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The Bikini Prophecy - Part One: Just some Aussie bloke's story about stuff

Contents

About the Author

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Quotation

Author’s Note

Tarot Card – Death

Prologue

Tarot Card – The Fool

The Fool

Tarot Card – Strength

Claire

Tarot Card – The Sun

Success

Tarot Card – The Star

Emma

Tarot Card – The Moon

Distress

Tarot Card – The World

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Tarot Card – High Priestess

Chapter 18

The Journey Continues

Matt Kyler has been a failed TV writer, failed magazine publisher and successful full-time layabout. He sometimes finds time away from the Internet to write about himself.

You can send him your thoughts, half-thoughts, grievances and praise via email ([email protected]), where they will be read but probably not replied to.

The Bikini Prophecy is his first book. And, hopefully, his last.

The Bikini Prophecy 

by Matt Kyler

Shakespir Edition

Copyright © 2016 by Skoobi (Australia)

Tarot Images Copyright © Digitaln

All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or part of this publication without express written consent is strictly prohibited. 

For S, who led me half way.

And for J, who carried me beyond.

“Sometimes,” said Pooh, “the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”

A.A. Milne

Let me get something straight right from the get-go: I know absolutely nothing about magical mysticism, divine providence or spiritual serendipity. And, yet, I’ve decided to punctuate this book’s chapters with imagery from the otherworld. The world of the tarot, to be specific.

Now, for the sake of design aesthetics, these tarot card pictures have all been placed upright. To the average reader, this is of no relevance whatsoever. But to the tarot card freaks… Holy Mother of Christ, this kind of shit can trigger an OCD episode that will turn their world upside down.

To address this I’ve included both positive (upright) and negative (reversed) readings below each card. If you’re a tarot tragic you’ll know exactly what that oddball sentence actually means. If you’re not, just think of the tarot pics as a literary commercial break that will remind you to grab a cup a tea or another glass of wine. Or even another book.

Of course, if you’re a cynical reader, you could, quite rightly, view the tarot illustrations as a cheap marketing gimmick to fool people into believing that this book might actually be spiritually enlightening.

It fucking isn’t.

Also, while I’m here, a warning: there is swearing in this book. Lots of swearing. And most of it for absolutely no good fucking reason what-so-ever … well, apart from me trying to re-create an ‘authentic’ voice. Tellingly, this adherence to realism doesn’t necessarily extend elsewhere in the book. In fact, the opposite is true, since I’ve deliberately altered names, physical descriptions, locations and dates. I’ve also fictionalised email and other conversations in an effort to protect the innocent … and me.

I should also advise readers that this book is written in a mishmash of languages. These are: colloquial Australian English, British English and American English. So sometimes there are words like ‘arse’ instead of ‘ass’ or ‘asshole’ instead of ‘arsehole’ or ‘bloke’ instead of ‘guy/fella/man’. Not to mention many other deviations from the expected forms of proper English spelling and grammar. Suffice to say, I’m assuming most people are smart enough to figure shit out. And, really, if you can decipher auto-correct text messages written by drunk ex-partners or daft friends, you sure as shit should be able to read a book penned by a lazy Australian with dyslexic fingers that type weird Tourette’s-like sentences.

And lastly, despite keeping copious notes and re-reading old travel emails, I can’t for the life of me recall each and every line of pointless rambling dialogue that was uttered during the time-span of this story (which, by the way, is mostly set before the wholesale adoption of digital technologies). So, in an effort to craft a readable version of events that won’t bore readers to death, I have deleted, compressed or merged many spoken interactions. I’ve also pretty much gone and made up a whole load of shit as well – in particular, the occasional connecting banter between people.

What isn’t made-up, however, is the emotional truth found in these exchanges. The honest core, crafted, admittedly, from my own selective memory. That stuff is real, as are the questionable actions and thoughts I’ve documented.

All that is real.

Even the dumb stuff.

Unfortunately.

UPRIGHT: A new start. Your transformation begins now.

REVERSED: Stuck in limbo. Ruin is coming, sucker.

My future looks grim.

I’m standing in an establishment called [_Tea and Tarot _]and I’ve just been given some life-threatening news … the tea leaf reader has cancelled my appointment.

“She called in sick,” explains the woman behind the counter. “I can give you a tarot reading instead. Or are you after the tea leaves specifically?”

It’s impossible to explain just how [_specific _]my psychotic psychic needs are right now, so rather than embarrass myself I mumble a lie. “A tarot reading is fine.”

Celeste gives me a sympathetic smile, then in a rustle of silk, chiffon and lazy stereotype she sashays over to an ornate wooden box and extracts a deck of well-worn tarot cards.

“Is this your first time?”

I give her a shy nod. “Yeah.”

“I thought so,” she says, already reading my mind. “Shall we sit outside?”

I turn and look at several vacant tables positioned in full view of the passing public. Reluctantly, I follow her out to one of them. We sit and Celeste begins to split and shuffle the cards like a veteran Vegas dealer. Once done, she instructs me to do the same. I do so, then slide the cards back.

“So, what would you like to know?” she asks. “It can be an answer to a specific question or something relating to love, career or health.”

The skeptic in me stirs. I’ve always considered horoscopes and fortune-tellers to be the exclusive domain of fragile women and vague men so I decide to play the cards close to my chest. After all, if Celeste really can read the future she should already know why I’m here. Which means she should already know about the bikini prophecy.

“How about all of the above?” I say, as my arms cross involuntarily.

A flash of exasperation curls the corners of Celeste’s mouth. “Sure,” she says. “We can do a general reading.”

Celeste places the tarot pack at the centre of the table and starts a spiel that introduces me to the art of tarot reading. It sounds neither scientific nor remotely plausible. Sensing my disbelief, Celeste gets down to business. She flips the first card over.

DEATH.

The reveal instantly spooks me so I give the witch my undivided attention.

“Well, that’s not a good start,” I say, nervously.

A satisfied smile registers on Celeste’s face. “Don’t worry. It’s not what you think. Death is symbolic, not literal. I’ll come back to it later and explain.”

She turns the next card and lays it across the first.

THE LOVERS

The contrast couldn’t be greater. My heart skips a beat because this is exactly why I’m here. Celeste continues, carefully laying a selection of cards into a pattern she calls the Celtic Cross. There are cups, swords and sticks. But nothing surpasses the naked lovers or the deathly figure they partially obscure. Eventually, the last card appears. On its face is an illustration of a man, woman and child standing in separate coffins. Floating above the family is an angel beckoning them to heaven. Pretty cheery stuff. A single word on the base of the card states:

JUDGEMENT

I have no idea what any of this means but apparently Celeste does.

“This is a really interesting spread,” she says in awe. “Lots of conflict and uncertainty.” She takes a moment, probably to summon the spirits—the ones she hasn’t already drunk—then tilts her head in my direction. “Do you work in a creative profession by any chance?”

The question catches me off-guard. It’s either a lucky guess or… or what? Can this woman really read my future? 

I take the bait.

“I’m supposed to be a writer,” I say.

Celeste acknowledges the self-deprecation with a thin smile. “Okay, that makes sense. Because these cards—“ She waves a hand over a section of the cross. “—suggest a strong creative interest or career. But these three—” Her palm hovers over The Lovers and a pair of ‘cup’ cards. “—relate to affairs of the heart. And in this instance, they’re saying that you have two women in your life. Two loves. Would that be right?”

I nod my little freaked-out noggin in the affirmative.

“But neither of these relationships appear to be resolved yet,” she continues.

“Yeah, there was a messy breakup with one,” I admit, casting all previous skepticism aside. “And the other one is … complicated.”

“Well, that would explain all the wands and swords. There’s a lot of turmoil here. These two loves are draining your emotional resources and causing a creative block. Are you experiencing this at the moment”

“Yep. Absolutely.”

“I can see that one of these women will help you to heal. But the other woman—” Celeste’s hand shadows a card with three swords piercing a heart, “—the other is in a lot of pain.” She pauses, and in silence studies the spread of cards. “Yes, this is really important,” she continues. “This other woman … you must not hurt.”

Her emphasis on the words sounds like an accusation and for a terrifying moment, I wonder if Celeste can read both my future … and my past.

“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” I say, defensively.

Celeste eyes me for a long moment as if weighing the sincerity of my words against the truth of her cards. The silent judgement makes me feel like a fool until, finally, she releases me.

“Okay,” she says. “Let’s go back to the beginning. Back to Death.

UPRIGHT: Passionate, spontaneous funster … me!

REVERSED: Naive, misguided, moron. Yep, still me.

Relationships are like plane flights

Well, that’s my theory.

Sure, it’s a crap theory, but in my mind the perfect partnership is like one of those first-class flights everyone wants to experience. A comfortable long-haul adventure that begins with an easy ascent to the heavens before soaring to an altitude that ensures clear skies and smooth cruising in turbulence-free bliss.

Of course, there are also the not-so-first-class trips.

These are the economy flights of love. The no-frills, domestic connections that promise the world at check-in but turn into cramped, pressurised nightmares mid-flight. These vexing voyages short-change your legroom and leave you surprised that any personal service once considered complimentary, now carries some kind of price.

And, finally, there are the unmitigated disasters.

The relationship flights of fancy that defy all logic to become airborne in the first place. These are the departures of mind that disappear off the radar of common sense. The tragic trips that give loved ones the impression that those on board are destined to crash into an ocean of tears, leaving nothing but a tangled wreck of broken lives, sinking hope and a shit-load of floating baggage to cling to.

This is the flight I’m about to board.

Now I’m not sure if this journey I’m about to embark upon is travelling or leaving. Running probably. What I do know, however, is that once I finish obsessing about all this pointless relationship crap, I’m going to shuffle over to the hand basins opposite the airport toilet cubicle I’m currently occupying and see a pathetic excuse for masculinity in the mirror. A reflection of a foolish thirty-year-old man-child who just walked out on his only shot at a ‘first-class’ life.

What I won’t see is the baggage.

I’m not talking about carry-on baggage. I’m talking about excess baggage. The kind of emotional dead-weight one might inherit after destroying relationships, friendships or a dream career. Or, in my case, all of the above.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how I sabotaged my charmed life so quickly. Sure, I could make up a ton of excuses for what I think went wrong. But that still wouldn’t lead me any closer to discovering the actual truth. And God knows I’ve tried to make sense of the disaster. I’ve even tried to identify the major turning points that led my life to, well …  the shitter. In plain English, those turning points are:

1)Claire

2)Success

3)Emma

4)Distress

Unfortunately, life isn’t as readily understandable as plain English, so I’ve worked out a far simpler explanation for my disastrous life: I think I fucked up.

Repeatedly.

Which, I guess, is why I’m here. In an airport. Preparing for my first overseas adventure by fondling nine inches of Lonely Planet guidebook in a gents toilet. A guidebook that, seconds ago, revealed my latest mistake in life: I forgot to pack toilet paper.

According to the travel bible, this is an essential item when backpacking Asia (the land of squat toilets and little buckets of water). Of course, this oversight doesn’t really come as any great surprise to me since I’ve barely consulted the guidebook on what I should or should not take overseas. This is because I’m a man. Meaning, I need neither guidance nor instruction in life. Nor do I need a plan. Which is just as well because when it comes to this adventure, I have none.

Well, apart from the bikini prophecy.

Yep, as unlikely as it seems, I’m travelling overseas to fulfil a clairvoyant’s prediction. More precisely, a psychic tea leaf reader’s prophecy of true love. 

Obviously, this isn’t the standard travel itinerary favoured by your average functional human being. Nope, we’re firmly in nut-job territory here. Deep in the kind of head-case headspace reserved for earth’s more spiritual space cadets; think the vague cosmic hippie, the love-struck teen … the bored western woman.

I’m joking, of course.

Maybe.

But in all seriousness, jetting to the other side of the world in search of love does reek of one of those esoteric, estrogen-enhanced journeys of self-discovery. Whatever the case, I’m more than aware of the stupidity of such an adventure. In fact, I’m guessing that one of the reasons I’m doing this is because I’ve lost something very dear to me.

I’ve lost my masculinity.

I have no idea how this happened. It’s as if I woke up one morning and discovered that my balls had been castrated. Removed, along with my love of televised sport, cheap pizza and daily masturbation, and replaced with an insatiable desire for sentimental movies, side salads and self-help books.

I swear I never used to be like this. I never used to be so … flaccid. I mean, I used to be a man for Christ’s sake. I used to be out-going yet aloof, intense yet laid-back, strong yet vulnerable. I used to be a man who viewed every male as a rival and every female as a potential conquest. A virile man guided less by fair-play and faith and more by fornication and fortune. An ambitious man following his own path. Choosing his own lifestyle.

I liked to refer to this lifestyle as ‘acting on gut instinct’. Unfortunately, everyone else liked to refer to it as ‘acting like an utter asshole’. Which may explain why my life went to shit.

So what went wrong?

Well, all those unrealised dreams for starters: be a millionaire, be a rock star, movie star, sports star. Be more muscular, healthier, more confident. Be a good friend, an awesome lover, a cool dad.

In other words, be a success.

Unfortunately, my life hasn’t been a success.

It’s been a failure.

And I’ve been a fool.

Which sucks because I was meant to amount to so much more than this. I had ambition, confidence, even talent. But nothing worked out. Of course, if I truly admit it, I know exactly where I went wrong. 

Basically, nothing has ever been good enough for me. 

Nothing. 

Not life. Not career, Not friends. Not relationships. I’ve always wanted more. And I don’t mean I wanted just a little bit more. I wanted a whole lot more. Of everything. More money. More fame. More adventure. More sex. More success. And I wanted those things more than anything else on earth. More than friendship. More than trust. More than love.

More than everything Claire gave me.

UPRIGHT: One who is courageous, compassionate, patient.

REVERSED: Fearful, despairing and full of self-doubt.

I rolled into Claire’s life five years ago. I’d driven in from the bush (or the ‘Outback’ or the ‘Wilderness’ or whatever the fuck tourism organisations like to label far-flung places governed by beer and dust) and hit the brakes at Brisbane. A sleepy country city populated by irony-loving people who christened it Bris-Vegas. This non-event location was where I intended to morph from mine worker to movie star. Because somehow in my mind that kind of implausibility made sense.

I was blue jeans, angular and rough around the edges. I owned a 4×4, some earth-builder magazines, a pair of work boots and a music collection composed equal parts of country and heavy metal. Claire, by contrast, was shy, attractive and soft of skin. She owned a bus pass, some Paulo Coelho books, a pair of Doc Martens and two ears that belonged to The Pixies. Even a blind man wearing a welder’s mask in a cave could see we had little in common besides a share-house advert and a desperate need to split the rent. And so, like a shotgun wedding, a type of forced engagement was set.

Thankfully, what could have been an awkward union proved to be heaven-sent. Claire was easy-going, wicked smart and full of wit. Kinda like one of those free-spirited characters clever people write into children’s books; the adventurous heroine with ‘girl next door’ looks. Someone who was a believer of truth, justice and the power of good. For example, when charity knocked, Claire didn’t hide like me … she stood.

In short, Claire was everything I wasn’t – brave, bright, benevolent. Which sure as hell wasn’t my type. I was drawn to superficial stuff. I needed a supermodel, a pop princess or a movie star type. A trophy addition for my insecure life.

Claire wasn’t that girl.

She was too real, too level-headed and too nice. The product of measured parents who had graduated from farm to university. I was the opposite. I was scattershot, pig-headed and restless. A product of working-class parents who did it tough. Or so I told Claire. In truth, our mining town lifestyle was short on luxury but brimming with priceless adventure.

But despite our different backgrounds we did have one thing in common: Claire and I both loved movies. And once that dialogue started, the story of us began to write itself.

At first, we teamed up as popcorn partners, planning our spare time around cheap cinemas and concession discounts. Like film nerds, we rolled in after the ads but sat through the end credits. We had a two-film-a-week addiction. And when we were both too poor to satisfy that habit we got our shared movie hit at home. Then it was shared news bulletins, cartoons, documentaries, even M.A.S.H. reruns. We sat wide-eyed through elections, natural disasters and civil wars. And when we tired of that we sought an intermission in sharing whatever the hell was on our respective minds.

Life felt good.

Claire was stimulating and fun. And each day became filled with accidentally-on-purpose touches, practical jokes and plain good times. Day by day we shared more and more of ourselves, until one night we shared so much that we awkwardly became one. And in that instant, I felt our spartan share-house turn into a comfortable abode. One newly furnished with desperate hands, shared dreams, candlelit baths and late night condom runs.

