Me: So, this is the idea for the story. I had it years ago, the idea, seriously ages ago, but I’ve never been able find the right way to, never sort of found the right voice or something, to actually write the thing. It’s like a blockage. Like it requires some deep-seated reservoir of strength or something to actually get it out of me and into the written word. Some kind of psychological barrier, or something. Maybe it’s just too close to, too deeply entangled with my own base-level neuroses or hang-ups or whatever, that exploring it at all or even beginning to explore it in the written form is neurologically impossible, for some reason. Or something. It’s…
You: So this is you trying to coax the story out, is what you’re saying. This non-trad kinda story-telling technique is going to help you actually access the story, from some dark place inside you or whatever.
Me: Yeah, I suppose.
You: Well… I’m ready when you’re ready.
You: …you okay?
Me: What? Yeah. Sure. I’m just…
You: We don’t have to go here if you-
Me: No, no, it’s, it’s just that I’ve got to get into the right frame of mind to do it.
You: Uh huh.
Me: (vague breathing sounds)
You: Want another drink or-
Me: I’m fine, really. Okay. Okay, so this is the story. I came up with the idea as I was walking home from the station, tired, I remember it was getting dark, or was already dark, it’s hard to tell sometimes in the city. Up from Ruthven station. You know Ruthven station, how it has that unsupervised crossing area?
You: Not really.
Me: I used to always remark on it, like “wow, look, they still let us cross railways there unsupervised, like, wow, the government trusts us to make our own decisions here, that’s not going to last, huh” kinda stuff. You used to say it was annoying, so I stopped. Saying that.
Me: So anyway, I was… You really don’t remember that?
You: (shrugging, shaking head)
Me: Anyway. Dark, or getting dark, walking up the hill to get home after some miscellaneous train-based outing. I think it might have been chilly, I sort of remember clutching my coat about me, but honestly, that might just be revisionist memory stuff, like when you remember someone had a hat and they really didn’t. Or something.
You: Uh huh.
Me: I can’t guarantee that it was cold at all. Anyway.
You: (gentle but encouraging nodding motions)
Me: See, I really need to be in the right frame of mind for this. Even now, even like this, I’m flustering, I’m faffing around the story instead of just getting into it. I don’t even know if this is going to work at all.
You: So just start where the story starts.
Me: How am I ever going to-
You: You’ll be fine. Just dive right in. Right in. The story starts with…
Me: Well… I’m kind of imagining a party, like the raising of glasses or something. The story starts with like a clinking, some champagne glasses. I’ve always kind of imagined it as a short film, actually, so it’s all sort of in my head as shots, or scenes, rather than written words. Maybe that’s the issue. Or maybe just it’s to do with that stuff I was saying before, how it’s keyed in with my own personal bugbears or something, deep psychological stuff that-
You: So we see glasses clinking.
Me: Yeah. And maybe some music, upbeat stuff that people put on at parties. So these glasses clink, and there’s much merriment. Cheers and laughter and warmth. And we pan back, or pull back, or zoom back or whatever the cinematic term is, and it’s this party. Older people – well, I say that now, but they’re my age now, aren’t they. It’s like, when I imagined this story all those years ago, they were “older people” but now they’re just “my aged” people. So maybe that’s another thing that’s blocking me from getting this story onto paper; like it’s even more psychologically painful to me now than it would’ve been back then? I mean, it’s not like there’s anything explicitly bad or painful or gross or icky or anything.
You: I’m mentally prepared, either way.
Me: It’s not like sick or anything, not like some of my other stories which I also haven’t been able to write yet. Some of them, I’m just scared of writing because everyone will think I’m some weird sicko.
You: You seem pretty normal to me.
Me: Yeah, but, well, you haven’t read these stories yet. Maybe I’ll never even write them at all. It’s a pretty big fear, the whole judgmental you’re-a-weird-sicko kinda thing. No-one wants to be seen like that.
