Fiction | Using the method


It was on him again. Mick could feel it on his skin and this time it was even over the sheets and pillow. He lay perfectly still. If he moved it would get over Janelle. The last thing he wanted was to wake Janelle at midnight in another panic. With his eyes firmly closed, Mick tried to imagine himself as a small-to-medium-size car, moving slowly through an automated car wash. This would get it off him. Nothing beats an automated car wash for a quick once over. He held his breath and buried his head beneath the blankets—terrified, as he watched the huge rotating nylon brushes close in on his pale skin. He waited patiently to emerge at the other end, well-scrubbed. Clean and free of it.

Tentatively, Mick opened his eyes and peered around the dark room. But it was still there. Still on him.

 

Frustrated, he quietly got out of bed. He had to get it off and a cold shower was the one thing that never failed. Cautiously in the dark, he fumbled down the passage and flicked on the kitchen light. This time it was worse than ever; he could even feel it on his balls. Unbelievable. Somehow this time it had even gotten in his undies. With both hands he rubbed at his mop of greying hair to get it from there first. He brushed down the front of his pyjamas, all the way down to his ankles, his feet, even the soles of his feet. Mick took a big deliberate step out of the way of it, where it had heaped on the kitchen floor. He had to get it off himself and this was the method. This was the right order of things.

At the sink, he gulped down a glass of water. He contemplated the six pack in the fridge. Maybe he should wake Janelle, try to explain it all over again. He knew she wouldn’t mind. Maybe he should make a pot of tea and they could sit at the table. He might even rekindle the fire. Janelle would understand. The beer might throw her a little but she would at least make the effort. But to be honest, he felt unable to talk about it anymore. His jaw had clenched shut on the subject. No, he would just jump under another cold shower. Not exactly jump. Taunt himself until he had no choice. Unfortunately, a cold shower had become part of the method.

 

Mick opened the back door and stepped outside. Fuck it was cold. He reached for his farm coat hanging near the back door and slipped it on over the pyjamas. The coat smelt of fresh chainsaw oil and sawdust and he hitched the collar high to cover the back of his neck. He stretched his lower back and from the jacket pocket drew out his good beanie and pulled it tight over his head. He jogged on the spot to warm up, and because it was 100% safe to do so, slid a cold hand into his pyjama pants and grabbed hold of his balls. He didn’t even think to admonish himself. He gazed up at the sky, at the heavy clouds moving slowly north-east back-lit by the Moon. Sometimes Mick wished he could just pause it all for a second; the Moon and the stars, the clouds, him—a speck of dust outside his back door—and collapse it all into one second of absolutely no doubts. What might that feel like? Or, after all this time, would it even be bearable?

He slipped on his working boots—no socks—and quietly closed the kitchen door. As he walked across the yard, he tried to imagine it falling away from him, leaving it behind in a trail on the ground. As if it were unwinding from him in a thin thread that, if needed, you might even follow. At intervals he stopped and brushed at it on his pyjamas, almost in annoyance, as if trying to remove lint from an old jumper. He had to get it off. How could so much of it have re-accumulated since the last cold shower? He couldn’t shake it off.

He tracked the sound of the gravel crunching beneath his boots over to the shed and switched on the lights. Billydog was curled tight into his rugs. His tail started slowly wagging at the unexpected sight of Mick. Billydog raised his eyebrows, got up, and completed a routine stretch. He sat, waiting to get off the chain. Mick stood blankly, ignoring him, scanning the shed, as if puzzled by the lull in the engines of things and the stillness in the tools. Like Billydog, he needed daybreak. He needed daylight to put a few tasks before him to give him some shape.

Mick climbed the wooden steps to the shearing shed and paced the long board, naming different shearers and the stands at which they had shorn, remembering them like former Test cricketers, whose names get etched on locker doors. In the middle of the board slouched three butts of wool that still needed pressing, left over from shearing and another job he hadn’t got to.

Mick turned on the press; the electric motor jumped, filling the shed with a warm hum. He removed his coat and carefully fitted an empty wool pack into the press, then dragged and upended the first butt. In his good flannel pyjamas Mick got to it, bending down and scooping up a massive armload of fleece which he shoved into the press. Downstairs, Billydog barked, wanting off the chain, but Mick whistled him quiet. The dog wanted next to Mick, he wanted to be up in the shearing shed and for it to be full of sheep, and for Mick to be whistling him instructions. He barked again. Mick told him to shut up. Billydog whimpered, trying to get himself quiet. Mick bent and scooped up another large armload of wool, bundled it into the press and hit the hydraulic lever. The motor jumped a pitch, dragging the hydraulic press slowly down over the heaped wool. The wool smelt good with lanolin; he could feel the grease working into his skin. He’d just get this done, then head back to the house for his cold shower.

