Thursday, December 31, 2020

SHORT STORY: Kevin Speaks To The Manager

Kevin sat alone in his study typing at his keyboard.  At forty-two, he had never married, pursued a career or made any genuine friends to speak of.  It wasn’t entirely his fault.  Kevin’s sour disposition and his propensity for abuse made relationships difficult, if not downright impossible.  On this particular day, he was engaged his in his favourite activity – writing.

“Number seventeen: birds too loud and numerous”, he whispered to himself as he fingered the keys of his antique typewriter. 

James Patrik Kevin Speaks To The Manager

Of course, he could easily afford a more modern writing implement, but her preferred the elegance of the typewriter.  They keys made a satisfying “clacking” sound, and they were able to withstand the angry pounding of his digits, the very act of composition often mirroring the ornery content he produced.  Letters to the editor.  Furious rebuttals.  Fashioning his written words into sharpened points, he could sometimes become delirious with rage, lost in the jaunty kinetic endeavour.

“I’ve brought your drink sir”, came a voice from behind him. 

It was Raymond, an obsequious scarecrow, frightened of his own shadow.  He gingerly held a tray upon which some biscuits and hot tea stately sat.  Without looking, Kevin reached out for the cup, accidentally scalding himself in the process.

“I asked you for a cold drink!  Cold!”, he snapped as he snatched the teacup and hurled the boiling liquid onto Raymond’s face.  The poor scarecrow grimaced in pain, determined to preserve what little dignity he had left as the burning liquid slowly seeped into his face.

“I’m sorry master.  I didn’t know”, he cowered as he cleaned the mess up off the floor.

“Don’t you know how important my work is?  Get it right this time, lest you feel the back of my hand again!” roared Kevin as he turned his attention back to his typewriter.

“Yes master”.

Now quaking, Raymond collected himself and scurried out of the room as his master continued typing, pausing intermittently to scratch his chin or correct an occasional mistake.  He knew well enough to take his master’s threats seriously.  In the past, he’d committed heinous acts against him, inspired and fuelled by a never-ending wellspring of anger.

As his archaic word processor made a pleasant “ding”, signifying the end of a sentence, Kevin struck the last key with a flourish before extracting the sheet of paper.

“Let’s see what that preposterous King has to say about this”, he smiled smugly to himself as he folded the paper in three. 

Moving towards his cupboard, he put on his great coat and tucked the letter into one of the inside pockets carefully.  Sliding an old rucksack out from underneath his bed, he packed a small selection of sundry items.  Raymond appeared again, standing in the doorway of his bedroom holding the cold drink that Kevin had both demanded and forgotten about.

“Are you going out, Master?”, queried Raymond

“Now Raymond, you know better than to ask questions above your station.”

“Yes Master”.

“But you’re quite correct, I am leaving the house.  I shouldn’t be longer than a few days.  And I wish to see this house spotless upon my return”.

“Yes Master”.

“And don’t let me find out that you’ve left the house again, or so help me you’ll spend another year searching for your brain!”.

“Yes Master.  Of course not master”, replied Raymond, trembling.

Scooping up his bag, Kevin strode out the front door.  As he bolted it shut (from the outside), he was met with a familiarly irritating annoyance.

“Going out, dear?  Looks like you’re all set for an adventure”.

Oh God.  Not again.  He thought as he steeled himself for another bothersome interaction with his next-door neighbour Mrs Gale. 

“I don’t get out of the house too much these days.  Not since the accident” she continued.

More than a hundred years old in Kevin’s estimation, Mrs Gale spent most of her days sitting in her wheelchair on her front porch.  Starved of attention, she would accost anyone willing to engage her in a bit of amiable conversation.  Kevin often wished that she would simply hurry up and die.  If she caught sight of him, she’d begin pestering him within seconds.  Bombarding him with the sorry minutia of her life and as she sat in her chair, forever knitting with her blasted needles.  What was she making?  No once had Kevin seen her produce so much as a scarf. He had no tolerance for stupid or foolish people - it was bad enough that he had to put up with that loathsome scarecrow. 

“Of course, if I could go anywhere it would be into town to enlist the services of a Metallic Man to come and trim that tree.  Those blessed birds have been keeping me awake for weeks now”.

Unable to resist, Kevin’s vanity betrayed him.

“Well, it might interest you to know that those very birds constitute just one such complaint on my list”.

“List, dear?”

“Yes.  A list of complaints I intend to bring to the King of System”, Kevin extracted the folded sheet of paper from his pocket for dramatic effect.  “I’ve written to him a number of times, but thus far he hasn’t had the decency to reply.  I intend to bring my complaints to his attention personally.  In fact, I’m on my way to his Cloud Palace right now”

“The Cloud Palace?  No one really knows where that is, dear.  Some even say it’s a myth.”

“It’s no myth, and I’m confident I’ll be able to find it on my own”.

“All right, dear.  But be careful.  All sorts of funny stories about the King”.

She was right – the King of System - as he was known, was indeed a figure of great mystique.  In point of fact, his entire existence was shrouded by swirling rumour, innuendo and accusations of supernatural parentage.  Some said he was a sorcerer who had the ability to change form.  Others accused him of engaging in dark magic and occult ritual.  Most outlandish of all the rumours was that he himself, had created the entire world.  As a man of empiricism, Kevin knew better than to subscribe to such fantasies.  In his estimation, the King of System was a man, nothing more.

“I’m aware of such stories.  Quite fantastic.  I’m sure they’re nothing more than idle gossip”.

“Is that so?”

“Yes.  I believe he and I to be two men of equal intellect.  I should think he’d be eager to converse with me”.

“Well I hope he doesn’t disappoint you, Kevin.  Conversation is a blessing, dear.  I should know.  Life gets lonely when you’re old and on your own.  Maybe I’ll pop in on Raymond while you’re gone.  See how he’s faring”.

“Raymond has chores to attend to Mrs Gale, I’d appreciate it if you left him be”.

“As you wish, dear.  I wonder if you’ve heard about-”.

“I’m sorry Mrs Gale, but I really must be going”.

“Oh.  All right dear.  I understand.  You young people are always so busy, rushing about from one place to another…”.

Offering a perfunctory wave, Kevin began walking, glad to be free of Mrs Gale and her endless prattle.  He proceeded down his garden path and into the great swathes of untamed landscape that surrounded his neighbourhood.  He cautiously stepped over the barbed wire fence he’d erected to keep out interlopers and marched confidently into hitherto unexplored territory.  After walking for almost an hour, he paused to unfurl the map he’d brought with him in order to confirm his position at the entrance of the forest.

As he entered the dense thicket, Kevin found the forest no different than any other he’d seen before, with tall trees rising like columns out of the ground.  The terrain was uneven, and large protruding roots made vigilance essential if he wanted to avoid tripping and falling upon his face. 

By his estimation, he’d been ambulating for almost an hour.  The sun had ascended to its midday position when Kevin heard a strange noise coming from up ahead.  Moving closer to investigate, he discerned a faint metallic sound, a sort of “clanking”.  As he reached a clearing, he came across a Metallic Man, sobbing before a grave site.  Startled, the man turned to see Kevin emerge from the trees.

“Hello…”, managed the Metallic Man through his tears.

“Why are you crying?” asked Kevin.

“My human.  He’s stopped.  He was alive for many years and then one day he just… stopped”.

“It happens.  It’s called death”.

“We were together for so many years.  He was the only friend I’ve ever known.  Now I don’t know if I’m able to continue without him”.

It was quite a sight – this hulking silver coloured man – easily approaching seven feet – mourning the death of his human companion.  From the dates inscribed on the headstone, Kevin assumed the human in question had simply expired naturally, leaving the poor Metallic Man alone.

