Like most people, everything I know I learned off the telly. From science (custard is a non-Newtonian substance and therefore at a critical mass it will increase in density to support any solid object) to relationship advice (never break up with someone in a text message, even if it’s that weird guy from the shop who you slept with because you felt guilty and now he’s stalking you and you should have realised this would happen because he’s 27 and HE ALREADY HAS A BEARD) to the finer points of cooking (that film where the heroine realised her husband was having an affair with her best friend because of her friend’s nifty method of coring a lettuce, which has since formed the basis of all salad making efforts) …
Without telly my brain is like the mush at the bottom of a Slurpee cup, left at the bus stop and waiting for an old lady to sit on it.
About a month before leaving my beloved filthy, innately bipolar, permanently self-doubting Melbourne, where all my mates and my brother’s family are and where I am the least visible as a freak, the telly told me another thing it thought I ought to know.
There is a popular fluffy crime series called ‘Bones’ that you may have heard of. My mother watches it, and sometimes I watch it with her. It’s a nice little show. It makes for harmless background fuzz while the brain stews and frets over its present selection of neuroses. Sometimes it has Stephen Fry in it being lightly funny, looking happy enough to be there for the day.
Anyway, according to ‘Bones’ – and I’m sure they have a team of very earnest, committed and underpaid junior researchers to look these things up between getting groped and sent out for coffees – prison escapees always flee west.
This disturbed me slightly.
I had decided several months ago to finally leave Cesspool University forever, to really never come back this time. It wasn’t my first attempt at freeing myself. On this occasion, though, I would exit quietly. I would get rid of all my stuff, tuck my cat under one arm and a 1920s hat box containing Precious Things under the other, and make for the other side of Australia. I was headed for Perth – as far west as a Melburnian can go and still be in the same country.
When I had quit previously back in 2009, I had dealt with things in a more characteristically fiery manner. I had celebrated by firing off a furious email to the then-Vice Chancellor (who was insane) and her lackeys (who were weak) about what total arseholes they all were. I swore to them and to myself that I would not come back until she was gone and her reign of psychopathic impulsive cruelty was over.
Two years passed. A lot of things happened. I moved about twenty times in that period. During those years, I wrote a PhD. I faced homelessness so often, the prospect of living under a bridge with my laptop and books lost its terror and became an issue of position and availability. I stayed awake writing for days on end. The poverty line was a distant dream. Eventually, not surprisingly, I had a mild heart attack.
Realising I was no longer bullet proof changed nothing – the thing with poverty is, it doesn’t go away just because it’s bad for you (and neither do dissertations). Damned inconvenient thing, poverty. Something really should be done about it.
In the end, my wonderful associate supervisor and friend dragged me out from under the rock where I was hiding and manically cooking and pretending the PhD didn’t exist. Eventually, I passed the damned thing. I finally collapsed into secure accommodation and slept and slept and slept.
One golden day I graduated. It was Over. There was a new Vice Chancellor. It was safe to come back to work.
I came back, and the place had gotten worse.
The teaching body had very much become downstairs staff. We sessionals were all shoved together in a weird room in a separate building with computers that worked sometimes if you’d been kind to animals and eaten enough fibre. Every fortnight, we each waged separate bloody mini wars with the HR Bitch Army to get paid. We fielded student emails around the clock, marked hundreds of assignments to completely unrealistic deadlines, and came to view sleep deprivation as a cheap way to get drunk faster.
Occasionally, Those Upstairs patted us on the head and told us were Being Very Good. On these occasions we might be invited to drinks in an office, or to partake in someone’s birthday cake – the equivalent of giving the servants a ham at Christmas.
None of us went. Our reticence caused confusion. No one seemed to realise that when you don’t pay people – particularly people with thirty IQ points, extensive work experience and three qualifications on you – they stop liking you.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. I loved my colleagues. They were (and are) remarkable people. Funny, smart, accomplished. Energised by feeling pissed off. We were all pissed off, as much for each other as ourselves. There is, at least, camaraderie in being treated like shit by morons. I also cared about the students, with the exception of one pitifully annoying mature aged student and one poor girl whom to this day I fantasise about decapitating in a sandwich maker.
But my temper . . . My temper, so very slow to burn and so disastrously volcanic once ignited, was fraying.
It’s probably unfair, but I have very little respect for people who cannot hold their tempers. Of course we all lose it from time to time, but if you’re screaming your head off because a meal came late or someone forgot to put the bin out . . . Sorry. You’re not a God. You’re an overgrown child throwing a tantrum and you need to be spanked and dunked in a bucket of cold water.
I think this contempt is probably from struggling so hard to control my own temper. I have experienced rage – real, red vision homicidal rage – perhaps four times in my life. Each time scared the living shit out of me. Extreme violence would’ve ensued if I hadn’t been able to separate myself early enough. I once pulled a phone booth apart with my bare hands in this state. It’s not a boast – hardly something to be proud of – but it does indicate the physical strength a berserker rage imparts.