 

With the wool pack fastened, Mick heaved the bale out of the press and let it thump onto the wooden floor, where he rolled it to the back of the shed. Next, he swept the whole shed clean and, while he did so, visualised himself sweeping it away. He paused, brushed it off his pyjamas and then swept, brushed it off then swept, brushed swept … brushed swept. It felt like therapy, or what he imagined a therapist might have him do. If it got to that. When it got to that, if Janelle had her way.

Mick kept at it with the broom, stylishly using both a forehand and backhand technique. This would definitely become part of the method. He swept the whole distance of the shed floor a couple of times over, brushing it off his pyjamas and sweeping it into small neat piles, and then finally, down the chutes. Good.

 

Done. He removed his beanie and dabbed at the sweat on his brow. He wished he hadn’t given up smoking. He loved smoking and should have kept to his own judgements on the matter. Maybe he’d return to the house and skip the shower, undress, and quietly, a little sweaty and smelling heavy with lanolin, snuggle back into bed with Janelle. She wouldn’t mind. That old feeling of nudging in close against her, how holding her like that in the middle of the night was a good thing that often worked. Mick gave it serious consideration, until he remembered his side of the bed. More than likely it was still there from before, on the sheets and over the pillow. He felt it back on his pyjamas and again in his hair. Unbelievable.

 

Despondently, Mick pulled on his beanie and picked up his coat. At the bottom of the stairs Billydog strained at the end of his chain, tail motoring. He desperately wanted to do sheep work. Mick bent and knuckled him behind the ears and told him he’d been a good dog, prompting Billydog to jump and playfully paw into his arms. No more now, Mick told him. Back on your mat, silly Billydog.

Before the dog could complain, Mick turned off the lights to the shed and stood a moment while his eyes readjusted. Outside the Moon was near full and still high, reflecting cold light between the breaking clouds tailing off to the east. Still no rain. He could see the dark railings of the sheep yards and the fence and the big marri trees in the corner near the house dam. A thin mist was settling in layers over the disused and broken things scattered around the shed. He slipped back into his coat. He needed to walk. It was back on him and the walking helped. He promised himself a late start in the morning and turned right, opening the gate to the laneway. He could see quite well.

Slowly, he walked to the end of the lane following the vehicle tracks he drove on each day. When he reached the Swans Nest Paddock, Mick paused at the double steel gates, searching the moonlit slope for the mob of purple tag ewes. He guessed they’d be camped down near the hay he fed out the day before. They had started lambing and by now the foxes would be taking a close interest. Down further in the few acres of bush surrounding the lake, he could hear a boobook, its thin two-note call achingly clear in the dark silence. The silence felt overstretched, even more part of him than usual. The deep inherited silence of the farm. Thank God for Janelle. Waiting all day for Janelle to arrive home from teaching was sometimes hard work. Mostly it was the hardest work.

Mick opened the gate and closed it behind him. He followed the fence line down the slope alongside the now-dried lake his dad had named the Swans Nest. The swans had abandoned it years ago. Mick kept to the vehicle tracks. By now he must be well into the early hours of the morning. With each step his heels grew increasingly painful. He should have worn socks. How much skin was there to rub off on the back of one’s heels anyway? At least it made for a distraction. As he limped along, Mick heard roos thumping over the hard ground and backtracking into the bush; they rattled the plain wires ahead of him as they nudged back through the fence. His scent on the downward breeze would be giving them the heads up.

Mick scuffed along, climbing the rise and through the gate into White Gum Hill Paddock. He didn’t stray from the vehicle tracks. Light mist was still falling neatly over the ground. He was glad for the farm coat. The ground felt damp enough for the early clover germination to get an assist.

Nonetheless, some rain would be good. One thing for sure, Janelle wouldn’t be overly happy about the cuffs of his pyjama pants dragging in the wet dirt. In fact, Janelle’s sense of humour was at an all-time low. Regularly, she agreed it had to be something when he asked her to look, it was just that she could never see it on him. Janelle also agreed he wasn’t the type to make things up. But maybe it was time he talked to someone else about it. Maybe even a chat with Dr Victor. He made me give up smoking! Exactly, Mick! He might make this thing give up as well. I think you need to talk to someone, Mick. Dr Victor usually meant cutbacks.

Mick limped down the other side of White Gum Hill, the burning in his heels now at full blast. Come daybreak, he’d lose the boots and make a dash for home barefooted. He had to get home before Janelle left for work. She could do without the extra stress. Teaching all day was hard enough. If she wasn’t too pushed for time though, maybe she could have a quick look at his heels before heading into town. Just a little patching where it was difficult to reach. Maybe he could even convince Janelle to stay home for the day. That would be nice. Bugger. He could have let Billydog off the chain. He’d’ve been better for the walk and good company to boot. Ouch! He shouldn’t have thought of to boot. It sent a sharp pain across the backs of his heels.

