Bearing an unnerving resemblance to one of Henry Moore’s gargantuan sculptures, my visitor reclined gracelessly over the divan on the verandah and lapsed into silence. Apparently, three sugar-laden cups of tea, five cupcakes, and my increasingly laboured efforts to converse had exhausted the fellow.
He farted audibly.
As I could think of no suitable reply, the already lengthy silence lengthened further, and I was beginning to wonder if his essential self had drifted away, when with a grunt and a shudder, he yawned himself back to the present, hauled up his shirt, scratched sluggishly at an alarmingly distended, hairy white belly and declared, ‘You’re lucky to be retired.’
‘Why?’ I sighed, wondering if the great lump was ever going to go. Where was Jon when I needed him? He’d get rid of the flatulent fool.
‘All that time to yourself. Doing whatever you want. No deadlines. No pressure to conform. No false expectations...’
‘Is that so?’
‘How long have you been retired?’
‘And you’re...what? Sixty?’
‘Looking years younger. And do you know why?’
‘Because your life is free of stress.’
‘It was until today,’ I muttered darkly.
‘I read about it online,’ he pontificated. ‘Stress is ageing. Do you agree?’
I nodded in theatrical resignation and added, ‘Time is ageing. Boredom is ageing. Being with stupid people is ageing.’
He smiled and nodded, pleased with his insight. I was clearly being too subtle.
‘You sound unhappy,’ he announced cheerfully. ‘Your sister said you were. She experienced one of her amazing premonitions and became aware you're in some sort of trouble. That’s why she asked me to pop in and cheer you up.’
‘That is indeed amazing!’
‘Sure is. Although I can’t for the life of me see why you should be miserable; retirement is every man’s dream.’
I smiled sadly. If my sister wanted me to be miserable, then miserable I would be. With a suitably tragic shake of the head, I gazed at my fingers – stained from pinching out tomato shoots. ‘Maybe it’s a dream for others,’ I began softly, ‘but for me, retirement is one long nightmare.’ Quelling the urge to drag the back of my hand across my tragically furrowed brow, I settled for a despondent sniff and shake of the head.
The visitor heaved himself forward in his chair; ears pricked.
‘You have no idea what has happened to me,’ I whispered. Neither did I, so I gained time by sighing dramatically while gazing soulfully at the trees.
Perched eagerly on the front of his chair he was almost panting in excitement.
‘The trouble with being free of all those things you mentioned, is that it leaves me free to think.’
‘But… thinking is good – isn't it?’
‘Thinking too much is dangerous! You enter a metaphysical maze of insoluble questions such as: Who am I? What am I? Why am I? Where am I?’
‘Serious stuff,’ he acknowledged with a self-important nod.
As that was the extent of his contribution, and the sound of my own voice seemed preferable to another prolonged silence, I decided to elaborate on my newfound theory. ‘While actively engaged in my career,’ I began solemnly, ‘pitting my wits against competitors – interacting, planning, preparing and anticipating, I knew exactly who and what I was by observing other people’s reactions to me. The why was equally straightforward—to get a better car and house, take holidays, pay off loans and so on. However, now I no longer go to work, and have everything I need, the ‘mirror’ of other people’s reactions is no longer available. I'm forced to seek inside myself for proof of my existence and to discover why I am here!’
‘But you’ve got Jon—surely he’s your ‘mirror’, as you call it?’
‘He should be, but after forty-five years together, our reactions to each other are more predictable than our reactions to ourselves. We’ve reflected each other for so long that sometimes I’m not sure whether I’m talking to Jon or myself. Don’t you find that with your wife? You do have a wife…?’
A protracted sigh. ‘Twenty-one years. It seems longer. We don’t talk much. Sometimes we hardly see each other from one week’s end to the next. Margaret’s always out doing something or other. Or I am. We’re social butterflies,’ he added with a satisfied smirk.
I suppressed a smile. A social hippopotamus? Yes. Butterfly? No. ‘Anyway,’ I continued when the desire to laugh had abated. ‘Thinking has led me to some extremely depressing conclusions.’