“You shouldn’t cry”, began Kevin, “Grief serves no useful purpose.  It’s better to simply move on and accept things as they are”.

“But…how can I?”, wept the Metallic Man, “I’ve lived my whole life with my human.  I’m scared to be by myself.  My body may be strong, but my nature is gentle.  Will you stay with me a while?  I would value the company of a friend, especially now”.

Identifying an opportunity, Kevin carefully assessed the situation before him.  Metallic men were indigenous to the forest.  Known for their great physical strength and helpful nature, they were regarded favourably by those who lived in the surrounding communities.  Given his emotional display, Kevin felt confident that this particular specimen wouldn’t pose a threat.

“I am growing awfully tired of carrying this bag” said Kevin, “Perhaps you should carry it for me?”

“I don’t understand…”

“I have no need of friends, but I would value a servant” said Kevin coolly as he reached for a nearby oil can resting upon a log.

“Hey!  That’s my oil can!  I need that to live!”

“Your oil is now my oil, by way of my action”.

Pocketing the oil can, Kevin expectantly dropped his rucksack by the Metallic Man’s feet and casually walked away, continuing into the forest.

“If you hope to see any more of this oil, you’d be wise to do as I say”.

Terrified, the Metallic Man obliged, plucking Kevin’s bag up from the ground as he tearfully assumed his subservient new role.  Traversing more rough terrain, the two proceeded through the forest once more, the Metallic Man trailing a few feet behind.  It was Kevin who first heard the faint sound of music coming from up ahead.  The musician was a small round man who whistled a jolly tune to himself as he lay bricks upon a small cottage.

“Ah!  A friend!  And a magnificent Metallic Man!  What good fortune!” said the man excitedly as he noticed them both, “Come closer, so that I might know you better!”

As they entered the round man’s encampment, he welcomed them warmly.

“You’re just in time.  I’m almost finished – only six or seven bricks left to go.  If you stay a while, you’ll see me cross the finish line”.

“Finish line?”

“Yes, I’ve been trying to build my own home.  As you can see, I’m almost finished.  Each and every brick laid with my own two hands.  But, please forgive me – where are my manners.  My name is Severin”.


“Pleased to meet you Kevin”.

The Metallic Man was silent, afraid of being scolded.

 “You’ll forgive me if I continue working while we talk”, said Severin, “I’m trying to finish before sundown.  I don’t have much to go and I don’t wish to lose my momentum!” said Severin as he wiped the sweat from his brow.

“Not at all, I understand completely”, replied Kevin as the Metallic Man viewed the round man’s house with great interest.

“So, are you lost? “, he asked as he sculpted a small pile of mortar onto a new brick.

“Not really.  I’m on my way to see the King of System.  Have you heard of him?”

“Of course, I imagine everyone has”.

“Then you know how to get to the Cloud Palace?”

“Indeed I do.  It’s not far from here.  Keep going the way you were for a few hundred meters until you come to a rock shaped like a Ram.  Proceed over the next hill after that and you’ll come to the base of the great vine that leads up to the palace”

“It’s a beautiful home.  Why did you choose to build it here?”, offered the Metallic Man sheepishly, finally mustering enough confidence to speak.

“Ah! Thank you, my shiny friend.  I suppose here seemed as good a place as any.  I first came to the forest many months ago.  I was searching for God, but this task found me instead.  Building teaches discipline and patience and is good for the soul.  To create something is so much more difficult than it is to destroy”.

“I think it’s wonderful” proclaimed the Metallic Man in awe as he inspected the house. A testament to Severin’s ingenuity, the tiny dwelling was replete with a small chimney and a fully tiled roof.  With the exception of a front door, which lay open to the forest, it was almost done.

“Pfft.  God”, scoffed Kevin, “God is dead.  Both as a concept and as an entity”.

“Don’t be so certain”, cautioned Severin, “Aren’t you on a journey to see the King of System?  Is he not unlike a God in some ways?”

“Nonsense.  The King is nothing more than a man, no different to you or I”.

“Perhaps.  No one really knows for certain.  But seeking God is a worthy pursuit, so I wish you luck.  And there it is”, Severin declared as he ceremonially set down the brick he was holding, “The final brick.  My task is complete!”.  He stood a few feet back to lovingly admire his handiwork.

“Congratulations, and thank you for the directions” Kevin said in mock admiration as Severin knelt in prayer at the entrance to his new abode.  As he whispered an ancient blessing, Kevin sidled up to the Metallic Man with a conspiratorial glint in his eye:

“Are you able to detach your arm?”, he muttered softly, attempting nonchalance.

“Yes of course I am - why do you ask?”

“Give it to me, I demand it” hissed Kevin as the Metallic Man complied.

With a mechanical clunk, he detached his right arm as though it were perfectly natural.  Unharmed, he handed the inert limb to Kevin whose eyes were wide with ill intent.  Moving softly, like a predator, Kevin snuck up behind Severin as he prayed and struck him hard on the back of the head.  Instantly, the round man collapsed into a heap, his face hitting the ground with an unceremonious thud.  A small pool of blood emerged from the wound and soon grew larger as he lay there, motionless.

“Assist me!”, ordered Kevin, as the now one-armed Metallic Man looked on in horror as Kevin began moving bricks from a nearby reservoir into the empty doorway – Severin still inside.

“What are you doing!?”, he shouted as Kevin gradually turned the newly constructed entrance into a solid wall.

“Isn’t it clear?  He told me the location of the Cloud Palace.  That knowledge is for me alone.  Now his precious home will be a mausoleum”.

The Metallic Man felt nauseous.

“Don’t you have any consideration for others?” he asked in disbelief.

“No. Why should I be concerned about others.  Their free will is no less than mine.  They have what they have, and I have myself.”

After the pair finished bricking up the entrance to Severin’s house, they travelled as he had instructed, the Metallic Man weeping as he walked, traumatised by what he’d just witnessed.  They walked past the Ram shaped rock and over the hill where they arrived at the base of the great vine.  It was nothing like Kevin had imagined.  Reaching up into the sky like a great arm, it was dry and twisted and its base was several meters in diameter.

Unprompted, Kevin climbed onto the Metallic Man’s back, wrapping his hands around his neck, then allowing his body to go limp.

“Climb”, he ordered.

“I can’t climb all that!”

“Fine.  Then I’ll have to climb it alone.  You can stay here without your oil and rot and rust until you die”.

Given little choice but to comply, the Metallic Man began climbing the gnarly vine while carrying Kevin upon his back.  He made his ascent slowly, carefully searching for new footholds with each movement.  As they gained altitude, the air grew thinner, and the possibility of falling grew ever more daunting.  Whether composed of metal or human flesh, a fall from such a height would undoubtedly be fatal for the both of them, so the Metallic Man moved cautiously.

“I’m weary, and my limbs are growing stiff.  Might I have a little oil?” he begged, pausing in fatigue.

“No.  I will return your oil to you when we reach the summit and not a moment before”.

As the pair ascended, the vine itself grew thinner as it reached a thick outcropping of white clouds suspended in the sky.  Grasping at the leading edge of the cloud, the Metallic Man found that it was semi-solid and clawed his way up onto it.  As he collapsed in exhaustion, Kevin clambered off his back and stood proudly on the strange, springy surface.  It had a pleasant texture, not unlike walking upon thick cotton or wool.  Peering over the precipice, the forest looked minuscule, many hundreds of meters below from their vantage point upon a preternatural platform in the air.

