He – John – never did; I did. Walked past the tabernacle, the orthodox Greek, the Albanian communion. He never did; he caught the tram, the 1 or the 8, past the cemetery and over the Parade. I never did; I walked with collision in my eyes. We studied the same course. We’d even been in a subject together, mine accelerated, his made-up for. Cinema studies. Polish tutor with big brown eyes. He never went to the State Library – he went to the City Library. While I was buried in a cubicle feeling blades of glass-stuff shoot up my nasal passage, he buried himself in Knausgard.
Down the end of our street in Brunswick was a park, an oval and pavilion on one side, and a hill looking over small parklands beneath. I sat atop that hill, watched gold give way to grey, shortly after we first moved in to the flat. It was autumn, then. And he sat atop Flagstaff, jeans on the charcoal steppe, quietly sipping a longneck as the world tittered past.
When we lived together in the first half of 2016, John had only one subject left at university, and he worked at a café with me and Tess, the small strange brown-haired girl whose company we both enjoyed. She’d come by our flat and we’d drink wine and beer. John was giving up smoking; he walked around with a sad look in his eyes. In one of his stories he wrote, ‘justice is like nothing else, it’s inferred, that’s all. At least karma has consequences’. He wore nicotine patches through the day and night (twenty-two) and dreamt mad dreams. He liked it; he wanted to feel more than anything, and the horrors made him feel. I didn’t dream so much. Sleep comes to people but I strangled it, held its unmoving corpse to my breast : pieta.
I would come to work high off ketamine. It didn’t matter. I did my job, just like John did. We were tired, and our eyes were often empty and dull. Only his lethargy was brought about by sleep deprivation, and mine from a horse tranquilizer. They didn’t let us work together much, John and me. He was saving for a one-way ticket to Europe; I was saving for the ketamine I could use tomorrow. And he’d once said to me, ‘delayed gratification is degraded pleasure’.
He needed Europe. It wasn’t so much a destination as a symbol. Everything his life in Melbourne had come to was, in his mind, degenerate, tragically unattainable, or otherwise unworthy shit. He attracted beautiful girls who came to the flat but he didn’t feel anything. His best friend, Jimmy, was holed up in research. I was depressed and drug-addicted. What was there for him here? Europe was a symbol.
At the café we were paid well for doing very little. I rarely wore the same dishevelled, unhealthy, swollen look that John did, but I was probably far more unwell. I used to get up at four-thirty in the morning, conscious as I was of the food I had gorged on the previous night, quickly shit, shower, smoke a cigarette and dress, before snorting a line or two of ketamine and leaving the house for the café. I would walk for an hour and a half till I got there, 7.5 kilometres, electronic dance music in my ears.
My birthday, January the 4th, falls just after the New Year. Before my eighteenth birthday, three years ago, I caught the train and bus to a popular spot on the peninsula, and for the next three nights I slept in the wind and cold. The jagged pulp that had become my heart beat fast and hard. In a small jar I carried cannabis about with me, along with all my luggage, the sleeping-bag I tried to sleep in beneath salty shrubs at night. Earlier I had tried my hand at rest beneath a boat, failing. Earlier still I had wandered the main passage with starry eyes and the town all stopped and stared. I walked the highway, ducking headlights and murmuring softly to myself, a wine in hand; John’s words in my ears: ‘Don’t panic’. I stumbled into brambles, bushes. For a few hours I rested, not really sleeping, with the harsh winks of morning cars for company.
My mother had once gotten into an argument with John over psychotropic drugs. He, rationally enough, had been expounding their potential merits. My mother, conceding something of ill-research, hastily urged him not to convince me of such things. He can’t think properly, and he’s so easily swayed by you. I think I was about seventeen at the time. A few weeks earlier, my family had gone to the beach for a birthday celebration. I’d taken weed and 2ci-5 down with me. John and I took the fake acid together; it was John’s first time taking hallucinogens. Since then we’ve taken LSD, 2cb, ketamine, cannabis, DMT, methoxamine, and several other psychedelic substances in each other’s company
When John didn’t sleep, all that had been building up so tensely inside would dismantle him, almost systematically. I remember he advised me, when I first moved out of home, that no writer could write when they were truly hungry. And after the episode at the bay, I had told him that a lack of sleep, that sleeplessness itself was the worst drug imaginable, and that it could make all things crack and fall.