You: One drama at a time. Let’s focus. So there’s a party…
Me: Okay, so there’s this party scene. It’s people my age. And older. No-one younger than 35, except some kids. The room is kinda ‘lived-in’, it’s a living room or a lounge room, one of those ‘family activity’ hubs. There’s some childish drawings stuck on the wall with… with “reusable adhesive putty”, let’s call it. Steering clear of brand names. There’s some upbeat music on. Nothing specific. Everyone sips at their champagne with like celebratory gusto. Big broad smiles. Actual enthusiasm. There’s a guy, he’s immediately, like you can tell straight away he’s the protagonist of the piece. It’s like that thing with cinematic duration, just by the weight of the shot you can tell that he’s the, not the “hero”, but that he’s the guy this story’s about. White, receding hairline, pretty thin, he’s comfortable in his slacks and button-up shirt. His cake says he’s just turned 40. One big “4” candle, one big “0” candle. Like, supermarket items or something, from the party aisle. They’re extinguished, but the tiny trails of smoke are still drifting off into the air. Actually, maybe that’s where the story should start: he blows out the candles, and everyone cheers.
Me: And everyone’s like “Happy birthday Stanley!” or various things, celebratory stuff like that. Clapping, and smiles. His wife, she’s beaming at him. She loves him a lot, and their marriage is a happy one – sure, they have fights about stupid stuff, and they disagree about a bunch of things, but they’re generally a really pretty happy couple.
You: And you can tell all that straight away.
Me: Well, like – I mean, you can’t tell that straight away, no, obviously you can’t just look at someone and tell whether or not they’ve got a good relationship. I mean, in the written version of the story it’d be clear, through a bunch of dialogue and stuff, that they have that kinda relationship. I’d spend the time required to make that clear, in the written version. But in the visual version, well, I mean, I think someone could, a good enough director could do that. The hug they have after he blows out the candles. His hand on her waist when she does the speech, or, something like that. The way her and the kids look at him and stuff. It’s got to be possible.
You: So he’s got kids.
Me: Yeah, yeah, maybe two or three. At least one, I’m thinking. To show what a socially-normal family man kinda guy he is, straight off the bat we get to see he’s a socially-normal middle-aged middle-of-the-road cis-gendered straight white family guy, doing a socially-normal thing in a socially-normal house with like totally socially-normal natural everyday “middle Australia” stuff happening. He’s turning 40, and he’s having a party, and everyone loves him and is celebrating him, celebrating him turning 40 and hitting that milestone and loving him for his very socially-normal everyday attributes.
Me: Don’t know why I said “Stanley” before. But his name could be Stanley, I mean, that’s, that’s a totally okay name for someone like him. Can’t decide if he’s got a moustache or not. All this can be tweaked later, of course, once I get this thing out of my head and onto the page. I don’t care what he’s called, really, Henry or something. All detail, cluttery detail that I can sort out later. What’s important here is that he’s being celebrated, by his family and friends. Maybe he’s even got a stupid pointy party hat thing on, or like some of the guests do, or whatever. Maybe not. Detail. Point is he’s being celebrated. And he says something about thanks for coming, or great to have you all here, or something, and he cuts the cake and kisses his wife and ruffles his child/ren’s hair and smiles and has some cake.
You: Uh huh.
Me: And maybe while the speech is going, his wife like saying how much she loves him, and how he’s finally come of age or something, or makes like some joke about he may be 40 but she wishes he’d grow up, and the guests all laugh and whatever, so maybe while we hear the speech we pan across the mantelpiece and there’s a bunch of awards or plaques or something, stuff that shows he’s not only been employed as whatever he’s employed as for some time, but he’s really quite good at it, and has the accolades to prove it. You know, some visual cues that he’s been at his job for a while, and he’s a total pro at it, and like is one of those valuable achiever kinda guys, he’s a proper socially-normal 40-year-old.
You: (shifting in seat)
Me: Or something. Details. Point is-
You: They’re symbols.
Me: Shorthand stuff. To indicate other stuff. Symbols, yeah. Maybe a moustache is too much. Maybe all this imagery is all 80s imagery and needs to be updated by some kind of, updated by like a professional ghost-writer or something. Maybe I can just give this to a ghost-writer and they can make the culturally-appropriate piece of writing I want it to be.
You: (disagreement face)
Me: I mean, I want it to resonate.
You: Give it a go yourself first, I reckon.