As the Metallic Man gathered his strength after the taxing climb, Kevin explored the white landscape in which he found himself.  Cool wind blew tufts of white cloud about the place, partially obscuring his vision, but moving just long enough to reveal a structure not formed by nature.  A building.  No ordinary building, but a castle.  Composed of azure bricks, it boasted spires of dazzling height that seemed to extend up into the heavens themselves.

Reaching into his pocket, Kevin extracted the oil can he’d been keeping and tossed it towards the Metallic Man.  It landed at his feet.

“I have no further need of you”.

A wave of terror swept over the metal man’s face.

“But where should I go?”, he asked, tears again welling in his eyes.

“That’s not my concern”, Kevin shrugged as he began searching for the entrance to the structure. 

Dispirited, the Metallic Man wearily reached out for his oil can, but instead collapsed onto the cloud surface in despair rather than exhaustion.  Using his left hand, he reached across his chest and tore off his right arm.  No longer able to contain the offence at having his own arm used to bludgeon a peaceful man, he cast it aside and let out an ungodly howl before bursting into tears.

What a ludicrous display.  He really should have more control of himself, thought Kevin as he disregarded his former servant and turned his attention to the castle.  After a few minutes, he found a large wooden door.  He rapped upon it resolutely then waited a few moments.  Nothing.  Rapidly growing impatient, he began to pound on the door with his fists.

“King of System!  I have travelled far!”

His impatience turning to mania, Kevin pounded the door a few times more.  He was entitled, he felt, to an audience with the King.  After traversing such a great distance and taking the time and trouble to properly formulate his list of complaints, a few moments of his time was the absolute least that the king could provide him

“Was it as you expected?”

That voice.  That irritating voice.  Kevin turned to see Mrs Gale in her wheelchair emerge from the cloudy mists.

“Is this what you wanted to see?  The great Cloud Palace in all its majesty?” the old woman asked as she slowly rose from her chair, still clutching knitting needles in hand.

“Mrs Gale?  How can you be here?”

“To royalty, all things are possible”

“Royalty?  What are you saying old woman?  Are you saying that you know the King?  If you do then you must beseech him to speak with me immediately!”

Serpentine, she glided towards him, no longer the doddering old fool that resided next door.

Know him?  I am him.  In any form, at any time”. 

“You?”, Kevin spat in disbelief.

“Yes.  Shape is nothing more than a container, dear”, she began, “And I’ve been watching you closely.  You’ve painted your path in blood”.

“Yes.  I let no obstacle get in my way”.

“That’s true.  You couldn’t even make time to converse with a lonely old woman”.

“I didn’t know!  I had to get my list to the King!”, Kevin protested as plunged his hand into his coat and fumbled for the list, brandishing it furiously before the old woman’s face.

“Others seek wisdom, you only seek to complain.  If Karma is action driven by intent, then your intent is corrupt, impure.  My compassion is infinite, but this is a fate of your own creation, and this story could end no other way.  You repayed kindness with cruelty and you responded to wisdom with violence”.  The natural order is for you to return to nothingness”.

“No!  That’s not right!  Speak to me!  Listen to me!”

“The King of System only listens to those whose hearts have been touched.  You have failed to learn this lesson, so I will touch it for you, using the only language you can comprehend”.

Stepping forward, Mrs Gale took one of her knitting needles and in one, short, sharp motion, pushed it through Kevin’s chest – piercing his heart.

Stunned, he simply stared at her – his mouth agape in surprise and terror.  Almost immediately, blood spewed forth from his lips as he clutched the needle inserted into his chest and collapsed onto the fluffy clouds beneath his feet.  As Kevin’s body seized in excruciating agony, Mrs Gale stood over his body, her expression a mask of quiet contentment.

“Not every path ends in reward, dear.  This dialogue in itself is a courtesy”.

“But…my list…I wrote my list…on my typewriter”, he struggled as his blood stained the surrounding clouds pink.

“The King has just such a device himself.  To him, you are but a fiction.  A non-person.  Nothing”.

“Then what am I?”

“A stray neuron.  A thought.  You’re nothing more than the universe staring at its own belly button”

Kevin grew more panicked as he saw more blood now pouring from the wound in his chest.  His extremities began to feel numb and he could feel the moment of his death fast approaching.

“What’s to become of me?”, he asked, his voice now little more than a whisper.

“Nothing.  I’ve already forgotten you were here”.








Wednesday, December 23, 2020

SHORT STORY: First Communion

I was awoken by Dad opening the door to my bedroom.  He urged me to ger dressed.  It was early – too early in fact – and the strange blue light of the morning permeated my bedroom curtains.  As my feet hit the floor, I wiped the sleep (or lack thereof) out of my eyes and followed Dad down the hall to the garage where we got into the car.  Ambivalent birds sung their dawn chorus as we drive through the empty streets.  Too early for traffic.  My thoughts still foggy, I stared out the passenger side window, watching as the street lights silently winked off.

“What about Mum and Jamie?”, I asked, through a yawn.

“They’ll be waiting for you when we get home.  You’ll see”.

When we arrived at the hospital, everything happened just as Dad had told me it would.  He stood there proudly, watching me give the nurse at the front desk my name and all my details. 

“Samuel Gladstone.  Age Ten”.

Pretty soon, I donned a hospital gown, the type that tied up at the back with flimsy strings leaving bare arse cheeks exposed.  Once again, I found myself in clothes that made me feel foolish, but Dad seemed pleased as he silently observed from the sidelines, admiring my youthful composure and self-reliance.


That day was the culmination of a series of events that began the Friday before my First Communion.  It started when the priest first came to our house.  I remember it distinctly. Mum was in the kitchen cooking, Dad reading his paper and Jamie, my little brother was enduring yet another piano lesson in the spare room.  The sound of him awkwardly playing the scales echoed throughout the house while his piano teacher, Mrs Pritchard, sat beside him wincing disapprovingly.  Though I was a few years older than Jamie, and mercifully spared such lessons, I hated Mrs Pritchard.  She always smelled of pickled vegetables and wore a permanent scowl.

“Sam!”, called Dad a few moments after the doorbell had rung.  I bounded down the long corridor of our house to see Father Medici clumsily wheeling a large, steel trolley through our front door.  It was cumbersome, like the ones at the supermarket, and contained an assortment of semi translucent plastic containers, each one sealed tightly.

“Hello Samuel”, offered our parish priest through a fraudulent smile, “I’ve brought some options for you and your father to take a look at”. 

It was weird to see him out of context, almost as if his powers were diminished by virtue of being outside the church and wearing “street” clothes like the rest of us.  I never warmed to Father Medici, I’m not sure why.  Dad seemed to like him, but there was something about him I found disagreeable.  He was insincere, smarmy like a used car salesman.  Even as a child, I could detect it.  In the kitchen, I could hear the sound of vegetables being chopped come to a halt.  Mum didn’t like Father Medici either.

“Don’t be afraid, son” said Dad as he guided me towards the trolley to examine my choices. 

There were so many.  Some larger than others.  Different colours.  Some were squirming horribly, while others simply slept, apparently unphased by my presence.  I’d never been this close before – I had no idea what was expected of me or what criteria I should have used to choose properly.  I was told my choice was important, especially as it concerned my First Communion.  In the end, I merely picked at random.

“That one”, I said, selecting a black and white striped one of intermediate size.

“Excellent choice” grinned Father Medici, a set of false teeth on full display.

Dad placed his masculine, spatula like hands upon my shoulders and squeezed them with pride.  His hands felt warm, but his approval felt warmer. He chatted with the priest outside the house for a short spell as he loaded the trolley back onto the van he’d driven.  I watched them both from the living room window, peering through a curtain.  Just then, Nana entered the room, she clapped her hands together in anticipation.

