‘It will be freezing and wet but the Iliad will be open.’
The setting of the dream is a train. Not an ordinary train, but one capable of going back into the past. It’s dark, winter. I’m hungry, hoping to find a meal at our destination, the city on the plain. The train rushes downhill vertiginously, almost falling through gorges. I’m alone in a darkened carriage. The words are said to me over my shoulder by a passing conductor who hurries into the shadows. I know it’s the past I’m headed to because the Iliad restaurant has been closed for thirty years. I worked there as a dish-washer in the mid-1970s. When I get down onto the plain it is indeed cold and wet, everything is shut, but there is one light on, coming from a building draped in vines in a distant square.
The next day, in mid-summer Adelaide, bright and holiday breezy, I’m rounding Whitmore Square in the car. The Iliad is not The Iliad anymore, and whatever it is now, is closed. The grapevines of the outdoor dining area still flourish at the front of the building, covering the footpath in deep shade. Across the road in the square, homeless people are waking up under a Moreton Bay Fig.
If you look deep enough into the internet, the Iliad is still open. In the back pages its lights are ablaze, live bouzouki echoing in the front room, the white Corinthian columns shining and new. There’s a big crowd in—they’re roaring and plates are being smashed on the bricks. Don Dunstan holds court at an outside table, having just passed the new sidewalk dining laws. The grapevine rustles above him in a balmy night breeze. I’m out back, loading the dishwasher as fast as I can go. ‘More glasses! More glasses!’ I’m sixteen. This is only my second job.
My very first job was building a horse track in the Blackwood hills. The landowner put an ad in the local paper and twenty kids turned up. He didn’t know what to do. How to choose between those assorted teenagers and one old man sitting on a rock. These were tough times. Unemployment was high.
I knew one of the other applicants. He had a crowbar and I had brought my father’s mattock. We quickly formed a partnership and offered ourselves. ‘It’s still fifty dollars for the job,’ the owner said. We agreed. The money seemed good, even split two ways, but then we discovered the horse track was to run up a steep, dry hill to a stable 100 metres away.
It was the end of summer; we hammered into rocky soil, sweating in the sun, levering out ironstone and quartz, hacking at obstinate roots. Our hands blistered, we stood there at the end of the day as the owner looked dissatisfied with our progress. We had to come back and work all the next day and then the next weekend too. Counted into our hands, every dollar hurt. This was our first taste of exploitation—the way he’d harnessed our young, sunburnt muscles, our eagerness.
The job in the humid, dish-washing room of the Iliad restaurant was better, though I was still sweating, and I was very aware of the gulf between me and the revellers out front. There was no time for composing poetry, but as I opened the dishwasher’s shiny door, the lines came to me in a puff of steam: ‘you measure your success by your distance from the machine.’
With no dinner breaks, I learnt to have a sandwich before starting and I learnt about waste too, scraping into the bin half-finished plates of seafood, and whole skewers of chicken and lamb. At 2am I was still there, digging the fat out of the trays and wiping clean the cookers and lugging the bins into the rancid back alley. The head barman (we were the last two left in the place) would bring us a beer each and a camembert on a plate with a spray of Jatz biscuits. ‘Don’t tell the boss.’ We ate in silent solidarity.
When you google the dream phrase, the combination of ‘freezing’ and ‘Iliad’ means the first three results lead directly to Book 22 of The Iliad, the justly famous passage about the death of Hector. Hector stands alone outside the gates of Troy. Achilles is bearing down on him. Inside, Hector’s parents beg him to join them and escape his doomed fight against a stronger man. He debates whether to offer peace terms to Achilles, give him back Helen and all the treasures of Troy. Then he panics and runs away. Achilles chases him like a falcon after a pigeon. Neither of them know it yet, but those secret dirty bastards of Gods are going to guarantee Achilles victory. In the pursuit, the warriors pass two well-springs, which feed the river Skamandros, one with hot steamy water, the other freezing cold. And by the springs ‘stood wide tubs for washing.’ And there I am, dish pig at the Iliad, scrubbing away as the heroes flash past!
‘Not dead, not read. Dead, not read. Not dead, read. Dead, read.’
In the dream I was giving a talk to a small gathering in a bookshop. There were maybe thirty people there and I seemed to know most of them—the usual audience for a poetry reading. I was saying that for most of us writers we go from being alive and not read by many, to being dead and read by even fewer, if anyone at all. The best combination is being not dead and read, which then leads to something lasting after you, that great, vainglorious dream of being dead and still read. There are other permutations, sometimes alternating—being read in your lifetime, then falling out of fashion and disappearing after your death, and conversely, being posthumously discovered after a lifetime of neglect.
