Hayden James Douglas currently resides in
His short film, Song of the
Feeding Carnivore, was screened at the Victorian State Film Theatre. He is currently working
on a collection of short stories.
Moving Over the Face of Water is his first novel.
day had been long and my feet were blistered from all the miles I had walked,
but the passage wasn’t drawing me closer to wisdom or even illumined silence.
I could hear the sounds of a city in festive mode and the occasional outburst of
drunken rage, yet I couldn’t see anybody;
I was locked in a maze of infernal debate whilst straying through town like an
escapee from an asylum, a cloud of fear trailing me as I progressed.
out my hands, I probed the air, tentatively feeling each step as if under water,
every breath a random shifting of particles, every movement an ordeal. The
streets were greasy with mist, reflecting garish neon. Cars and taxis slithered
on towards oblivion like endless chrome ribbons.
the bloody hell are you off to at this hour, buddy?” a perplexed taxi driver
had asked as he cruised by. “You okay? You look like you’ve just seen the
panic I didn’t reply. I put every ounce of energy into killing off my words
before they could spread and infect anything or anyone. To be lost and itinerant
was to lay oneself open to a whole network of risks. And, like a hermit in the
wilds, I was always alert, listening for any hint of danger. In fact I was
operating almost subconsciously, keeping to the maternal shadows without
soliciting attention. If the Inquisitors were still looking for me they could
easily find me, they only had to listen to any random snatch of conversation and
they’d know my intentions. So I kept plans to a minimum and drifted like a
foraging beetle, letting the debris spread like crumbs act as my guide.
this privation signify anything?’ I asked myself as I rounded yet another
foreign corner. ‘Is there some sort of cosmic riddle you’re unconsciously
night the Inquisitors began investigating my whereabouts when I questioned their
right to harass peaceful citizens. In my intoxicated dream-slur I decided to
seek a refuge so Daniel McDougal wouldn’t standout as a rebellious prophet,
merely a vagabond who had lost his way.
I recall, the street party I stumbled upon was like entering the catacombs of my
worst nightmare. On the cobblestones, among beer bottles, used condoms,
hypodermic needles and other such foul debris, I noticed the statue of a black
Christ fallen from the cross, as well as a number of other religious icons.
cannae let the boy go unaided,” rasped a ragged Scotswoman cradling a cask of
cheap wine. “If someone has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will
the someone nae go intae the mountains tae look for the lost one? If they bring
back such a sheep, can they nae rejoice more than over the ninety and nine?”
of the world’s nascent tragedies,” her drunken sidekick grumbled as he
shifted uncomfortably on his makeshift bed of flattened cardboard. “Besides,
he’s a big boy now, one more faceless refugee. We can’t live in the womb
forever. We may pretend but at some point we’re expelled from
that point it occurred to me that I must have been marked with some kind of
black halo. Where I’d managed to remain largely anonymous in this world of
sordid activity created for the amusement of others, I was now a curious
exhibit. I became suspicious of everyone I brushed past and they, too, were
suspicious of me, so I kept shambling into the nether world of exhaustion, a
pitiful character tramping silently through a dank and menacing underworld,
searching for a retreat, a lair … And as I groped about in the rustling
darkness with my eyes raised in search of a certain star to lead the way, I saw
an ethereal glow hovering only a few hundred yards beyond the Chinatown arches.
Instinct told me to pursue that glow until I discovered my safe harbour.
strange?” was my first reaction. Who would ever find a humble charity bin
tucked away in this nondescript back alley in
dawn approached the wailing siren of a police car sounded like the last battle
of the Gods. Confrontations slowly encircled one another, creating a curious
montage, and I had an impression I was spinning through an infinite black hole.
such primordial hours, a contemplative soul can become agonisingly aware of time
as it glimpses as many images as there are grains of sand. I battled with
metaphysics and philosophy and tried to feel safe, but I was terrified the
moment these battles ended, the Inquisitors would return; then there would be
the four of us—the itinerant forced to negotiate the riddles of a desperate
life, and the unholy trinity who would assail me from every direction with their
accusations of heresy.
my eyes clamped shut I reached down and pulled a stale blanket up to my chin.