It was a first-class relationship. But then the turbulence began. The storms hit. And we veered off course. And eventually, after several years of see-sawing dependancy, Claire and I grew to love and loathe each other and ourselves. Insecurities arrived. Uncertainty rose. And our romantic comedy turned into a convoluted melodrama with zero box-office appeal.

Playful montages of tickle torture at night gave way to cheap shots during pointless fights. Scenes of kitchen kisses evaporated into heated exchanges that simmered for days. Even light-hearted sex scenes were edited. Cutting all the giggling, backseat, sweaty, outdoor, failed-tantric and self-filmed moments of connection and replacing them with occasional entanglements that left an overwhelming disconnection of self. Praise was replaced with criticism and fact became friction, until, finally, our union became a dysfunctional wedding of circumstance with all the negatives of marriage and few of the benefits. At times, the fraying of civility became so much a part of our old house that (and let me paint a try-hard metaphor here) even the seemingly sturdy surfaces surrounding us hid layers of veneer that slowly lost their bonds with each passing week.

I can still see us falling apart at the seams in that house. Claire mid-meltdown on the other side of the kitchen while I refuse to give an inch.

“God, why am I so dependent on you?” she shouts. “This is not who I am. Look at me. I don’t even know who I am anymore.”

Cue Mr. Sensitivity. “So what the fuck do you want me to do, Claire?”

Her eyes are scarlet rimmed. “Just make a decision,” she begs. “So I know where I stand. I can’t live like this anymore. I need to move on.”

“Are you seriously going to go over this again?”

“Just tell me if we’re together or not.”

“I told you it’s not that simple.”

“Yes or no?”

“Jesus Christ! Would you give me a break? I’m not even focused on us or you. I’m just trying to get my own shit together.” A familiar look of hurt appears on her face. It immediately fills me with disdain. “God, I hate this shit. How many times do we have to go over this?”

“Go over what? Tell me what this even is? It’s obviously not a relationship because you control every part of it. One minute you say we’re not right for each other. Then you say you still love me.”

“You know what, I’m not having this conversation right now because it just turns into the usual repetitive crap.” I open the fridge door and scan the seemingly empty shelves. I’ve already eaten the comfort food. There’s just ‘good’ food left. Which is the last thing I want to be fed.

“Well, [_I’m _]having this conversation right now.”

I turn to face her. “Look, I can’t give you what you want. I can’t even find what I want.” I slam the fridge door. “I need more than this, okay? If I don’t focus on getting to the next level, I’m screwed. I’ll just be like every other prick out there.”

“Why does it have to be something you do alone?”

“Because I’ll never make it otherwise. I need focus, not distraction. That’s why people fail all the time.”

She shakes her head. “I just want to know where I stand in your life.”

“I don’t know.”

“You do know.”

“I don’t.”

“Just tell me.”

“Enough, okay…,” I shout. “Enough!” My exasperated warning shot quietens Claire but I note her look of determination. “Fuck this shit … I gotta get a new life.”

“So what’s stopping you? I never said you have to stay with me.”

I glare at her incredulously. “What’s stopping me? Are you serious? Everything is stopping me. I’m stopping me. You’re stopping me. Having no money is stop—”

“I AM NOT STOPPING YOU,” she yells. “When have I ever stopped you doing anything? WHEN?! Name one single time?”

“Forget it,” I say, already plotting my escape from the kitchen. “I’m outta here.”

Claire pre-empts my retreat. “Good,” she says, before storming into the lounge room.

I give her five paces. “You know what I really want?” I bellow.

“I don’t care,” she says dismissively.   

“Exactly. Because you never listen to anything I say.” 

Claire stops, turns on her heels. Her face is red with rage.

“My whole life revolves around listening to you, Matt,” she says. Her voice is guttural and full of hate. “I listen to your problems every single day. And then I tip-toe around you because I don’t know if you’re happy or angry or depressed or if I’m going to be frozen out because something isn’t going your way. But you[_ _]don’t see any of that because you don’t care about anyone but yourself.”

“Bullshit.”

“Okay, then tell me why you’re even with me? Go on. You obviously don’t like me.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Tell me one thing you actually like about me? There’s nothing, because you question every single thing I do.”

“I never question anything you do … unless you’re doing something stupid.”

She throws her hands in the air. “See?! You hate everything I do. You hate the plants I buy. The music I listen to. The way I shelve my books. You hate going out with me. You hate staying home. You hate all my friends. You even hate your friends! You’re never satisfied. You hate everything.” She pauses to compose herself. “Including me.”

“You still don’t fucking get it, do you? I don’t hate you. I hate myself. Do you understand? I fucking[_ ]loathe[ me,] Claire[. _]Do you think I like being like this? Being some loser who’s done nothing with his life.” A flicker of understanding crosses Claire’s face. “I can’t keep living like this. And I’m not going to. End of story.”

I try to walk away.

“So you’re not living your dream. Name one person who is?”

“Claire, I don’t give a shit how everyone else lives. I don’t want to be like everyone. If you want to be stuck in some crappy job paying off a 30-year mortgage—”

“Have I ever said I wanted that?”

“Well, neither of us is doing much to change it. Or are you happy with this…?” I wave my arms around the room. “Because, you know what, I’m not. I hate everything about our life. Every-fucking-thing.”

I wait for the counter-attack. 

“Even me?” she murmurs.

The words instantly disarm me. Reluctantly, I look into her damp eyes. Countless emotions flicker across each lens. They belong to the movie of us. But it’s the version without the happy ending.

I sigh. “I just want more than this.”

“Don’t you think I want more than this?”

We’ve been here before. It’s the replay of a tiresome drama that we’ll both apologise for later – her far more than me because she loves me like no other. I love her too. More than she’ll ever believe. But I can’t give her what she needs. I can’t give her ‘me’.

“I need to find some success.”

“Then leave,” she says. 

Of course, I didn’t leave right away. Because despite everything said, I’m a man. And men like me don’t actually want complete freedom. We want freedom with a life-line; one that leads back to a strong woman hanging on with fragile hope. We want the promise of casual sex, endless ego-stroking and an understanding ear in our hour of need. What we don’t want is a closed door. In other words, we want everything except commitment and responsibility.

Eventually, the icy stand-offs between Claire and I would thaw. Then the inevitable soul searching would arrive. Followed by the usual prescription relationship cure-all of frenzied make-up sex. And amid the numbness and euphoria of that particular drug we would fuck ourselves just that little bit more by believing that everything in our dysfunctional little universe was fine.

But everything wasn’t fine.

And after a few years of push and pull, Claire and I finally confronted the prospect of terminating everything that was the sum of us. To walk away and start our lives over.

Of course, barely weeks after doing just that, I wanted Claire back.

By that time, I was house-sitting for my vacationing grandparents. I was lost, confused and unable to express myself. So as an escape, I began to write. The words came fast. Their flow interrupted only by food, sleep and the occasional visit from Claire.

At first, I welcomed her arrival reluctantly. I was desperate to see her but terrified to be drawn back into our recent past. But something had changed in Claire. She appeared more confident. Her laughter came easy and all the tiresome insecurities and endless apologies had vanished. Somehow she had been reborn or reinvented, right down to a new hair style that exposed a more relaxed brow. Despite the extreme trim suggesting a cut from dependence to me, it—and everything else about her—had an intoxicating effect. She reminded me of the old Claire. The one I’d fallen in love with.

Suddenly, I wanted her back.

So I told her what she wanted to hear, and what I wanted to believe. And during the next few months, we slept with each other whenever we could. Each encounter more passionate and desperate than the last, as if we were both addicts who had been deprived of our destructive drug of choice – each other.

But it wasn’t enough. Because when it came down to it, life with Claire was too big for me. Commitment was primarily the domain of grown-ups. And despite my masculine bravado, I had no understanding of how to function in that world. But nor did I have any idea how to survive in a world without Claire. The only thing clear to me was that I needed someone in my life. Maybe even Claire. And maybe I needed love more than money or sex or the thing I was about to get.

Success.

UPRIGHT: Success! Shine on … you crazy annoying asshole.

REVERSED: Remember Icarus? Easily burnt hubris.

I sold a television show.

Or, more correctly, I sold the ‘exclusive rights’ to a TV network. It may not have been other people’s idea of success, but for me, it was a step towards fame and fortune.

Of course, prior to this, I’d never actually done anything that suggested I could be a success at anything. And certainly not as a writer. Sure, I’d scrawled the usual self-indulgent rubbish during adolescent years; rock ballads, love poems and suicide letters. All of which were tragic and comical in their own right … but not exactly prime-time ratings winner material. But how hard could this writing shit be? 

According to the experts, all you had to do was find a story, add some drama, a few laughs, and chuck in some crap about stuff you knew.

So with that in mind, I bashed out a television show about a once headstrong woman slowly losing her identity and a brooding male unable to find purchase in the big bad world. Once done, I hit ‘print’ and mailed the pages to a dozen production companies. Then I sat back and waited for my genius to be recognised.

I naively assumed that would happen overnight. Trusted sources said it would never happen. Thankfully, fate intervened and my ramblings mistakenly landed on a TV executive’s desk during an office relocation. One week later, opportunity knocked or, in this case, called.

I picked up the phone.

On the other end was Bryan, one of the creative minds behind Australia’s largest commercial television network. We got chatting. Bryan was friendly. Narcissistic but self-deprecating. Entertaining but earnest. Alpha Male but … not. I liked him immediately. Especially when he humbly praised my writing after listening to me arrogantly trash a dozen iconic Australian TV shows. Iconic shows, I would soon discover, that had one common thread: they’d been created by Bryan.

Now diplomacy and tact are not strong points of mine. Nor common sense for that matter. So when Bryan called again I was terrified I’d blown my only chance of success. Thankfully, the guy threw a lifeline instead.

“We’re working on a new series,” he said. “And I think your voice would be perfect.” I held my breath. “What I need is a country voice. Insight into the average straight male.”

My confusion was instantaneous. [_Average straight male. _]Did this mean Bryan was gay?

“Are you in a relationship?” he probed.

“Umm… newly single,” I stammered. 

“Amicable?”

“Yeah,” I lied, still unsure if Claire and I were just friends … or fuck buddies … or something more … or less.

“So how would you feel about relocating to Sydney? Would that be a problem?”

“No problem at all,” I replied quickly.

“Excellent. Then the next step is to fly you down to meet the rest of the creative team. Bernard’s a sweetheart,” said Bryan. “And Emma’s gorgeous.” Then he added three prophetic little words:

“You’ll love her.”

UPRIGHT: A new hope to cling to. A guiding light! 

REVERSED: A future of obstacles and discouragement.

But Emma wasn’t gorgeous. 

Well, not in a supermodel way. She lacked the flawless, tanned skin that belonged to the femmes of fitness and fashion. But she wasn’t unattractive either. It’s just that I expected someone tall, confident and in a permanent state of undress. Instead, I was introduced to a short, shy woman, who, upon meeting me, seemed equally unimpressed.

It was the first day of work and we had gathered at Bryan’s inner-city apartment for an informal meet and greet. I was nervous, scared and felt way out of my depth. And with good reason. Because three of the people present had produced a thousand episodes of prime-time TV, while I’d created a grand total of absolutely none. So to compensate, I faked confidence and pretended I knew… well, everything.

In contrast, Emma was tight-lipped. And when she did speak, it was measured, with the trace of a lisp. The impediment gave her an insecurity she couldn’t disguise. And it made me imagine a childhood of her being shunned in the playground while longing to fit in. It was a thought that made me want to hold her, console her, protect her. But my feelings, as always, were premature. Because at the first hint of humour, the self-conscious spell broke and Emma laughed out loud like a fucking loon! It was an uncontrollable, child-like guffaw that instantly stole my heart. And before I knew it, I was off with the fairies and tragically distracted by one of those moments where I silently size up women with some crazy compatibility checklist to see if she’s ‘The One’:

a)Morning person or a night owl?

b)Church or beach wedding?

c)TV or books?

d)Conservative or progressive?

e)Compassionate human or intolerant nut-job?

It was far from the kind of behaviour that makes for a good first impression.

“I’m impressed,” says Emma. It’s post-meeting and we’re waiting for Bryan in the foyer. “You actually wore a baseball cap on your first day of work!”

I shift uncomfortably and search her face for any trace of sarcasm. Thankfully, there is none, which is surprising since it suddenly dawns on me that wearing a baseball cap on the first day of my dream career is an impressively stupid thing to do.

To shield my embarrassment, I glance at the man standing alongside Emma, which doesn’t help, because in stark contrast to me, our co-worker, Bernard, is actually properly dressed for work – albeit as a middle-aged shop mannequin modelling corduroy trousers, wool sweater and other menswear items that are usually favoured by retired accountants.

“God, I’m busting to go to the toilet,” says Emma. “I’ve been holding on for an hour.”

Bernard’s brow furrows. “Why didn’t you use Bryan’s bathroom?”

Emma squirms. “I don’t know. I just couldn’t.”

“Really?” asks Bernard, in a tone that translates as ‘Don’t be so neurotic, woman’.

Emma ignores him and directs her attention back to me. “I’m impressed you used the bathroom.”

And there it is again … Impressive little[_ _]me.

This time, however, I know it isn’t sarcasm. I know Emma’s in awe because using Bryan’s bathroom was actually a difficult first step. It felt intrusive. Because Bryan is our new boss. Plus he’s outspoken, intellectually intimidating and physically imposing. All of which can unnerve any employee on their first day of work.

Oh, and because Bryan is gay.

Which is fine … because Bernard is too.

And since it’s impossible not to have a melodramatic and complicated life within inner-city Sydney or the entertainment industry, it’s not enough for Bryan and Bernard just to be gay workmates, they have to be ex-lovers too. Which is also fine … unless you’re an anxious new staff member trying to work out what the fuck is going on socially, professionally and sexually between your boss, his ex-lover and the female co-worker you suddenly want to screw.

The whole scenario had me almost pissing myself with fear.

Which is why I had to use the bathroom.

Of course, once I unzipped in Bryan’s private space, it became obvious that my self-confidence wasn’t the only thing that had shrunk. My dick had shrivelled too. And when I tried to piss, I couldn’t. I had stage fright. I felt over-scrutinised and began to wonder if my short-falls weren’t just professional, maybe they were physical as well. Then I began to wonder if I was as big a man as Bryan. Or Bernard. Or, more terrifying yet, if I was big enough for Emma. 

When I tried to shake the thought, it was no use. I couldn’t even think straight anymore. Eventually, I did the unthinkable. 

I sat down. 

And pissed. 

Like a girl. 

The action confirmed one thing: I was now less masculine than the most feminine gay man.

Back in the foyer, I’m still staring at Emma. 

My bathroom insecurities return with a vengeance and all kinds of craziness begins to run through my head. I really want to impress this woman … just not with [_little _]things, like wearing a baseball cap or pissing with gay abandon.

Of course, none of this makes sense. But nor does staring at Emma while visualising her going for pee in Bryan’s bathroom. Which, inexplicably, is what I do next. Inevitably this leads to me thinking about Emma being nude from the waist down. And before long I’m aware that I have managed to imbue a degree of neurotic sexual tension in an otherwise boring conversation that was—at least from Emma’s point of view—ostensibly about a hat.

To over-compensate, I muster up the manly straight-shooter from within and get back to her original comment. 

I’m impressed you used his bathroom.

“Nuthin’ to it,” I drawl. “When you gotta piss, you gotta piss.”

I sound hugely impressive[_ _]and very much like a real man.

Tellingly, it’s the last time I will appear this way. 

UPRIGHT: Illusion, mad genius. I got a brilliant plan. 

REVERSED: Instability, confusion, distress. I got nuthin’.

Of course, my transition into a dickless desperado didn’t happen right away.

Like Claire’s emotional erosion over the years, it was gradual. It took ages and ages. At least a couple of weeks. And at first, my new life was amazing. It was coffee, donuts and 10AM starts. It was endless laughter with quick-witted people who got paid to make shit up. In fact, working in television was like one of those mythical jobs you only heard rumours about. A Chinese whisper that came from a friend of friend who knew some lucky motherfucker who actually loved Mondays. 

Well, I had become that lucky Monday-loving motherfucker.