Mulling over the dream the next day lead me to wonder if these states of writerly existence come about as the result of good fortune or good management? By ‘good fortune’ here, I don’t just mean being in the right place at the right time, who you know, that sort of thing. I also mean the genetic luck of natural talent. And by ‘management’ I’m not just talking about a good agent, editor or publicist. I’m talking about personal application, hard work, education, self and otherwise.
A search on the words from the dream takes you to a theatre project that specialises in script-in-hand readings of obscure sixteenth and seventeenth century playwrights. Read Not Deaddisinters Chapman, Massinger and Davenant, successful authors in their time, now more or less unknown to the general public. At least their texts survived long enough to be revived. Contemporaries of Shakespeare, he now totally overshadows them, but he too had his time of being forgotten.
Better dead than red comes up next. Not the cold war history, but a contemporary video game published by Iron Fist productions. I kid you not; you get points by throwing Communists out of a helicopter into a crocodile’s mouth. Further rules are:
Avoid crashing into cliffs or being hit by Marxist symbols.
9 out of 12 Communists must be eliminated to advance to the next level.
Eliminating all Communists in a level in under 60 seconds grants an extra life.
But then we come to the actual death flights in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s. Don’t think so much about the generals and colonels. Imagine the low level functionaries, who, as a work-a-day job, wired concrete blocks or lengths of railway track, to the drugged, half-dead bodies of torture victims (someone’s young son, someone’s teacher, someone’s middle-aged mother) so that when the victims were thrown out of a helicopter they would sink to the bed of the sea, with no chance of ever being found and identified, of ever giving their family the small grace of final knowledge. Can you imagine doing that? How dead your feelings would have to be? The problem is yes, we can imagine it all too easily, for our fine and hideous species.
‘I fuck up better than I fuck down.’
Another erotic dream. A younger version of myself and J (now a senior lecturer in an Arts faculty) are trying a hectic variety of sexual positions: behind, sideways, above and below. Naked and sweating, we slip and slide into different poses without missing a beat. Suddenly she stops proceedings, sits on top of me, holding my arms out to the side, then looks me in the eye and says, ‘I fuck up better than I fuck down.’
The next day, I am giving a talk to this woman’s students. Afterwards, she and I have lunch in the refectory. She’s complaining about her workload and curiously, she puts it in a way that echoes last night’s dream, saying, ‘the university’s administration is so fucked up it’s affecting everything right down the chain.’ Of course I don’t mention the dream. Totally inappropriate. I take no responsibility for the freedom of the dream; my only responsibility is how I drag it, or not, into the daylight.
I already know where this is going to take me if I type the phrase into the search box. Preparing for the shaved vulvas and outsized cocks, the rubbery, wild-eyed, joylessness of the porn universe, I hit enter.
But I’m wrong. The first site that comes up is one that specialises in embarrassment. It’s a kind of confessional, called ‘Today I fucked up.’ Some are relatively minor blunders, like a volunteer Santa who dropped a child on its head, or an impatient driver who unwittingly honked and harassed a funeral procession, or someone who accidentally played ‘Let’s get retarded’ at the opening ceremony of an international disability convention. Others are more seriously embarrassing: a surgeon who removed the wrong kidney, and someone who lost his family’s house betting on a single horse race.
But ‘fucking down’, where does that lead? Apparently to t-shirts and mugs that say ‘Calm the fuck down.’ For stressed workers perhaps, as if that would succeed.
Mike Ladd is a poet, radio producer and essayist. He has published ten collections of poetry and prose, the most recent, Dream Tetras from Wakefield Press. He was the editor of ABC Radio National’s Poetica program, which ran for eighteen years and brought Australian and international poetry to a wide audience. For 40 years he has collaborated with Cathy Brooks on art and poetry projects for video, street installations, text and performance.
Cathy Brooks is a South Australian artist working across the fields of graphics, painting, photography and mixed media installation. She is actively involved in community and urban arts projects often using recycled materials and collaborative processes. She graduated from the South Australian School of Art in 1980 with a BA in photography and sculpture and completed a Master of Visual Art and Design in painting in 2007 at UniSA. Since the 1980s Cathy has had multiple solo and group exhibitions. Her work is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Mortlock Library and in private collections.