When I found out that Uniqlo had corduroy pants for sale, I no longer knew what cords signified but I knew I was going to buy them. I didn’t know whether corduroy trousers were for old men, for young men trying to look like old men or in fact for middle aged men who could feint in either direction, but I knew I would buy not one but two pairs.
I didn’t know whether skinny style pants, which is what Uniqlo were stocking, shifted the balance but I did know that, if they were comfortable, I would return to the store and buy another two pairs, and that those two pairs would lie folded in a dark cupboard, unworn for now, a form of insurance for the future when, again, there’d be a hiatus, a material drought, in the stocking of corduroy pants.
It had taken me forty years to discover if you liked a piece of clothing you bought two. I knew this was a common enough piece of fashion lore. It seemed to speak of larger things. People you could legitimately cohabit with, share beds and bills with, didn’t come along that often and probably shouldn’t be discarded. You only had so many hairstyles, ideas, world views, friends, music genres, career paths and so on that actually suited you. You had to work it out early and stock up.
It was dinner time, five thirty because of the kids. It was liberating to orbit around another human being, to reconfigure time, to bend to their routines. Anyway, the kids bent us all the time.
‘Look,’ said Tig. ‘Turkey hat!’
The thin sliver of white meat on his skull sat like a Jewish kippa. He was staring straight at me, daring me to laugh. A twinkle in the eyes sounds like a poetic phrase until you see it up close and you’re reminded eyes really do twinkle.
It was a lineball decision. What he was doing was legitimately funny. Something about the flippant angle of the turkey slice on his sandy hair and the way his pale face beamed beneath it, as if he had discovered something striking and significant, was absurd. Was this the first turkey hat? It seemed unlikely. Other families existed, other twinkles, other turkey hats.
‘Dessert-y?’ asked Finn. He was shovelling in peas and corn after having stacked up tuna pasta. Perhaps he hoped if he asked the question in a simulacrum of cute he’d boost his chances.
I considered our options. Only yesterday I had thrown out the remains of a party bag. The chocolate bars had already been eaten, all that remained were two small, red crescent-shaped lollies. When I told Marla I’d chucked them she nodded.
‘Good,’ she said. ‘They looked like they’d haemorrhaged out of someone’s vagina.’
‘Marshmallows,’ I said to Finn, ‘but everything on the plate needs to be eaten first.’
I wasn’t proud of the food that surfaced in the house. Nor was I particularly guilty about it. We were just consumers constrained by all sorts of factors.
Tig had by now removed the cold meat from his head. He looked cross, but wouldn’t look that way long. Emotions flowed through him like water through a bag of pebbles.
At times I felt very different, like a sack of sand, the feelings absorbed greedily, evaporating only after time. At other times I wondered if I even had emotions.
I stepped out of the kitchen to check my phone. I tried not to read it too often around the kids. I’d been warned by Marla. She was right, she was definitely right. Taking it away from meal time was complete tokenism on my part. It was a robotic tic. Strangely enough, the dark thought at the back of my mind, this shadow, often sent me scurrying back to the kids, determined to be fully human.
The next day at school I grew animated in front of my English Extension students.
‘Jung called the id the shadow. He claimed the less embodied it was in an individual’s consciousness, the blacker and denser it was. The shadow is what the ego cannot identify in itself. Hence projection and so on.’
I caught Antoine, a blonde girl with a moon-shaped face, staring malevolently at me.
Every couple of weeks the school produced a wellbeing report on students. Even couched in the deliberately passive and removed language of an institution, reading it was like plunging into the id of the school.
‘Kathleen is experiencing complex issues at home.’
‘Anthony is struggling with his mental health.’
‘Ruby is now back living with mum.’
Sometimes the report was so maternal and intuitive it jumped out. ‘Lola. A lot going on. TLC please.’
Antoine had been suicidal. Had anxiety. Didn’t want to talk about it. Would gesture towards it only, telling me not to worry about her when she handed in a story about a little freckly girl who lived alone in a basement and knitted a scarf made of bad luck memories, that it was just a story.
I went on to the students: ‘But remember it’s not all dark. People with low self-esteem repress positive aspects of themselves, hide those in the shadows.’ I paused. ‘I mean, I guess that is dark, in that you can’t see the good stuff. But at least you’re not hiding the fact you’re a serial killer from yourself. That’s gotta be good, right?’
I wasn’t sure where I was going. No one in the classroom was sure where I was going. I pushed on. ‘I mean, I guess if you’re a serial killer you probably don’t want to repress the knowledge, right? So you can get help for it. Maybe stop it. At the least keep it down to a minimum. But that’s not something any of us have to worry about. Given none of us are serial killers. Right?’
I scanned the room with mock interrogative eyes. ‘I am right yes? If you’re a serial killer, please let us know. Put your hand up. Think of this as your safe space.’
They laughed. Teo, my favourite student, muttered, ‘I’m more like a serial sleeper.’
‘Well, you’ve come to the right place,’ I said. ‘When I go on too much please feel free to nod off.’
He closed his eyes. I knew this was a meditative space he entered, that in fact he was still listening. His practice essays came to me with spiky addenda. Sorry, not all here. Just not feeling this one. Or Trust me, I’ll write this coherently on the day. Actually, maybe not.