This state destroys you afterwards. You spend days wrapped in shame, waiting for the last of the fury to go. It’s unfortunate that you can’t pick which is the more sensible option between a flight or a fight response. I suppose my ancestors, like me, weren’t exactly built for sprinting.
So you’ll see why the day I beat the crap out of a photocopier while shouting derogatory remarks at it about its sexual proclivities alarmed me. I do always try to bring happiness into the world, and the elegantly dressed older gentleman standing behind me in the queue seemed to very much enjoy the spectacle of a large woman dominating a piece of office equipment. However, despite having made someone’s day a little brighter by inadvertently indulging his particular kink, I remained concerned.
This wasn’t anything near the potentially lethal fury that lurks in the hippocampus and limbic system of my weirdly wired brain. It wasn’t harmful to a human being in any way, unless you count the stupid cow in HR who is supposed to love and nurture the photocopiers and protect them from enraged sessional tutors who need to make twenty double-sided stapled copies of ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson by the nine o’clock morning class and now it’s 8:55 and the fucking thing has jammed again and is flashing a cryptic message about consulting the manual and it’s fucking lucky I’m not carrying a monkey wrench right now or . . . I digress.
But this was – I could feel it happening – The Beginning. First, it would be inanimate objects. Then, it would be strangers – people who pissed me off via email, random commuters on public transport, people in HR who no doubt deserved to get their ears ripped off over the phone but who would become intractable from that point on.
Finally, though, it would be a person. The one stupid, obnoxious person who got in my face at just the wrong moment on just the wrong day. It could be a difficult student. It could be one of Them Upstairs. It could (Please, God let it be so) be the stupid woman who is supposed to look after the photocopiers.
I was set to explode. I had to get out before that happened.
Before the telly told me why, I didn’t really know why my heart and mind set itself towards Perth. I have a dear friend here I hadn’t seen for years, which made it attractive; there are jobs here, which made it seem sensible. The dreams, though. They were what made me cross the country.
I dreamed of a shining, clean city spread along the ocean. I dreamed about strange landscapes, not so much hills as bushland set on an angle – I had been dreaming about that country for nearly three years in fact. My dream-self tried to think of these not-hills as the Dandenongs, but I knew this was wrong.
Work would be better there. Life would be lighter. My cat would be happy in the sun. I would live in a clean place. I would move slowly through the heat. I would be as normal as someone like me can be. I would carouse riotously with new friends, but somehow stay apple-cheeked and healthy.
In my wilder fantasies, I gave up being a freak entirely. In these daydreams my personality somehow altered enough to enable me to settle down with a nice, funny, uncomplicated, sweet, filthy rich miner of either gender. We would live in a ridiculous house near the sea. I would learn, here, how to be a proper girl. I would go up the street and get my hair done once a week, like I remember my ladylike grandmother doing when I was a kid. I would indulge my madness for cooking and be overjoyed to have someone to feed. I would learn how to take huge offence at small things to keep the interest going. I might even learn how to apply make up.
My miner would build a jacuzzi just for me on the decking and call me ‘Darl’. We would share our bodies in an uncomplicated happy way in an uncomplicated happy bed. I would forget my crazed and restless brain, my wanderlust, the broad sweep of my emotions. I would forget the endless opera that switches so suddenly between drama and farce.
Sometimes, when sex became boring, we would sit together in companionable silence – me with a girly wine cooler, he or she with a beer – and watch the telly.
And then the telly would tell me something new. And then I would remember.
And that’s where this fantasy collapsed on itself. I am bad at daydreams. I can’t help following mental meanderings through to their most likely outcome: Failure.
But the city – The city is clean, and bright, and slow. It has been poured along the Indian Ocean in a long thin line. The light is different here. The people, utterly so. More than anywhere else in the world, here in the country I was born in, I am aware that my culture is foreign.
I am better here. I am lighter. I am forgetting, slowly, the hard stuff that went before this. Work is lovely to go to, lovely to be at, and lovely to leave. A dear friend is here whom I am very lucky to have. I am meeting different people and having entertaining, dumb adventures.
In a few years though, I will keep moving. Once my cat has gone – the great stabiliser in my life, without whom I would never pass on any level as a proper grown up – I will come back to Melbourne. Then I will keep fleeing west.
I will cross the lapis lazuli-blue Indian Ocean and land somewhere new. I’ll go to Africa, to follow the route of the railway through its heart that my great-grandfather surveyed. India is becoming more intriguing every day, more the country I think I’ll be in when I hit my forties – New Delhi is becoming a place in my dreams. I’ll finally get to the States to see friends, to South America where I’ve always wanted to go.
Eventually I’ll go so far west it will be the east again, and I’ll end up back in Melbourne – a restless and twitchy woman with strange language patterns, the kind of person Melbourne absorbs and protects without fuss.
But for now, I’ve escaped from Melbourne to Perth. Until I need to escape Perth, I’ll stay here. I hope that that doesn’t happen for a while.
I guess there’s always Darwin . . .