could see a deep redness in the man's face; he was clearly uncomfortable and nervous; she wanted to jump up, to hold his hand and tell him that everything was okay. As soon as she saw him she wanted to be near him.

The young man ordered coffee and, with shaky hands, carried it to an empty table.

Not wanting to stare, she picked up the book again and tried to immerse herself in the content. “This is ridiculous,” she thought and laughed aloud “who reads this rubbish?”.

Emma closed the book around her thumb, “Number One Best Seller,” the cover proclaimed.

“Will I read this book to please someone I hardly know and yet not make the effort to go and talk to that man, do something to make myself happy?”

She looked at the young man again, he was writing in his diary. He wrote quickly, erratically. She could see the tension in his movements, the sweat on his forehead, and she longed to be his cool breeze.

“Oh, why don’t I just go and talk to him?” she wondered to herself. But even as she thought this, she knew she wouldn’t do it, and her heart was heavy with sadness.

When the man got up to leave, Emma tried desperately to send him a smile, but he marched out of the café and was gone.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Mediocrity Principle

Long ago, in a far distant land, there lived a man named Nicolaus Copernicus. You may wonder how we know of a man who lived so long ago and so far away. Well, Nicolaus Copernicus made, quite literally, a revolutionary discovery.

Now, as anyone will tell you, for revolution you need three things: oxygen, fuel and heat. Nicolaus Copernicus lived in a time with plenty of all three. But we are getting ahead of the story.

Nicolaus Copernicus was a stargazer. Not the kind of stargazer you or I think of when we think of that word; he wasn’t the type to lie lazily about, staring up into the firmament, dreaming of romance or adventure: quite the contrary in fact. Nicolaus Copernicus would never look at the stars unless he was holding his notebook, a pencil and some instrument that looked more magical than mathematical.

You see, in Nicolaus Copernicus's time, people believed that the World was the centre of the Universe. They believed that Earth was fixed in space, and our sun, our moon, and all the other stars and planets danced around us in a joyous celestial twirling motion. Nicolaus Copernicus wasn’t sure this was true. What started as a quest for the arcane, soon revealed a startling truth: Earth revolves around Sun.

Well, Nicolaus Copernicus understood that this discovery, this revelation if you will, might upset a few people, and so, for the most part at least, he kept his ideas under his zucchetto.

Meanwhile, the man on the street was under pressure. The ancient Greeks, with their rosy sunsets and myriad gods, had set the stage for the world being, well, a stage. You might think, and I would agree with you, that being the centre of the Universe would make one feel pretty good about oneself. But people were sick of being looked down upon, of always being watched. It was time for the gods to step back a few light-years and let the world wheel as the world would wheel: around the sun.

When Nicolaus Copernicus’s ideas finally got out into the public arena the world was ready for revolution.

Before Nicolaus Copernicus died he speculated that, since we aren’t at the centre of the Universe, what had happened once, that is to say: you, me and the whole World, could, given the right conditions, happen again. He said this in a nice way, so people didn’t get too upset with him. And so it was that Nicolaus Copernicus made mediocrity not only okay, but a Universal truth, and a good many people breathed a huge sigh of relief.