I had long lunches and early knock-offs. I had daily meetings where honest feedback wasn’t just welcome, it was expected. I had gay workmates whose joke-telling had no equal. I had a revolving door introduction to a dozen talented, lunatic writers who left me in awe. And I had a female love-interest who was humorous and brilliant through it all. All in all, I had the kind of job I didn’t want to leave, because when I went home I missed the creativity, the laughter and the cool chick who made me weak at the knees.

And it got better before it got worse.

In the following months Emma and I connected. We discussed movies and books and the writers of each. We listened to Bernard’s industry gossip during lunches, laughing in unison, thick as thieves. And when boredom arrived post-lunch, we regaled each other with tales about friends and their foolish misadventures with love, life and booze. Then after work we’d converse on the phone. I’d call her under the pretence of seeking advice and she’d duly play along. And slowly the line dividing private life and work began to blur. We talked about family, old loves and all the skeletons those reveal. We shared past regrets and future fears. And bit by bit, the chinks in our armour appeared. We were both hurt, both lonely. She wanted family. I wanted her. One night we kissed.

Just once.

But it was obvious to me that I’d do anything for her. Sacrifice any chance of fame, fortune and success, if it meant we could be together. Emma resisted, of course. Kept me at arm’s length. It was a self-preservation technique I’d never learned. So I soldiered on. Advancing constantly, desperate to conquer.

“Come on, just one more dinner,” I plead over the phone. “If this one sucks, I’ll leave you alone.”

“I can’t.”

“Give me one good reason?”

“Stop being so persistent,” she laughs.

“I will if you give me one good reason.”

“I already did: Never get your money where you get your honey!” She giggles and my heart swells.

“That’s a shit reason. Give me a better one. I’m serious.”

“I know you’re serious. So am I. I don’t want to mix work with pleasure. So you need to be an adult about this.”

“What if I come over to your place right now and strip you naked. That’s pretty adult.”

She groans in exasperation. “Really?! Is that your come-on line?”

I let out a self-conscious snort. “Trust me, you don’t want to hear my come-on line.”

“Try me,” she goads. I hear a hint of intrigue in her voice. 

“Nope. I’m trying to show some decorum.”

“Do you use it on all the girls?”

“All? We’re not talking scores of women here.”

“So does it work?”

“Depends on the woman. It’s kinda offensive.”

“I’m sure I’ve heard worse.”

“I can promise that you’ve heard better.”

“Try me.”

“Not a chance.”

Come on,” she begs. “Don’t be a tease. Just say it. I’m not going to think any less of you than I already do.”

We both laugh. 

I take a deep breath. “Look, it’s not even anything special. It’s just dirty talk. Basically, I’d just tell you what I want to do to you.”

“So what do you want to do to me?” she asks seductively.

The prompt is all I need. And for the next few minutes, I entertain her with a sexual fantasy until it reaches its natural climax. 

“The last bit about your pussy and arse is my come-on line.”

“I so want to fuck you right now,” whispers Emma. Her breathless voice instantly turns me hard.

“Give me five minutes,” I say. “To get there, that is. I only need three minutes for the other stuff!”

Emma giggles. “I guess we’ll see how big a new talent you really are.”

The comment throws me instantly and self-doubt leaps into my mind. If she thinks I’m packing anything more than six inches she’s going to be sorely mistaken. Well, maybe not sorely. But certainly mistaken.

“No … wait,” she says suddenly. “You can’t come over. We can’t do this. I can’t do this.”

“Stop stressing. It’s all good.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Seriously. Just chill and have some fun.”

There’s no reply and with terror, I realise she’s doing the unthinkable: she’s collecting her fucking thoughts.

“You still there?”

“I’m sorry. But this is my career. I know you’re just starting yours but this is all I have.”

“Nothing’s going to go wrong.”

“And what if it does? I can’t afford to risk this. You have family to fall back on. I don’t.” She pauses. “I have a mortgage.” She makes it sound like an incurable sexually transmitted disease and in a rare moment I’m almost lost for words.

“It’ll be okay, I promise.”

“It’s so unfair. I want a cute boy too,” she says and I almost choke. I’ve been called another word with the letters C, U and T. But it sure as hell wasn’t ‘cute’.

“I’ll come around and we can talk about it.”

“No,” she says firmly. “I don’t want you to come around.”

“We can get the topic out there. Strip it naked—“

“Matt, you need to stop.”

“—and explore it deeper—”

“Matt, I’m serious.”

“—all night.”

“Matt!” she snaps. “I want you to stop. Now.”

I stop.

But it’s too late. 

With or without sex, I’m completely screwed.

Shit goes down hill from there.

Emma’s rejection undermines my self-confidence and I begin to question whether her original interest was real or all in my head. In desperation, I make apologetic phone calls and send apologetic emails (not to mention flowers and love poems). I even make random unannounced appearances at her front door to apologise in person. Unsurprisingly, this quaint behaviour distances her even more! In response, I make more phone calls and send more emails to apologise for my previous phone calls and emails.

Emma isn’t impressed anymore.

To make matters worse, no one at work is either. And in a mirror image of my personal life, my professional life slides from the giddy heights of mediocrity straight into the gutter of utter crap. Rock bottom finally exposes itself one morning when the network’s aptly titled Head of Drama visits my office with an offer of coffee and small talk.

“So, how are things going, Matt?”

“Not good, John,” I reply, ashen-faced and sleep-deprived. “I think I’m in way over my head here.”

John misses the subtext and glances at the TV scripts on my desk. “You’ll be all right. Just stick with it.”

I smile grimly. “Actually, I’ve just handed in my notice.”

A look of concern flashes across his face. “Really? I’m sorry to hear that,” he says in surprise and for a brief instant, I wonder if his drama background extends to acting. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Ironically, there is…

I need a sounding board.

I need to tell someone the same words I once hated hearing: That I can’t understand why I am so dependent on Emma; That I don’t know who I am anymore; That the person sitting here is not the real me; That I’m not usually this fucked-up, clingy, emotional loser; That I’m cooler, stronger and more confident than this. I need to say all of this … to someone … even if that someone is a high-paid executive from the country’s biggest commercial television network.

Of course, I don’t utter any of that insane shit. Instead, I blurt out something worse.

“To tell you the truth, John, the only reason I write is so I don’t kill myself.”

The comment leaves John stranded speechless. An awkward silence fills the room. It holds for what seems an eternity and looks set to continue that way, short of someone breaking it with forced throat-clearing or the sound of heavy footfalls beating a hasty hallway retreat. 

John quickly obliges with both. 

His departure leaves me truly alone. It’s barely six months since Bryan’s first congratulatory phone call. And since then I’ve gone from failure to success and back again, in record time. That fact alone leaves me to conclude that I’m just one poorly composed love poem or rock ballad away from suicide.

Thankfully, my ray of hope enters the office before I can start typing a note.

“Good weekend?” I ask.

Emma mumbles a half-hearted reply as she strides to her desk. 

“That interesting?” I say dryly.

Her response is caustic. “Did you want a diary entry?”

The jab rattles me so I turn to my computer and get back to the task of deleting—possibly useful—penis enlargement emails from my inbox. Behind me, I hear Emma’s desktop chime into life. The sound is followed by several forceful mouse-clicks and a barrage of angry keyboard strokes.

Then silence.

“Megan and I went to a psychic,” she says brightly.

My heart soars at the peace offering and I swivel my chair to face her. “On the weekend?”

“Yeah. She read our tea leaves too,” says the love of my life with the most beautiful goddamn smile I’ve ever seen. “We found her at a tea and tarot place in Balmain.”

“So are you going to be rich and famous?”

“I didn’t ask,” she says, giving me a look that speaks volumes about our respective priorities. “But she told me something better.”

“Spill the beans.”

“She told me that I’m going to meet the love of my life by the end of the year.”

Blood drains from my face as the words sink in.

My heart is screaming “What about me?”. My mouth, however, stays silent. I stare  slack-jawed at Emma and slowly begin to understand the truth: I’m not good enough for her. Not successful enough, not talented enough, not handsome enough, not rich enough, not funny enough.

I’m still staring like an imbecile when she says: “Apparently it’s going to happen on a beach. And she said a bikini has some significance, but she wasn’t sure if I was the one wearing it.”

“A bikini? On a beach?” I feign an incredulous tone in an effort to regain some dignity. “Jesus, how much did you pay for that prediction?!”

“Twenty dollars!” says Emma, and we both laugh at the stupidity of it all.

“Well, I guess I know where you’ll be spending Christmas holidays … sun-bathing on Bondi Beach.”

Emma grins like a Cheshire Cat. “Nope. I’ll be in Thailand, remember?”

On her end of year vacation. A six week adventure starting with a party-bus tour[_ _]through Europe and ending with a New Year’s beach resort stay in Thailand. Immediately, that last destination conjures visions of Emma sunbathing alongside some windswept and interesting backpacker who is charming her out of a bikini.

The vision crushes my heart all over again. And suddenly, nothing else matters in my life but winning over Emma. Not the TV show, not fame, not fortune, not anything. All I want is Emma. But I need something to convince her that we are destined to be together. Some sign. Like my own matching bikini prophecy from a tea leaf reading psychic. So I do the smartest thing I can think of.

I book an appointment at Tea and Tarot.

“This other woman … you must not hurt,” says Celeste.

“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” I say, defensively.

Celeste eyes me for a long moment as if weighing the sincerity of my words against the truth of her cards. The silent judgement makes me feel like a fool until, finally, she releases me.

“Okay,” she says. “Let’s go back to the beginning. Back to Death.

And she does, explaining that Death is actually birth. That The Lovers are, in my case, an obstacle to love, happiness, healing, creativity … and any other positive experience that makes life bearable. Then she reels off a number of details that nail everything about me, from my personal traits to ambitions, inhibitions and expectations. It’s all pretty disconcerting despite me not wanting to believe a word of it.

After ten minutes, Celeste can see I’m shellshocked.

“You have to remember that this is just in the cards,” explains the fortune-teller. “It’s not a pre-defined future. It’s more of an early warning sign. A reminder to set things right.”

I stare vacantly at the cards for a moment. “So is there anything good on the horizon?”

Celeste points to the [_Judgement _]card.

“That’s what this is about. Your past and present are bookended by conflict. The only way to move on is for you resolve the source of that negativity by confronting it. How you do that is entirely up to you. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah.”

But, of course, it doesn’t.

Because I’m now so confused about my own life that nothing makes sense. No one wants to hear that their life is at a disastrous crossroad, especially someone whose life is at a disastrous crossroad. All I want to hear is that I will find true love on a beach at the end of the year, thus confirming a shared destiny with Emma. Instead, I’ve been presented with two Lovers seeking Death and Judgement with sticks and swords. And according to Celeste, this all adds up to a future of inner turmoil, low career outcomes and unrequited love.

It must be the worst fucking fortune-telling ever.

Plus it cost twenty bucks.

Deflated, I leave Celeste to her herbal tea and verbal diarrhoea, and decide to take destiny into my own hands. Determined to write myself into Emma’s bikini prophecy of love, I vow to take leave of my dream job, my ambitions and my mind to spend the next three months making myself windswept and interesting.

One week later, I tempt fate.

And take flight.

[*UPRIGHT: *][_Travel. Taking control. The world awaits. _]

REVERSED: Distracted. Avoiding the real journey. Stuck.

For some reason there’s an arrow pointing to a chess piece on the in-flight TV. And according to the monitor’s map, the chess piece is currently five thousand miles west of me. Somewhere in the Middle East. Which is nowhere near Thailand.

My plane hasn’t even left Australia and already I’m confused about international travel.

It takes ten minutes before I work out that the icon on the screen is actually a symbol for Mecca. I’m flying with Royal Brunei, a Muslim airline, so I’m guessing the arrow helps with directional prayer. Either that or the airline’s[_ _]fuselage faith is so questionable that they encourage passengers to call on their God for safe journey.

As if on cue, a pre-flight prayer flickers onto the screen.

“O Allah, You are … the Protector for the family we leave behind… we seek refuge in You … from the misfortune to befall our household.

The prayer does nothing to reduce my fear of flying and soon my anxiety is so heightened that I actually pay attention to the safety presentation that follows.

Thankfully, the plane touches down safely in Bangkok eight uneventful hours later. I retrieve my backpack from the carrousel and pass through passport processing without drama, barring the few minutes where I am absolutely certain corrupt police will set me up for heroin trafficking. It’s a melodramatic thought born from anxiety, of course, so instead of a death-sentence I have to settle for a little entry stamp like all the other tourists.

Outside the terminal, evening is fast approaching so I change some currency and quickly locate an inner city bus service. I climb aboard and come face-to-face with half a dozen other backpackers. Under their gaze, I awkwardly squeeze my ridiculously oversized backpack past two giggling English girls. Their mood is relaxed and jocular and I immediately assume they’re recent-graduates beginning a gap-year vacation. Life doesn’t seem so rosy down the back of the bus, however. Because hunkered down in detached seats are several older, more contemplative travellers. The solitary figures peer pensively through windows, probably wondering what life really means. Following their lead, I find a seat and silently stare out into oblivion as well. 

And that’s when reality finally hits…

Holy shit… what the fuck have I done?!!

In a panic, I look to the door. 

I need to get off the bus. Now. I need to fly back home, call the TV network and apologise for walking out on a dream job worth hundreds of thousands of dollars … to come to Thailand … for a psychic prediction … that wasn’t even mine!

Jesus Christ… I have to fix this mess before it’s too late.

But it is too late.

Because there’s no going back on what I’ve done.

I take a deep breath and try to relax. 

[_Man, I wish Claire was here. _]

Of course, if Claire was here, she’d just look at me without sympathy and roll her eyes. Probably shake her head and say something like, ‘Why do you always do this to yourself?’. And the truthful answer to that would be: I really don’t fucking know. Which just highlights our differences. For a start, Claire wouldn’t quit a job on a whim. Nor would she freak out on an overseas holiday. In fact, she’d actually love the thrill of going on an adventure into the great unknown. Plus she was always keen on that whole ‘authentic’ cultural immersion thing that backpackers go on about. Me, not so much. Which, of course, was another source of contention… 

“Fuck backpacking,” I say. “I want to be able to travel in comfort.”

“That’s so sanitised,” counters Claire as she hand-stitches a deckle-edged diary on the dining table. “Don’t you want to be exposed to a cultural experience?”

“You could still see the same things. It’s not like Angkor Wat has a perimeter of hemp-rope barring everyone but backpackers.”

“You’re probably more of a package tourist anyway,” she says offhandedly, knowing full well how much I hate organised… well, organised anything, actually.

“I don’t want to do an organised tour. I just want to go somewhere with enough money to have some options. I’m not saying I want luxury, I just want to have that choice occasionally. Doing it your way would suck.”

The comment stings her. “Sorry for having an opinion.” She slides her chair out and without another word, heads toward the bedroom.

“Hang on a second,” I say, voice rising with hostility. “I never said I don’t want to travel. All I said was that I didn’t want to backpack around the world working a bunch of shitty bar jobs like everyone else. But now you’re pissed at me because, what … I’m not cultural enough because I want to stay in a decent hotel occasionally?”

Claire stalls at the door and glares at me. “Why are you yelling at me?”

“Because you’re walking away from me.”

“Where does this anger come from? I can’t say anything without you over-reacting.”

“You’re deliberately pressing my buttons. All because I don’t want to waste a year of my life backpacking and then come back and have to start from scratch again, okay?”

She stares at me and shakes her head. “Sure. Do it your way. As usual.” She turns and slams the bedroom door.

The automatic door slams shut and the driver stomps on the accelerator. The bus launches forward, merges into a transit lane and, eventually, joins the highway.

In the distance, the skyline of Bangkok looms. The familiarity of its outline surprises me – it’s a [_modern _]metropolis. I didn’t expect this. Of course, I’m not really sure what I expected—bamboo office-blocks and paddy-field car parks probably—certainly not super highways and heaven-piercing high-rises. Truth is, Bangkok looks like any other massive urban sprawl. Just another scarred landscape of tarmac arteries, funnelling millions of people into a topography of concrete one-upmanship.  

The bus injects us deep into one of those tarmac arteries as we dodge and weave around countless vehicles driven by people short of patience and sanity. Numerous roadside billboards implore the drivers to upgrade to something sexier and faster: a Mercedes Benz or a better phone. The tempo of these metronome marketing messages increases as we near the city until, finally, they become a blur of daily life that ceases to interrupt transit thoughts at all. Again, just like life in any other contemporary city.