He didn’t hate me during our time at Brunswick, but seeing me drift farther and farther from any tangible making at or of my life certainly brought out a brittle in him. He remembered when he’d laid down by a Polish river and smoked and drank and felt life settle upon him. And he saw me, and he remembered the way we’d talked, and he knew it was all there, and when we took strong drugs together he told me so, he gripped me and shook my shoulders and screamed, ‘it’s there Richard, just fucking take it! It’s there, it’s there, it’s all there in you!’
In March of 2016, I shared a jug of beer at a local hotel with a boy I’d gone to school with. He was playing the saxophone compulsively, obsessively, from the time ‘[he] pull[ed] on a shirt in the morning’, and studying law at a different university, so he told me. John rang me and asked if I knew what had happened to Tess. Apparently she’d tried to call John eight times. Sometimes Tess would disappear for days on end, disconcertingly. I mumbled ‘no’, and he asked me where I was, didn’t I have work the next morning. I said I was at the E—, that I would head home soon. ‘Sure’, he said. ‘Well, Sarah’s here’. ‘No worries’ I replied. There was silence on the line. He was unshaven, it occurred to me. He hung up and I resumed talking with my friend. He wanted to buy cannabis off me, and I told him I had seen a performance of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man earlier that night. We talked about books for a while then returned to talking about drugs. We had been rivals in primary school. I sold him a few grams and swallowed another Xanax. My eyes were plastered to the back of my head, and I could think of nothing but to drink, snort, and swallow; I had already sold enough to break even. It was nigh-on midnight. I had work the next day at six in the morning; I would rise at half-four. My companion bought another jug for us, he appreciated my facilitations. We didn’t talk about Joyce any more. I walked part of the way home; the midnight trams had ceased to run. My brother was in his bedroom when I got home, at half-past two. He heard my chortling, a joint being rolled, asked me to be quiet. Sarah was asleep beside him, whistling softly where she lay. With dead black eyes he stumbled out at half-past three; ‘are you alright?’ he said shakily, walking into my room and shaking my limp, outstretched body on the futon. I was coming out of a ketamine hole. At times like these he wondered what would happen when he left. ‘Fine’ I mumbled. And shortly after, I started towards the café, high again – this time on methoxamine, a stronger version of ketamine.
And at that time, about March, John began to drink more heavily, shrinking away from the sleepless night, pouring his inverted sorrow down through his tonsils and black smoke back up through his nostrils (when I was around)— Europe, the symbol, the getaway. We knew it was somewhere— But it was not where I was going. So he told me, one shaky, grey afternoon, that I should seek help. He was leaving and there was excitement behind the sadness. Of course he was right. This was mid-June, 2016.
In December of 2015 a man circled the bench where I sat beside the Stephensdom; it was a Viennese Winter but the square stretched dim-bright with cameras, blood-red tour-guides. I was preparing to walk the alley-streets, past Mozart’s apartment and the Italian Trattoria to the laneway where we – my brother, my parents, and I – had stayed six years ago. A few days earlier I had been stopped at the Croatian border, and they took my passport and detained me for fifteen minutes on suspicion of narcotic possession. ‘Fifteen hundred euros and deportation’, the sly-eyed man had said. I don’t have five-hundred euros I thought. The border-men had laughed at the penny-worth of drugs, and let me back on the bus.
When my brother was in Europe he slipped through borders with cats and filth under blankets in strange cars. With strange people, with Johnny and Tomasz and Shoe. The police often stopped him, questioned him on where he was going and what he was doing. He didn’t cross borders much – his anxiety was bad, and like me he fears authority – but when he did, he was nearly always pulled aside. But he just shrugged, and told small white lies to get him from one side to the other. Yes he had a job lined up. No he wasn’t carrying anything on him. No he wasn’t staying illegally. Yes he knew these people well. Even if his heart was racing, John never had anything to fear. What was there to fear?
