Last week, I went for a run. Because I’m fit. As I was jogging through Hyde Park, I noticed a man sprawled on a bench, seemingly unconscious.
“Junkie,” I thought, and continued running. However, as I got closer, I noticed he was reasonably well-dressed and clean-shaven. His head was thrown back and his mouth hung open. Like a corpse. As I jogged past, he did not move at all. When I got to the end of the park, I turned around to look once more. The man still hadn’t moved. I hovered for a few seconds, then a possum ran in front of me and I chased him because I love the possums in Hyde Park. They make me feel like a bush ranger. I ran home, then ate a can of corn and played Diddy Kong Racing. After all, I am a grown up.
The next day, the man was gone. I wondered whether he’d simply woken up, or been gently pushed into Sydney harbour by the city council. Had I run past a dead body and not noticed/cared? It was entirely possible. I live in Darlinghurst. I pass smacked-out junkies more often than I buy toilet paper. I have frequently seen homeless people brawling, interrupted doorway poops, witnessed various acts of vandalism, and been a spectator to more than a few domestic disputes. On top of this, I get asked for money every time I leave my house. But enough about the Red Cross, because the junkies are pretty annoying too.
Sometimes, I’ll see a couple fighting, and the dude will push or hit his lady around a little. I’ll think, “How could he!” but my default reaction in these situations is to always look the other way. Sure, I’m a post-feminist/alkaline or whatever (I was born under the sign of Taurus), but I’m not prepared to get glassed in the face to save one of my sisters.
Am I a bad person?
Don’t answer that.
I’ve been on the other side of the spectrum too. I was once attacked while waiting for the bus, because I looked at a person. Nobody seemed to mind much. And I once tried to fight someone on York Street, which attracted a few stares, but not so much as a comment from passers-by.
Have we become desensitised? Or are we just tougher?
I don’t know, I’m from the Hills. We used to kill bees when we were bored.
By far, the worst job I ever had was during the summer when I was twenty-one. I’d returned from South Africa early after a failed attempt at voluntary work (I like money) and couldn’t resume my old job for another 4-5 months because there wasn’t yet any work for me to do there. For the first time in seven years, I was unemployed.
I played nintendo for a few weeks, drank a lot of beer, and sunbaked all day in my parents’ backyard before my mother told me I should think about contributing to society.
“I’m an organ donor,” I reminded her.
“No, I mean you should get a job,” Mum said. “Pay some taxes.”
“You don’t,” I argued.
“Not according to your father’s accountant.”
“Fine, I’ll get a job.”
And after a few interviews with recruiters, I eventually landed a temp-to-perm position doing accounts payable in North Sydney….for a funeral home.
“Is the nature of the business going to be a problem for you?” I was asked during the interview.
“Bills is bills,” I said nonchalantly. “Besides, I like the quiet.”
However, unlike an episode of Six Feet Under, this job proved to be less fascinating than you might think. I was primarily trained by a balding middle-aged man who smelled funny and breathed heavily, which meant I could never have any sort of meaningful professional relationship with him. The hours were 7:30am to 4:30pm, which meant I had to drive in because the buses didn’t start until 8am. And so, every day, I parked my car illegally, and every second day, I got a parking ticket. The residents in North Sydney were clearly sick of the parking situation, because they often abused me. One morning, a lady drove out of her driveway, then told me I had parked too close to it.
“You just drove out of it,” I pointed out.
“I hope you get a ticket!” she said.
“Fuck you!” she said and drove off.
At work, I spent my days coding and entering invoices for flowers, catering, burial plots and children’s coffins. I could tell you how much it cost to cremate an adult, an adolescent or a baby; what flowers were most popular; and which funeral celebrants were well-respected. I spent all day looking at names of dead people, and every time I saw a surname I recognised, I had to stop and google them to make sure they weren’t related to somebody I knew.
My co-workers were mostly Asian mothers. Our boss was Cruella de Vil. On my first day, she showed me the depressingly small kitchen. I opened the fridge and noted a complete absence of alcohol.
“You can have a biscuit from the jar, if you like,” she offered. “It’s free.”
