Storms around Nimbin often come from the south-west, rolling in from behind Nimbin Rocks with a sound like that of some weird, mysterious train.
From the verandah, where I’m sitting, the thunder in the mountains seems like the echo of events taking place in another country. When I think about some of the things that have happened to me in this bizarre experience called Life, to date, I couldn’t be more surprised than if, say, a giant cicada suddenly ate the suburb of Five Dock. Hunter S. Thompson repeatedly said that life could never get weird enough for him. Well actually it did, Hunter. That’s why you topped yourself, you dickhead.
In the same way I often think, If I’m going to die – and I am, and in fact could do so at any time – then why the hell am I doing whatever it is I am doing? Whatever you believe, we only do this once and if I knew I were going to die, say next Tuesday, then I might suddenly be concerned with a whole lot of stuff I’m not currently bothered about. For example, I probably wouldn’t be sitting on my verandah with disconnected oddments of thought assembling themselves in what I believe is called my mind, thoughts spliced together like images in some weird forgotten Bunuel film, thinking about my dinner, that my ute needs repairs, and wondering why so many songs I’ve been working out on my guitar lately seem to have B major and C minor 7th chords. And about the fact that one of the Overland editors is curiously named Sparrow, a name shared with other somewhat more notorious Sparrows, such as Jack, and Sally, and Rebecca, and Roberta, though some of these Sparrows are imaginary, I can’t remember which, still it seems weird that … etc etc, and so on and so on.
Most of the people I know who have died suicided. People who knew very well when they were going to die and how, sometimes using strange Heath Robinson contraptions to find their way out of here.
Surviving sometimes feels like going through a mix of bizarre and frenetic slapstick and the Basra Turkey Shoot.
Though in fact the only question I might want to put to myself at the point of death, should I have time, might be, Are you kind, which as odd as it may seem to you, is the most politically loaded question I can think of, as my father seemed to know.
My father died a couple of years ago of mesothelioma, a working-class disease if ever there was one.
In the early 60s he worked in a chemical factory in Lancashire, where huge dryers of some kind were insulated with asbestos. Frequently cracking, the asbestos was repaired by hand. The factory was the main UK supplier of raw plastic product for the record company EMI, and when the Beatles signed with EMI in 1962 and began their ascent to a stardom and ubiquity no-one then could imagine, the factory production skyrocketed. When the asbestos cladding on the dryers could no longer be easily repaired, it was ripped off by hand in sheets, the invisible fibres of asbestos floating through the air like snow and settling on the factory floor and on the clothing and in the lungs of factory hands.
My father had a bit of a soft spot for John Lennon, a contemporary of his, and I recently discovered that as a child Lennon was a frequent visitor to the English fishing town where my father grew up and later worked (at the factory where he would acquire the causes for mesothelioma). In fact, when Lennon was in town during his school holidays visiting a cousin, he stayed just a few streets from where my child father was living. I imagine them in different gangs throwing rocks at each other down by the nearby seashore.
The night before my father died, I visited him at the hospice, a rundown grey building with many dismal-looking cupboards and storerooms. While I was there, my father shat himself. I rang for a nurse. We waited. He refused to me let me clean him up, looking at me as though I’d just suggested he compose obscene limericks about the Madonna, and so we waited a little more. He sat on the edge of the bed in his own shit. I searched the corridors for any nursing staff. There were none. I began to boil with helpless fury. My father said in a faint rasping voice, That won’t bluddy ‘elp. They’re overwurked and paid tupp’nce. Be patient.
Mesothelioma killed him in four months. I stood in the aisle in the suburban church and looked at his embalmed corpse dressed in his best blazer and tie as though he were going to a wedding in the 1970s. His hair had been brushed in a way he’d never brushed it and he had been given a smear of lipstick. But nothing could disguise the appearance of his hands, which had somehow become huge and misshapen like the hands of Mr Hyde, the nails wide and flat and yellow. He looked like a dummy corpse placed there as a joke in old hilarious clothes.
Just before he entered the hospice, my father had repeatedly insisted that nobody at his funeral was to wear black but to dress in whatever colourful clothes they possessed. Whatever his reasons for this – and he made a lot of odd pronouncements in the last few weeks of his life – it seemed like a reasonable request and I decided to take him at his word. On the day of the funeral I wore a pair of green pants, my red gym boots and a bright blue t-shirt with the toothy grin of Miyazaki’s Totoro on it.
Everyone else of course, wore black, so when I stood up to deliver a brief eulogy I felt like a clown who had been chosen to announce that a tragedy had occurred. I muttered a few words about my father’s relentless dedication to the Beatitudes and returned to my seat. Whatever it is that clowns of any kind do, they do not preach at funerals.
When talking to myself, or to others, doesn’t make enough sense of the day, I write and draw short comics. I wrote one last year called The Tale of Argyle Flute, that narrates a story that goes in part, ‘On her travels across many strange lands, Argyle Flute thought about death every day, and wondered how hers would appear to her. Traffic accident? Lingering terminal illness? Tripping over the garden rake? She realised that nearly everyone who dies, does so unexpectedly without even knowing what happened.’
In the end Argyle Flute gets eaten by her feral cat after her house burns down.
We continually accumulate invisible soundtracks to our lives, soundtracks only we can hear, all misbegotten memories and odd regrets and unfilled desires like a million cut-and-pasted and disconnected YouTube videos tagged onto stories we try and tell ourselves about ourselves. We have no choice as to how we will be remembered. For the most part, we will not be remembered for long and, after a little while, not remembered at all. And we don’t have much choice as to how we will die either. All I have learned is that lives burst apart without warning; that everyone dies; that happiness is possible; that all we will ever have are moral and political problems.
I also learned this week that as brilliant John and Paul and George undoubtedly were, they couldn’t play drums for shit and that Back In the USSR, a Beatles track sans Ringo, proves it. Though it occurs to me that if all four of them had been permanently crippled by STDs in Hamburg in 1960, we’d not just be minus The White Album, I suppose there’d also be a chance that my father would still be alive.