“Oh Samuel”, she said in her old Polish brogue, “How quickly time passes.  Just think, this time tomorrow you’ll be a man”. 

She wrapped her arms around me, dispensing the type of embrace that only a grandmother can.  Unconditional, and free from parental expectations.   The sound of scales rang out throughout the house, yet again.  Stupid Jamie.

The next day, anticipation filled the air.  Mum had been up since 5am cooking, preparing food in vast quantities for the party we’d have after the church ceremony.  Annoyingly, I was awoken my Jamie, rifling through my belongings.  He’d often make himself at home in my bedroom while I slept.

“Get out of here Jamie!”  I shouted, hurling a pillow at his head and missing.

“I don’t understand why the whole house has stop for your stupid First Communion”, he spat, before issuing his customary raspberry and leaving.

Mum came in not long afterwards, “Ignore him.  It’ll be his turn in a few years.  Maybe then he’ll understand”.

After I bathed and brushed my teeth, it was time to get ready.  It took me ages to put on my suit.  I’d never worn one before.   I managed to put on my cummerbund, but Mum had to help me with the bow tie.  Now dressed, I inspected myself in the mirror and immediately hated what I saw.  I looked like a tiny penguin.  Despite feeling stupid, and the general itchiness of my attire, Mum said I looked handsome and that it was only proper to dress up for such a momentous occasion. 

Before we left, Nana got her camera out to take a photo of me.  She looked at me longingly, as if she were trying to preserve that particular moment in time.  It was an expression I’d never seen before.  I wondered where Dad was.  I hadn’t seen him all morning.

At the church, the air was thick with incense.  It was a Saturday, and the church was full of people.  I loitered about the entrance with a bunch of other boys who were also making their first communion that day.  I knew some of them from school.  There was Danny.  He waved at me excitedly.  He was wearing a suit too, except his was grey.  Father Medici made an appearance, now clothed in his gaudy vestments.  He shook all our hands in a half-hearted attempt at ingratiation. 

When the mass began, we all followed him down the aisle as the opening hymn was sung.  As I passed the many faces of the congregation, all prideful and solemn, I contemplated the sacrament before me.  First communion – but communion with what?  Despite the potent reactions from the adults around me, it all seemed so insubstantial.  A rite of passage into manhood, no more significant than a mere birthday.

We reached the altar, and Father Medici ascended the handful of steps to the podium while we waited in line, as though presented before the congregation for their viewing pleasure.  I spotted Mum in the crowd; she was sitting with Danny’s family.  She watched me intently, discreetly wiping a tear from her eye, hoping no one would notice.

Father Medici began to speak.  I’m sure it was important but my mind had started wandering (as it sometimes did).  My attention was drawn to the large crucifix behind the altar.  Our lord and saviour Jesus Christ, nails through his hands suspended above an ophidian.  Someone handed me a candle to hold as the choir began yet another dreadful song.  The wax smelled old, and the flame illuminated my face.  Eventually, it was time for the scripture reading.  The priest approached the podium again.

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” the priest droned on as I tried my utmost to summon my concentration.  I scanned the crowd once more, finally catching sight of Dad.  His face was stern and serious.  Why wasn’t he sitting with Mum?

After what felt like forever, the moment arrived – a thin wafer and a sip of awful tasting wine.  Camera flashes aplenty, and for a moment, I remember feeling everyone’s eyes upon me.  It was euphoric.  Not long afterwards, the mass was concluded and Mum and Dad, now together, rushed towards me to offer their congratulations.  Mum cast her arms around me, squeezing me tight, while Dad offered an understated backslap.

“Remember son, today’s only window dressing.  The real ceremony happens tomorrow”.   He was right, I guess.  From what I’d been told, the next day would be quite different.

I left the church with my family joyfully and traversed a short distance to the community hall where the party was to take place.  There was a band and a huge cake with my name on it.

“Congratulations!” and “Good luck tomorrow”, came the string of well wishes from cousins, rarely seen aunties and various octogenarians who’d crawled out of the woodwork just to pinch my cheeks.  It was the biggest party I’d ever seen, and, to crown the occasion was an entire table full of gifts – all for me. I crossed my fingers, hoping for video games and a set of bongo drums, but past experience cautioned me that books and clothes were more likely.

We ate and drank and danced until the evening became the night, and I bid farewell to the friends and family who’d come to see me.  Poor Jamie threw up by the bins outside – too much cake.  Served him right.  At home, I cast aside my itchy suit and crawled into bed where I quickly drifted off into a golden, dreamless sleep.


It all seemed a world away from me now, as I lay in my hospital bed, patiently waiting.  All of the necessary forms had been filled out, and I had been given a plastic wristband which bore my name and birthday.  Before too long a friendly orderly came to wheel me into the operating theatre where masked doctors were waiting.  I drank in my surroundings, noting the steel accoutrements, harsh LED lighting and the blue latex gloves everybody wore.  A nurse with gentle eyes rested her hand upon my chest in reassurance.  It felt warm.  The head surgeon, a tall man with wiry hair protruding from his mask introduced himself.

“Hello Sam.  How are you feeling today?”

“Fine.  I guess”, I replied, unsure of how one should be feeling mere minutes before surgery.

“What we’re going to do today is make a transverse incision, along your abdomen.  When we reach the large intestine, we’ll make a smaller incision into which we’ll place your implant”.

I nodded in agreement.

“Nurse, bring in the implant, please”.

The gentle eyed nurse disappeared from the room for a minute, and returned with a translucent plastic container, exactly like the one on Father Medici’s trolley.  Inside was the snake I had chosen just a few days earlier.  There it was, glistening and livelier this time; I could hear its distinctive, breathy hiss from inside its plastic prison.  Vermicella Annulata – its proper name, was hastily scrawled upon one side of its container in black marker.

As the surgeon prepared me for the anaesthetic, instructing me to count backwards from one hundred, the snake and I locked eyes.  Its serpentine visage looked back at me with cold indifference.  The edges of the room grew fuzzy, and my eyelids became leaden as I started to succumb to the irresistible urge to fall asleep.  Sinking beneath the inky blackness of unconsciousness, I wondered if this was what my death would feel like.


Dad was there, waiting for me when I woke up in my hospital room just a few hours later.

“Don’t touch them”, he cautioned as I examined my stitches and the large scar that ran across my stomach, “They won’t heal properly if you mess with them”. 

Father Medici was there for some reason.  I wondered why.  He and Dad shook hands and seemed quite pleased with themselves.  As my drug induced stupor began to wear off, I recalled the surgery – why I was there. The snake.  The black and white striped snake that had been put inside me.  I could feel it, moving, churning, settling within me.  My insides felt cold, as though I’d drunk a few litres of ice water.

“You’ll get used to it” Dad simply said after I’d complained.  His words seemed distant and meaningless.

Back at home, things seemed different somehow.  I spent a few days suspecting that everyone had changed, but in reality, it was me who had been altered.  Mum was happy to have me home, though I carefully observed unguarded moments where she seemed to regard me with almost nervous apprehension.  Nana’s touch felt empty, and her tone with me no longer warm.  As for Jamie, he seemed terrified of me, staying well clear of my bedroom.  It was as if consciousness felt like a waking dream, or perhaps something even less than that.  Like the fading embers of a memory. I didn’t realise I’d feel this way.  Was this what First Communion was supposed to feel like?

I inspected myself in the mirror and felt nothing at all.  An absence of self, generated by the reptile now nestled permanently in my belly.  I stared, vacantly into my own empty eyes and could suddenly taste the annihilation of my boyhood.  It was deepest red, like arterial blood and roughly hewn as if from a woodsman’s axe.  An empty chasm where joy used to reside now supplanted by a simmering, calculating rage.