It’s only when we reach the inner-city that I realise that Bangkok might be different to Brisbane or Sydney. Because here the streets advertise contradictory values. A mixed marketing message that informs me that Bangkok sells a new world capitalism wrapped in Buddhist spiritualism. It’s an intriguing product, so for the next half hour I window-shop the urban architecture and exotic symbols with new eyes until, finally, I am confronted with a strange thoroughfare that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

It’s Bangkok’s infamous Khao San Road.

According to the [_Lonely Planet _]guidebook, Khao San Road is home to Bangkok’s backpacker population. And judging by what I see outside the bus, I swear they breed the fuckers here too.

Or half-breed.

The door opens and a rush of rank humid air floods the bus interior. Reluctantly, I haul my backpack onto my shoulders and step out into what looks like a flea market run by nightclub-dwelling drug dealers. The entire length of the street is alive with neon lights, loud music, shopping stalls, food carts and partying people. I glance at my fellow passengers to gauge their reaction. It’s a wasted exercise since, like me, they’re all playing a game called ‘Act Cool’. It’s a dumb game and not a single one of us is any good at it.

Thankfully, our surroundings are filled with familiar western faces. In fact, there are so many western travellers on Khao San Road that I am taken by surprise when I finally spot some actual Thai people. In turn, one spots me. Immediately, his face breaks into a wide smile and fake friendship high-beams from his eyes. Paralysed with politeness, I watch as he approaches me. Fortunately, an auto-rickshaw arrives on cue and blocks his advance.

“Tuk-Tuk?” asks the driver.

I shake my head and wave him off. “No, thanks. I just got off the bus.”

He nods in understanding then says, “Tuk-Tuk?”

Remembering the language barrier, I scissor a couple of fingers past his eye-line, knowing full well that he’ll recognise the universal charade.

He doesn’t.

“Tuk-tuk?” he repeats again.

I shake my head again but we seem to be at an impasse. And after thirty silent seconds, he eventually gets the hint and drives off, which provides an open invitation for the next…

“Tuk-tuk?”

I ready myself for the whole charade once again but this time, I am saved by the arrival of my smiling friend.

“Hey, you want sex show?” he yells. His smile is topped by a wispy, adolescent-like moustache. It wriggles like a hairy caterpillar and draws my eagle-eye as if it were prey. “Cheap, cheap,” he chirps.

“What?”

“Sex show. Cheap, cheap.”

“Nah, mate. I’m good.”

He grins. “Ahh, Aussie?! I show you good time, maayyyte. Cheap, cheap.”

“Sorry, I’m not interested,” I say, glancing at him and his public transport cohort, “in any of this.”

He responds by pressing a brochure into my hand.

“You look. Nice girls. Very nice.”

I scan the front of the brochure. It’s filled with images of nude females in various ‘come-fuck-me’ poses.

My new friend pats my shoulder. “You like?”

I hand back the brochure. “Sorry, mate, I need to find a room.”

He grabs my arm. “You want room?! Come. Good room this way. Cheap, cheap.”

It’s obvious that this is never going to end, so I rudely shrug off his grasp and make a bee-line for the over-crowded party street.

Once safely hidden in the dreadlocked forest, I stand on tip-toes and look for my fellow bus brothers. Reassuringly, I see the two English chicks scurrying down the over-populated road, haphazardly weaving between tourists and restaurant tables – both of which overflow the sidewalk and onto the road proper. I take their cue and side-step my way past countless stalls selling clothing, jewellery, CDs, sunglasses … fried insects, and within minutes, I’m satisfied that I’m completely and utterly lost.

Desperate for guidance, I scan the heavens for a sign. Preferably one that combines the words [air conditioned _]and[ guesthouse_]. Eventually, that sign appears above a building in a back-alleyway. I enter the lack-lustre establishment and book a vacant room sight unseen. A bored employee grabs a room key and motions for me to follow. Helpfully, he shows me the shared bathroom amenities first, which turn out to be a horror show. I hold my breath and peer into the cramped and damp enclosure. A sign on the wall says, ‘Don’t flush toilet paper’. I immediately look for the complimentary roll of toilet paper, but there is none … unless you count the fecal-smeared wads from previous depositors overflowing from a lidless trash can beside the toilet.

When we reach the end of the hallway, I am presented with my room. Unsurprisingly, it too is an uninviting shithole with a decor straight out of Alcatraz. The bed is mouldy, lumpy and hard, yet inexplicably soft in many places. The wall plaster is stained and cracked, and torn segments of filthy linoleum are jig-sawed into something that vaguely resembles floor covering. Of course, it’s everything I imagined cut-price backpacker accommodation in Asia to be: absolutely crap.

What truly is magnificent, however, is the view outside. Especially if you appreciate middle-aged Thai women shouting the cliched ‘Want good time, very cheap?’ from the balcony opposite your room. I consider shutting the window on the friendly show of hospitality but the decision is taken out of my hands, thanks to the two pieces of cardboard that moonlight as window closures. Both of which are on the floor.

Exhausted beyond belief, I slump onto the stained mattress and stare at the cracked ceiling. For a brief moment I think about the relative luxury of even a three-star hotel back home… then I close my eyes and let Claire’s idea of a wonderful fucking cultural experience overwhelm me.

Morning brings a sunnier outlook that bathes me in positivity. I get out of bed and congratulate myself for surviving my first night in a foreign country. I feel like a bulletproof backpacker. I wish Emma could see me. 

Buoyed with this sense of invincible pride, I decide to tackle the day’s only truly terrifying challenge – the bathroom. But even that hell hole fails to wipe away my smile, simply because I’m ecstatic that I had the foresight to pack a full roll of surprisingly soft, single-layer, airport-grade toilet paper. A portion of which finds its way into the large plastic trash can.

Apparently, it’s not the done thing to flush toilet paper anywhere in Asia. I’ve recently discovered this fact after sleeping with my new best friend, the now extremely well-read Lonely Planet guidebook. According to guidebook, squat toilets, struggling sewers and the splash and rub method of butt-cleaning are the norm throughout Thailand. Of course, many western travellers are left aghast by this since we find paperless toileting unhygienic. And, yet, there is the opposing argument that smearing crap across any part of your body, even your asshole, is equally unclean. For example, if I had shit on my handsome face, would I:

a)Grab a wad of toilet paper and smear it over my face a little more or,

b)Wash it off with water

I mark the puzzle down as one of earth’s great mysteries then, flushing it from my mind, I head outside to Khao San Road in search of breakfast.

The street is in stark contrast to the previous evening. All is quiet and subdued, giving the impression that every backpacker in a five block radius is either comatose or extremely hungover. Which means I almost have the place to myself. Capitalising on this good luck, I decide to explore the many alleyways on foot before the revellers start crawling out of the woodwork.

The walk is a pleasant experience because the local area truly is the typical cliché of old-meets-new. Friendly Thais set up their food and clothing stalls, children ready themselves for school in doorways and weekday workers wait idly for buses. Of course, there are foreign travellers out and about too and soon it becomes obvious that Thailand attracts tourists from all walks of life. Some for the full-moon dance parties, some for cheap cocktails and drugs, some for sex and sun, and some just to relax and have fun. Some are possibly even here for dubious adventures of love.

I find a Khao San cafe and, imitating every westerner around me, order a breakfast of sausages, bacon, eggs, toast and coffee. It’s not exactly Thai cuisine but I console myself with the fact that I need energy for a big day ahead. Because Bangkok’s just a stop-over to my next destination. And what awaits me is a connecting flight to a land that has the power to transform the most boring traveller into someone windswept and interesting instead. Which is exactly why I plan to kill three months there before I return to Thailand for Emma. 

Of course, if a single night in a modern metropolis like Bangkok can shake my fragile little world, the obvious question must be this:

Why the fuck have I chosen to find myself in India?

Ben is adamant it’s legal herb that he’s smuggled into India … and who am I to argue? The old dude certainly looks like someone who knows the vagaries of a country’s marijuana legislation, so it’s hard to doubt him. Of course, what [_could _]be argued is whether Ben actually knows he’s in India.

I’m killing time in the international airport in Delhi, and contrary to all expectations the terminal is quiet and empty. I’ve spotted roughly fifty people since breezing through airport customs with Ben and his son, Josh. That was thirty minutes ago. Since then Josh and I have been waiting patiently for the old man to repack his Everest-like backpack.

Apparently my new friends are embarking on a father/son trek through the Himalayas. And like a novice mountaineer, I’ve attached myself to them for safety. Clinging to their rock solid confidence simply because I’m terrified of falling into the abyss. The one outside. The one known as India.

“Seriously, it was legal herb, man!” says Ben, continuing the story about his brush with security in Taiwan.

“Like oregano and crap like that?” I say. Josh looks at me as if I’m an idiot.

“They tossed all my stuff,” spits Ben. “Way over aggressive, man. Just a really bad vibe there. Like everywhere, yeah. You know what I mean, Matt … huh?” I nod but I don’t know if he’s stating a fact, asking a rhetorical question or just knitting his own version of the English language to mess with my head. “They thought I was a smuggler, man. Can you believe that?!”

Yep. I can totally believe that.

Simply because Ben does, in fact, look like a derelict stoner or desperate drug runner: mid-fifties, unfocused face, long hair, greasy beard and wearing clothes he bought back in the 80s. I’m envious, of course, because at least Ben looks like a spiritual adventurer … or, at the very least, someone who truly doesn’t give a shit. As opposed to me, whose wardrobe of board shorts and surf t-shirts makes me appear like a walking billboard for a big-brand surf conglomerate.

I’m envious of Ben’s son Josh too, who looks somewhat similar to his father. Albeit half the age and with the addition of dreadlocks, backpacker swagger and quite possibly even Khao San Road tattoos. This is Josh’s third trip to India for a total of eighteen months. Which means he is either unbelievably cool or unbelievably stupid. 

I’m finding it hard to get a read on Josh. I can’t make out whether he is fake or real. He’s fashionably unwashed and oozes alternative chic. The kind of guy who women probably love since he exudes a kind of aloof, carefree, asexual charisma that belongs to a wise journeyman who has travelled many an enlightened path. Which is quite an accomplishment for a kid in his early twenties.

Josh looks to his dad. “You right, Ben?” he asks, in an effort to speed up the process of us leaving the airport terminal and actually arriving in India.

“Uh huh, just get these socks on, yeah?”

For five minutes, I’ve watched Ben attempt to thread a pair of frayed shoelaces onto a disintegrating pair of ancient sneakers. He’s agonisingly unrushed. It’s like watching jelly set. In slow motion. 

“So, which airline did you guys take from the States?”

“China Air,” says Josh.

“How was that?” 

Ben shudders. “Whoa … too long, man. Waaay too long.”

“Ben’s never been on a plane before,” says Josh, thus partly explaining his father’s herbal cure for flight anxiety.

“First time, man. Been lost in Oregon for the thirty-seven years,” says the old guy with a wide grin. “And smoking pot for the last thirty-five!”

“Guess you needed a vacation,” deadpans Josh. It’s an uncharacteristic show of humour but in an instant we all burst out laughing.

“Well, thought I’d better take a look around, man.” Ben says, swapping a mischievous glance with his kin. “Choose a new path to a greater journey, huh?” He raises his hand and Josh obliges him with a ‘high-five’. Beards and dreadlocks bounce erratically making the scene looks like a [Nike _]ad … for _Air Jesus or something. 

Of course, it’s obvious that Ben isn’t actually lost – he has his son to guide him. And Josh really does know his shit. Plus the two men have a strong father/son bond. Again, I’m envious because, like lots of boys, the relationship I had with my dad wasn’t always good. I grew up constantly thinking the towering masculine figure in my life was too hard, and knowing he thought I was too soft. As a consequence, we both came to the same conclusion that I wasn’t tough enough, smart enough or good enough. Which, in all honesty, was a fair call. Of course, this truth left me angst-ridden and full of rage like every other fucked-up son around the world.

I was four when I met my father, so I attributed his disliking of me to the fact that I wasn’t his biological child. Sadly, it took almost twenty years for me to realise my assumptions were off track. Truth is, he didn’t hate me, he just wanted me to be ‘more’, because he had spent his whole life feeling ‘less’. My life changed when I realised that. I let go of a lot of baggage I’d been dragging around.

As for my ‘evil stepfather’ theory, well, that victim thread unraveled years earlier when I discovered that my biological father, and namesake, was actually the real asshole. The evidence tendered was proof of that; a possessive partner who broke his wife’s arm, constantly beat her face and, for good measure, punched her gut when she was nine months pregnant. This last act occurred because his child hadn’t arrived at exactly forty weeks, which could only mean one thing to him: that I wasn’t his kid.

This is the kind of dumb fuck that gifted me his DNA. And if the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say, then I’m shit outta luck because I’m probably like him. Which has always been my worst fear. Of course, deep inside, I know I’m a better man. I’m not a violent drunk who landed behind bars for misdemeanours most people avoid by utilising common sense. And I’m not an emotional manipulator who rewarded weekend jail visits with the whispered ultimatum of ‘If you leave, I’ll kill you both’. 

To me, shit like that doesn’t make sense. And God knows, I’ve spent years trying to make sense of it. Trying to comprehend how this father of mine—this man—could hurt his partner and want to kill his own child. And yet, when it comes to fathers, I was probably blessed. I mean, life could have been worse … I mean, I could have been related to Ben!

I don’t really feel that way about Josh’s dad, of course. I actually really like the man and I’m grateful to be in his presence. Josh’s too. Because both welcomed me into their family unit when they recognised my fear. They’re caring instead of intimidating, which is unusual for men. It’s an easy mateship that’s evidently been nurtured between each other. And I see it in their simplest actions: a son helping compress his dad’s baggage then offering to carry that burden on his own broad shoulders; a father placing a light hand on his little boy’s back in a silent show of appreciation. Nothing masculine. Just affectionate. Loving. Protective.

Paternal.

Finally, with Ben packed and ready to go, the three of us are ready to, well… smoke the joint.

To avoid the infamous touting taxi drivers outside the terminal, Josh suggests we organise a pre-paid cab inside the terminal. We find the transport counters near the airport exit and lay down cash for our trip to the city. The harassment from rival cab touts is so thorough inside the terminal that I begin to dread what vulture-like attack lies outside. As we edge towards the glass doors, an expectant crowd gathers in readiness for our terminal departure. The automatic doors slide open and a blast of furnace-like humidity swallows us. In an instant, I perspire onto my shirt and it sticks to my torso like honey-smeared cling-wrap. 

Reluctantly, we step outside. 

Within seconds, scores of taxi drivers blanket us, clawing for attention. The intensity catches me off guard. Not Josh, however, because he’s lived this nightmare before. Barging through the onslaught like an angry bull, he bucks off their advances with grunts of ‘No!’ and pointed swearing. In contrast, Ben and I prance behind in silent terror, like timid ponies.

Eventually, we find our pre-paid taxi van and clamber inside to safety. Dozens of eyes peer at us through the windows, prompting me to count down the seconds to escape. I countdown once, twice, three times … before I realise there’s no forthcoming escape. I look to the driver, whose eyes fill the rear view mirror.

“Baksheesh,” he says.

“No,” says Josh firmly. “This is a pre-paid taxi.”

Baksheesh!” repeats the driver.

“No,” snaps Josh. “We already paid inside.”

“Please, baksheesh.”

“No, baksheesh. This is a pre-paid taxi.”

“No pre-pay,” shouts the driver. “Baksheesh.”

“We paid inside the terminal,” screams Josh, rising to the challenge. “I will go straight back inside and you’ll lose this fare.”

The driver considers this in silence for a moment.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“Fucking Baksheesh,” explains Josh. “He wants a tip. If you don’t pay, these assholes drop you in the middle of nowhere.”

The driver interrupts: “Please, very poor. Very big family. Many children.”

I glance at the man’s reflection, searching for any hint of dishonesty.

“How much does he want?”

“Who knows,” sighs Josh. “That’s not the point, though. They pull this shit every time.” He unfolds his roll of cash and hands over a twenty-rupee note. 

The driver looks at it as if he’s been personally insulted.

“Very poor family. One hundred rupee. Very, very poor.”

Josh unfurls some extra cash. “Fifty rupees,” he counters. “That’s it. No more.”

The man nods in that Indian head-bobble way and Josh passes the cash across. I  take a moment to mentally tally the cost. Fifty rupees is the rough equivalent of the price of a can of Coke back home. The driver stuffs the notes in his shirt pocket and, as if nothing ever happened, we simply drive off.

Straight into Delhi’s peak hour traffic.

