Theme Parks and Obstacle Courses – A Novel

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57

Now, the future stretched on ahead interminably. He felt like an untethered astronaut drifting through a void toward nothing other than eventual expiry. The thought was so potent it became a sensation that burned in his stomach and lodged in his throat. He tried to swallow it down.

Even though he felt these things to be true, they had been true since he stepped off the plane at Tullamarine. They were closing in on him now, because of the fact that he was tired and couldn’t relax because he was so tired.

“Do you need me to come and see you?” A painful bolus of tears had clotted amongst his vocal chords. He had to force his words through it.

“No – thankyou. I’m just a little freaked out. Feels like things are closing in on me. A bit.”

“You live in the pub, yes?”

“It’s closed,” he said, brittle laugher escaping like steam. “Don’t worry – all the booze is locked away.”

“Has something happened today?” Draga asked.

“Not really. It’s not like I want to have a drink so much – it’s more a case of feeling like everything is closing in on me and I don’t know how to make it stop. I’m really tired and I can’t sleep and it’s all just making me feel worse.”

“Patrick, if you would like, I can come out to the hostel and pick you up. You can come back to my house tonight and we could talk and then you could sleep on the couch. I can sit with you – I am retired, you know.” The fear of embarrassment gripped him – tight.

“No, really, it’s not that bad,” he lied, choosing his refusal carefully. If he said he couldn’t possibly impose, Draga would override him and he would end up trying to go to sleep on a couch that was far too short for him, surrounded by the rags of a misery he wasn’t man enough to contain.

“Have you ever heard the expression, ‘fake it to make it’?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“What you need to do is just take your basic habits, getting up, going to bed, cleaning your teeth, doing your chores, going to work, and stick to them. Do each of those things, and you will find that you will be okay.

“Really, if you can do all those things, you are okay. Go to bed and lie down and just stay there. If you can’t sleep, then go out and do some exercise.”

He could feel the silence buzzing inside the phone line. “And if you need to, call me back. I watch t.v. until all hours.”

**

Outside, the full curtain of night had fallen. With it came a layer of fog that looked as if it had been pumped out of the belly of the moon. It softened the corners of the buildings and refracted the yellow streetlights into saucers and smears.

People ghosted through the dark with steaming breaths, their coats bunched around them. The cold sizzled on the tips of his ears.

Pat’s gait sounded like a metronomic click beneath him. He had never heard himself so clearly when running without the usual traffic and pedestrian sounds to cloak his footfalls.

Pat had intended to run the ‘tan, but having crossed the river, he headed left, away from the glare of the city. Telling Draga he hadn’t been tempted to take a drink was a lie; a more significant lie than he was comfortable with.

He felt his mind reel away from the reality of it, toward all kinds of fictions. Like an actor, he began to rerun the conversation in his head.

“What’s wrong, Pat?”

“I don’t know, I just don’t understand these forces inside me. I’m just so intense, it’s all a bit much sometimes.”

That made him sound a bit too vain, even for his own private thoughts.

“I just wanted to pick up the bottle. I wasn’t going to drink it. And to cement the unlikelihood of this, he added, “As if I’d drink in front of Johnny!”

And then, from some mysterious quadrant of his brain, came Dr. Helen; “It’s a very short step from reaching for the bottle when you’re stressed to taking a drink. You know that better than I do.”

Pat noted that Dr Helen was softly downlit, accents of warm glare lighting her glasses, her bracelet and the high gloss of her shoes. Her legs were crossed.

Dr Helen was about as much attractive woman as he had been able to cope with. His sudden stress had been accompanied by the reappearance of both Rita and a new girl, Natalie.

He had sex with Natalie, if you could call it that, and effectively confirmed his worst fears.

Not only was he unattractive, he couldn’t get it up. And that may not have been the medication. Pat could see her face in profile, remembering the elegant angle of her jawline. The spread of her hair across the pillow.

He turned his head and spat into the river. Clumps of long grass and reeds dotted the riverbank. Trees lifted their arms to the sky in shaggy bouquets of black.

Just like in London, the truth was closing in on him. It was okay to talk at A.A., because that wasn’t a ‘real’ place. Same with Dr Helen; her office was a reified space, away from the world-at-large.

Retrospectively, he had thought the brothel would be a similar thing. And it had been, for everybody else, it seemed.

Exhaustion descended as complete as a fever. Every footfall was jarring. His eyes struggled to focus. He came to a halt and put his hands on his hips, the cold air moving swiftly through the conduit of his sweat.

His shirt clung to him as if he were wrapped in clammy metal.

If he couldn’t run away to a new place in order to reinvent himself, he’d once been able to drink enough to make himself oblivious to the misery.

Now, people were coming to know him, and he had to accept what that meant. It meant he woke up the same person every day, and they held him to it.

He was an alcoholic as surely as his eyes were blue and his hair was brown. He had said things and done things. He was in his thirties and had nothing to talk about but his failures.

He took off his shirt, balled it up and threw it in the water. He started running again.

Up along the road, streetlights stained the fog. A couple of bats moved across the moon like rags of dark. The brightness of the receding city projected his shadow out before him, its outline jagged from his gait.

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