Then I tried not to move, for even the darkness seemed to be watching my every
gesture and listening to my paranoia.
in there barely breathing, I thought about my situation and what I was going to
do. What of the mysterious incident that occurred in the midst of my blackout,
triggering the relapse into psychosis? Was it merely a drunken rush of blood, a
whim? And why had I ventured east instead of west? Was it east to some mythical
landscape where a benevolent race of poetic souls can revel in agrarian silence,
or the Garden of Eden, fount of creation?
remembered a crowd of jeering thrill seekers, and it was turning into an awkward
spectacle. But whatever transpired seemed pervaded with illusion, a pause as
before a cosmic interrogation mark. Perhaps I’d even convinced myself that I
was involved in some heinous crime, whereas ‘others’ may have planted the
false memory to derive sadistic pleasure from my inevitable distress …
and turning in a fearful sweat, I tried to retrace and restructure events only
to run headlong into the ragged Scotswoman’s final, sage-like warning:
return, laddie, and I’ll think of ye in reverie. Seek oot the few dwindling
can resist everything except temptation.’
dim clatter of trams slowly emerge with the knowledge dawn has arrived. Alert to
any foreign sounds, he listens to echoes that resonate from the depths of the
earth, and tries to understand what they represent and how they can imperil him.
The pounding bass of trance music vibrates across the
alley, jumbled by periodic shrieks, bottles smashing on cobblestones and church
bells that penetrate like an elastic roar.
He fights the panic, the external stimuli—the lust to
simply live again, to venture out into the world to prowl and explore. Is he not
safe inside this providential enclosure? Is there not enough poetry in the
homely old smells?
With the sound of chaos clawing at his self-discipline, with both need and its denial wrangling for supremacy, our bedraggled city man arrives at a decision and sets off into the perilous morning like an animal that is bred among the wilds and relies on instinct. Onward he goes, beaten with the elements; his bleary eyes navigating fog-choked streets, his aching loneliness daring him to make trial of reason, even by entering the house of the enemy.
usual suspects were propped on the footpath waiting for the doors to open—the
likes of Jenko already swigging wine from a flagon; his bucked teeth stained the
colour of a neglected urinal.
what the friggin’ cat dragged back!” the old rascal grunted. “A dial on
him like a strangled fart. No doubt you have many tales to tell since we were
cheery disposition cut through my defences, putting me at ease. “Speaking of
prodigals,” I mumbled, “I thought you would’ve found a new watering hole,
considering your dive in the local opinion polls?”
broad green eyes narrowed into angry slits.
be buggered if some
falling out with the new publican and his entourage of politically correct
workers had many regulars concerned about their own standing. On Thursday night
his girlfriend Val was so pig-drunk she fell backwards off her stool and split
her head open.
woman!” he’d crowed. “Yer drinkin’ like a black fella!”
a racist faux pas hadn’t exactly
endeared his knockabout character to the new crop of university educated bar
staff. But what really set the cat amongst the pigeons was his decision to order
another pot in the time it took the ambulance to arrive.
a revolting little biped, that one!”
I overheard the vegan barmaid tell Merrick, the publican, the following day.
“Do you know how Val broke her collarbone two weeks ago? The grub locked them
out of their flat and made her climb
in through the bathroom window! If that sexist dinosaur stumbled out the door
and was hit by a bus I’d laugh my fucking head off! Val may well be a hopeless
drunk, but she deserves a hell of a lot more than that trumped up little
this conspiracy talk of poker machines and renewal had the regulars reminiscing
about ‘the good old days’ when George the Greek was publican. But those days
of winos, workers and barking dogs were fast becoming a distant memory, like so
many other things.
newly crowned public enemy moved forward a pace and forced a jocular smile as an
overweight yuppie leading a silky terrier rounded the corner. Jenko gave his
pause all the naïve charm of youth before whining pitifully:
us digger, some of us are terribly frail. Only the sensitive listen when
approached by someone who’s truly needy … Will ya show mercy on my plight?
Could ya spare a few bob for a kindred soul down on his luck?”
yuppie wobbled past without making eye contact. What right did this public
eyesore have to spoil his morning stroll through leafy downtown
hawked a gob of phlegm in the man’s direction. “Medical oddity!” he
snarled. “Many sons and daughters of Abraham are livin’ in squalor. How much
goes to us, eh? How is it yer dish licker can dine on better grub than we? Just
as some trees flourish by deprivin’ others of nutrients or light, so some
pricks flourish by deprivin’ others of their due. Keep walkin’ fat-boy! We
all know charity rides on the flattered ego.”
horrified yuppie snapped the leash and crossed
I continued to sweat and tremble, feeling pathetic and paranoid. Every day was
like this; always waiting for something to step in and deliver me from naked
time, from another solemn day with scant means, a day of walking in circles,
tired and weary, relieved only when night descends and I could creep back into
the maternal darkness like a sick cat.
blinked and wiped the sweat beads from my clammy forehead and felt my legs turn
to jelly. Christ, it was returning to
me, the cold abrasive facts of an alcoholic blackout …
old man once told me that a bloke who taps money is the lowest form of life, but
when the body and mind crave equilibrium, what is a lush to do?
last night I could recall sitting in the pub with no money to buy my next drink.