“Sure,” I said, knowing that I would eat as many biscuits as possible to compensate myself for working in such a soul-sucking hell hole.
I spent every lunch break chain-smoking in a park around the corner, calling everyone I’d ever met and asking them if they knew of any jobs going. Eventually I found a temporary position doing admin at a friend’s office. I went over for an interview and drank a beer with the CEO, who was wearing board shorts and thongs. We chatted casually for fifteen minutes and he asked me when I could start.
The next day, I quit the funeral home.
“This is awfully short notice,” Cruella protested, “I have no idea how we’ll cope with the workload.”
“Oh I didn’t really do much,” I said, comfortingly.
“This puts us in an awkward position,” she continued.
“Who cares,” I replied. “All your clients are already dead.”
I never got offered anymore work through that particular recruitment agency and I haven’t been to North Sydney since.
As a child, I was taught that magic, spells, séances, witchcraft, and the supernatural all invited the devil to enter your body. The hilarious sexual connotations of this seemed to be lost on my parents, who forbade me from watching Buffy and enrolled me in a private Anglican highschool. Naturally, I spent the bulk of my teenage years drinking over a ouija board inside an abandoned orphanage near my house.
Here is a picture of said house:
It was built by the Masons in 1922 and inhabited by spooky parentless children until World War II, when it was converted to a hospital where many soldiers certainly died horrible deaths. Eventually, the Council purchased the site and the main building was partially burned down by arsonists. A high fence was put around it, and as the century came to a close, I poked a hole in this fence and crawled through with a bottle of vodka tucked under my arm. Then I got blind and talked to dead people.
You can make up your own mind about whether ouija is a reliable channel of communication with the dead, but things happened inside that house and I accepted all of them with fourteen-year-old dutch courage. I was aware that I was tapping into energies I didn’t consciously use, and that alone was enough to bring me back to the Masonics on a regular basis. I was quite blasé about the whole process and did not feel threatened at any time because deep down, I thought it was all bullshit. I continued to go there, because the glass kept moving underneath my hands and I have always been drawn to old buildings, but I slept soundly at night and never worried that I was doing anything dangerous.
Five years later, I watched The Exorcism of Emily Rose and nearly wet my pants. I watched it three more times and became obsessed with the idea of demonic possession. I felt completely vulnerable and was so afraid, I began praying for protection. I told my osteopath about my fear and he stopped massaging my skull and told me to sit up.
“I have a story,” he said, closing the door. I was intrigued, because he told me deeply personal stories about having sex with underage girls while the door was open and his staff were within hearing-range. We’d never had a closed-door conversation before.
“I’m listening,” I said, crossing my legs on the table and reaching for his coffee.
“Dammit, bitch, don’t drink my coffee,” he said, slapping my hand. “Now. You know me, I’m a pretty skeptical guy, right? I don’t even believe in gravity, I think it’s a fucking scam. Anyway, I had this patient a few months ago who had recently returned from Indonesia and needed a bunch of work done on his back. I was treating him one day when I felt a presence move through his body and start to enter mine. I couldn’t move my arm, so I freaked out and fought against this presence, then it disappeared and went back into the guy. My arm was in so much pain afterwards, like it was burning, and it took days to stop hurting completely. I asked him what the fuck had happened, and he said that he had been possessed by entities overseas and he didn’t know how to get rid of them. He called them “foreign energy”. Foreign energy! What a crock. But then it happened again, the next time I treated him. This time, I allowed it to enter me and explore my body. I saw a glow around myself, and then in my head, I said Leave me alone, and it exited through my belly button.”
“Oh my god,” I said, “What were you on and do you have any left? I’m going to this festival next week and my dealer is dry-”
“Nothing,” the osteo interrupted. “I was sober as a judge. On detox. And now there are all these fucking energies floating around and I have no idea whether there might be a goddamn zombie waiting for me when I get home. Everything is possible.”
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“I attended a three-day meditation course in the Blue Mountains,” he replied. “Now I can see the future in my dreams.”
I wasn’t sure if I believed my osteo, because he liked to party a lot, despite his recent stint of sobriety. But I was beginning to realise that maybe I didn’t have everything figured out.