Me: Moustaches don’t even resonate in that same way these days, do they. They’ve become all hipster.
You: Non-hipsters still have moustaches.
Me: Do they? I’m so out of touch. I feel like I’ve missed so much.
You: (puzzled but kind look)
Me: I don’t leave the house much these days.
Me: Anyway. The guy’s normal as. There’s a general vibe of genuine caring, genuine positive emotion. At the party. We can sense it. He’s a cherished guy. Loved. Appreciated. He’s okay.
You: Uh huh.
Me: But there’s something. There’s like, a look. There’s a shot of his eyes. And there’s this look.
You: What kind of look?
Me: Just a look. A look.
You: Like a creepy look?
Me: No, no, not at all. No, not a creepy look, just like this… look.
You: (quizzical kind of “humouring me but actually doubtful but too polite to say it” kind of face, mouth opening and closing)
Me: Maybe it should be a short film instead. I’m sure that if I get the right director, they can do all this stuff. A lingering close-up, or a, or some kind of… I don’t know.
You: So there’s a… look… in Stanley’s eyes.
Me: Some kind of look, yes. It’s a look.
You: Don’t get all petulant now-
Me: Look, it’s hard enough to get this story out without you being-
Me: Being all doubty about it.
You: I’m sorry. I really am. I’m sure in the finished thing, whether it’s a short film or a short story or whatever, I’m sure it’ll be exactly what you want, it’ll turn out fine. Please, go on.
Me: You can do stuff in cinema that you can’t do on paper. And I’m losing faith in “Stanley” as a name too, I’ve lost all confidence in it. It’s just a place marker anyway.
You: So he’s got this look.
Me: Yeah, he’s got this look, where you know things aren’t quite right. Like he’s there, but he’s not really… there. Maybe even the voices go all muffled in the background, the director will kind of, that’s kind of more of a directing thing I guess. The basic vibe is that the guy is not really present; like the revellers are all partying and whatnot around him, and he’s got all this genuine love and affection coming his way from like all quarters, family, friends, professionally – but he’s not really a part of it. Muffled voices would be the kind of thing, a dank synth chord or something under it, or a high pitched whine like they did in Breaking Bad.
You: Like when Walter’s vaguing out.
Me: Actually, when I first saw it, I thought he had tinnitus. Like they were trying to tell us “fuck man, not only has he just been diagnosed with cancer, but he’s got tinnitus as well”. I thought it was laying it all on a bit thick, actually. Disabled kid, bad jobs, terminal cancer – and now tinnitus? So it didn’t work well for me to begin with.
You: So maybe don’t do that then.
Me: But, you know, once I knew their sound-language, when I saw it later I totally understood what it meant.
You: Uh huh.
Me: I guess most people probably already knew what it signified, the first time they saw it, I mean. No-one else probably thought it was tinnitus.
You: Who knows?
Me: They probably did test studies or something.
You: Sound-based emotion-trigger comprehension tests on focus groups, or whatever.
Me: I’m… I’m sorry about before. I’m just sort of on edge here. For some reason this is really stressful.
You: It’s fine. So there’s this non-creepy look on place-marker-Stanley’s face. And maybe some muffled voices.
Me: The look. And then we cut to later, the guy’s in bed. His wife’s sound asleep, the light is all that bluish “night-time” colour they use, and he’s wide awake. He’s still got that look. Or maybe a subtly different look, but one that’s equally difficult to describe. Or something. So he’s there in bed. He can’t sleep. The house is totally quiet. Maybe his wife’s unconscious breathing, we can maybe hear her sleeping. He pushes away the covers and gets out of bed.
You: (enthusiastic and expectant “come on then” hand waving)
Me: He’s getting dressed in the bathroom, staring into the mirror. He’s putting on what he wears to work. But it’s the middle of the night!
You: He’s going to kill himself!
Me: What? How…
You: Isn’t he?
Me: Yes, but how did you get that already?
You: Whenever we see people wake up staring in the middle of the night and then get dressed staring into the mirror… well, either they’re murderers or going to kill themselves or something. And you already said his look wasn’t creepy.