I’ll never forget the words Dad said to me in my hospital room after I’d awoken from surgery.  He said that he had been through the same procedure, as had his own father.  It was all part of the sacrament – First Communion – communion with the serpent, to take it inside you and make it a part of yourself.  It was the birthright of every male.  As the old priest opened up his prayer book and offered foolish words on my behalf, Dad clasped my hand tight and offered the following advice.

“Every man has a snake inside him.  It is what it means to be a man.  You must learn to control it son, or it will begin to control you”.



Sunday, December 20, 2020

SHORT STORY: My Own Private Dollhouse

A long time ago, out of sheer boredom, I can assure you, I created some tiny people.  I fashioned them out of mud and clay, moulding them in my own image, careful to replicate every detail precisely.  Once I’d completed my homunculi, I imbued them with life and set them aside on a small rock to play.

I watched from a discreet distance as the tiny people began living their lives, bravely traipsing about the jagged landscape I had fashioned for them.  I provided them with vegetation - trees and plants - which they could consume and seek shelter beneath.  They carried on about their business blithely - blissfully unaware of my presence, so I sat back and contentedly allowed my creations to entertain me.  It was as if I had built my own private dollhouse.

James Patrik My Own Private Dollhouse

As time passed, the mud men grew industrious, constructing rudimentary homes for themselves.  They used the vegetation to construct tools for hunting and soon began consuming the other forms of lower animal life that occupied the rock.  A basic economy was formed, and, as they began to discover the pleasures of their own bodies, the first mud babies appeared.

The population exploded as I viewed from the sidelines, quietly and with great interest.  Tribes became villages.  But as the mud men’s mastery over their environment grew, so too did their capacity for wickedness.  Soon enough, one mud man had murdered another – his closest friend – whom he decapitated over the affections of a woman.

What an intriguing development, I thought to myself as I marvelled at such a terrific act of barbarism. 

Villages became towns.  Towns became cities.  Mud huts once covered in hay soon became thatched, then reinforced, then built out of concrete and tiles and innumerable new materials that my mud men concocted to keep themselves alive and comfortable. 

But with their innovation came arrogance.  The mud men had become proud - too proud for my liking.  Groups of them splintered across the rock, forming factions derived from superstition and superficial differences.  I could see that some of the men in the eastern hemisphere embraced ideas of wisdom and accomplishment, but far too often such notions were obfuscated by a veneer of false virtue.  Weapons of war emerged – metallic machines that pierced the sky and were decorated with jags and spikes and painted in the colours of combat.

It was at this point I began to grow weary of the mud men, regretting their creation altogether.  Their industry no longer amused me and I felt the urge to teach them a lesson in patience.  Through my boredom, I had imbued them with sentience, but I still regarded them as mine to do with as I pleased.  Destructive yearnings welled within me. I could wash them away with floods or scorch the surface of their rock with flame.  Watching their tiny bodies burst and burn would surely entertain me, if only momentarily.  But of course, once they were gone, they would be gone for good, and I would have only the endless groaning of the cosmos to keep me company.  Faced with indecision, I sought counsel from my father, the King of System.  He listened thoughtfully as I conveyed the nature of my dilemma, and then, after a long silence, offered the following advice:

“All truth is a matter of perspective”.

I considered my father’s words carefully, and after much deliberation, resolved to obtain a fresh perspective.  A further experiment was required before doing away with my mud men entirely. I would manifest on their rock, occupying one of their bodies, and would live out one of their lifespans.  Annoyingly, I would not be permitted to retain any of my memories while on the rock – a wretched condition of the place itself.  No matter, it would only take a small amount of time – mud men rarely lived longer than 100 years – and it was sure to provide an amusing diversion. Curious about procreation and recognising that grace would be required for this endeavour, I decided to manifest in my female aspect.

The first thing I observed was the heaviness of the mud men existence.  Matter was solid and leaden, as was the tiny body I found myself encased in.  Initially, I was defenceless, beholden to my mud men parents to tend to my various needs.  The construct of linear time – a mud man creation – impacted me greatly as my physical form gestated and matured.

As my primitive neurology developed, so too did my avatar.  It was an unusual form, meat and bone bound by oily skin.  Months and years passed, and my arms and legs became stronger.  The growth of my extremities was curiously paralleled by my parent’s deterioration, slow but noticeable.  As I grew more capable, they grew weaker.  My father’s hair and beard lost its colour, and my mother’s movements became tired and deliberate.  Though I was loath to admit it, I had grown attached to them, fond even, if only in a minimal sense.  With gormless affection they had shepherded me into womanhood and watched over me when I was nothing more than a mewing potato in a blanket. 

More time passed, as it did on the rock, and my official instruction began.  Years upon years of indoctrination in what was laughably termed a “school”.  Ideas of group conformity washed over me each day as the other children – they too mere simpletons – forged tribal identities.  It was in spending time with my fellow juveniles that I came to understand the concept of cruelty, and the depth of the mud man capacity for it.  The children were exquisitely cruel to each other, ostracising outsiders and brutalising others they deemed unacceptable.  I wondered if the deep-seated sadness felt by all mud men was somehow the result of these awful little people.

But I had little time for lofty philosophical musings.  As I began my transition into my final form, my attention was turned to more pressing matters as my body began to scream out for the basic mud men appetites.  Food.  Sex.  Food.  Sex.  The compulsions were all consuming and surprisingly overwhelming.  I had noted, with disinterest, the primitive mud man desire to pair off, forming couples and other social units. Living together they engaged in a perpetual cycle of eating and mating.  I failed to understand the appeal, much preferring to keep most of myself to myself.

Then one day he appeared.

As if out of nowhere, he stood before me, as though he had manifested from outside of space and time, somehow separate from the reality I occupied.  I gazed at him longingly, intensely, at once astonished by the potency of my own reaction to him.  I’d never conceived of finding a mud man attractive, but there he was, resplendent in chestnut hair.  Emotions and other strange desires fermented inside me as I realised that while I was encased in this woman’s form, I too was nothing more than an animal, responding to instinct as any animal would.

The brown-haired man spoke, and his words showed me nothing but compassion.  Those words led to a life together, and that life led to the birth of a child.  For a brief period, I wondered if in the uncomplicated act of procreation, I had finally comprehended the meaning of mud man existence.

My brown-haired man and I busied ourselves with the minutia of everyday life, allowing the years to wash over us both as we stared at the television screen in a happy stupor.  I dutifully played the part in which I had been cast – wife and mother.  Surrendering the employment I had diligently obtained, I resigned myself to a life expended preparing frozen lasagne and cleaning the house.  Initially, these tasks held a certain fascination, and I was able to derive some simple satisfaction from them.  But, as the years wore on, I grew bored with the monotony.  Equally unrewarding was the task of raising a child.  My offspring, a daughter, was herself rapidly becoming an adult who seemed to resent me more with each passing day.

The subjective experience of life was akin to the waves of an ocean, with discreet events fading into memory forming either peak or trough.  There were good decades and bad decades, each peppered with episodes that provoked immense joy and profound sadness in equal measure.  The sight of my brown-haired man – his body broken inside a primitive automobile – was particularly distressing.  I shrouded his body and placed it in the ground as per the mud man custom, then spent many years alone in silence.

My child, now a woman of ferocious temperament, left the house where we had lived in order to seek her own adventure.  Secretly glad to be free of her burdensome presence, I pondered how to spend the remaining years of my life before I too succumbed to death.  The absence of my brown-haired man had left an empty chasm which I attempted to fill in varying ways.

