David Williamson You Must Have Stopped at the Border
I’m sitting here in the supermarket cafeteria on an orange plastic chair at a table with a plasticised surface photograph of blackbean laminate, eating chips from a plastic tray with those dinky little plastic knives and forks they give the second class passengers on airways. The knife and the fork keep bending. Every now and again I fumble outwards towards my tea which is in a plastic tumbler in a plastic protection hold-it cup.
Did I say fumble?
I say fumble because after an hour of right-angling my purchase arm like a computerised selector along the aisles, the green chapels of the spring supa sale cut-price throw-out groceries, I seem to have lost all muscle-tone.
Like the chips.
I can’t seem to find my mouth. Oh God, where’s my mouth? It’s the lack of muscle-tone. I’ve given the knife and fork away and am pressing these — these slivers of something — towards where I know my mouth should be. And I miss. Jesus. Would you believe it? I miss. These chips seem to be pressed to my right cheek or my chin, somewhere below my despairing left eye. Like I said, I’ve lost muscle-tone in the foodarama, is all, and coordination too. I’ve been programmed for the right-angled snatch-up.
Opposite me — yes, the chips — there are five hundred samples of glue along the handy man’s bench-top kittery: Supa Glue, Liquid Nails, Gum Pencil, Grabbit, Clutch-Happy — and — Cling. Am I living? Is this the buzz decade in the lucky country? Is it apres bomb or pre? All round me they’re eating plastic (licence my roving hands and let them go behind, before, above, between, below). I have a piece of sponge as well on another plastic dish. The sponge — foam-rubber — is decorated with an apricot cluster-bomb explosion.
Then someone behind me sighs.
There is life here, after all. Sighing life. And another sighs. And another.
The caf fills with sighing in which I join till the whole eight hundred thousand cubic metres of airspace in the food-drome is soughing, blowing, storming into tempest through leaves grass trees curving the sky green with exploded boughs of summer shires. Blue into green into a running river of forest.
No way, baby.
No-one’s sighed. The woman at the next table has simply run out of fags. I hear her. ‘Beryl, you got a ciggie? God, I’ve left me ciggies in the car!’ And another one saying. Then I had this pain. Right here. Like my heart was stopping. Fuck! I thought I was going to go in the Tuckerbox section, right there, groaning among the doggy bites and Love That Dinner.’
I should give her a cigarette. After all, I’ve plenty. I’ve decided to smoke the chips instead of eating them. It’s easier. And they burn — great. Chip after chip. Smoking them brings co-ordination back to fingers two and three and I can look past the glue-bar to see the floor manager of the Bandicoot Furniture section walking her tiredness like a dog on a leash between chipboard and the Roman pillars of floral bench-liner and contact paper, parmi les marbres. You betcha! Sanglotant d’extase parmi les marbres. Good on ya Verlaine. Beaudy!
Oh she was, a few years back and dog unleashed, a handsome woman with a splendid voice, foot-lighting it at Mozart soirees and lieder troublespots. Has her face lost muscle-tone? She is almost not the same person. Is the food-drome killing her inch by plastic inch? Has her voice lost muscletone? I want to call out to her, Mach’auf, mach’auf, dock leise, mein Kind. . . . Open your door, but quietly beloved; do not waken the others. Make with the joy, the notes!
But she passes tiredly with a brief muscleless wave.
This isn’t the only food-drome in the north. They’re droming everywhere. Everywhere. You see Reeftown is a colossal fibre-glass marlin. There is just such a marlin forty feet high outside the foodarama like an inn sign. It sends radar messages to the Big Banana the Big Cow the Big Pineapple the Big Potato, the giant plastic Captain Cook standing midtown like someone from a sheltered workshop and staring forever wistfully south instead of to the north. Soon they will be linked with the Big Tick which two witty fag veterinaries have threatened to erect outside their doggie surgery. They are links for the real estate agents, the travel corporations, the food chains and the CIA. They are killing our muscle-tone. Our mental lives have collapsed as we sing fast-food commercials and whisper advertising cliches to each listless other in lieu of weather-breakdowns, political gazettes, even instead of ‘How’s the leg dear?’ Reeftown’s entire population is made up of Melbourne real estate agents. Or people trying to be Melbourne real estate agents. Or escort agents. It’s hard to tell the difference. There are no humans left. Only real estate agents, escort agents who trade under a dozen different names to bolster the psychological advantages of choice: Paradise, Xanadu, Classic, Eve, Purrfection, Afterglow (oh licence my roving limbs etcetera) and some tiny burrowing indigenes with mortgages. All along the mudflat waterfronts the estate agents leave great noxious deposits of high-rise which they have to sell to each other or the escort agents and they keep moving farther and farther north because they’ve fouled up this foreshore and have to move on. Yet every so often they all come to the food-dromes, leaving a plastic real estate agent on guard about the glass lobbies of the high-rise and the condominium doorways where they stand waving to and fro like engorged but seductive tiger leeches. And we can’t feed them. We’ve not only lost muscle-tone. We’ve no blood.
We are beginning to live our days out in the food-dromes. We’re going to be protected species who can survive on plastic chicken thighs and plastic macs. Where else to go? The air-conditioned twilight of these halls has become our Venusberg in which we linger, waiting for the sign, the rosy cross, God’s blinding flash from a blaze in the barbecue section, no blasphemy intended, licence my roving prayers. And we stay here all day, secure in the plastic ritz, waiting for closing time.
It will soon be closing-time.
Even the fish-blue fluorescence has a twilight quality about it, the air staling with the evening as the air-conditioning is lowered to flush us out into the tropic sun. We are too tired to be flushed. Our legs. They have no muscle-tone.
The two women at the next table have stopped moaning and are contentedly puffing away at chips. I look around. Everyone, all the grocery bumpers, smoking chips. They have finished the brown brew in their little plastic tumblers and are wearing them inverted like party hats.
There is a feeling — a feeling — like a — like — Cling.
The glue bar says it.
We all say it to each other, stuck to our orange plastic bases. The smoke rises and the poetry of its grey haze makes us smile. There is nothing but smiles and smiles and suddenly, over the smoke, the smiles, over all, through and round, above and below, the floor manager’s voice rises supreme and beautiful, catching high notes like bubbles of blue rain, throbbing down the long aisles and colonnades of the food-drome.
She is singing, singing:
bist du bei mir
geh’ ich mit freuden.
Oh the lyric waves of it; if thou art by me, I ‘II go with gladness, to death and to my last repose. How happy it were, how soft my dying if thou wert by where I am lying, gently my loyal eyes to close.
Over over over, over, over the pak-rite tomatoes, the Dairy-Whip, the Coon cheese, Monbulk jams. Papa Guiseppe quick-freeze, soaring, over the four-bean mix, Sunwhite rice. Copper Kettle biscuits. Granny Longdown’s puddings, Happy-Pig bacon pieces, butter-ball chickens, sauces, juices, tea-bags, instant custards, television dinners, all all wonderful and subtle metaphors of plastic, over over over over.
And then, oh then, the sighing really begins.
Thea Astley (1925 – 2004) was an Australian novelist and short story writer. She was a prolific writer who was published for over 40 years from 1958.