Me: But all that focus on the “genuine positivity” of the earlier scene was to show that he’s kinda got no reason to kill himself! It’s all meant to show you that he’s actually kinda got it all! It’s…
You: Yeah, I got all that. But the “40” was a big one for me. It’s already saying “this is a mid-life crisis story”, isn’t it. And there are only two kinds of mid-life story that it was likely to be, coming from you, and that was either the one where you suddenly learn that life is a wondrous joy to be lived to the fullest, or the one where you realise that your every move is predictable and your existence is going to be essentially the same as it is right now, until you die. That your next really big life-event is death.
Me: (desperately disappointed but trying not to show it)
You: And so we see this guy with everything – I mean, the story’s gotta be a “fall from grace” kinda thing, doesn’t it. It’s not going to get happier, from a “this guy’s got everything” beginning, is it.
Me: …it could’ve been anything.
You: But I’m sure there’s lots more in the story that I could never guess. Please go on. It’s good. Please.
Me: Well, I was hoping to build up the dramatic tension and stuff, the empty street, the strange night-time sounds, his feet getting closer and closer to who knows where, the train tracks lingering wetly in the darkness, shining ribs against slick black gravel, and then he stands on the tracks with his arms outstretched, just around the bend in the tracks, and then the rumble of the approaching train, and then the light beams poke out from the bend in the tracks and suddenly there is a train right there, too fast to slow down, and he’s lit up in the beam of the train lights and his eyes are closed and he’s smiling a slight smile and – WHAM! BLAM! SPLAT! – it’s blackness. But that’s all kinda made redundant now.
You: Nah, keep it. It was still really evocative.
Me: (mopey frowning)
You: I liked the “shining ribs against black gravel” bit. Nice.
Me: Thanks. Yeah, I liked that bit too. I might keep that bit.
You: So then what happens?
Me: Well, next thing we know is a muffled voice. It’s his wife. She’s talking to a doctor; her cheeks are wet, and she looks haggard. This is all through some kind of visual effect of like being in a black tunnel, or emerging from some coma-like state, all dark fuzzy edges. Or something.
You: Mm hmm.
Me: His youngest daughter kinda sees his eyes opening – this is all still from our point of view, right, so we’re seeing everything from the guy’s POV – and like the child looks all excited and points at the camera – at us, basically – and then the darkness descends again. Something like blurriness and darkness around the edges – again, it’s going to depend on the director.
You: Stanley’s coming out of his coma.
Me: You got it. Who knows how long he’s been in the coma for? Seems like a long time has passed, his family is drawn and exhausted and like over it but tirelessly attentive, right, like some impossibly good-willed patient-attending machine. They do not rest. They are seriously amazing, attending all his various bed-ridden needs, you know, all the misc activities that are to do with attending to the quadriplegic.
You: All the what activities? Did you say “bisque”?
Me: “Misc.” Miscellaneous.
You: Oh. I thought that was just a writing thing. I didn’t think you actually said that in real life, like, real life discussions.
Me: Well, I do.
You: So he’s a quadriplegic?
Me: Or something. He’s bed-ridden, he got pretty badly injured in the train accident, the train-collision I mean, the suicide attempt. All sorts of terrible damage was done to his internal, like, organs and stuff. Bones. He’s been basically ruined, as an organism – but he didn’t die. He’s still here. And did I mention, he’s mute.
You: You didn’t mention that. Mute, huh.
Me: Can’t say a word. Or won’t. Maybe just can’t. Or maybe “just can’t” is too easy – maybe it should be that he’s able to talk but just not very well. Or no, actually, I think it’s best if he can’t talk at all – like if his mechanical means of vocal communication are irrevocably damaged, beyond repair. He’s mute, he can’t say a word. Damaged in the suicide attempt. That’s it as far as speaking goes for Mr Stanley. He’s fully a-vocal at this stage.
Me: Yes. Especially for his wife. One day, he’s sitting in his bed, it’s obviously been a long time – a long long time, seasons have passed, children are taller and stuff, the light through the window is different, there’s no more “get well” cards and balloons and stuff, this way of life has been normal for a long time for everyone by this stage – and his wife is attending his needs of some sort, and just kind of stops and bites her fist, and then just kind of breaks down, and sobs at him “Why? Why the hell did you do it?” and kind of buckles under the horrible pressure of it all, and cries on him, with her head on him kind of, sobbing into his chest, and swearing at him and at the same time holding him close. And he can’t say anything. To like alleviate her wonderings. Like she’s as mystified as we are, as to why he did it. We’re meant to be mystified, anyway. (pointedly looking) Obviously, some of us aren’t as mystified as others.