After scanning the smattering of regulars I decided to prop alongside Kenny,
recently flush after receiving a golden handshake from the brewery, just in case
how’s the good life treating you now that you’re a man of leisure?” I
remembered asking. “How’s the missus keeping?”
old rogue gazed deep into his sherry glass. “The stretch is finally over, but
the ball n’ chain will always be the whining heifer I was mug enough to whack
up the spout,” he sniffed, deadpan.
laughed and slapped him on the back—comrade style—then raised my hand for
no hello or whaddayou after respected patron,
into the bar, I composed myself, and whispered, completely submissive:
I possibly have a quiet word with you in the ladies lounge?”
ARE NO SECRETS ROUND HERE,” he boomed. “IF YOU’VE GOT SOMETHING TO SAY,
LOOK ME SQUARE IN THE EYE AND ACCOUNT FOR YOURSELF!”
Easter Monday,” I added, softly, so the other chaps wouldn’t hear, thereby
lessoning my embarrassment. “And I forgot that the banks were closed. Sorry to
spring it on you like this, but I’m not in possession of an ATM card.”
you assumed you could hit me till the banks re-open tomorrow?”
always good for it, you can ask anyone …”
employment, son; when was the last time you were acquainted with it? I have
three daughters in an exclusive
scoured the bar for a suitable character reference, bypassing Kenny, ignoring
the gloomy figure that was poor Sid the Soak, and onto Ulster Bill who emptied
ashtrays for whatever complimentary drinks flowed his way.
I said. “Kindly tell the gent about my industrious Protestant work ethic.”
the old boy grumbled without taking his gaze from his chores. “Honour where
honour is due. The lad’s as straight as a gun barrel, a man of the highest
calibre. He’d never slight me. Why, he’s almost like a son to me, that
I’ll say for him.”
replaced the wine glass and draped a bar-cloth over the
hold yer flamin’ horses!” bleated Sid, freezing like a thief caught in
police searchlights. “Yer not dealin’ with the trash from the top end here.
We’d never shit in our own nest. And besides, regulars are yer bread ‘n’
butter and runnin’ a tab’s a law of the profession!”
you no soul or moral calculus?” Jenko interjected boldly. “D’you not have
any Dickensian show of sympathy for the underdog?”
elaborate vocabulary often had us in stitches, but there was no trace of irony
in his voice.
the copious amount of
Glasgow Arms,” I spat, “is a workin’ man’s pub, not a casino. Some of
the old timers have been drinkin’ here since you were in nappies!”
Old Dame,” he fired back, “is about to receive a fresh lick of paint and
change in attitude!”
was helpless and stricken with primordial rage. The monster in me was craving
instant justice while the pacifist wanted to curl into a ball and sleep like an
retreat or attack?
I knew it I’d turfed my smoke into the foot tray and offered the Neanderthal
outside. How could I let this Johnny-come-lately abolish the slate and derail
the lives of the men and women I’d grown to know and love? The man’s primate
puss was a patchwork of scar tissue but youth and insanity would surely prevail.
After a few jabs and weaves the bullyboy would be looking for petrol tickets.
yer noggin’, Sponge!” Mopsy intervened, blocking my path to the door.
“Never fight a war ya can’t win. He’s too bloody big—he’ll do ya like
mature voice of reason …
a moment I contemplated hurling an ashtray through the window but desisted,
reserving plans for far greater retribution.
I flew up to the telephone booth on the corner and vented my frustrations by
putting a foot through one of the glass panels.
ought to call the cops!” someone shouted. “The guy’s a fruit loop! He’s
obviously high on that rotten drug ice!”
turned to the bloke and made a swinish face, then snarled, in a strangled
baritone: “You wouldn’t know the meaning of the word sick, pal! I’ll show
you sick—” But before I could lash out, a shrill authoritarian voice from
the dangling receiver interjected, so I ripped out the cord but the voice
didn’t go away—the voice only said:
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