‘Well… I imagined that as I grew older I would eventually become the sum of my past actions. If I had a string of successes, did the requisite number of good works, and produced a few things of worth, then in my retirement I could relax, swathed in the ‘laurels’ of my achievements. Contentedly encased in the cocoon of past deeds, so to speak.’ I paused for effect before almost shouting, ‘But it’s not like that at all!’
He jumped visibly. ‘It isn’t?’
‘No! I've discovered that we are not a collection of our past successes, not even those of yesterday. We are simply the person we are at the time of thinking about it. Our character and worth are defined by our most recent actions, thoughts, and words. Whatever we have done in the past is irrelevant! We have to proclaim ourselves anew every second of our existence, and…’ my voice shrank to a whisper, ‘and I’m too… too tired to continue.’
‘It certainly sounds exhausting. But the people who knew you before you retired; they know your worth?’
‘It doesn’t work like that.’
‘Oh. Doesn't it?’
‘You said you're the manager of a trucking company?’
He nodded. ‘Yes. Yes I am.’
‘Try making a mistake at work on Monday and see who isn’t ready to pronounce you no longer capable of running the show. Even after twenty years—or whatever it is you’ve given them—of faultless service.’
‘You’re right. Horrible thought.’ His gaze drifted from belly to wristwatch, and my spirits rose, only to be dashed as he flicked a wad of lint from his navel and settled back.
Increasingly desperate to get rid of the great lump, I pulled an anguished face and elaborated. ‘The inevitable result of dwelling on the past is to slowly lose your mind. While I was a busy little bee with no time to mope, I told myself I was having a wonderful life. Everything that happened was for the best, in the best of all possible worlds—to paraphrase Dr. Pangloss.’
‘Dr. who?’ he interjected.
‘No, Dr. Pangloss,’ I repeated, as if to a slow pupil.
‘I mean who’s Dr. whatshisnamegloss?’
‘A character in a story by Voltaire. It doesn’t matter. Stop interrupting!’
‘In other words,’ I continued irritably, ‘If the bad things didn’t happen, then neither would the good, so the bad things are even more important than the good, because they're the catalyst for good.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous! It’s a load of crap! To convince myself that my life was a bed of thornless roses I simply blanked out the bad bits—pretending they never happened, or had been good for me. Stiffening the backbone, character-building…’
‘Well, surely that’s true?’
‘Life’s normal hardships prevent us becoming soft, but when the nastiness comes from other people. When it is irrational. When it destroys pleasure in living and forces you to behave in ways that are unnatural, then it is evil!’
‘Golly. Did that happen to you?’
‘Yes! When looking back on my early life, I shudder. Puberty arrived at the age of eleven—two years before my peers. I was the smallest kid in class with over-developed hairy genitals and a moustache. That was traumatic, especially with a mother who railed against her god for giving her hairy legs. Then at high school, a group of older slobs, sensing I was different, singled me out for abuse. Name calling, dropping bags on my toes, things like that. Doesn't sound like much, but terrifying for someone desperate to blend in, which is why I faked interest in girls, booze, car racing, footy. Forcing myself to laugh when some dick-head got drunk and chundered all over his mate’s carpet. I male-bonded like a pro. Went to all the parties, suffered the excruciating boredom of feeling up my girlfriend for hours in the back seat of a car. Anything to prove I was one of the lads.’
A pregnant silence lingered as I wondered why on earth I was telling fat guts about old stuff I thought I’d come to terms with. Because he’s typical of the bastards who made your life a misery all those years, my brain whispered. Suddenly I felt genuine anger and snarled with quiet menace, ‘When I think about the appalling waste of my youth, I understand terrorists who want to hurt those who’ve hurt them!’
He shook his head and tutted disapproval – fuelling my outrage.