The man was still circling, occasionally clutching his crotch. He wore a dirty t-shirt and the smiling tour-guides in their big church-hats didn’t stop him. I rose and walked swiftly, my backpack heavy, cigarette numb-dangling from my lips across the Square and past Mozart’s apartment. Past the Italian trattoria with the small terrace-garden. I pissed in a pot-plant when the laneway was clear, and remembered how when I reached Krakow I’d emptied my bladder at the back of a railway station, and a woman in high-heels had tittered, ‘we don’t do that in Europe’.
John spent three months in Poland in 2014. With Johnny the pianist and Tomasz the philosopher; they took a designer drug that acted like an amphetamine, which they named Slang, and stayed up until the morning— Krakow. They were determined to ‘feel everything’, in my brother’s words— He wrote short curling stories hunched with his back against the wall of Johnny’s apartment, never sharing them. He was vulnerable but happy and the words acted outside the chaos, he played his part. He didn’t consider himself addicted to the drug; it was more like an anti-reality, a stand against it-ness. He wrote good stories, some of which were eventually published. Johnny played the piano and as the music pounded, drummed, trilled into the fog, John writhed in happiness. Not with happiness, he tells me; but in it. He was away from the grot of home, the home hardly worth talking about (he says). He won’t let on about why. It’s dirt in his eyes.
I sat in a café in Zagreb when I was the same age. The street curled behind, river-like, couples in black in the winter dark; I sipped black coffee and smoked Camels. I had drunk myself into a semi-stupor at the hostel where I was staying for a night and I sat, drunk, at the café, a notebook in front of me. Inside were the letters I wrote every now-and-then to my brother, my family. At a table nearby there were a few Croats, young men and women, who were laughing among themselves, and I had the impression – perhaps from a sidelong glance, perhaps from an anxious heart – that their mirth was derived from me. I wished in my heart of hearts that I could join them, that I could speak their language – my language. My mother is Croatian, I have relatives in Zagreb (though I would not visit them; I was in a psychotic state and I did not speak their language). I leant over in my chair to retrieve a pencil that had fallen, and the chair toppled sideways. I collided with the ground; a small chaos ensued. I lay there for a moment; I did not hit my head hard enough. One of the young men came over and offered me a hand, hauled me to my feet. I tried to laugh along with his friends. They did nothing to hide their mirth. When I was finished I gave the waiter enough money for a Karlovac biro, biro, biro which is Czech because my memory was squandered, and quietly pointed to the table where they sat – ‘for them’, I said, and left as quietly as I could, their laughter at my back.
Narratives deserve privacy of heart. The secret is in keeping it. So I never discussed why I couldn’t sleep at night. The fable was God’s, and my own. My own divine, coital embrace. I have been caught on camera with eyes dilated at work more than once. I often rose from my futon, blinked, and feeling the strain, drank deeply from my cup of white foam.
We lived separate lives within a few metres of one another. He, with Sarah and longnecks and bitter stories burnt into his memory; I, married to pills and mirrors.
Just before I went into hospital in June 2016, with sunglasses on a headache, I bought a sleeve of rum at the liquor store and caught a tram towards Tom’s house in the suburbs. I didn’t look at anyone, just scrolled through my phone at a numb-rate, waited for the streetcar to speed up, ache, inch, slow down, creak and groan as streetcars do. Anyway, I got there, rum in hand, a quarter-bottle deep. I drank most of the rum at Tom’s. We smoked a few joints and listened to some music, all the time the same acrid residue settling heavy and numb at the back of my brain. There was someone else there, D’Arcy, who returns to Australia on the 2nd of November 2016. We stole into the public house at a half-five. Many of the girls I’d known over the years, and many of the boys I’d garnered half-arsed friendships with, were singing and dancing there. I made a good profit in the first half-hour. It was comical, the entire thing a royal farce; we transformed the public house into a circus of illegitimacy. I was dancing, stumbling at even intervals. I snorted along with my friends, finished my rum and no doubt made quite a scene because I don’t remember losing my phone, nonetheless I did. I swallowed some of the pale bricks I was meant to keep for sleep. It was a jazzy, circus scene, and I enjoyed that interim ‘shot’ at things before hospital-life, I talked with a high-flying girl about school and how much of a waste it was, she was tutoring in English, I tutored the year before in history, but her boyfriend was nearby and I turned away, probably fell away, stumbled over the crushed glass and looked up with sobbing fiery eyes. The next ten hours I cannot recall.