I embraced material possessions, surrounding myself with “things” – filthy, useless things.  Clothing, elaborate jewellery and items of convenience filled my living space.  In spite of the considerable expense I’d exhausted acquiring them, I found their presence empty, and their silence quite objectionable.  I turned my attention to art, but found no solace there.  All works of art by mud men were amateurish and simplistic.  Whether examining the works of Da Vinci or the childishness of the Sistine Chapel, I felt nothing but scorn.  Truly, I experienced the full spectrum of mud man emotions, cautioning myself that while sometimes uncomfortable, no feeling was final.

Now, my body had grown infirm.  The bitter passage of linear time had degraded that vessel which contained my consciousness.  I slowed, generally speaking, both physically and cognitively.  As my bones became brittle, my thoughts turned increasingly towards death.

Residing in a prison not unlike the school from my childhood, I cohabitated with many other unwanted people who spent their time staring at walls and waiting for phone calls that never came.  This was the place where mud men discarded their elderly once they had outlived their usefulness.  Ignoring the false beliefs that the mud men designed to stave off fear of oblivion, I prepared for the end.  Mentally taking stock of my life’s accomplishments, I looked back at the road behind me and saw nothing noteworthy at all.

When the moment came, it was surprising, and without fanfare or ceremony.  I had simply fallen asleep in the place where mud men spend most of their lives – in front of the television.  It was fittingly poetic in its own way, emblematic of the sheer meaninglessness of it all.

I awoke – milliseconds later – in the exact place from where I had departed.  I had lived a life, and the dying embers of its imagery flickered across my consciousness, but soon faded.  I remembered my existence as a mud man – a mere mortal.  Fallible and vulnerable, breakable and prone to disease.  I was glad to have sloughed off that odious form.  As my recollections fled from me, I recalled my brown-haired man’s face, but could no longer remember his name.  It had all been sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The purpose of my experiment had been to gain a new perspective, and I had done so.  I no longer experienced the urge to cleanse the mud man rock with fire.  They were nothing more than an irritant, an insect buzzing past as I proceeded with my existence.  After my life among them, I wondered why I had even bothered.  They were unworthy of my attention.  I placed my experiences – and the rock on which the mud men lived – upon a forgotten shelf in my mind and turned my attention to other matters more befitting a being such as myself. 

I barely noticed, a short time later, as the solar winds of the cosmos dissolved the rock and all its inhabitants entirely, winking them out of existence, never to be seen or heard from again.


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

ARTICLE: Separation Anxiety

(This article was originally published in Wordly Magazine in May 2020.  You can read the original article here:

In the middle of a once in a lifetime global pandemic, I find myself wondering how history will remember the events of the last ten months. From the first cases of Coronavirus detected to full-scale lockdowns implemented in cities all around the world. I try to imagine myself as an old man, telling someone younger about my lived experience of an event they’ll most likely read about in Wikipedia (or some future analogue).  As my thoughts coalesce, one idea rises to the surface—the notion of separation. This year has been characterised by separations, both personal and professional. But the one I wish to discuss here is perhaps more mundane—separation from Deakin itself.

It’s difficult to believe it’s been six months since I last set foot on the Deakin campus at Burwood as a student. On my last day, after being told that classes were cancelled, I walked to my car and drove off the premises carrying a queasy premonition about the future. I had no idea when I would be returning.

Looking not unlike a miniature city in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, the Deakin campus is comprised of a discordant mixture of modern architectural shapes, each one unique yet stylistically cohesive. Surrounded by an ample creek (replete with walkers who generously allow me to pet their dogs)—it’s my university.

I never realised what a sizeable portion of my personal identity being a university student constituted. It was how I expended the bulk of my time and symbolised learning and progress. I was a ‘university student’, and proudly announced it to anyone who would listen (and sometimes to those who didn’t!). I relished the day to day routine—driving or catching the tram to campus and diving into the throng of students, all rushing to and from classes, moving like the tiny components of a vast machine. It may sound trite, but I found it exhilarating.

A few semesters ago, when the Gods of scheduling saw fit to give me an 8 am lecture with no other classes till 3 pm, I spent the entire day on campus, availing myself of my friends who weren’t busy or unashamedly napping in our luxuriant library. Sometimes I’d read, or write, or simply perch upon any number of pieces of plush furniture while watching Netflix on my laptop (fully aware that I should be using my free time to study!).

In short, I loved being there. Every moment. I never doubted how fortunate I had been to earn a place there. If our society does contain privileges, then being educated is surely one of them. For me, the old axiom of  ‘not knowing what you have until it’s gone’ was never true. I was determined to be a university student for as long as possible (the life of an academic seems particularly appealing to me).

Fast forward six months, and riding my bike through the empty campus is a surreal experience.  Walkways once bursting with students are now empty, and the entire place is blanketed in eerie silence, punctuated only by the sound of birds. 

Quite different from the emotional fallout of being separated from Deakin are the real-world, economic consequences of the pandemic. Staff cuts and redundancies at Deakin have been openly reported in the media. These job losses represent an incalculable loss of talent and experience—virtues which I, as a student, would have reaped the benefits of. Additionally, I also can’t help but be concerned about the sustainability of the handful of small businesses embedded within the campus, whose steady supply of student customers has been abruptly severed.

Of course, the basic function of Deakin can continue unimpeded in the form of online classes.  While I’m unenthusiastic about online learning, I sometimes chastise myself for taking its existence for granted. It’s a technological innovation that my parents’ generation would never know. But online classes simply aren’t the same. They can’t compare to the kinetic, participatory ritual of sitting in a class with other students, many who have complained about the online resources themselves! While some of these grievances are no doubt valid, I feel they unfairly ignore the truest resource Deakin has to offer its students—its teaching staff.

I can readily attest to being the grateful beneficiary of lecturers and tutors who generously (and willingly) gave their time after class. I’m indebted to the teaching staff who cared enough to help me—the stupidest of students—understand difficult concepts (Mervyn, if you’re reading this, I passed my Statistics exam thanks to your help!).

While I’ve taken lengths to extol the virtues of the Deakin campus itself, I would humbly offer that Deakin is more than a series of buildings—more than an institution. Deakin is the people, students, teachers, and staff from whom this unfortunate circumstance has kept us so painfully apart. I still hold out hope for next year, playfully imagining myself power walking across the crossbridge from the HE building. I’m probably late for class but have still managed to find time to purchase a takeaway coffee.

I miss being at Deakin, and I know I’m not the only one. Surprisingly, as a child who didn’t always enjoy formal education, not a day goes by now when I don’t think to myself, ‘I can’t wait to get back to school.’


Tuesday, November 17, 2020

ARTICLE: Reflections On Star Trek Picard

(This article was originally published on the website Some Kind of Star Trek in July 2020.  You can read the original article here:

Like so many fans, I came to Star Trek as a child in the mid-90s. Unbeknownst to me, the franchise was in the middle of a renaissance with overlapping series and movies being released at the same time. It truly was the best of times. Trek fans were spoiled, and we didn’t even know it.

James Patrik Star Trek Picard

At the heart of this new resurgence, of course, lay Gene Roddenberry and his philosophy. After his death in 1991, the onus fell upon Rick Berman who tried his best to create television that Gene would have approved of. It was an approach that Berman himself has, at times, been critical of. Should he have permitted more serialised storytelling on The Next Generation and Voyager? Would darker themes have yielded higher ratings and therefore greater commercial success? Time certainly has been good to Deep Space Nine – once the ugly duckling of the franchise it is now experiencing a long overdue critical re-appraisal.