Now, for the uninitiated, like myself, Indian road rules are one hell of a mind-fuck. Nothing I see makes sense. Eight lanes of vehicles are crammed onto a four-lane highway. Dozens of motorcycles (many with entire families on board, all without helmets, except for the actual ‘rider’) zig-zag across the blacktop. Alongside them are scores of auto-rickshaws, cars, buses, trucks and, of course, cows. All of them going wherever the hell they please. 

Ben and I exchange shocked looks.

“Man, I can’t believe this place,” he says. “I never thought I’d see this. This is just … man … this is just blowing me away.”

“Fucking Delhi,” says Josh flatly.

“Man, did you see those cows?” asks an animated Ben. “They’ve got broken legs. Dude, that is so cruel. Why don’t they put them out of their misery?”

“They’re sacred,” answers Josh. “Hindus don’t kill or eat them.”

“Brahman cattle,” I say with authority, remembering a different time and place. “They breed them by the thousands where I’m from.”

“What for?” asks Ben without thought.

I notice the driver eyeing me in the rear-vision mirror.

“Food,” I say quietly.

I divert my gaze back to the view outside in time to catch a familiar sight at the edge of the highway. On dusty patches of earth, males of all ages are engaged in the same  impromptu bat and ball game that featured heavily in my youth. The game of cricket. The sport scene takes me back to a carefree time playing with friends. Our bare feet shod with dirt as we ran ragged after balls that held zero interest to the muscular cattle that roamed just beyond the barbed-wire fence. 

I smile at the memory and begin to relax. Suddenly, everything seems easy. I can do this. I can survive backpacking. I can survive India. 

The feeling, however, is short-lived.

[_Oh, fuck… _]

As our pre-paid taxi pulls to a halt in the Main Bazaar of Old Delhi, I am broadsided by a rare moment of clarity: 

I’m going to die in India. 

I’m going to have a heart attack. Or a brain aneurysm. Or something. Jesus, I can already feel my chest constricting.

Outside, a crowd of thousands streams across the narrow dirt street we’ve parked on. Around them, loom scores of ramshackle multi-storey buildings that seemingly defy gravity with nothing but the help of a million knotted electricity cables and a shit load of good luck. Their dilapidated concrete walls support dozens of dust-covered awnings, haphazard shop signage and crumbling balconies. All of it in various states of disrepair. 

The inconsistency of the architecture is so disorienting that it’s impossible to get my bearings. Where are the sharp 7/11 signs from Bangkok? The monolithic McDonalds logos from back home? All I see is confusion and endless disorder. All I see is disaster.

I glance at Ben hoping to find order on his face, but the old hop-head is frantically tracking every movement beyond the taxi window like a skittish cat.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, man,” he says. “This is insane.”

Josh casually hauls his backpack onto his shoulders and turns towards us. “Welcome to India!” he says, with a wry grin. 

Welcome to Paharganj to be precise.

This is Delhi’s budget backpacker haven. According to Josh, accommodation can be had for five bucks a night in this cesspit, which is why the tight-fisted hippie motherfucker brought us here.

The three of us climb free of the van and immediately my nasal passage is assaulted by the perfume of Paharganj, which is an aromatic pot pourri of diesel fumes, human waste and rotting refuse. It’s a blend that, once again, provides a less-than-subtle reminder of the joys of cultural immersion.

“Follow me,” orders Josh.

I don’t need to be told twice. So, like an obsessed lover, I blindly stalk him through an obstacle course of wandering cows, emaciated dogs and sweaty human bodies. I look behind to track Ben’s progress and am greeted with the view of him tip-toeing through a minefield of cow shit with all the grace of a drunken ballerina. We dance past numerous hole-in-the-wall shops that overflow with saris, shoes, bangles, spices and incense. Our march of madness interrupted by shop sellers, travel touts, rickshaw drivers and any other asshole who wants our attention. It’s beyond exhausting. And within minutes, I’m taut of body, mentally overloaded … and feeling more alive than I’ve ever felt in my life!

Eventually, guru Josh ushers us into the foyer of his chosen sanctuary and we discover some inner peace. After a short exchange with a pair of mouthy middle-aged male receptionists, we go our separate ways and inspect the accommodation on offer.

Upstairs, a guesthouse worker shows me a single room. It’s beyond horrific. The walls are unpainted and the crumbling render is adorned with graffiti. The toilet has no seat, the shower has no shower-head and dozens of tiles are missing from the filthy recess. It’s as if the task of interior design was contracted to an urban assault force procured from the Gaza strip.

The room does have one attraction, however – it costs five dollars, as Josh promised.  Plus, its weathered patina has the potential to convince a virgin backpacker that he is, in fact, a rugged world adventurer. 

I head back to the foyer, keen to hand over my five bucks. Ben and Josh are already waiting when I arrive. Surprisingly, the back-block hippies have chosen to book a relatively luxurious top-floor, air conditioned double with view. The knowledge that I’ve beaten them in the ‘I’m roughing it more than you’ challenge, secretly pleases me. Until I discover their opulent room is costing just ten dollars. I secretly feel like a fool after that.

Together, we wait near the reception counter as the two cheeky Indian clerks sign-in a Japanese backpacker. On show is my first real experience of a well-known drama called ‘Indian Bureaucracy’. Apparently, in this country, it takes two people to read a single passport, write a single name and hand over a single room key. And apparently these two people need a lifetime to do it.

“You know what this Japan is standing for?” asks one of the clerks as he gravely scans the Japanese passport.

The Asian guy shrugs his shoulders in confusion.

The clerk spells it out. “J-A-P-A-N,” he says. “You know what this is standing for?” The backpacker is oblivious.

“Jumping And Pumping All Night,” says the clerk. Immediately he and his mate fall into hysterics.

“That is you, yes?” says the other jester. “Japan man looking for sexy time?”

The backpacker is all at sea, drowning in a cultural wash of Indian English and weird sexual innuendo.

Eventually, the clerks hand over a room key and the Japanese dude hot-foots it to safety. Josh and Ben step forward in his place. Both relinquish their passports and the clerks study the embossed eagle insignias.

“Ah, United States of America,” says one. “You know what U.S.A really is standing for?”

“I’m sure you’ll tell me,” says Josh flatly.

The clerk smiles broadly. “Unloved Self Abusers!” Again the jokesters laugh.

Josh and Ben don’t, however.

“You hear this joke before?” asks a clerk. Josh shakes his head. “Oh, just serious backpacker? Not much laughing in you, yes?”

Josh forces a thin smile and waits silently for his name to be penciled into the reservation book. Once done, the clerk slides the passport back to Josh.

“My friend, this is just joking. Not serious, okay? In India this is for smiling talk. Everyone happy in India. See?” He smiles to demonstrate. “Please… be happy and enjoy my country, Mr USA.”

Josh coaxes out another weak smile before grabbing the room key. Then he backs away from the counter, leaving me exposed to the clerks’ scrutiny. Reluctantly, I present my passport.

“Australia?”

“Yeah,” I say with a smile. Big smile. Much smiling for being in happy India.

The two men nod. “Acha, acha… very good. Australia very good. Very good cricket players. Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne. Very, very good.”

My smile widens.

The three names uttered may mean little to Ben and Josh, but to me they’re heaven sent and soon the clerks and I are dissecting India’s main religion – cricket.

“Man, that game is even worse than baseball,” scoffs Josh.

“Baseball?!” barks one of the Indians with derision. “Silly American game.” He looks to me for confirmation but I’m not in the habit of trash-talking my friends. Well, not in front of them.

“I have something you guys might be interested in,” I say, grabbing my backpack. After a rudimentary search, I retrieve an object. It’s a twenty cent coin minted with an image of the world’s greatest cricket player on one side. I toss it across the reception counter to a clerk.

“Who is this?” he asks. “Bradman?!”

“Yeah, The Don.”

“Sir Donald Bradman?!” asks the other clerk in surprise.

I nod. “Special edition.”

“From Australia?”

“Yeah.”

Both men take it in turns to trace the coin’s raised relief with their fingers. “Very good batting average,” says one.

“Very very good,” parrots the other.

“99.94 percent,” I say. “Near perfect, run a ball.” I can see my American friends are bored beyond belief. “Bradman was the Babe Ruth of cricket,” I explain to Ben and Josh.

A second later, the coin disappears into one of the Indians’ shirt pocket. “Thank you very much,” he says. “Big discount for your room.”

“Do you have any more of these coins?” asks his offsider.

Their brazen sense of entitlement riles me.

“No,” I lie. “That’s the only one.”

In truth, I have over a dozen more coins. But I didn’t cart them to India to buy a discount on a shitty room in Paharganj. I brought the coins for a specific reason. To pay a personal debt. Because, unlike Don Bradman, the legacy of my past is far from perfect.

When dawn arrives I’m well and truly convinced that, even at five dollars, my room is  over-priced. The toilet doesn’t flush, the shower runs cold, the air conditioner doesn’t work and the grotty mattress houses a congregation of bed-bugs whose sharing of my body drove me insane and had me praying for a can of inspect repellant or an earth-bound meteorite. As a result, I’ve barely slept.

I head downstairs.

In an instant, my mood improves because, outside, the road leading to my new destiny is surprisingly calm. The inquisitive child inside me stirs and instead of hardship and peril, I see possible adventure. Swinging my daypack over my shoulder, I head out into the foreign surroundings for a bit of a stroll. Initially, visions of filth and neglect dominate my eye-line but after a few short minutes my perspective shifts. I begin to see everything with intrigue and amazement until, implausibly, I form the opinion that Old Delhi is actually an incredible place.

It’s a short-term love affair and I change my mind when the madness begins. Business hours start and cars, bikes and rickshaws arrive en masse, bringing with them a cacophony of horns, construction noise and the footsteps of a million human beings who have no concept of personal space let alone privacy. It is amid this insanity, that my anxiety ratchets up a notch and a sense of personal displacement creeps in. And before long my opinion is this: 

Delhi must be the worst fucking place on earth.

How anyone lives in this city is a mystery to me. The intrusion is relentless, be it from shop staff, commission touts, rick-shaw drivers, smiling youths, ageing fathers, or any number of random motherfuckers. Even casual conversation becomes a nightmare due to the impossibility of distinguishing between sincerity and bullshit in any given exchange. Each human encounter is exhausting and after half an hour my asshole meter is on high alert.

It is in this state of distress that I am greeted by another keen conversationalist.

“Excuse me, where are you going?”

I wheel around and see a guy who is roughly my age. I note his Armani jeans and Ralph Lauren polo. A heavy gold chain is partially hidden by the popped collar.

“Just looking around,” I reply.

“Looking for what?”

“I’m walking to the Red Fort.”

“Walking?!” he says in dismay. “What is this always walking with foreigners? You know, in India walking is only for the very poor?”

“You get to see more.”

He weighs this up. “Ah, okay. No problem. Red Fort is very good for walking. Lots to see.”

I do the usual ‘smile and nod’ hoping it will bring an end to our chat.

“How long have you been in India, my friend?”

The ‘my friend’ bit is said in a tone that belongs to a particular type of man: one of confidence.

“One week,” I lie, trying to hide my virgin traveller status.

“And you have travelled where in India?”

“Just around Delhi.”

He eyes me suspiciously. “Just Delhi? In one week? But still you have not seen the Red Fort?”

“Not yet.”

He waits a moment before letting my lie slide. “My friend, what is your good name?”

The unusual question is so common on the street that I’m beginning to wonder if all Indians are christened with a bad name as well.

“Matt,” I say.

“I am Surinda,” he says, extending a hand. We shake and an eternity seems to pass before he releases me. “So, what do you think of my country, Matt?”

“It’s amazing.”

“More amazing than your country?”

I hunt my mind for a diplomatic answer. “It’s different to my country.”

“You are Australian, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Very good cricket team,” says Surinda with a genuine smile. Then with perfect timing, he adds: “Almost as good as India.” 

The comment makes me laugh out loud. “Yeah, almost,” I agree.

“Are you travelling with wife?”

“No. I’m not married.”

Surinda gives me an incredulous look. “You are how old? Forty?”

“Almost thirty.”

“Almost thirty and still not married?! Just girlfriends then, yes?”

I redden at the question, suddenly acutely embarrassed about being a virile thirty-year-old male who is infatuated with the idea of finding true love … via a bikini prophecy.

“No girlfriends,” I mumble. “I’m single.”

“Just single good time man! Very good.” He slaps my shoulder. “I think sex is very easy for you, yes? Western women love fucking.”

“Not always. I’m sure you get to sleep with more women than I do.”

“Yeah, I am sleeping with many women. Lots of fucking for me.” He quietens for a moment, deep in thought. “Tell me, Matt, where are you going after Delhi?”

“Somewhere cooler, I hope. And quieter. Probably north.”

“Manali, perhaps? Very popular with tourists. Or Kashmir. Very beautiful. If you want I can get you best price on a deluxe air conditioned coach to Kashmir.”

My face widens in a smile at the sudden show of Surinda’s hustle. 

“Isn’t there a war in Kashmir?!”

“No. Not war,” says the travel tout emphatically. “That’s just for show with Pakistan. Kashmir is very safe. Lots of tourists renting houseboats on the lake. Trust me, it is very beautiful. Matt, my friend, if you want, I can give you best price on this trip.” He thrusts a hand into the back pocket of his jeans and palms a travel brochure to me. “Here, this is my company.”

I wave the offer away. “I’m not going to Kashmir.”

“No problem. I can give you the best deal to anywhere. Come—” He grabs my shoulder to lead me. “It is too hot in this fucking street. Too much shit and smell. Not like Kashmir. Please, come with me.”

I gently shake free of his grip. “No, thanks. I’m just going to do the Red Fort thing today.”

Surinda pauses, seemingly hurt by my rejection. “We can drink chai in my office then I will get you a rickshaw to Red Fort. Very cheap. Better than walking.”

“It’s all good. I really just want to walk.”

He nods, seeming to accept his fate. “Tell me, Matt, what is your work?”

“I write television,” I say with an insecure self-importance I can never rise above.

“Wow, man! This is very good money for you, yes? You are rich?”

“I wish. I’ve only saved enough money for this holiday.”

“But you are still richer than most people in my country, I think.” His comment gives me pause. Surinda continues: “Have you heard of Bollywood?” 

“Yeah, of course.”

“You should visit Bombay, man. They make lots of TV and movies down there. And always looking for westerners like you. I can get you a cheap bus ticket.”

“Can you throw in a sexy Bollywood actress too?”

Surinda plays along. “Yeah, yeah, of course, man!”

“You’ll probably bus me off to a porno film set,” I say in jest.

He slaps my back again. “Acha cha! You know these blue movies, yeah?! Man, Indian men love porno.”

“What… more than cricket?!”

The tout laughs out loud. “In India, just two loves for men: sex and cricket!” Again he grabs me by the shoulder. “Come. Matt, I want to show you some DVDs.”

I hold firm. “Look, mate, I like chatting but, seriously, you’re wasting your time with me.” I point to some passing backpackers. “Opportunity is passing by.”

Surinda weighs my words for a full minute. Suddenly, any trace of warmth vanishes and he gives me a cold stare.

“You walk to Red Fort now,” he spits. The order is then followed by a string of words in Hindi. I’m unable to translate but I know exactly what is going on.

I’ve just been christened with a bad name or two. 

I should have taken a rickshaw.

I’ve been lost in the backstreets of Old Delhi for three hours. I have no idea where I am. Every street and alleyway looks like the next. There are no signposts, maps or street names. Just a mass of people walking through labyrinthian laneways. Everywhere I turn I find something that shocks me. There are disfigured beggars seated beside goats, cows or dogs. There are tiny children with ragged clothes and shoeless feet hunting through waste heaps. There are elderly people clinging to the earth, fast asleep or near death. There are sickly mothers splayed on concrete, filthy babies by their hip. There are food carts, shop staff and people yelling shit I don’t have the capacity to understand. And it’s all taking place in a heatwave that has me convinced that Delhi is the sister city to Hell.

In desperation, I decide to ask for directions. It’s a previously unthinkable notion because, well, I’m a male. Meaning, I have zero experience at this. I swallow my pride and approach several street vendors. I ask a seller of leather goods, a cigarette wallah and even a barber, for help. Not a single person understands me and after an hour of charades all I have to show for my efforts is a new wallet, a haircut and a packet of smokes. The purchases ensure I’m suaver, more sophisticated and worldly than ever. But still lost.

