Gus Hughes smiles when he arrives and says hello, goes to the counter to get something to eat, returns with a roll-up and some chips, sits down and smiles again, saying he was hoping for something else, but it would do.
“So what are you up to?” he asks, indicating the paper and my notes for a story called The Acquired Taste of Poison. I tell him about how I began waking up at about 4am, though I kept myself in bed until after 6. And how I’d just watched a bit of a doco on Kurt Cobain that I’ve been dipping into over the last few weeks. A strange biography called About a Son. Strange because thus far, in an hour of film, they haven’t shown his face, there are no talking-heads, and the images are all impressionistic visuals of life lived in the places Kurt is referencing in a long, meandering audio interview. It’s elegiac, because Kurt’s suicide acts retroactively all the way through it, but it’s also kind of boring and out of focus. I’m enjoying watching ten or fifteen minutes of it every now and again.
If there’s a theme to what Kurt’s talking about it’s this idea that he despises people and he wishes he didn’t hate almost everyone. But it reminds me of this guy I knew who obsessively kept telling everyone how much he hated homosexuals and had a stash of pornos of women with big breasts he wanted to show everyone whenever he could. After a year of knowing him, I was entirely convinced he was gay and desperately trying, every day, to convince himself that he wasn’t. He was recently married and his wife was pregnant, when I knew him. With Kurt there is a constant reference to chronic stomach pain, a point within the nervous system in which we store the world’s nourishment. Perhaps he felt what everyone was giving him was somehow poisoned. If there’s a reversal here as well, then Kurt perhaps loved people too much and what he got from them was hate. The point with the guy and his porno stash is that he really had convinced himself that he wasn’t gay. Think about that for a second. A fundamental fact of your life like that — held below the threshold of actual consciousness. Sounds impossible but I think people do it all the time.
Hughes has quietly been finishing his roll-up while encouraging me to continue telling him about these ideas I want to somehow fit into a story. He also encourages me to help him finish his chips before they go cold.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, in a café at the end of a pier. The Kiosk in St Kilda. A place that burned down and was rebuilt in a perfect replica of itself. A resurrected historical monument to some strange Turkish Bazaar/English Seaside Resort architectural period that takes in the St Kilda Sea Baths and The Esplanade Hotel… and not a lot else actually.
Gus has invited a friend to join us but she still hasn’t shown up. He explains that she’s getting a haircut before she comes over, and when he gets a call on his mobile, has to direct her from Acland Street to the Esplanade Hotel. Across the foot bridge where she can see the St Kilda Sea Baths and the Pier that ran out into a breakwater that the penguins liked to use as a kind of penguin headquarters. Tourists come to see the penguins often but locals like me haven’t seen a penguin in over ten years of living in the vicinity. I don’t see the allure of the penguin. Pretty secretive as birds go and the mystery of their waddling movements doesn’t seem all that fascinating.
Jasmina finally shows up and I wonder what her hair used to look like before the haircut. At the moment it looks long and pampered. The kind of hair a newscaster would have for the six o’clock news on channel nine. She sits down with a vague smile for the windows, the mysterious penguins, or maybe even Hughes and me. I’ve never met her before and our initial conversation runs a course through the places we’ve published stories or poems and contains vague suggestions of our hopes and aspirations. Hughes recounts the details of their friendship and the origins of their acquaintanceship. Jasmina tells us she needs to use the toilet and is gone a while. Hughes and I talk about a project we want to work together on called Vanishing Acts, but our ideas are vague. What is certain though is that it will be an epistolary story, something neither of us have tried before. She sits down again and listens and answers when questions are asked but all with the same elusiveness of her smile for the penguins. She’s not interested in a story written in letters. That’s clear enough to all three of us. Instead Jasmina goes to the counter and brings back two slices of a chocolate mud cake and a mug of hot chocolate with a pink marshmallow floating on the top of it, dusted in chocolate powder. She’s a small woman, and thin, so she must have tape worm if this is her usual diet. Her delicate little silver fork never leaves her mouth without being polished to a silver gleam. It is buried into one of the slices of chocolate mud cake and up goes another load of chocolate mud cake to be polished off in her small mouth.