So, when Star Trek returned to television after more than a decade away, it was clear that many of the tropes of contemporary storytelling would be employed to bring the ageing franchise into the 21st century. The result was 2017’s Star Trek: Discovery.

I’ll admit it – I’ve never warmed to Discovery. It's certainly not for lack of trying (having watched every episode of the two seasons presently available). Sure, I could point to the unlikeable characters or the dour wartime storyline, but the cause of my discomfort lies deeper – it doesn’t feel like Star Trek.

When it was announced that Patrick Stewart would be returning to his iconic role as Jean-Luc Picard, I was elated. Not only was I excited to see one of the most beloved characters in all of science fiction return, but it symbolised a return to the 24th century (the first since 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis) and a re-engagement with established canon. As the first season of Star Trek: Picard unfolded, I began to sense a growing unease – not only in myself – but in certain segments of the fandom as well. This wasn’t the show we had hoped for, and it sure as hell didn’t feel like Star Trek. 

What follows is my personal laundry list of why Star Trek: Picard fell short of my expectations:

Patrick Stewart himself:

Patrick Stewart’s very name is synonymous with thespian excellence. His rich timbre and dedication to his craft have allowed him to create some unforgettable characters both on stage and screen. I’m saddened to say that I was less than impressed with his performance in Star Trek: Picard. His voice – one of his more formidable acting tools – is shot. No one is immune to the passage of time, and, without wanting to appear ageist, I believe he has simply aged out of the role.


Episode five featured the now infamous eye gauging scene – it was the one and only time I have turned my head away from the screen during an episode of Star Trek. It wasn’t just the scene itself that I found distressing, rather the context. The audience watches as a familiar character has his eyeball forcibly extracted as he is restrained on a bloody bed, screaming in agony.

Some in the online fanbase were quick to respond: “Star Trek has always been violent; they were just hindered by network TV censorship standards”. Others cited Harry Kim’s spaghetti-like wound in Scorpion, Part I as precedent, or, better yet, Remmick’s exploding head from Conspiracy. It’s true, Picard is not beholden to the censorship standards of the 90s, but just because they can show gory content, it does not mean they should.  At this point, I feel the need to qualify my critique by identifying myself as an ardent horror fan. I’m not “against” gore on television, but that kind of imagery is not what I want from Star Trek. 

Swearing & Contemporary dialogue:

Many reviewers have taken umbrage with some of the language used in the show (one foul mouthed Admiral in particular). I personally didn’t care for it, mainly because I feel it was it was used clumsily. Swearing for swearing’s sake. 

It reminded me of the scene between Kirk and Spock on the bus in Star Trek IV. Spock notices that contemporary speech is peppered with profanity. Kirk waves it away as a vernacular artefact of centuries past. In the Star Trek universe, this is the way humans on earth used to speak to each other. Swearing in dialogue and the use of contemporary phrases (like “dude” and “hell yeah”) shatters the illusion that we are in a future time. Which brings me to…

It breaks the reality of Star Trek:

What happened to the post scarcity utopia of the 24th century? It appears to have been supplanted by a much more cynical and nihilistic zeitgeist, almost completely embodied in the character of Raffi. Her entire motivation is driven by the trauma of her losing her “job” and her slow descent into poverty. She even compares her home to Picard’s – making reference to his “heirloom” furniture. The ugly image of a drug addicted black woman living in a trailer seems especially miscalculated given the current wave of social change that minorities around the world are attempting to initiate.

It’s depressing as hell:

Who would have thought that Seven of Nine, upon her return to the alpha quadrant, would  become a cynical, hard drinking murderer? Or that poor, gentle Icheb would be so brutally butchered that he would beg for euthanasia? The world of Star Trek: Picard is a frightening place populated by damaged characters. As the credits rolled on each episode, I was filled with a sinking feeling, disturbed by images of murder, poisonings, suicide, panic attacks, vomiting, insanity and vivisections.

On social media, many of my criticisms of the show were shouted down or dismissed derisively as “you just want old Star Trek” and “OK Boomer”. Fair enough. The show is different, radically so in places. I accept that. I often try to remember what a shock it must have been like for viewers in 1987 tuning in to see Encounter at Farpoint for the first time. But this iteration of Trek doesn’t feel right.

So, what does Star Trek feel like to me?

It feels like a slice of media that challenges me with bold science fiction ideas. It feels intellectual, and at times, a little high minded. But mostly, it makes me think about the future – a time when all of the resources our planet currently devotes to war and interpersonal division will be funnelled into the exploration of space.

At least, that’s what Star Trek means to me. Here’s hoping season two can offer a less depressing vision of the 24th century.


Friday, October 30, 2020

ARTICLE: Lonely Deakin: The Silent Epidemic

(This article was originally published in Wordly Magazine in May 2020.  You can read the original article here:

Loneliness seems to be an epidemic in our society and, at university, it’s an insidious problem that often appears invisible. Portrayals of campus life in TV and film soon give way to the sobering reality that, for some of us, attending university can be a painfully solitary experience.

James Patrik Lonely Deakin

As a student of Psychology, these ideas began to percolate as I perused the Deakin Love Letters Facebook page. Like a KFC dinner, it’s a guilty pleasure. It often succinctly and effectively captures the zeitgeist of all campuses on any given day. Before too long, I began to notice an emerging trend in some of the comments and posts: lonely students, crying out for simple companionship and human contact. Sound familiar?  Examples of students in second, third, and even fourth year who had ‘no one to talk to’ became commonplace. I was shocked. How could this be possible?

It was sheer dumb luck that I made some friends in my first week at Deakin. It was affection and a considerable amount of effort that helped keep us together. Two years later, we’re a surrogate family, even welcoming a new member into our fold. Typically, we see each other multiple times a week, simply hanging around, conversing on subjects both profound and trivial. Common interests certainly helped cement our friendship. A shared passion for science fiction, anime, and junk food continues to be the glue that binds us so profoundly.

Speaking solely for myself, my friends have been an emotional bulletproof vest—a flak jacket protecting me from self-doubt, stress, depressive episodes, and the ever-present urge to quit university and get a job at Kmart.

Cheesy as it may be to admit, what we have is unique. Special. Why don’t others have it?  What’s stopping people from making friends? Why are they so lonely? To answer these questions, I decided a frank conversation with my own group was in order. They, too, have had little luck forging new connections outside our circle.

Unsurprisingly, the blame was quickly laid at the feet of social media, and by extension, increased internet use. This perspective is hardly novel, but hearing it articulated by my peers was surprising. 

One friend offered, ‘People don’t have the social skills they used to because of social media.  Fear of other people is heightened once the safety net of the phone is removed.’

‘It’s nature versus nurture. Some people have grown up online. It’s a place where they can behave differently. In the real world, they have to deal with facial expressions and concepts like sarcasm. Conversation can be difficult if you don’t know how to read social cues.’

While laziness surrounding social obligations seemed to add to the problem, my friends were quick to point out that anxiety, a fear of judgment, and good old-fashioned garden-variety shyness were also contributors.

‘People are standoffish and unwilling to make the first move. But then again, so was I. Is that shyness?  It seems like people are very guarded, emotionally.’

One can’t blame a new student from being apprehensive. Commencing study at university is—for most people—a life-altering experience. I can relate. Fuelled by palm-sweating anxiety, I spent my first full week of classes frantically talking to everyone I could in an attempt to forge a connection. Needless to say, I wasn’t always successful. Over-excited (and wearing far too much aftershave), I probably scared some people away!

During O’Week, I decided to enquire about some of the more structured social activities offered by Deakin. A friend who lived on campus for a year offered his perspective:

‘These types of events are fine, but they often cater to the most extroverted types of people. To those who are more introverted, they are off-putting. It doesn’t work for everyone.’