‘The idiotic gang mentality of heterosexual males like you,’ I snapped, ‘destroys the uniqueness at the core of every human, replacing it with dreadful conformity. You guys are prepared to sacrifice independence just to be part of the group. That makes you no better than pack animals! You’re like wild dogs, empty of individuality, because you’re frightened of rejection by your peers. I was expected to play rugby—but team sports with their conformist macho madness revolt me!’
He blinked in alarm, then stared intently at his watch.
I managed a smile. ‘Time to go?’
‘No, no! It’s just that I can’t stop admiring brilliant technology. My watch—well a chronometer actually—is so accurate that...’
I let him rave about his toy while planning my next move. I’d have to raise the drama a notch. Make him rue the day he barged in on me. If I couldn’t get him to leave in the next five minutes I’d… Before I could decide what I’d do, he sighed happily and returned his gaze to me.
I leaned forward, gazed soulfully into eyes that stared dully back, and in sepulchral tones continued my tale of woe.
‘Fear of other people led me to deny the existence of the strongest of my natural urges.’
He blinked stupidly.
‘At twenty-two, instead of enjoying my sexual peak, I was a sexual cripple. Masturbation my sole carnal release. When I attempted sexual relations with others, no matter how attractive they were, I was impotent!’
‘Not good,’ he muttered. Embarrassed.
‘Not good!’ I screamed as if teetering on the edge of sanity. ‘It needn’t have been like that! Fear of homophobic harassment, violence, and worse from my fellow humans warped my brain, my behaviour, my sexual development!’
He was beginning to twitch. Sensing success, I turned up the volume and howled, ‘Because I've kept my problems to myself, my benighted sister has probably told you I've had an easy life. Stupid bitch. Sending you here to spy in the hope she’ll discover that I’m as miserable as she is. Well you can tell her I am! Tell her I've hobbled through life like a mental cripple because, like all you heterosexual bastards, she doesn’t take my forty-five years with Jon seriously! To you guys I'm still a bachelor!’
He raised a placating hand. ‘No, no. You misunderstand your sister, she’s a….’
‘She’s a self-centred cow interested only in her own pathetic life. She wasn’t interested when we had to sell the house at the beach because of a gang of gay-bashing arseholes. But that's not the real problem. What really drives me crazy is the realisation that we each have only this one life—and mine’s been stuffed up!’
‘Everyone has regrets.’
‘Perhaps,’ I hissed, allowing a sly smile to linger as I reached for the sharp little knife we’d used for peeling mangos. ‘But what really makes me ready to snap is that I can’t undo a single action or inaction from the past, and I can’t stop thinking about it—because when you're retired there’s nothing else to think about, so…’ I lowered my voice to a feral growl, ‘I’ve decided someone. Has. To. Pay!’
Grinning insanely, I rose to my feet, raised the knife, and with eyes fixed on his vast belly, sidled around the table towards him.
Eyes wide in terror, he heaved himself off the divan and fled.
The panicked spinning of tyres almost had him slithering his ridiculous little sports car off the edge of the drive into the trees. He just missed the gateposts. The fading roar of exhaust was replaced by the sweet scent of mimosa, the mournful wail of a catbird, and the shrill cursing of a honeyeater. Across the valley, the late afternoon sun was dusting the escarpment with gold. Beside the path, fairy wrens dragged down grass stems and pecked at seeds. Jon wandered down from wherever he’d been hiding.
‘Has fat-guts gone then?’
‘Yeah. Suddenly remembered an appointment.’
‘I heard shouting.’
‘Mmmm… He became somewhat excited. I don’t think he’ll be back.’
‘Who was he?’
‘A friend of my devoutly depressed sister. She probably told him to call in as a punishment.’
‘Punishment? What for?’
‘She thinks it’s a sin for people to be happy—especially queers—they're supposed to be in eternal torment or something. Why do miserable people want to inflict their wretchedness on the few happy ones?’
‘I need a drink. Is the latest batch of home brew ready?’
‘Just waiting to be tasted.’
‘Give us a kiss, and I’ll get the glasses.’