Over the next few months, I tried to avoid anything vaguely spiritual. “IS THAT INCENSE?” I shouted, throwing a glass of water over my housemate’s bedside table. “Get that shit out of my house!”
I stayed away from fortune tellers, gypsies, astrology and pornography. I took care not to say the lord’s name in vain. I put a pot plant in my bedroom and slept with my mouth closed.
Then I went to my brother’s 21st, and sat next to an old church friend who had recently moved away very suddenly.
“Hi Warwick,” I said, “Where have you been?”
“I moved to Penrith and joined a Wicca clan,” he replied. “I can cast all kinds of spells.”
“Bullshit!” I declared. “If you’re so fucking powerful, do something impossible, like make me interested in you sexually.”
“Maye I will…” he replied, and took a sip from a flask concealed inside his jacket.
That night, I woke up at 3am (the Witching Hour) with a bloody nose and a pounding head. My sheets were drenched and my room was freezing. For the next month, I woke up exactly on each witching hour every morning (12:00am, 1am, 2am then 3am) covered in sweat. Eventually I drove to my osteo’s office, distressed, and burst into his treatment room.
“Do you have an appointment?” he asked, surprised.
“It’s happening!” I yelled. “I’m fucking possessed!”
“Good god,” he said, ushering me into the staff kitchen. “Wait here until I finish up with my rational patients.”
I made myself some tea and ate a sandwich I found in the fridge while I waited. When the osteo came back, I explained everything that had happened to me over the last month.
“Wow,” he marvelled quietly at the end of my story. “This is quite amazing…”
“I know, right?” I said. “Somebody is going to make a movie about this.”
“No,” the osteo replied, “I mean you are amazing.”
“Not amazing in a good way. Here, let me break it down for you: there is no demon. But you are actually so impressionable and neurotic that by pure anxiety alone, you have given yourself night sweats, nose bleeds, and the body clock of a soldier. That’s incredible. I want to experiment with you.”
“You mean, I’m not possessed?” I asked, frowning.
“No, you’re just a loose unit,” he replied. “Imagine if you could use all that mind-power for something useful, rather than annoying me with your inane bitching. That would be cool. Hey, have you seen my sandwich?”
When I was in primary school, we were visited once a year by the Life Education Australia van. This was a caravan manned by chirpy women who used a giraffe puppet (Healthy Harold) and a nude mannequin (Tammy) to educate third graders on drugs and general health. I didn’t care much for Harold, but I was fascinated by Tammy and her womanly figure, which I would never develop. Her plastic skin had been shaven away on one side, exposing her plastic internal organs. I wanted to reach out and stroke her plastic liver, then tweak her plastic nipple. I was shy though.
Healthy Harold taught us about the food pyramid and advised us to exercise regularly. He then launched into an anti-drug tirade and touched on the dangers of peer pressure as well as the legal and socio-economic factors involved with drug abuse and their long-term effects on society. I spent these lessons staring at the caravan ceiling, which was covered in tiny fake stars, and thinking about my silk worms, but the message was so strong, it seeped completely into my eight year old brain anyway. If anyone had offered me a cigarette, I would have urinated on their entire packet and rang the police immediately. If thirty of my classmates had stood in a circle and chanted “CHUG, CHUG, CHUG,” I would have tipped my bottle of beer down the nearest drain and raised my face to the sky, arms outstretched, before calling out the twelve steps and giving glory to God. I was completely staunch in my resolve: I would never drink or smoke. I would certainly never take drugs. I would be healthy. I would be happy. I would be like Harold.
Four years later, my great-grandmother died. She was ninety-seven years old, and had been in a nursing home for six months. I remembered the day she was put into the nursing home, because my father was very tense and simply told me, “She fell over.” But through eavesdropping on my mother’s phone conversations, I was able to piece together all the details: Nan had gotten out of bed during the night to get a glass of water, then she had fallen over on her way back from the kitchen, breaking her hip and smashing her head against the floor, knocking herself out. Unable to get back up after she regained consciousness, she simply remained on the floor and waited for somebody to find her. By the time my grandfather arrived in the morning to take her to church, she had ripped up half the carpet in her living room in an attempt to keep herself warm throughout the night. She had torn up her hands doing this, and managed to cut her arms on broken glass. She had also shat herself and was crying with embarrassment.