Thankfully, Delhi has landmarks. Big ones. So even a vague backpacker will eventually bump into something of national significance. Like, say, a giant mile long monolith called the Red Fort.

It is this very vision that looms large as I finally shuffle down the famed market street of Chandni Chowk. The sight of the imposing 400-year-old citadel fills me with relief. And even the army of touts, snake charmers and rickshaw drivers near the entrance fails to dampen my spirits. I approach the tourist attraction—ignoring pleas to purchase hats, sunglasses, balloons, water pistols and, incomprehensibly, fake beards—and join a long entry line that snakes its way toward the fortress gate.

I take my place in line and, like every other poor suffering bastard around me, count the minutes as the midday sun fries the shit out of us. In fact, the heat is so sweltering that I even hear Indian tourists complain like their westerner counterparts. I also hear something else: Australian accents. The familiar tones emanate from a couple two spaces in front. The woman turns and I catch her eye.

“Bit warm, hey?” I say, desperate for simple conversation.

The woman nods. “Worse than back home.”

I sidestep the Indian couple between us in an effort to maintain eye contact.

“You guys been in India long?”

“About a week.” She takes a swig of water from a plastic bottle then passes it to her partner who acknowledges me with a nod. “Lloyd’s dad is over on business so we tagged along.”

“But it was Melissa’s idea,” adds Lloyd. “You backpacking?”

“Yeah.”

“How’s that been?”

“Bit of a culture shock.”

“Place is fucking crazy, isn’t it?!”

His comment triggers a back and forth that highlights every crazy thing we’ve seen. Eventually, the casual exchange ends at the entrance gate and we go our separate ways into the fort.

Inside, the temperature is a thousand degrees warmer and I begin to bleed rivers of sweat. With few places to hide from the midday sun, I stride quickly over the numerous paved pathways, stopping briefly at each example of ancient Mughal architecture that rises from the hundred acres of manicured lawn. Like a dutiful tourist, I snap photos of exquisite sandstone turrets, columns and domes. Then I take a moment to appreciate every alluring apartment, pretty pavilion, beguiling balcony and pristine pool on show. Collectively, the experience is both stunning … and unbelievably fucking boring as well. And before long every architectural detail merges with every historical fact until every agonising second feels like an eternity in hell.

But it’s not just me who feels this way. The Indian tourists must be bored out of their minds too because the only thing drawing their attention is the shade. I decide to follow their lead and search for an isolated haven of my own. When I spot the perfect place, I find it already occupied by a couple who are drenching their heads with bottled water.

“Man, I’m not looking forward to the walk back to my hostel,” I say, nearing my compatriots.

“We can give you a lift back,” says Mel, wringing her hair with her hands. “We’ve got a car and driver out front.”

“Nah, it’s all good.”

“It’s no drama, mate,” says Lloyd, soaking his [Newcastle Knights _]footy[ _]cap. “We have to kill a few hours before we fly out tonight.”

“You can come on a drive-by tour with us if you want.”

“I don’t want to put you guys out.”

“You sure?” Mel asks with a grin. “The car’s air conditioned.”

Relief washes over me as I climb into the back of the Ambassador. The refrigerated cabin is perfect for Mel’s proposed tour. She wants to see as many tourist attractions as possible without leaving the car or interacting with people. Given Delhi’s heat and insanity, I think it’s a brilliant plan.

Lloyd and I shut our doors and stare though the sedan’s heavily tinted windows. I feel like a gangsta with a drive-by bullet-list. Our driver edges the vehicle into the manic traffic and chauffeurs us towards our first mark. It’s the scene of an assassination. Silently, we drift past the crowd paying their respects to the murdered Mahatma Gandhi. We cross him off our hit-list and aim for bigger targets – India Gate, Raj Ghat, Parliament House and Christ knows what else. Not once do we exit the car.

Eventually, the sense of cultural aversion begins to niggle me. But I let it go because Mel and Lloyd are easy company. Both are laid-back and fun. And every travel yarn they tell is recounted with just the right amount of awe, horror, lack of pretence and plenty of self-deprecating laughs. Unlike me, they’re on a vacation with no higher purpose. There’s no social angst, no ego and no search for self. These guys are strictly in it for fun. That’s not to say they haven’t been ‘touched’ by India. They have. But as spiritual travellers, they’re totally ‘mainstream’. Which means no bed-bugs, tight budget or public buses. Just clean sheets, credit cards and plane flights. Lucky pricks.

I usually mock these type of people back home. Sneer at their white picket fence, mundane career, married-to-a-mortgage outlook. But recently I’ve been having doubts. Because right now, a regular income and an annual vacation seems pretty attractive. As does having someone to share the journey.

Of course, I’m not good at any of that stuff. At least not according to Claire. But I’d like to try again. This time with a more confident partner. Someone without baggage. Someone who understands my career. Someone who needs family. Someone like Emma, for instance.

I know Emma and I would be a great fit. We could trek the globe once or twice a year. Book spur-of-the-moment jaunts paid with income from TV. Stay at lavish resorts with air conditioned rooms, free massages, horizon pools, spa baths and an all-you-can-eat buffet. That’s the life I could have with Emma. Well, if that was her thing. Truth is, I don’t really know if it is her thing.

Truth is … I don’t really know Emma.

Finally, a tourist attraction we can’t dodge appears. It’s distinctive logo rises like a phoenix above Delhi’s central business district of Connaught Place and Lloyd instructs the driver to pull over.

The three of us spill onto the pavement and quickly find shade under a circular shopping colonnade filled with fast food chains, department stores and fashion boutiques. It’s an India I never knew existed because the stereotype I’ve been fed via mainstream media is a life of squalor, disease, disaster and under-privilege … with an occasional cricket match thrown in.

Within minutes, the familiar golden arches that advertise our final destination come into view. The unmissable logo dominates the smoked-glass frontage like dog balls on a goldfish. As a cultural symbol, it stands for the very antithesis of spiritual travel in India. But for shell-shocked western tourists, McDonalds’ familiar menu and ice-cold air conditioning mark it down as an absolute must visit.

As we approach the shop front, a legless leper drags himself near the door. His desperate pleas stir instant discomfort within and I begin to wonder if there is a shittier example of human ignorance than me walking by a disfigured human to toss cash at a faceless multinational fast food joint. For a moment, the sting of that privilege weighs heavily … right up until the moment Lloyd opens the door and a blast of refrigerated air evaporates my guilt.

The three of us pass the leper without missing a beat.

Once inside, the injustices of the world are quickly forgotten. The familiarity of the red and yellow surrounding reassures and sedates me; the lighting, the menu boards, the laminate tables, the billion little logos subconsciously screaming ‘happiness in sameness’.  If I was to close my eyes I could be anywhere in the world – London, Paris, New York, even Sydney. Anywhere but here.

Lloyd and I approach the serving counter and stare at the menu board like health retreat escapees. Both of us order a Maharaja Mac (sans sacred beef) and a half dozen other coronary-blocking treats. Mel orders whatever the hell it is that satiates the appetite of a woman – apparently, a burger the size of a hockey puck, a handful of skeletal fries and a thimble of juice. Once done, the three of us find a table and do the inevitable – we compare the food and prices to what’s on offer back home.

There are high hopes on the food front since Indian cuisine is renowned the world over for its distinctive flavour. Unfortunately, it’s the usual McDonalds fusion of bland meat, local spices and an after-taste from the unknown. Which is, to be fair to McDonalds, consistent with the crap they offer the world over.

In fact, the food is so average that Lloyd and I donate our burgers mid-meal to the nearest bin. And as we do, I remember the beggar. Suddenly, that switch inside me flicks and an inexplicable, but familiar, sensation overwhelms me. In an instant, my world slips from under me. My spirits plunge and I want to be alone.

I sneak a glance at Mel and Lloyd and wonder who the hell these people are. And why I’m with them. They look like every other middle-class suburban couple I’ve seen in life. Normal. Happy. Oblivious. And I can’t bear it.

Maybe Claire was right. Maybe this type of travel is too sanitised and unchallenging. Just like McDonalds. Maybe the real recipe to a better life is found in experiences that can’t be simplified and duplicated. Or franchised.

With my sunny disposition long gone, an awkward air envelops us. Our conversation becomes stilted and my voice turns monotone. Eventually, we decide to bail out of Macca’s and go our separate ways – my countrymen to the airport and me to Hotel Shithole. 

I sidestep the beggar once more and follow Mel and Lloyd down the shaded colonnade. I feel more lost than when I left for the Red Fort. I’m confused about relationships, travel and life in India. Plus I’m wracked with guilt about buying a stupid burger.

With mixed emotions, I say goodbye to the guys. It’s obvious they’re eager to leave thanks to the sudden arrival of my anti-social sadness. And as they walk away, I finally understand where I went wrong: I should never have bought that fucking Maharaja Mac.

I should have ordered the Happy Meal.

A protective hand grips my shoulder.

“Matt! Oh, wow, you’re all right, huh? I’ve been really worried about you, man.”

It’s mid-evening and Ben and Josh are leaving the guesthouse’s rooftop restaurant.

“I’m all good,” I say, trying to comprehend just how lost I must look if a self-confessed directionless stoner from the sticks is concerned for my wellbeing.

“Thank God, man. It’s intense out there.”

“Yeah, got lost in a few back streets this morning but no dramas.”

“In Old Delhi?”

I nod. “Just down the back here.”

Ben’s face beams like a child’s. “Those streets are insane. Did you see the wet market? It was like going back in time, man. People were hacking off goat heads right in front of us.”

Josh saunters over after paying for their meal. “So what do you think of Delhi?”

“It’s fucking hot.”

“It’s a fucking hole. That’s what it is. Get out of here as soon as you can, man. Scope out the mountains up north. Shimla, McLeod Ganj or Manali. Heaps more chilled.”

There’s no recommendation of Kashmir so I make a mental note of his advice before quizzing them about the rest of their day. Eventually, we all shake hands and wish each other well on our respective journeys. And in a blink of an eye, they walk out of my life.

But not really.

Because the restaurant is full of Ben and Josh clones. Dozens of ‘spiritual travellers’ are gathered around large informal tables that are adorned with candles, beers and stoner grins. Sweaty bodies perspire onto fisherman’s pants, earth-coloured tank tops or tie-dyed tees. Ben was right, India is like stepping back in time. In this case, Woodstock circa 1969.

In truth, I wish I could be like these people, chilled out and looking cool. But I can’t. Because I know I’d look like the one thing I truly hate: a hypocritical fake. Of course, in reality, all this is just a [_scene. _]And I know it’s not my scene … simply because I have no idea what my scene actually is. This is miles away from my comfort zone and the whole vibe makes me feel about as welcome as a turd in a swimming pool.

I scan the joint for a vacant table. There is none, so I grab a Coke and begin searching for an approachable lone diner who won’t mind having their evening spoiled by a mildly depressed Australian male. I hate doing this shit. I hate asking people if they’ll put up with me. But only because I hate putting up with people myself.

Reluctantly, I meander past table settings and through an atmosphere tainted with the aroma of cheap beer, fried spices and clove cigarettes. Instantly, I recall the sweet scent of my father’s pipe tobacco and those afternoons of male mimicry when I smoked aromatic cinnamon sticks that I swiped from the pantry.

Finally, I spot two potential unfortunates. The first is a no-brainer. Male. My age. Possibly English or American. Dressed in cargo shorts and t-shirt. And, currently, deep in eye contact with the brick-like Lonely Planet guide to India. The dude looks exactly like me. So I strike him from the list immediately and turn to contestant number two.

Come on down, single female.

Seated nearby is a vision straight out of a Bertolucci film. An olive-skinned beauty draped in a red Bohemian maxi dress. I try desperately not to stare at her long brunette hair, exposed shoulders or the bra-less contours of her breasts. Instead, I steal a glance at the slim novel she’s engrossed in then note the two Kingfisher beers within grasp. One bottle is empty while the other competes for kiss-time with a roll-your-own cigarette that is dying in a nearby ashtray. Everything from her cold expression to her strong posture screams ‘Stay the fuck away from me’.

“Excuse me, do you mind if I sit here?”

The woman looks up with a steely gaze and assesses whether I pose a threat. I don’t, so she says, ‘If you want’ with a mixed English accent, the origin of which eludes me.

I grab a chair. “Nice to find some calm. Delhi’s pretty hardcore.” She gives me a bored smile. “Impossible to find any peace and quiet.”

She closes the book somewhat reluctantly. “How long have you been in India?”

“Just over twenty-four hours,” I say, trying to stretch one measly day into something more impressive, like double-digit hours.

“It takes time,” she says, reopening the novel. “You’ll get used to it.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Eight weeks.”

“Wow. I’m not sure if I’ll last that long.”

Again with the disinterested smile. “Your accent… you are from where? America?”

“Australia.”

She visibly softens for some unknown reason. Probably keen to know if I have a pet kangaroo. Which, oddly enough, I did. Briefly. Before it grew up and, well… hopped away.

“You don’t sound Australian.” There’s a hint of skepticism. “Too easy to understand.”

“I’m trying to talk slower over here. No one would understand me if I spoke normally. Where are you from?”

“Israel.”

“Seems to be lots of Israelis here. In Thailand too.”

“Sure. Both countries are inexpensive for Israelis. So when people finish military service they come here to drink, do drugs and have sex.”

“Kinda like Australians in Bali.”

“Really? I don’t know this. We can’t visit Indonesia.”

“Why’s that?”

“Jews can not visit many Muslim countries.”

“Really?”

“Of course,” she says, looking at me like I’m a naive idiot. “Australians can go anywhere?”

“Pretty much. The Kiwis hate us, though.”

“Kiwis?”

“New Zealanders.”

An alarmed look appears on her face. “Is this true? They hate Australians?”

“It’s a sporting rivalry thing.”

“Football?”

“Rugby. And cricket.”

“Cricket?!!!” She slaps her book on the table and her face becomes animated. “Oh, my God, please, tell me, what is this cricket? I see this game everywhere in India. Children playing. Men playing. Everywhere I go I see cricket. It’s like a religion here.”

I laugh at her reaction. “The game’s from England. It’s popular back home too but nothing like here. Trust me, cricket in India is on a whole different level.”

“And you play this game?”

“Used to. Played it every day when I was a kid.”

“Have you played here?” 

“Not yet. But I want to. I even brought over a heap of Australian coins that have a famous cricket player on them. I read about bringing stuff from your own country to show local kids. I was going to hand the coins out to any kids I play cricket with. Well, that’s the plan.”

The woman looks me directly in the eye. “That is a very nice thing to do.”

[_I know. I’m excellent like that. We should have sex now. _]

That’s what I’m saying in my head. In real life, I decide to introduce myself instead. Tahlia does likewise. Then she picks up her tobacco satchel, pecks out some strands and begins to roll a smoke.

“You look like you’re in the wrong place,” she says, while running her tongue along the edge of the cigarette paper. “Like a surfer.”

My brilliant white Rip Curl t-shirt may as well be a pink tuxedo around this crowd.

“Yeah, I probably should start dressing like everyone else.”

“Why? Wear what is comfortable.” Tahlia flicks her head to no one in general. “All this is just costumes. It’s not their real skin.” She lights her smoke and takes a drag. “Does that make sense?”

I nod, pretending that Tahlia is speaking parables instead of jibberish. She folds her tobacco pouch closed and pushes it towards me. I haven’t smoked for years but it seems the done thing in India. It’s probably healthier than breathing the air, so I take the pouch and set to work.

“So why did you come to India?” she asks finally.

“Like you guys, I guess. Somewhere cheap to travel. I was going to hang out in Thailand for three months. But I knew my money wouldn’t last. How about you?”

Tahlia takes a long drag on her cigarette and, with a look of indifference, slowly exhales. “My husband was killed in a plane crash.”

The statement shocks me. “Wow, that’s not good,” I mumble.

“No. He was a fighter pilot.” She drains a mouthful of beer and in that instant, I recognise the emotion on her face. It’s not indifference. It’s grief. And the numbness of loss. “I needed to escape,” she says flatly.

A million arrows pierce my heart and all I want to do is scoop this woman up and protect her from pain.

“I don’t know how do you even begin to deal with that.”

She smiles and raises her bottle. “Yoga, food, cheap beer and cigarettes.”

I notice there’s no mention of dreadlocks, tattoos and drugs. Nor sex. Unfortunately.

“When are you going back home?”