My brother met Shoe – Alex, but Shoe was what he called him – in Copenhagen, in 2014. Hitchhiking together, they were picked up by a man with dread-locks and a foul sense of humour. He took them to a house outside Prague, after they’d already asked him to drop them a few times. John watched the brick-walls go by, blank-minded. Let it be. The man wondered if they’d help him get pick up a package. He’d already given them cocaine in the car and they agreed. What was the point in not agreeing? Life presents; give in. They took packets of speed from the house and got back in the car. He dropped them in Zizkov, but not before giving them more neat lines of the amphetamine. They bought four giant plastic bottles of wine and climbed the fence into the cemetery. Wide-eyed, John’s entire being dilated, the two of them danced between the graves, waiting for the dampness of morning to arrive.
I was in my bed and it was morning, light was leaking through the curtains, my wallet was nowhere and neither was my phone. Old familiar feelings washed over me. I was still in my jeans lying face-down. When I managed to sit up I realised that my jeans and the sheets beneath me were soaked through with blood. Running over the shin bone of my right leg was a deep gash-like wound, still bleeding. My phone was at the public house; mother drove me there to pick it up. I saw my psychiatrist, and he formally referred me to the hospital. The nurse took a good hard look and called for the doctor. She had a British accent from near-north, like my ex-girlfriend’s mother whom I had always loved listening to. The doctor gave me four stitches which I bore grimly, not wanting to look down, still quivering and slightly dissociated. I talked to the nurse while he was out of the room. I told her I was going to rehab. And it was true; I really had no idea how I had received the wound. She looked on sadly, maternally, with understanding.
When I was in the ward, in between allocated charging times at the nurse’s station, John and I talked on the phone via Whatsapp. He said he was proud of me for going there. I asked him where he was; Munich, he said, just on the road. I found out later he’d been given a ride to a goa-trance festival in the middle of Germany, only he hadn’t wanted to tell me at the time because I was in detox. He’d said, ‘take me wherever you’re going’, and they had. They were a boy and a girl and were clearly seeing one another. By the time they’d gotten to the festival though, a few hours later, they’d broken up. John got out of the car, nearly bursting with laughter. But that I found out later, after I’d relapsed. He talked to me about his time on the road in 2014, back with Shoe and Leyah, Shoe’s long-term nomad girlfriend, about working on a German farm for a crazed old hippie. Waking up, far away from Melbourne, to apples and a pick-axe. He wandered through mist across placid hills to a forest. Two days later, with Shoe and Leyah, he took magic mushrooms in the forest, by a lake, and experienced what some have termed ‘the oceanic feeling’. But before then, he just walked, and that was enough. The old woman lived with animals, mostly cats, which licked their fur between his calves when they sat down for a meal. She housed him, and he was happy.
John found a job at a hostel while I was in hospital. In Romania, he said with a laugh, which was good, apparently; it would allow him to tick off time outside the Schengen zone, as well as being safely housed. Whenever I talked to my mother I assured her that John was doing well, that he was fed and rested. But she knew; in fact, he told her he wasn’t. He said his sleep cycles were ‘all fucked up’; he worked till the morning, then couldn’t sleep with the grey Romanian dawn crumbling in. He trudged the streets, alone, to pass the time. After a spell of abstinence, he began passing the time with drinking and smoking, even though he wasn’t being paid for the work. But laughing, he assured me, ‘at least I’m not in fucking Melbourne’.