Indeed, it seems like those at the more introverted end of the spectrum constitute a kind of ‘silent majority’ at Deakin. In my own group, activities are often low key: writing, creative endeavours, movie nights, and pointless trips to Chadstone. None of us really enjoy drinking, and our time together is often relaxed and laid back.

‘We introverted people are everywhere—hiding in plain sight,’ offers another friend who would rather spend his evenings watching films than going out.

So, what’s the solution? To anyone new to university, I would humbly offer the following advice: find your people. They’re out there. People like you—no matter how obscure you think your interests are, someone on campus will share them.  Be brave and invest in the search.

Use your fear and know for certain that you are not the only one feeling it. If you’re unsure, simply ‘fake it till you make it’. Act with confidence and, sure enough, real confidence will eventually find you.

Don’t rely on class time to make friends. Sure, they can be a good place to meet people, but classes are tightly structured, leaving little space for conversations to breathe. Try and take that budding rapport to the next level by asking someone to join you for coffee, getting together to study for an upcoming exam, or even walking to and from class. 

Lastly—don’t give up. For those with genuine social anxiety, this may be easier said than done.  University can sometimes seem like a large, scary machine filled with thousands of people. That just means you have an even greater chance of success—greater odds that you will find someone who enjoys the same things as you. University life doesn’t have to feel scary, and you need not walk the path by yourself. Finding yourself a friend could be one of the greatest things you could do for your mental health.

Friday, October 2, 2020

REVIEW: Doctor Who 2008-2010 Specials

For the last two years my friends and I have been on a mission to re-watch the new series of Doctor Who.  The terms of our endeavour are simple – every episode (and minisode) of the revived 2005 series until we are caught up with the current instalments.  Predictably, it’s been a divisive experience – everyone has their favourite characters, storylines and moments and, in a room full of self-confessed nerds - passions run high.

Well into coronavirus lockdown, we rounded the corner to series 4.  It was the first time we’d reached something approximating group consensus.  We each fondly recalled the initial broadcast of the season in 2008 and the esteem in which the popular zeitgeist regarded the show.  Series 4 appeared to be Doctor Who at the height of its critical acclaim with David Tennant reaching near Tom Baker levels of popularity.  Comedienne Catherine Tate joined the cast full time providing the Doctor with a companion who was unafraid to point out his foibles.

Doctor Who Specials James Patrik

The episode themselves were a winning bunch, and in my opinion, represent the most consistently excellent streak of the series.  “The Unicorn and the Wasp” was a unanimous favourite, as was the superlative “Turn Left” with only “Midnight” generating significant debate and splitting opinion.  But it was the series’ two concluding episodes that engendered the most favour.  Sure, they’re a little self-referential and heavy on “fan service”, but the “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End” two parter feels like a reward for ardent fans who’d been there since “Rose”.

Roping in characters from contemporaneous spin offs Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures (while plugging into those show’s own internal continuity seamlessly), “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End” feel more like a series finale rather than simply the end of a season.  Make no mistake, these episodes are top shelf science fiction television.  Cinematic in execution and expansive with their scope (and cast), they are the best exemplars of the broad theatrics and global stakes that became a pleasing trademark of Russel T Davies’ writing.  As well as delivering emotional catharsis for Tennant’s 10th Doctor (and his unresolved feelings for former companion Rose Tyler), it finds room for Daleks and even Davros – not seen since 1988 – played with manic malevolence by Julian Bleach. 

Crisis averted, and Davros dispatched (for now, at least), companions and friends each make their exits in a bittersweet coda which leaves the 10th Doctor alone once more.  Roll credits.  But wait…

It’s in viewing these episodes out of context in a marathon that the problems with the specials make themselves most obviously apparent.  They feel like a deal driven mistake or a contractual obligation of sorts.  A transparent attempt to gain more mileage out of Tennant’s popularity by a production team nervous about the future of the franchise. 

I suppose It’s understandable.  It’s been widely reported that the BBC considered cancelling the show at the time, unsure that any actor would be capable of filling David Tennant’s now battered pair of converse shoes.  So, the “Specials Year” proceeds unevenly, beginning with “The Next Doctor” (an irritatingly manipulative title).  Despite the appearance of the excellent Cyber Shades and the simmering rage of Dervla Kirwan as Miss Hartigan, this is a story that smacks of disappointment.  Once Jackson Lake is revealed to be a poor unfortunate amnesiac, the dramatic tension of the episode dissipates, culminating in a lacklustre finale.

“Planet of the Dead” certainly delivers on sheer spectacle.  With a foreign filming location (Dubai) and finally upgraded to high definition, Doctor Who has never looked or sounded better.  In many ways this episode is quite the visual feast – the metallic Sting Rays of San Helios providing a terrifying addition to the franchise’s pantheon of monsters.  Its agreeable to see Erisa Magambo back in action and the hysterical Malcolm provides a dose of comic relief (and possibly meta-commentary on fandom), but it’s all in service of a story that feels far too trite.  The image of a flying double decker bus is seared in my memory as a creative low point of the year.

Its “Waters of Mars” that finally ups the ante, delivering a handsome slice of grown up science fiction encased within the “base under siege” trope which Doctor Who practically invented.  Lindsay Duncan’s formidable Adelaide Brooke stands toe to toe with the 10TH Doctor – questioning his now dubious morality.  Indeed, it’s an episode whose themes of determinism versus free stand in stark contrast to the cartoonish imagery of its immediate predecessor.  Fan consensus seems to favour this episode as the best of the specials and I’m inclined to concur - especially with its low key (yet jaw dropping) denouement.

Somewhere within the bloated two episode run time of “The End of Time” is contained a decent story.  Unfortunately, David Tennant’s run stumbles to a close with two episodes that often feel directionless and vary wildly in tone.  The morose 10th Doctor - now fully conscious of his impending regeneration - attempts to stop the Master (a revived John Simm) from replacing the planet’s population with clones of himself.  Add to that, an extended 20-minute epilogue in which the Doctor revisits all of his old companions – and I mean all of them.

This sequence feels emotionally redundant – we had already bid most of these characters a proper farewell in “Journey’s End” – do we really need to check in with Mickey Smith one last time?  Most egregious of all is the 10th Doctor’s final scene – his regeneration.  While the notion of sacrificing one’s life for someone else is a noble one, the 10th Doctor seems to do so begrudgingly, making time for an indignant rant about how he could have been “so much more”.  It’s an awful moment.  Instead of meeting his end with bravery or dignity, the character goes out a sobbing mess, petulant and fearful of oblivion.

Still, these five episodes show flashes of brilliance, even if they do interrupt the momentum of a binge watch.  I’ve always personally felt that “Waters of Mars” would have been a perfect regeneration episode for the 10th Doctor – his hubris finally exacting a cost in the form of regeneration.

Like most television, Doctor Who is art and should be applauded or critiqued within the context it was created.  The specials aired months apart at a time when taking a year off was an unknown concept to fans who were still relatively gun-shy following the original series’ cancellation in 1989.  Out of context, watching the episodes one after another felt like a difficult slog – no more than a protracted wait for a new Doctor in the form of Matt Smith.  Despite my criticisms, I feel that the ability to voice them in itself is a luxury.  Gone are the days of Doctor Who being broadcast one season after another, with intermittent breaks now a regular occurrence (and a fact of life where modern television is concerned).  As fans, we can at least be grateful that the creative team at the time – including the inimitable Russel T Davies – saw fit to at least provide fans with some content to sate our appetites.  With the production currently on pause due to the unfortunate state of the world at the moment, we should only be so lucky now.


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