You: Well, the exact reasons are still a bit of a mystery. Why did he do it again? He felt trapped, didn’t he?
Me: Like you said before. I guess trapped is it, he realised that… what did you say before about “the next big life-event is death”?
You: Just that, really.
Me: Can I use that? That basically sums it up. That’s way better than, than what I was probably going to say.
You: Sure. My words are your words.
Me: Thanks. I’ll give you a dedication or something, you know, at the start of the book.
You: I’d like that. Thanks.
Me: If this ever gets into a compilation or something. Obviously there’ll be no dedication in a stand-alone piece in a magazine or anthology something, I don’t think they do that.
You: I can wait for the compilation, no worries.
Me: So his next big life-event, the next big thing, was, like you said, death. And in that single crystal moment of realisation, he realised that like, the only thing that he actually owned, sort of, was that final moment. Everything else was kinda just what happened to him: his work, his partner, his children, his whole life thus far was a collection of, like a conglomeration of like a geologically-sedentarily-layered series of events and other people’s decisions and timing and happenstance; like all these things had happened to him, and the only actual agency left to him was whether to live or die. Or something.
You: Uh huh.
Me: Did you know that the first person I knew personally to go and kill themselves did it like that? Like, around the bend on a railway track? So the driver couldn’t see them?
You: I didn’t.
Me: His name was Cameron. He was in my high school lit class. We shared a budding loathing for capital-L Literature. We really didn’t like the, what is it, self-important pomp.
You: (earnest nodding)
Me: Anyway, so that’s where I got that idea from. That, and the unpoliced, free-will-reliant railway crossing at Ruthven station. Rail as a source of death potential.
You: Uh huh.
Me: And then, well, my overwhelming fear of time passing. The relentless passage of time. And the… the vague emptiness of… everything. Deep core fears that can’t really be articulated.
You: So his wife, Stanley’s wife confides and breaks down.
Me: Momentarily. Then she’s back at being the perfect support again. Because what else can you do? But at the same time as she’s infinitely, like she’s totally caring and nurturing and helpful and healing, and slowly the guy recovers, slowly slowly, but at the same time of course she’s resentful, and questioning, and really griped and pissed off about the whole attempted suicide thing. And the train driver even, maybe he visits and expresses sorry and support, who knows. Maybe he doesn’t. And so slowly, it’s been years now, the guy is in a wheelchair now, and he can kinda move his limbs, and he’s recovering in all sorts of minor miraculous ways, and does physio and stuff. He can’t talk still, he is still absolutely non-functional in the vocal department, so even though he’s coming good, he still can’t explain to his doting and unrealistically-incredible life-partner exactly what drove him to attempt to end it all on his birthday all those years ago.
You: Which still is like a massive thorn in her side, I’m assuming.
Me: It shits her up the wall. That’s the real thing that she can’t take, and the main reason she takes so many painkillers and starts the affair with that nice-ish guy she met at the gym. When she says she’s going to the gym now, she’s actually off to have distracting sex with this trainer guy who really doesn’t float her boat but it’s just a physical thing, like a physical thing she needs to get her out of her head and make her stop thinking for just five minutes. It helps, but then afterwards she’s wracked with guilt and so on. It’s bad. She’s not having a fun time. She’s going through real torment, not only with the grief and the guilt and anger and all the expected stuff, but also like this unscratchable itch in the back of her mind, as to why this wonderful loving successful guy who seemed so happy went and did this to himself, and she’s resigned herself to never knowing, and she hates it so much. But she’s dedicated, and he needs her, she tells herself, and she does her best. And he’s recovering. Slowly.