“I have no plans. My parents they want me to go back and finish my law degree. I don’t care about that anymore. They just want to watch over me. Like a sick person. What I want is to be left alone. I want to escape from Israel for a while.”

“To a country full of Israelis?” I say lightly.

Tahlia laughs at the irony. “Yes, I know! I hate them. They’re everywhere. All I want is to be in India. So many people and distractions.” Her face softens. “So much life.” 

A waitress finally arrives to take my order. She gives me a pleasant but bored smile when I tell her I’m undecided.

Tahlia gathers up her belongings. “I’ll leave you to order your meal,” she says. “It was nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

She smiles but it reminds me of the waitress’ tired deceit. And for the first time, it dawns on me that I’m not alone in India. This country is probably filled with lost souls. Some of whom, alarmingly, are even more messed up than me.

My lack of direction in life can be explained by a single trait – I have the navigational skills of a lemming. A life radar that directs me toward random acts of stupidity, most of which are of my own doing.

It’s four in the morning and I’m lost in Delhi’s backstreets. Again. Which is not good. Plus I’ve just submerged a running shoe in cow shit. Also not good, since this shoe is supposed to be stepping aboard a train in less than an hour. Of course, the chance of that happening is slim given that I’ve obviously taken a wrong turn somewhere. As a result, I have absolutely no idea where the train station is.

I was hoping that the persistent rickshaw drivers who annoy tourists during daylight hours might save me from my current predicament. Unfortunately, rickshaw drivers do what most people do prior to dawn. They sleep. Scores of them. All lying prone with their dirt-encrusted feet extended over handlebars or curled in foetal positions on rear passenger seats. But it’s luxurious accommodation when compared to the roadside resting places occupied by the homeless, dispossessed or destitute. These silhouettes sleep on any surface, alone or huddled alongside tiny kin. It’s a dark vision of a dirt poor life. And I feel a pull of awakening within. I put it to bed and begin a search for real light instead.

Delhi is an entirely different city in the early morning darkness. Unlike daylight’s carnival-like chaos, the post-midnight hours bring with them an eerie atmosphere filled with that rare Delhi commodity – silence. Inactivity rules and once packed thoroughfares appear lifeless with the exception of fearless Delhi dogs who challenge my passing shadow with vampire smiles.

Instinctively, I quicken my pace, marching with purpose lest the mutts realise I’m easy game. Or completely lost.

And I am lost.

In more ways than one. Because last night I ventured right off the map and did something stupid.

I contacted Claire.

I’m guessing that this kind of stupidity would rank quite highly on a Top Ten list of ‘Ways to Fuck Over a Heartbroken Ex-lover’. Possibly just behind, quite literally, fucking a heartbroken ex-lover.

Which, as it happens, I also did.

This last brain snap happened the night before I flew out of Australia. Of course, Claire’s no fool, so I had to beg and lie just to persuade her to sleep with me. But, as usual, she caved in. Unfortunately, for every upside there is also a down. Which means, I sent her a mixed message and now I know she’s revisiting the past I wanted us both to leave behind. And last night, I did it again.

I sent an email to Claire.

I have no idea why I did this. Maybe it was Tahlia’s plane crash talk, sparking fear with the sudden thought of losing someone dear. I dunno. All I know is that when I left the restaurant, I had convinced myself I missed Claire. Which is stupid, since life was unbearably complicated when we were together. Plus there’s now the added complication of me being in love with another woman.

…there are two women in your life.

At least the tarot card chick got that right. And that’s the problem. I have too much love to give. But not enough care.

Thus last night’s email:

From: Matt

To: Claire

Subject: Delhi Dog 

I think I left two malaria tablets on the floor. 

Hopefully the cat didn’t eat them!

See ya

With a clarity reserved for all morning afters, I can now see that sending that email was a mistake. Fact is, receiving [_any _]correspondence from a love interest can trigger unwanted emotions. So I know what will happen next. Claire will cling to the hope of something more from me. And I will hurt her again. Because even though I don’t want her to cling to me (because it drives me nuts), I’m not strong enough to let her go.

That’s not to say my email was sent with heartless intentions. It wasn’t. I am actually concerned for the well-being of our… her cat. After all, it was me who bought the furless bloody thing in the first place. As a gift. A terrible gift as it turns out. Because, instead of showing the unconditional love that I hoped it would, the cat decided to hiss, scratch and bite anyone that passed within hissing, scratching or biting distance. In particular, Claire. If Claire patted the cat, it bit and scratched. If Claire stopped patting the cat, it bit and scratched. If she interrupted the cat’s couch-time, ignored its cry for attention or didn’t let it under the bed covers on demand, it bit and scratched. And if that wasn’t enough, the selfish little shit exploited Claire’s sensitivity so completely that its mere presence in the house brought my lover to tears with an allergy. All in all, it was as if I’d gifted Claire a feline clone of myself. In hindsight, instead of a cat, I probably should have just gifted Claire some unconditional love of my own.

In hindsight.

Everything is easy in hindsight.

Even finding a train.

I open my guidebook beneath a street-light and quickly identify where I lost track. It seems I made the usual error: I trusted my gut instinct. According to the map, I only needed to step outside the guesthouse, turn right and walk in a straight line for five minutes until I tripped over a big steel train. I chose a different path. The more complicated one. Unsurprisingly.

At 5am I finally find New Delhi Railway Station. And the place is alive with humanity. Scores of people crowd the platforms. From corpulent figures in fitted garments to the bedraggled poor, clothed in soiled hand-me-downs. Everywhere I look, I see a mix of social class, skin colour and age, united with just one goal – to escape Delhi.

I sidestep sleeping figures and work my way down a never-ending platform until I find a vacant square of concrete. I drop my backpack and anxiously recheck my travel ticket for the platform number, departure time and train name. [The Himalayan Queen. _]Just saying its moniker calms me, conjuring up visions of romantic rail travel in my mind. Complete with cedar panelled walls, martinis and billowing steam that vaporises into the crisp mountain air. Of course, when _The Himalayan Queen does arrive, that vision is the first thing to vaporise. The train is neither elegant nor opulent. It’s just a diesel locomotive pulling a dozen weathered carriages.

The engine shunts to a stop and within seconds almost every human on the platform rushes the cattle-class carriages. Thankfully, I’ve booked first-class so I slowly make my way towards the coach that has the words ‘Air conditioned’ emblazoned on its hide. Once inside, I stow my backpack and sit among the wealthy Indian vacationers. I’m the only foreign passenger in the carriage. I’m also the filthiest and worst dressed.

Feeling self-conscious I turn my attention to the window and silently contemplate the adventure that lies ahead. I’m certain it will involve spectacular scenery, quaint villages and amazing people.

But nothing prepares me for what I do witness.

Assholes!

As the sun rises my carriage window unexpectedly fills with the sight of hundreds of slum-dwellers vacating their bowels within metres of the railway tracks. The scene truly is stunning, but for all the wrong reasons. 

Eventually, the view turns from shit to simple manure as we pass a million acres of cultivated farmland. The level landscape bores my eyeballs for several hours until we reach the town of Kalka. It marks the halfway point of our trip and the beginning of our ascent into the mountains. The climb necessitates a change to a narrow-gauge train, so I grab my bag and cross to a waiting locomotive. Our new engine is appropriately dubbed [The Toy Train. _]And it’s not hard to see why. It’s an aged, half-sized rail motor that carries a hint of _Disneyland conveyance about it … that is if Disneyland was designed in 1950s Soviet Bloc and daubed top-to-toe in flaked pastels. Even so, there’s no doubt that the train was built to freight passengers to a better world. A happier, calmer one. Possibly even free of assholes.

I clamber onboard, still self-conscious about my sweaty clothes and shit-stained shoe. I deliberately avoid every Indian and claim a seat opposite two other perspiring male backpackers. Both are wearing cargo pants, t-shirts and caps like me. We swap greetings in English and instantly become a gang of Average Joes just shooting the breeze. I notice another backpacker several seats behind us and briefly consider inviting him into our clique too. Unfortunately, his dreadlocks, yoga pants, khaki t-shirt and bandana are too challenging for my mainstream prejudice so I just ignore the poor bastard instead.

“Did you guys come from Delhi?” I ask my new friends.

“Yeah, in cattle-class,” says an unimpressed Kevin.

Kevin’s an attorney, so it’s impossible for me to feel any empathy for him. But I almost do. The American is instantly likeable and has an infectious smile. The kind of smile that, by rights, should have been wiped off his face after a second-class Indian train trip. But Kevin’s just spent eighteen months working in Africa, so maybe this kind of public travel is par for the course.

“Was that as fun as it looked?” I ask.

His Italian mate, Tommy, pipes up. “It was shit,” he says. “Wooden seats and bars on windows. Everyone spitting and farting. Fucking disgusting.”

Apparently these guys only just met at New Delhi station. I’m guessing they must have been forced to sit together, otherwise why the fuck would anyone befriend a lawyer?!

“Did you board at Delhi?” asks Kevin.

“Yeah. But I went first-class.” I smile sheepishly. “Air conditioning, soft seats, hot Chai.”

Tommy’s brow furrows. “How much for first-class?”

“I dunno. Four bucks, I think. I was gonna do what you guys did but it didn’t seem worth it.”

“Four dollars?!” asks a stunned Tommy.

“I think so,” I say as the Italian calculates the physical and emotional cost of his financial saving.

Thankfully, his agony is interrupted by the arrival of the ticket master. I present my stub for approval. Without drama, it is returned. The boys, however, aren’t so lucky.

“Not this carriage,” says the man sternly. “Your ticket is for second-class carriage.”

Tommy’s facial muscles begin to tense with the kind of pained expression life reserves for patients newly diagnosed with a terminal illness. Which I guess is apt, given Tommy is suffering a ‘train terminal’ illness, with symptoms that include a claustrophobic fever, persistent phlegm and chronic flatulence.

“What about these seats?” Tommy pleads. “They’re empty.”

“Not possible,” says the rail employee with a shake of his head. “For first-class ticket only.”

“But no one has booked them.” 

The man points at Tommy’s ticket. “This is second-class ticket.”

“Is it possible to upgrade?” asks Kevin, searching for lawyerly loop holes. “We can pay extra for a first-class ticket.”

“I am sorry, upgrade is not possible”

Tommy raises his hands in exasperation. “But there’s no one sitting here!”

The ticket-master jabs at the ticket with equal exasperation. “This says second-class ticket only.”

“So we can’t sit here even if the seat’s vacant?” says Kevin.

The ticket nazi nods. “First-class ticket only.”

“And we can’t upgrade the ticket?”

“No.”

Kevin’s Kenyan experience kicks in. “So is it possible to purchase a new first-class ticket?”

The ticket master bobbles his head. It looks like a denial. But it’s not. It’s an Indian nod.

“One hundred and fifty rupees, please,” he says brightly.

Both travellers dive into their wallets and hand over the cash.

Once settled, the Toy Train begins its laborious six-hour journey towards Shimla. A trip that will take us across eight hundred bridges and through one hundred tunnels. But after the oppressive lowland heat, the prospect of cooler mountain air is welcome. As we scale into that rarefied air the mercury does indeed fall away, as does the distraction of day-to-day life in Delhi and all the bullshit that entails.

Eventually, we climb high enough to witness our first postcard panorama of never-ending green valleys. The vista triggers a change in the collective mood within the carriage. Passengers become animated and relaxed smiles appear with increasing regularity. Suddenly, it feels like we’re on vacation.

I love this shit. I love the dramatic shift in self via scenery. I love the rhythmic clickity-clack of narrow gauge wheels. And I love this particular kind of journey into the unknown. I pull open the broad window and let the fragrance of pine and eucalyptus clear my mind. The fresh arboreal air takes me back to a day trip I once took with Claire. A drive into the hinterland to escape a scorching summer heatwave. The destination: an isolated mountain creek with water cold enough to freeze the balls off a snowman. Buck naked, we jumped in. Within seconds, we scrambled out again with our pink-hued skin shivering. We dried off and high-tailed it to a nearby fire tower seeking warmth. 

When we got there, the timber structure’s half-century-old stairs beckoned us to climb towards the sun. And with each step our body temperatures rose until a dozen storeys later we swayed over an endless valley that stretched to the coast. Vertigo took me unexpectedly and I clung to the timber railing like an anxious boa constrictor, while Little Miss Adventure leaned forward without a care. Her arms and torso stretched beyond the safety of the weathered hand rails. Giddy with endorphins, Claire turned and gave me a look that silently suggested we have sex right then and there. Out of character, I took a rain cheque.And Claire honoured it later when we parked the car near a race track. We both clambered onto the backseat and raced towards a champagne moment. But I was the only one who crossed the line.

Or was that another time?

I’m stuffed if I know anymore. All those early days with Claire were filled with frisky fun. I lusted after her like a deviant teenager. Ached to be around her, with her, in her. Every part of her being drew me in. Her body, mind and spirit. Claire only had to walk past me and I’d be immediately overcome with passion. I couldn’t keep my hands to myself. It was likewise for her too, I think. 

But that wasn’t always the case.

Prior to us dating, my presence couldn’t win any of her attention. Even after weeks of nightly foot massages and surviving hours of my riveting conversation, she refused to fall under my spell.

Until one day she did.

Suddenly, I had what I wanted. But it scared me. So I stepped back. And from then on I left Claire to balance precariously on the precipice, year after year, while I stood tantalisingly close but forever beyond her reach.

The train enters another tunnel and everything goes dark. Musky air fills the carriage and for a minute, I’m left alone with Claire.

Until the silhouette of a child appears.

Perched on the seat in front of me is a pre-teen, illuminated by the light at the end of the tunnel. I give him a friendly smile. Which he doesn’t return. I offer a ‘Namaste’ but it’s greeted with an earnest stare. The moment is awkward and I get a sense of being judged. At a loss, I turn to the outside view.

Behind us, carriages snake in a sweeping arc around the face of the mountain. I lean through the window, raise my camera and click off two frames. I go for a third but my view becomes obscured by the arrival of the kid’s fat head. I take the picture anyway then give him another big smile. He stares back stony-faced again, so I decide to toss the little shit from the train if it ever moves faster than a maimed turtle on valium.

It doesn’t.

And the kid and I arrive safely in Shimla, The Queen of Hills.

Sunrise in Shimla is a total contrast to dawn in Delhi. The grey smog of the country’s capital gives way to skies tinted blue. And the percolating heat of the lowlands is replaced by mountain air that brings an unexpected chill.

I lock the door to my previous night’s lodging and join Tommy and Kevin outside. The plan is to head into town and grab breakfast. Following one the many terraced paths that cascade down the hillside, we track upwards, skirting shop fronts and hotels that cling to the steep inclines. Within five minutes, we reach a public square that is strictly out-of-bounds to all but foot traffic. Standing pride of place at one end of this prime real estate is a church. Its bell tower watches over a view that hints at the Himalayan grandeur that lies beyond. It’s thanks to this picturesque scene that the region is known as ‘The Land of Gods’. That, and the fact that India’s deities probably relocated here because Delhi was a hell-hole.

Apparently the British colonials held a similar view back in the 1800s[, _]because, according to my guidebook, India’s entire government was relocated to Shimla each summer. And it’s easy to see why. Besides pretty panoramas, Shimla is blessed with a serene calm and the kind of mild climate that’s ideal for sipping tea and plotting how one goes about _civilising an entire sub-continent with sandwiches and sidearms. Nowadays, however, the town is largely a destination for locals wanting to experience a slice of Europe in India. And, of course, the odd second-class backpacker.

The fellas and I check out several cafes and restaurants until we enter one that looks promising. We’re looking forward to the meal since each of us has been subsisting on a diet of chips and Coke since Delhi. Unfortunately, due to our collective ignorance of local cuisine we struggle to translate half the menu. Our Indian culinary incomprehension is further magnified by our waiter’s lack of English comprehension and soon I am ordering a rice dish, a piranha and a drink named after a dog. When the waiter returns I am presented with a flatbread pronounced (or mispronounced by me) as [Par-rahn-tah _]and[ ]a traditional yoghurt milkshake called a _lassi. Which, apparently in some parts of the country, can be ordered with added greens. One in particular – marijuana.

As we eat, suggestions for the day’s itinerary are tossed around. We can’t agree on anything so, eventually, the guys decide to visit a monkey temple[_ _]while I opt for the grander-sounding Chadwick Falls.

Meal finished, we split up and I begin my trip with an over-priced taxi ride down a precipice road. Thankfully, the helpful driver drops me within a short stroll from the falls.