A man near the window announces to the room that there are dolphins nearby. No one notices how rare this kind of general announcement to a room full of strangers is. We all obediently walk to the window to look out at the heavy heave of water that is Port Philip Bay. Eventually the metallic looking ocean parts and we see a dolphin break water and then there’s nothing for a few long seconds.
Hughes asks me whether I liked Nirvana. Whether I’m a big fan of Kurt Cobain. Jasmina has disappeared somewhere outside again after finishing her hot chocolate and cake. Looking to catch more glimpses of the dolphins I assume.
“Not really,” I say. “I liked the music but it was ages since I listened to Nirvana before the film. And I’m watching it only because I’m always looking for a good doco.”
But Hughes is a fan and says that Cobain was the Kennedy of our generation. Everyone in Generation X knows what he was doing when he heard Cobain blew the top of his head off. Hughes was having a morning coffee in the city at Pelegrinis when the old Italian guy there, whose owned the store for over forty years said, ‘Mister Grunge murder he-self.’
I was driving down Malvern Road to a friend’s house when it came up on Triple J. The first thing I said to Ivan when he opened his door was, ‘did you hear,’ and he said, ‘yeah, I heard,’ and we stood in his doorway a few moments, two guys that usually didn’t give a shit about pretty much anyone dying, shaking our heads, with our faces feeling weirdly numb.
Hughes and I talk about Cobain for a while but apparently he meant nothing to Jasmina even though she was old enough to have worn flannel in the early nineties. She sits silently, keeping her thoughts on suicide and music to herself. She looks unsettled as though something beyond the windows of the Kiosk is drawing her attention away.
Hughes says, “We don’t get the right to have a Kennedy. You feel like an idiot even talking about Cobain. Like all of this is just culturally bankrupt and there’s no value to any of it. But I remember a guy who listened to Nevermind every day on his walkman for over a year. Someone should tell him that it all meant nothing and was entirely insignificant to the world at large. Because there’s this as well, right — Kennedy was a slut and not just because of Monroe. His dad pretty much bought that election against Nixon for him and he started the Vietnam war. But all of those guys in that generation felt entitled to mourn. That’s all I’m saying.”
“You can mourn Cobain,” she tells him but it doesn’t sound like the kind of green light he’s looking for. And I just feel foolish having brought it up in the first place. Anyone listening to Triple J on April 7, 1994, would have to agree with Hughes though, regarding the Kennedy/Cobain thing.
Jasmina leaves the Kiosk. Maybe she’s hoping for a another glimpse of the dolphins. Maybe she’s got better things to do than contemplate the significance of Cobain to Generation X.
Hughes says, “So you said poison. Why is it poison for Kurt and not to anyone else?”
“Who says it’s not?”
“I’m not about to blow my head off, am I?”
“Years ago I used to be a 5-star cocktail bartender. I did quite a few wine or scotch training seminars. In one of those Scotch courses, the guy gave us a quote: ‘Really good Scotch is wasted on anyone below the age of forty.’ He went on to explain that the pallet changes from childhood to adulthood and into age, moving away from all things sweet to an appreciation for wider ranges and nuances of bitterness. Or there’s how scotch was invented by monks looking for the elixir of life and the reason it’s called spirits. Or how alcohol that’s too strong is a poison. If you drink too much of it you fall unconscious. It can give you blood poisoning and kill you. That happens to teenagers sometimes. But if you’ve got a nice glass with an ice cube in it, you can enjoy the warmth of it as it burns through to your stomach. The Acquired Taste of Poison. I suppose that’s where I want to go with that story. I just don’t know how to fictionalise that idea. Maybe all I need is a character. A Cobain type would be too predictable. Writing about a guy with repressed homosexual urges seems… fraught. Maybe I’ll have a woman who owns a café at the end of a pier. A woman who wants the world to taste sweet.”