Given how close to the line of excessive personality I trod sometimes with my more intelligent students, I was surprised there wasn’t more of this kind of editorialising. The fault was mine. I turned on a dime in class, was suddenly po-faced, retreating behind my glasses.
The next day at work I got in early. There were mornings – maybe every month or so they emerged – where I felt the edge of paranoia. It was all I could do to put headphones on and let my colleagues chat.
I walked into Room 205 to root through the book room adjoining it and there were three kids from my Extension class. They didn’t say hi. I didn’t say hi. They were laughing about a remake of an old TV show. I went back to the staffroom and put on the Keith Jarrett trio playing I Fall in Love Too Easily.
My colleagues were arguing over which novel to prescribe for Year 10. I breathed in, my chest full. Their voices actually hurt. Keith Jarrett, four minutes into the tune, started moaning over the piano. It was going to be okay. It was going to be better than okay. I breathed in through my nose, deep, breathed out through my nose.
Nearly twenty years ago I had told my shrink I was afraid of the feeling leaving me. ‘I worked it out,’ I told him. ‘Everyone’s depressed.’
He was so happy for me.
If my depression left, I had no edge left. If I fell off the tapered side of the knife, what the fuck was I? A soft smear of butter. Nothing.
So I knew that day I had an old friend to schlep along with me, a bat that would sit on my charcoal jumper shoulder and nip my ear, drawing blood, just enough bloodletting. YouTube shifted tracks: the John Coltrane quartet. Then Miles Davis – In a Silent Way. I had to be careful not to curate my life too closely. I could easily end up my own asshole.
Hippocrates had identified four humours: blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile. Each humour was centred in a particular organ: brain, lung, spleen, gall bladder. There were four corresponding personality types: sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, choleric. Galen had said blood was dominant. Blood must out.
Four elements too played in there: earth, air, fire and water. At twenty-four, still hanging around Sydney University, I’d written a short story set at the ocean pool at Bronte. I’d been mad on tai chi at the time, was reading Lao Tzu. That had been the story’s motif. Earth, air, fire water. Something too about cardinal points, and laps in the salt water – back and forth, back and forth.
I’d entered it into a student union competition and won. On the bus I saw a girl with black plaits reading it in the student union magazine. She folded it, put it down in her lap and said to the guy sitting next to her, ‘How the fuck did that win?’
Steeped in Taoism I nodded at her words, unaffected, amused I was standing behind her.
At the award ceremony I read it out to a room of aspirants and obliging academics. There was cheap white wine and cigarettes outside. I drank too much too quickly. I was high. Christos Tsiolkas, there to hand out prizes and fill out the shadow of literature, told the girl I was going out with, ‘Look after him.’
Was it my too-thin frame? My black desert-sole boots held together with gaffa tape? No one could hold me together. Was it my unanchored laugh? It was the 1990s after all. No one could.
The day righted itself. At lunch I bought a dozen fresh eggs from the agriculture plot.
‘There you go, sir,’ said Hugo, having carried them up to me in the staffroom.
‘Brilliant,’ I said. ‘Even in this cold snap the chooks are still pumping them out. Go them!’
Hugo nodded. He took my six dollars.
There would be bacon tonight too. Fried mushrooms. Maybe some haloumi.
When I got home, as soon as I walked in the door, Tig insisted on playing ‘Sean.’
The TV show Bluey was a hit at our house. One episode the father had created a character out of his fingers called Sean. Tig loved it and, in a bid to catch the wind of his ardour, I created my own Sean.
My Sean was naughty. Was timid. Made rude noises. Made Tig laugh.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Let me put my bag down first.’
I was a father mimicking a father mimicking an imaginary character.
When I got back out to the kitchen Tig was snacking on biscuits.
‘Hey,’ I said, my voice squeaky and infantile. ‘Whatcha eatin’?’
‘Bikkies, Sean,’ said Tig. His whole face was alight.
‘Can I have some?’ I walked over the bench with my fingers. I crept over the lip of the bowl with my fingers. I touched the Jatz.
‘No, Sean!’ giggled Tig. ‘They’re not for you.’ He snatched the bowl away.
I blew a raspberry and my fingers fled behind a glass on the bench.
‘Sean!’ squealed Tig.
Marla walked in, shook her head at something she’d forgotten and walked out. She had a bag of pegs over her shoulder.
‘After snacks,’ said Tig, ‘do you want to chase me?’
‘Maybe,’ I said, my voice dropping back into its normal register. My back hurt. ‘Sure.’
‘I’m not talking to you,’ said Tig scornfully, ‘I’m talking to Sean.’
For a moment I felt wounded. Rejected by the son, by the future. Then it occurred to me – I was Sean. He was rejecting me for me. There’d only be so many chances to escape into Sean.
‘Maybe,’ I said in a higher register again. My fingers wiggled dangerously. ‘One chasie.’
‘Two,’ said Tig. ‘Two, Sean, two, two, two.’
‘Okay,’ I said. I held my fingers up in the sign of two. A victory sign.
Dave Leys is the author of The Institute of Fantastical Inventions and its sequel The Institute of Fantastical Inventions II: Magnetic Attraction released by New Holland Publishers. He lives in Sydney with his young family. His writing seeks to explore consciousness, mortality and family in a discursive style.