This single agonising, undignified event completely horrified me. “Why couldn’t she get back up again?” I asked my mother, interrupting her phone call.
“She’s just too old,” Mum explained, “The body starts to give up and stop working after a while.”
This distressed me deeply. The idea that I could one day find myself unable to walk or wipe my own arse was the most depressing thing I had ever contemplated. And the thought of my great-grandmother lying amongst broken glass on her kitchen floor, nursing a smashed hip and a bruised face, scratching at the carpet and defecating on her own muumuu was too awful for my pre-pubescent brain to handle. In that moment, I vowed that I would die the day after my 70th birthday. Or even sooner, if possible. I would never be found covered in my own shit and lying broken on the floor, because I simply wouldn’t live that long. I would die while I still had dignity and presence of mind. Hopefully I would still have my figure too.
And so, when my time came, I said “Yes!” to cigarettes. I said yes to alcohol and pot and pills and anything else that crossed my path. I still work out and eat properly and moisturise and sleep 8 hours every night, because I am vain, but I’m not going to make any effort to extend my life beyond the ability to control my own bladder. If being healthy means dying in a puddle of my own excrement with broken hips, then Harold can eat my arse.
Editor’s note: Any teachers or parents who are interested in having Annik speak at their children’s schools can send an expression of interest via email to education [at] annikskelton.com
In 2001, my highschool tragically lost two of my classmates on a Duke of Edinburgh hike at Crosslands. The group encountered a violent storm mid-hike and was forced to set up an emergency campsite in a nearby clearing. The wind grew strong and knocked over a tree which fell on top of one of the tents, crushing both girls who were sheltering inside and killing them instantly. I was at an orphanage in Thailand at the time, building dormitories and singing hymns with some Christian missionaries. I checked my email one night when we went into town and saw a note from one of my friends back home:
“Samantha and Tara died on duke of ed. I twisted my ankle. We got to stay home from school and eat tim tams. You’re gonna miss the funerals.”
I dealt with this in my usual way: almost entirely physically. I went to bed for three days and didn’t eat or shower or speak to anybody. After this, I was very sick for a week, and then by the time we got to Chiang Mai, I was somewhat okay.
When I returned to Sydney, most of the formalities were over. However, the faculty wanted to do something special to honour the memory of Samantha and Tara. During class one morning, my English teacher put out the call for ideas.
“What can we do that is special and will carry on here at the school, even after you guys have all graduated?” he asked.
“We could name one of the buildings after the girls,” one student suggested.
“We certainly could,” the teacher agreed, “Any more ideas?”
I raised my hand. “We could plant a tree? Like, in memory. One with strong roots, obviously…”
They went with the building idea.
One of my favourite things to do is to walk around the house and pick out the pieces of furniture I wish to inherit when my parents die.
“I’ll take the dressers from the lounge room,” I tell my mother, “and all of the art. Except for the Aboriginal paintings, Chris can have those. Obviously I’ll be keeping the piano and all of Dad’s music as well.”
“Do you want the dining set too?” Mum says, “You might as well take it, seeing as you hacked your initials into all the chairs with scissors.”
“I don’t really care for the finish…” I confess, running my hand over the table top, “but I’m sure I can sell it. I imagine all your cash and investments will be split 60:40 between me and Chris respectively, seeing as I’ve proven myself to be the smarter and better looking child?”
“I don’t know about that,” Mum says, “Your brother was a lot easier to handle as a teenager. You were such a whiney bitch.”
“Well maybe if you weren’t such a shitty parent, I wouldn’t have needed so much therapy?” I suggest.
“Therapy?” Mum says, her voice rising, “Don’t talk to ME about therapy. I’ve been having therapy since the day you were born!”
“That’s a coincidence,” I tell her. “Now, what do you want to do about your jewellery? I should probably just take half now, you’ve outgrown most of it.”
This morning a girl who I was once very close to died. I’m not going to pretend to know the particulars of the situation, because I haven’t had contact with her for years, but something about Crohn’s disease and the latter stages of liver cancer, etc, etc, she didn’t make it, please pray for her family.