Hughes get’s himself a peppermint tea and comes back to say, “I’m thinking about rewriting Anna Karenina. If they can rebuild this place I can rewrite that book.”
“What?” I lean back in my seat and am tempted to laugh even though he’s not kidding.
“Anna Karenina the way it was intended. Because in the first draft of that novel, Anna and Vronsky went to live in Italy. That’s how it ended before Tolstoy chickened out and went for the Big-Pay-Off ending. Did anyone ask Anna if she wanted to die? I bet you she wanted to live. Tolstoy had his hand in her back, man. Maybe that’s where I’ll start it. Anna eating a bit of Tiramisu in Venice, at the Piazza San Marco. Kicking at those annoying fucking pigeons as Vronsky books a gondola cruise for lunch.”
“I think that’s a sequel. You’re going to write a sequel to Anna Karenina.”
“But Anna doesn’t kill herself,” he explains. “At the very least, my book’s an alternate history.” Hughes isn’t all that funny in life, but on paper the man’s funny as hell. If the book ever gets written it’s guaranteed to outsell a Zombie version of a Jane Austen novel.
“I don’t know where Jasmina keeps going,” he says and looks under the table. She’s been gone for most of the hour we’ve been sitting here chatting. We’re supposed to be three writers getting together to talk about writing, but she looked like she was more interested in seeing dolphins or penguins, and me and Hughes can’t get over the suicide of Kurt Cobain, even if it is indeed 2009. Or are we perhaps suppressing the pain of the far fresher wound of losing Michael Jackson? Hughes looks like he’s still capable of Moonwalking his arse off.
“Does she not want to be here?” I ask him.
“I invited her. She said she did. I don’t get it. She wanted to talk about this collection of linked stories she’s writing…”
“Well… I’m going to have to cut it short today. Susanne’s not feeling well and Emily has her hand’s full just waddling around eight months heavy with a baby sister. I’m an arsehole for not cancelling today actually.”
“No problem. I suppose Jasmina will come back soon. I don’t know. I thought you two would get along.”
I walk out the front door and come across Jasmina, walking from around the side of the building, who still looks like a channel nine news woman, but now with a bit of bad news for the nation. The Penguins have moved away from St Kilda pier, never to return. The dolphins of Port Philip Bay are developing serious skin diseases from suburban run off. I consider just waving at her as I leave because I don’t know her any better than I did an hour ago when I first met her.
She says, “There’s a problem with the toilets here. I can’t find one I can use. I thought they were just engaged, but I think there’s some kind of problem. I might need to go to that place over there back across the pier. What’s it called?”
“The St Kilda Sea baths.”
“They’ll have toilets over there… that are open?” She asks me looking over at Hughes who’s already busy resurrecting Anna in his Moleskine.
“I think they will,” I tell her.
We walk along the pier. We don’t talk even though it takes a few minutes to get all the way down to the Boardwalk. It’s oddly romantic. I take her to the sliding glass doors of the Sea Baths and give her directions. Just before she goes in though, I reach into my bag, and pull out a story I wrote a little while ago that I’ve been reworking for a publisher that asked to see it again. She looks at it and doesn’t really want to take it.
“It’s about a plane that explodes mid air,” I say. “It’s called Bombs.”
She takes it and folds it. She gives me her best newscaster smile and rushes through the doors to the toilets within the building. And I really do wonder whether she’ll read it. I walk along the boardwalk towards my apartment in Elwood. It’s about fifteen minutes along St Kilda Beach and up through a bit of neighborhood. Along the way I’ll pass Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus, Mercury and the Sun. In the other direction are Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Pluto is all the way somewhere out in Port Melbourne. I don’t know if you’d call it a sculptural art installation because it seems just as much a primary school class project — all these metal depictions of our solar system in scaled down size and distance. Earth is a fairly pathetic looking marble so there’s a commitment to objectivity in the sacrifice of global vanity. The only impressive one of the lot is the massive ball of bronze that is the sun.