You: (nodding – seems slightly impatient, but I could be reading too much into it)
Me: And the kids! The youngest one barely remembers him now. As in, doesn’t remember the pre-wheelchair him. The pre-suicide him. The youngest one is just scared of it – that’s how she thinks of her dad now, as an “it”. As something that hopefully will one day go away and she can start to heal and whatnot. And the oldest one is ashamed of him; if she feels any real emotion for this white-wrapped wraith in the sunroom, it’s not familial stuff, it’s resentment and shame, and the whole thing’s emotionally untenable. It’s a grim situation, a total arse of a, of a situation.
You: (nodding – again, slightly impatient I think, but I’m getting to the end so, sheesh, it’s not like it’s easy to write a story this way, or a short film, whatever)
Me: So anyway. Been years. He’s in a wheelchair now. A doctor is over or something, marking stuff off on a clipboard or something. She seems very happy, it’s all big smiles, smiles and positive nods to the family members. The guy is in a wheelchair, I said that, he’s able to move around now. He’s getting his mobility back. The incredibly supportive life-partner looks simultaneously relieved and miserable.
You: That’s one for the director, again, that emotion. Relieved and miserable.
Me: Yes. They can do that, easy. Get the right director, it’ll be nothing. I’ve watched a few movies, I’ve seen some quality direction, you know, in my time. I’m definitely conscious of what a good director can bring, to the table. To the project.
You: So Stanley’s wife is miserable, yet relieved. And then the unthinkable happens: he gets up and says “gotcha!” and does a little jig, and everyone laughs.
Me: (withering glare)
Me: So what happens is then – are you ready for it?
You: Yes. Bring it on.
Me: The story ends with a final scene of the guy, in his wheelchair, purposefully – and like, agonisingly, this is a major feat of determination and physiological gumption, to do this immense hard-labour thing he’s doing, with such a poorly, such a badly healed bodily structure, his muscles are in bad form basically, this is a major fucking deal – he’s wheeling himself at night, each push a major exertion, slowly towards the railway crossing…
Me: What? That’s the end.
You: (thought processes that have to be guessed at but seem to include dissatisfaction)
Me: What? What are you thinking? What-
You: Well, it’s a bit abrupt-
Me: You don’t like it, do you.
You: It’s fine! Seriously, it’s different just kinda hearing like the idea, rather than reading the actual finished story. Things are always better when you’ve finished them properly, when you’re, you’re seeing the finished product rather than just the rough-
Me: It’s finished! That’s exactly how it’s going to end! With him, pushing himself with all his might, towards the railway lines, it’s like the perfect end.
You: Like, how… how did he even get out of the house?
Me: What? He rolled, he fucking just rolled. He’s in a wheelchair-
You: But I mean-
Me: Seriously! He just rolls out there-
Me: If you don’t like it, you can just say so, instead of this, all this passive-aggressive tiptoeing around like-
You: I like it! It’s just that… it’s a bit abrupt. And I’m not really sure… what it adds to the world.
Me: Adds. To the world.
You: What’s the point of it, sort of. What drives you to write something like that.
You: I mean…
Me: It’s… the “human condition”, I don’t know. The “meaninglessness of existence”. Or something.
Me: Don’t you ever feel that… that crushing insignificance? That weighty blackness, knowing you’re nothing to the universe, your opinion is totally not even considered in the cosmological scheme, at all. And powerless – not like a broken engine, but like a piece of floating dust? With no mass. That everything you’ve ever done, or are going to do is… not even… Doesn’t that knowledge of your own absolute insignificance… do anything to your heart?
You: (quizzical shrugging head-shake that feels condescending)
Me: …well, maybe you’re not in like, the right target demographic. Or something.
You: Don’t get me wrong. It’s evocative. I definitely think it’d be a powerful short film or whatever.
You: I hope this process helps you actually write it.
Me: Me too. Anyway. It does feel better now. Getting it out of… out of me.
You: Good. Great.
Me: Thanks. Like actually physically better.
You: No worries. Glad it helped. Hey, I’ve got to go.
Me: No worries. Thanks again.
You: (standing) Not a problem.
Me: (standing) You know my brother’s a train driver now? He wasn’t when I had the idea, but now he is. He’s like, on the other side now, of the situation, now, or something.
You: Uh huh.
You: You really think existence is so meaningless?
Me: You don’t?
You: (vague but confident gestures of strong disagreement)