A friend recounted to me, a few weeks after I came out of the psychiatric ward: ‘Remember that time you were on some crazy cocktail of drugs?’ I didn’t. ‘You just wandered out into the middle of the road when they didn’t let you back in the pub. We had to pull you back and throw you to the ground. This guy was speeding past. Thought it was all a gag. Kyle took a cab with you and disappeared for three hours. Then you ended up at the H— like five hours later’. He laughed. ‘Fucked if I know how’.
John moved from Romania to Plovdiv in Bulgaria for a change of scenery; Bucharest had begun depressing him, what with the hard late hours and furious gypsies who seemed to laugh at him behind his back. I told him how strange it felt to be so far away from him, after being so close. He said he felt the same, especially when we talked over the phone. When we lived together, he’d impart advice without meaning to do so. He never lied. He told the girls he slept with that he felt nothing. He admitted that Jimmy was drifting away from him, and he admitted that he disdained the way Jimmy had ‘holed himself up’, as I write. Eventually he even told me that I was losing it. That was how he imparted advice.
D’Arcy sent me a message from Krakow, asking over something. He had been away a few months then, and he tacked on ‘how are you, sorry for being selfish’ to the end of the message. ‘What do you need’ I replied. ‘You were in Krakow’ he said. ‘Just wondering’. And he added: ‘I think I’ve turned a corner’. I was on a walk when I received the message. Not-drinking but wanting to drink, more than anything. And I wanted to say—Fuck, you think you’ve turned a corner… I ended up in a psychiatric ward of my own accord because I’d snorted enough ketamine to piss red rivers, every day for months on end, woken up and wanted to die so I reached for a pill or the line I was too comatose to snort a few hours ago, drunk enough to kill myself eighty times over— And I lost my brain twice, once in Europe, and once at the public house, after which you wouldn’t let me look for my fucking phone, and I’ve turned the corner two, three, eight-thousand times and I still don’t get it, so before you speak, be sure— Because I haven’t been, and I’m not so sure – even now, even after everything – I’m not so sure I can live my words, the advice and wisdom that’s been gifted me right at this very moment—
John is drinking a lot; he has nearly abandoned his writing, even though it is remarkable in certain places. It has even been published in a few editions. But he has nearly abandoned it; he spends his time on the road, with life and the crick before him. He talks about the times he used to hitchhike, either alone or with Shoe, alone or with Brad, the Irishman, and he says that it’s different now. There’s a jagged thing in his breast. But he watches the countryside go by; he tells me that life has melted him into indifference. But so too, he says; ‘it’s soldered an energy I never knew could exist, beyond sadness and beyond bliss.
John is moving to Germany, to meet Johnny, with whom he will stay – ‘until he needs to leave’, as he says— Jimmy is flying over to meet him in December— I am high, depressed, and writing this paper—
The genealogy ruptures, and I find myself yearning after the respite I’ve fought for over the past six years— I don’t send the diatribe to D’arcy. I write: If you’ve really turned a corner, then grapple that to heart beyond anything else
This is as good a map as I can sketch for a 4000 word autobiography | biography. What more can the project be than a map with neither scale nor key? A sketch. A map. There is more to life than black bits on white pages. Pared back, stripped of the narrative of our ego – quiet with our thoughts, the written word an impediment on experience, crick– we are mere awareness. Sinking deeply – more deeply, more essentially – and further back to the reality of self—
And there is the silence, radiance, and peace. But not words. Felt. To feel everything. That is something that John and I have experienced, silently, beside one another. The silence that allows no word.
what we have on my behalf, I suppose,
is a reference-specific and stylistic portrait.
on John’s, we have the calamitous, peaceful emptiness
that hangs behind everyone’s eyes—
which, ironically enough,
is the only thing real enough to keep me alive—
Richard Hanson is a writer and student from Melbourne. He is interested in overlooked and alternative means of representation, and the underbelly of experience.