As I get further away I wonder at what point do we three each reach a ideal point of separation. Because as soon as Jasmina leaves the toilet, she’ll be walking back up the pier and her orbit will be joined once again with Hughes’s. It’ll only be me that has drifted away. But at some point in the next step or two there will a perfect separation of three bodies that just minutes before had revolved around a table within a Kiosk at the end of a pier. In the next few steps I’ll begin entering the orbit of my wife and daughter. My unborn daughter within Emily, still more a part of my wife than an entity in herself. Still cells belonging to a larger mass. A body of water on a planet’s surface. Or a Mount Olympus like you’ll find on Mars, so vast it pushes out through that planet’s atmosphere.
At one point during the Cobain doco I watched a little more of this morning, the audio interview is interrupted by Courtney Love coming down to ask in a sleepy voice whether Kurt could remember to bring up a bottle of warm milk for their infant. ‘Don’t forget,’ she says, and he assures her in the most suburban daddy of ways, ‘No, I won’t forget.’ All the interviews were recorded between midnight and dawn over a period of weeks. A year before Cobain got trigger happy.
The final song the group recorded was called You Know You’re Right. Maybe my favourite song of theirs. Kurt sings, I will never bother you, over and again. I will move away from here… we always knew it would come to this, he sings nothing really bothers her, she just wants to love herself, and the constant refrain is Pain. Pain. Pain. Which in the context of this piece you’re reading sounds pretty uninspired, but Cobain has a way of singing those words with a kind of sincerity that you didn’t doubt, even before he proved it, once and for all. The uncomfortable fact is that the suicide of Cobain was an ultimate act of sincerity. Since this piece is not intended for teens or otherwise susceptible youth, lets be honest about it here. When he killed himself most of us that kind of enjoyed the music, thought, God damn, that motherfucker was serious. And we shook our heads in sad admiration. Because while I don’t care about Cobain the individual, not even the father of a child, what he symbolised, Nirvana and the whole movement they were the spearhead of, was an anti capitalist, anti consumerist, anti fashion, anti bullshit drive towards sincerity and purity of feeling. When Cobain died, the concept of Grunge died itself, and music lost its final rebellion, and then, all hope of a genuine political dimension.
Now we can mock the flannel wearing early nineties but what else is to be expected from an era of bling; of polite requests for modification and moderation in the way the world moves towards its inevitable self-consuming ends. That is of course, when it’s not actively promoting the virtues of the market whore. Sounds like a polemic but who believes the world can go on like this? On and on through the Global Financial Crisis towards a renaissance of Capitalist Consumerism. You’re hard pressed now to find that kind of naivety in the most right wing. But the Cobain answer is to savour the taste of gun metal. Call the poison what it is and take a final dose.
In that final song You Know You’re Right, Cobain also has a lyric that I always thought was a startlingly good piece of writing. Comparable with anything by Eliot, Baudelaire, Whitman, or anyone else you care to mention. Amongst those lines about his daughter and love, the inevitability of self destruction, Cobain sings, I will crawl away from God. I imagined a scene painted by William Blake, where a figure cowers and backs away from the idea of divinity. When I looked up the lyrics it seems Cobain sang, I will crawl away for good. I felt robbed of that genius. How much superior a line that would be if it was a crawling away from all hope of life or divinity, of meaning and significance, of history and the future.
And I suppose I realised that his line was just as effective a way of communicating that impulse. If there’s an answer for me, moving ever nearer to the orbit of my sick daughter, wife and unborn child, it’s that I will crawl away from death. I will crawl towards the inborn world. That I will cultivate a taste for bitterness and poison, and that all of it can be distilled into something that, with little more than a nice glass and perhaps an ice cube, can be enjoyed as it warms the mouth and burns through to the stomach.