I’m sitting here trying to come up with some memories of this girl. Pick the pieces out of my brain, look at them with renewed perspective, type them out and embody one small part of her life: the impact she had on me. She and I spent a significant amount of time together during highschool, and in theory, I should be able to recount specific anecdotes, quote directly, dig up old notes and emails and photographs.
But sadly, my brain has wiped most of my memories from early adolescence, and I have thrown away all the physical evidence over the years.
And so, digging deep as possible, all I can put together is the vaguest of pastimes, but a stronger sense of her spirit:
The memory is blurred and non-specific, but I do recall the intense camaraderie I felt from the day I met her. And I remember that at every church-related event our fascist parents dragged us to, she and I snuck away, without fail. We stole biscuits and ran down the street. We hid in parks and bitched about every single person in that church. We condemned their hypocrisy and ridiculed their sensitivity. We were ruthless and nasty, delighting in which one of us could shock the other the most.
Believe it or not, she was a lot more cynical than I am. She was more negative. Less ethical. More bitter. And that’s exactly what I liked most about her.
Most people who grew up in Sydney were probably dragged down to the Hawkesbury at some stage during their childhood to visit a popular tourist destination known as Butterfly Farm. This is a magical place where many rare species of insects reside and you are free to roam among them, observing and absorbing at will.
One weekend in the early nineties, my parents decided that my brother and I should experience the faunal wonders of this Butterfly Farm.
“But I hate bugs!” I whined in the car.
“Don’t be silly, they’re harmless,” my parents reassured me.
And so we made the long drive while I whinged and sulked and everyone ignored my pathological fear of insects.
When we arrived, my parents led me around, pointing out various beetles and spiders, while I hovered near the exit and glanced, terrified, towards the glass cabinets that writhed with creepy crawlies.
“Shall we go look at the butterflies?” my father suggested.
“I hate things with wings,” I reminded him.
“That’s ridiculous,” my mother said, “How will you ever travel internationally or select sanitary products?”
And so I was forced to enter a room filled entirely with winged creatures that flapped around my head and cast evil stares in my direction and scared the shit out of me.
I was trying to be brave and enjoy the butterflies the way all the other kids were, but after a few minutes, one of the hideous beasts suddenly made its way over and settled upon my upper arm.
I let out a blood curdling scream and swiftly clapped my hand down on the butterfly, whose lifeless body then dropped onto the dirt floor.
A moment of silence passed, not in respect for the delicate and endangered life that was just lost, but in horror of the four year old child who had snuffed such a (generally considered) beautiful creature.
“I’ll bet that happens all the time, huh?” my mother joked nervously to a Butterfly Farm employee standing nearby.
“No, that was the first time,” he replied.
And we left very quickly.
My grandmother was a pretty cool lady. She made an excellent batch of honey jumbles and was the first person to nip outside whenever one of my aunts lit up a joint. Even though we shared the same name, I never spent enough time with her, but she wrote her memoirs before she died and reading them helped explain a lot about my own life.
Last year, Nanna got sick with various forms of cancer and shifted permanently into my aunt’s lounge room while she waited for the inevitable. I flew up to Brisbane to visit her and found my namesake sunken in an armchair, even thinner than usual and looking overly pale.
“How are you feeling about everything?” I asked, as I painted her nails a deep red.
“Okay, I guess,” she shrugged, “I’ve said goodbye to all my children, divvied up my stuff and had a good run. All I can do now is wait.”
“It’s a bit horrible though,” I pointed out, “Just waiting to die.”
“Nah, it happens to everyone,” Nanna replied, “Besides, I’m sick of hearing about the bloody American election.”
I recently dropped a friend home after a night out and followed her inside to pick up some books I’d lent her a few weeks earlier. Entering the house through the garage, we discovered her father slumped on the couch in his dressing gown, cradling an empty wine bottle in his hand and staring mournfully at the wall.
“Jesus,” my friend said, “What the hell happened?”
“It’s Costa,” her dad whispered, blowing his nose.
“The ironing man. He’s dead.”
“Oh my god!” my friend lamented, “What the fuck am I going to wear to work on Monday?”