He opened the gate into the Big Dam Paddock and closed it behind him. In the dark he could hear the mob of blue tag ewes; like usual they were camped in the creek bed around the paperbarks. They had also started lambing. Not wanting to disturb them, he crossed the creek on the down side of the sleeper bridge. He strayed from the track, tripped and bellied out. Fortunately the creek was dry but the pyjamas were taking a hammering. He corrected himself and brushed off. No! Brushing off was part of the method. And once the method had been started, it had to be carried out to its logical conclusion. Of late, Mick was increasingly confused which came first, it or the method.

 

Either way it had to be done. Firstly, he brushed off his shoulders and then down the length of each arm. He stretched up behind the back of his shoulders as far as he could reach and brushed there, and then down over his lower back and over his backside, and the backs of his legs. He brushed off the front of his pyjama top, finally bending and brushing off the length of his long legs, right down to the offending boots. He removed his beanie and gave that a good tap against a tree. Using the method, he gave himself the once-over, and then just to be sure, repeating his own little home-grown yoga session, used it again a couple of times over. Good. Once again done with it. Mick looked up and in the dark noticed multiple pairs of green-marbled eyes reflecting back at him. Still not wanting to disturb them, he cautiously limped out of the creek bed, negotiating old flood debris and the fallen trunks of storm-hit trees.

He had to keep moving. Standing still was when it found him. Sitting or lying in bed was when he noticed it most. Probably worth mentioning if he ended up speaking with Dr Victor. At the top of the rise he stood a moment to catch his breath, and in the dark below, heard the isolated metallic exchange in the gears of the windmill. They made an organised clatter down near the bank of the Big Dam.

A swim in the freezing cold of the Big Dam.

That might be the answer. Might be just what was needed all along, even save him a trip into town.

He scuffed down the vehicle track. He scrambled up the steep bank on all fours to avoid slipping back, stood up and then stopped dead at the sight of the large stretch of still water at night. In the pale moonlight Mick could make out the skeletal outlines of the big waterlogged jarrahs standing in the middle of the dam. Reaching high above the surface of the silent water and a long way beneath, they had remained unmoved since the damming of Yamballup Creek. Behind the dam in the dark blanket of remaining old growth, thousands of frogs charted the creek catchment through the thick bulrushes and undergrowth, an ancient map of sound erased only by where he stood on the bank of the dam.

He could feel it on his skin.

 

Gingerly, Mick heeled out of his boots. He dropped his pyjama pants and undies and reluctantly removed the farm coat. Slowly he unbuttoned his pyjama top. The air was very cold on his naked skin. He breathed in deeply and exhaled, breathed and exhaled, and again, because it was 100% safe to do so, grabbed his balls and started jogging on the spot. He tried convincing himself there was no turning back. For one thing he’d walked all this way. Plus what would his dad say if he chickened out. Then there was the obvious. This was a sure way to stave off a visit to Dr Victor. A good list of reasons he should jump in.

Desperately trying to add to the list, Mick edged down the bank and into the cold water. It hurt. This could do serious damage. Maybe he should turn back; for one thing, his old man had been gone a long time. He tried to stand a moment, reconsider and catch his breath, but the bank dropped steeply and his toes had already clogged with soft clay. He slipped—had to let go of his genitals and push out into the dark water.

The shock knocked the breath from him. He realised he had a good chance of cramping and sinking heavily to the bottom but then he remembered the beanie. The beanie was a present from Janelle, pure merino and expensive. He would need to keep his head above water at all costs, to keep the beanie dry and prevent shrinkage. Tentatively he pushed out further, his shoulders and neck already rigid, his skin and heels stinging. Mick set his sights on the first big jarrah.

 

Using what he believed was breaststroke, he eventually reached and steadied himself against the trunk of the jarrah. It felt cold and hard and like metal, dead smooth, with no place to get a hold. In the top branches, the ibis shifted, grunted, made to take off if needed and gave the impression that at any moment they might unload on the beanie. Ibis had nested in the drowned jarrahs a long time.

He moved his legs in small circles to stay afloat and tried hard to get a grip on the smooth trunk. He noticed the dull throbbing at the base of his skull and neck had eased and that his arms and legs had numbed. Inside the freezing core of himself, he even felt a slow disappearing. For the first time in months, he realised it had gone. It had very much completely gone from him.

He looked back at the dark bank of the dam. It was a good distance off. Above him the ibis resettled and through the stark branches of the jarrah Mick got a last glimpse of the Moon disappearing to the west, paused before daybreak, and had this strange sensation of being on pause himself, and of being able to peer back down on himself from high above through the limbs of the jarrah—drone-like, as if he were hovering beneath the stars, looking down at this naked man he no longer really knew, treading water with a dry beanie and not wanting to let go.

 

 

Brad Gilbert

Brad Gilbert lives on the south coast of Western Australia. He writes short stories.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.


Related articles & Essays