Of course, the short stroll … isn’t. So after half an hour of misdirected steps, I begin to realise I’ve been scammed. A local shopkeeper rights my wrong-ways with an instruction to walk a lonely dirt road until I reach a signpost in the middle of nowhere. I do just that, resuming my mindless trudging down the mountain until, finally, I find a narrow forest track somewhere out in the sticks.

With the prospect of actually reaching my destination, I attack the last half mile filled with anticipation. And when I arrive, the sight of the natural wonder leaves me gob-smacked.

Because the falls are shit.

I can piss harder than this. Plus there’s rubbish all over the place. Plastic bags, broken glass, chip wrappers and other useless foreign detritus.

My eyes spot two backpackers perched on granite boulders nearby. Both are scribbling pensive thoughts in travel journals – no doubt something memorable like ‘Falls are shit. Should’ve gone to monkey temple’. The studious sightseers honour my arrival with a raised eye before returning to their erudite essays. I figure they must have swung in from some concrete jungle because no one but a city-dweller would think this poor example of nature was worth anything more than a cursory glance, let alone a diary entry.

Of course, on the flip side, it’s rude to leave somewhere immediately after arrival. So I decide to join the two bookish nature-lovers. In an attempt to assimilate, I park my backside atop the nearest granite pedestal and extract my very own unused journal. 

Despite my aversion to diary writing, I’ve actually brought not one journal, but two, to India. Both are custom creations, lovingly crafted with hand-made Japanese paper, heavy cotton-binding and a montage of vivid Indo-Asian images inked with quotations. Neither books were conscious purchases. In fact, both were gifts. One-off hand-jobs, so to speak, made by Claire, then given to me the day I fled.

I gently rub my hand across the journal’s cover. The perfect imperfections of the ridged paper feel like braille under my fingertips. The pulp’s highs and lows almost record our scripted life. I read the familiar quotes on the cover. The first, attributed to Khalil Gibran, says, ‘The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain’. The second is Oscar Wilde’s remark that, ‘we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’. The insights are Claire’s attempt to prompt me to travel towards the light. To move on … not dwell on. Frankly, it’s the kind of wisdom that is wasted on blokes like me.

I open the journal and wait for writing inspiration to hit me with its usual force of a feather. When it doesn’t arrive I default to my usual procrastination and daydreaming. Eventually, thanks to sheer boredom, I pencil in three insightful words:

Matt loves Emma

Then I play a childish game I recall from fifth-grade where letters are crossed and numbers added to calculate ‘true love’. According to the math, my three-word statement is just 13% fact. Which is exactly why I gave up believing in this crap back in fifth-grade.

I add some surnames just in case.

The bumped up ‘love total’ isn’t much better. And short of adding a street address, town of birth and name of first pet, I can’t see the percentage rising anytime soon.

Out of curiosity, I substitute Emma’s name with Claire’s. Unexpectedly, my heartbeat quickens as I calculate the answer.

Apparently me loving Claire is 79% true.

Which is 100% false. Well, minus those days … when I multiply my guilt … with the addition of some alcohol … and a few divided thoughts.

I close the book on the sum of both relationships.

As if on cue, the backpackers shut their journals too. Then, in unison and as if late for a bus, they quickly disappear back up the bush track that leads to the road. Their haste confounds me for a full five minutes until I realise they are, in fact, late for a bus. 

As am I.

I race off after them but when I reach the road, I discover I’m too late. I’ve missed the bus. A bus that is one of the very few that plies the mountain. In frustration, I slump onto the busted concrete block that moonlights as a bus-stop and contemplate my options. It’s either walk for a couple of hours or wait for a couple of hours?

Before I can fully weigh the benefits of either choice a group of children arrives. They’re fresh out of school and it takes no time for the sociable six-to-ten-year-olds to practise their English on me with varying degrees of success. 

Now, despite a seemingly innate selfishness, my tolerance for kids is quite high, simply because children aren’t hypocritical assholes like grown ups. They’re honest and raw. And instead of fixating on crap like money and success they live, instead, for fun and school recess. In fact, 99% of them would sell their soul just for a chance to be hung upside down by the ankles and helicoptered with space shuttle-like g-forces around a grown-up. I wish I had the same priorities. Which is probably why I wish I had kids.

Figuring the crowd of little Indians can’t grow any larger, I decide to do the unthinkable and extract my moron magnet. Even an unopened Lonely Planet guidebook can attract a hundred ‘helpful’ people within seconds. The kids, however, are warier. I open the book and skim through the pages for anything that might be of interest to a child. Thankfully, the photographic colour catches their attention and soon a couple of curious bodies edge closer. Then, as if we were best friends, several arms drape over my shoulders and hunched legs.

The action catches me off guard and, suddenly, I find myself fighting back tears. My reaction is unexpected but not exactly foreign, because, during the last year, I’ve noticed I have gained a rare superpower. One that enables me to find sadness in every fucking single moment of joy.

Within seconds, I regain my composure and go back to flipping pages under the scrutiny of expectant eyeballs. The kids are spellbound by the images as we go on a pictorial journey through India. 

“This is where?” says one boy, pointing at a huge walled fort.

“Jaisalmer,” I say. “Rajasthan.”

“What country?”

“Here.”

He looks at me, confused.

“India,” I say, pointing to the ground. “Your country, dude.”

More questions follow but the language divide results in me providing few satisfying answers. Finally, after exhausting the photographic content, I stuff the book back in my bag. The conversation stalls and I feel awkward and unsure. To cover my discomfort I pick up a rock and toss it at a plastic bottle on the other side of the road. It misses but the action prompts half a dozen boys to join in. And before long we’re branding anything that stands still long enough – bottles, trees, cans … girls. Pelting rocks is, as I’ve long known, a universal language for boys. And judging by the hyena-like laughter … it’s a very funny one.

Finally, a bus arrives. Unfortunately, I’m shit outta luck because it’s heading down the mountain. My school friends farewell me and clamber aboard. Once seated, they push their arms through the windows and wave madly. I return the gesture. The bus departs, and as it rolls down the dirt road I wonder what the future holds for its little passengers. I wonder what adventures will be written in their journals. And if those stories will be epic. Like India’s. Full of pride, honour and resilience.

The shit I know nothing about.

Bored with waiting, I abandon the bus stop and begin the hike back up the sparsely populated hillside. The quiet monotony of walking is welcome … for about ten minutes, then it gifts me the last thing a person like me needs – time to think. Soon I am reflecting on stuff like kids and fun and the general lack of both in my life. And before I know it I’m venturing down a different road.

The one towards depression.

Now I’m not good with depression. And by that, I mean, I don’t do it with ease. Simply because being despondent and withdrawn isn’t enough for me. Nope. I have to be manic and mental and borderline psychotic. I don’t do ‘steady sadness’. I do a yoyo of contrasting emotions. Up one minute and down the next. Bouncing from brilliance to brainless for no discernible reason. One moment, I hate company. The next I can’t stand being alone. Or conversely, I go from gregarious and sociable to unapproachable and cold.

I’m a paradox of beliefs too. I’m too conservative on some things, too liberal on others. I’m stubborn and opinionated but on a whim I’ll change sides. I’m cynical and jaded yet idealistic and hopeful. I have faith in humanity yet I don’t trust a fucking soul. 

Basically, I don’t know if I’m coming or going. 

I don’t even know what the fuck it is I actually want.

Truth is, I thought I needed challenge and fulfilment in my life. I thought I needed to be liked. But now I’m not so sure. Because when I get a taste of that, it’s never as good as I imagined. So I shift the goal posts and begin a new chase. My head full of thoughts but ultimately empty and alone.

Of course, I know I’m not alone. I know that millions of people feel the way I do. And I know that billions of people have worse lives than me; the poor, the homeless, the terminally ill. And, yeah, obviously I know I should be grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given. But knowing that doesn’t make a lick of difference. Because when the darkness arrives any ability to reason vanishes and the real madness is triggered.

And that’s when I disconnect.

I withdraw from the world and cease to function like a normal human. My interest wanes and my motivation evaporates. Simple tasks seem insurmountable. Minor goals  become unachievable. And every trace of manic high erodes to a flat-line of endless lows that leave me needing just one thing from life: I need it to end.

Of course, wanting to kill yourself and actually killing yourself are two very different things. The reality is I don’t have the balls to end my life. I’m too gutless to grab that length of hose, stuff it in the exhaust pipe and let Pink Floyd accompany me through The Wall. Plus I can’t bring myself to deliver another gut punch to the woman who had the courage to give me life in the first place.

So I self-destruct in a different way. But it’s not drugs or alcohol. I draw my poisons from within. Brewing anger and harvesting hate until I alienate friends, sabotage relationships and quit jobs. Then I run someplace else and repeat the whole sorry saga all over again. Just with increasing intensity.

Suffice to say, I don’t get invited to many BBQs for my relaxed conversation or upbeat personality. I get invites out of pity. Or, increasingly, not at all. Which is why I can’t continue to live like this. I’m tired of the isolation. I’m tired of the loneliness. I’m tired of the depression. But I’m terrified of living without it. Which is why I need a life that’s more than this. I don’t need money or sex or a fucking TV career.

I just need to connect.

As if on cue, two kids, armed with cricket bat and ball, sprint past me. The close proximity of the ‘foreigner’ sparks excited giggles.

“Hello, what is your good name?” asks one, addressing me from a safe distance ahead. 

“Matt. What’s yours?”

He shouts a name I fail to grasp.

“From which country?”

“Australia.”

My answer prompts both boys to recite the usual roll-call of famous Australian cricketers. Satisfied with this brief exchange, the kids hotfoot it to a straight stretch of road a hundred yards ahead. And in no time the dull [_thwack _]of bat on ball echoes around the forested surrounds.

I watch on, judging their coordination. The pair can’t be more than ten years old but they’re both seriously skilled. Especially the little dude who’s batting. Instead of just flaying wildly he selects his shots like a professional, smashing the ball into the roadside overgrowth for easy runs. It’s a clever tactic that would go unnoticed by an adult.

All of a sudden, the mountainside comes to life. And I begin to notice all the previously unseen details with child-like eyes. Each bump and rut becomes a prospective target for ball deviation. Even the steep terrain bordering the pitch becomes strategically important. Whack the ball onto the high side of the hill and runs will come freely as the incline hampers retrieval. Deflect it downhill into the impenetrable undergrowth and the game will most likely cease altogether – lost ball.

Man, where did this alternative world go? All this detail? I used to see everything with such clarity as a kid. But somewhere along the way I got distracted and started ignoring the little things to focus on some hazy big picture.

The ball flashes past the batsman and skitters to a stop beside my feet. The kids watch on expectantly. Instinctively, I scoop it up. But it’s not really a ball. It’s a wad of rags   hand-stitched in random seams. I cock my wrist and whip the bundle of cloth in a low arc back to the batter’s rival. The boy snatches it out of the air and gives me a wide grin. The smile instantly banishes my depression.

I decide to stand still until the next ball arrives.

Soon enough a delivery tracks wide of the batter and flutters through to me along the ground. Once again, I gather the ball up and send it back without a word. It’s  ridiculously simple fun. But, alarmingly, the feeling is foreign.

Despite being reluctant to delay my long-term goal of reaching the top of the mountain, my desire to play cricket right now is strong. Perhaps it’s because of the hope that flashes in the kids’ eyes. The hope that a grown up will join in. I’d forgotten how important that was to children. And here I am, a so called grown up, joining in. It then occurs to me that these boys don’t know me from a bar of soap. They don’t know that I’m useless when it comes to holding onto jobs, a fuck up with relationships. They don’t know that I’m living a love-sick life via a fragile bikini prophecy. Nor, thankfully, could they give a shit. All they want is for me to have some fun. It seems ridiculously simple. 

I make a bold decision. I remove my daypack and place it on the ground directly behind the batter. The children beam knowingly, because not only have I provided an important piece of cricket furniture, I’ve also officially proclaimed my intentions.

Suddenly, it’s game on.

I snatch up the rag ball and turn to the kids.

“Who wants to make it Australia versus India?” The boys nod their heads vigorously. “Who’s batting first?”

‘India!’ they shout in unison.

I give the kids a hard stare. “You sure? I’m pretty fast with the ball. If I pitch it in short it might take your head off.”

The kid with the bat swings it aggressively in an action that indicates he’s going to knock the ball out of the park.

“Okay, little dude, you asked for it.” I step out some distance between us in preparation to rock their world with some serious rag ball heat. “You ready?” I call back. “I’m going to send them down as fast as I can.”

Acha, acha,” yells the kid excitedly.

I bound in like a demon primed to unleash hell. As I hit my mark, my back arches and my shoulders rotate with aggressive intent. The action slings my right arm through with speed. But at the point of release, I stall and palm the ball out of the back of my hand. The ball lobs harmlessly down the pitch as a light-weight delivery tailor-made for a beginner batsmen.

Of course, the kid promptly smashes the shit out of it.

“Carted!” I laugh as the ball disappears into the trees. I immediately begin the usual backyard sports commentary. “The Little Master hauls the Australian pace attack out of the ground.” I quickly bound after the ball, clambering up the forested incline to retrieve it. “It’s a massive hit. At least ten rows into the stands. Crowd is on its feet. They’re firing up the big Australian. This could spell trouble for the Indian batters.” I glance back and am greeted with two smiling faces. “Okay, no more easy stuff, fellas,” I say, returning back to the road. “Ready?”

The batter nods.

I steam in and send the next ball down slightly faster. But it too is dispatched on arrival. I give chase again, this time vaulting across the mud-filled table drain and into the scrub. I pluck the ball free from some prickly undergrowth and return breathless to the pitch.

“Faster,” shouts the batter.

I happily oblige with a half dozen such balls, increasing the speed of each successive delivery until, finally, the rag ball is rocketing down the pitch. Time and again, the ball finds a new trajectory into the mud or scrub. And time and again, I have to fetch it. Despite this chore, the game is the most fun I’ve had in a decade. And so, for the next half hour, play carries on without a break. Finally, we need to vacate the arena for the arrival of a public bus heading down the hill.

The bus halts on our pitch and students of various ages spew out its doors. The passengers eyeball me with confused expressions. Staccato lines of Hindi accompany the staring. The enquiries, directed at my lilliputian opponents, no doubt asking why there is a handsome, well-built, incredibly coordinated, Australian man playing cricket on their remote hillside road!

The bus pulls away and the game resumes. I stroll back to my mark with the ball, more determined than ever to brand the forehead of my two talented little opponents … if I can get past their defences. When I turn around I discover the Indian batting line-up has increased six-fold. Over a dozen kids and adults are now standing in line, waiting to face my rag ball wrath.

There are spectators now, as well.

On the sidelines, several college kids linger patiently to see what will transpire on-field. Their anticipation carries over to the Indian batting line-up. And soon an internal dispute has taken hold of the top-end batting order. The squabble is due to the original kids refusing to relinquish their bat to an adult. A short struggle ensues and the adult wrests the bat from the kids. He gives one of the boys a sharp backhand across the face for his trouble. In an instant, my blood boils and my thoughts turn murderous. I stride down the pitch, wild as hell.

“Hey, settle down, mate,” I yell. “Everyone can have a bat. Just take it in turns, okay.”

I look to the child to see him retreating quietly to the roadside, tears in his eyes and pride wounded. I glare at the adult. The smile on his face makes me want to backhand [_him. _]With the bat. Repeatedly.

I storm back to my mark, determined to embarrass this asshole with the ball. Around me, a crowd of pre-pubescent faces cheer for the contest they know will come. In my head, I run through a list of possible delivery options. I’m keen to teach this prick a lesson for raising his hand to a kid so it’s all body-line stuff. Maybe a full toss at his head. Or a rib-tickler to soften the bastard up. Or maybe a bouncer that will pop up and rattle his arrogant chin.

I turn on the spot, run in and let fly with all my strength. The ball shoots into the deck, bounces then continues straight towards the batter’s body. Fuckface takes a wild swing but the fastball rockets past the blade and … gently bunts into his shin with all the force of a feather pillow. From my angle the whole thing looks ludicrous. I may as well have floated down a marshmallow balloon for all the physical damage caused. The spectators cheer and jeer despite this, simply because bat has been beaten by ball.

The ball is flicked back to me and I return to my run up. Again I bound in, then arm the ball towards the batter at express pace. In one slashing movement, Cock-Stroker cracks the ball into oblivion. The wind goes out of my sails instantly. I look back at him and note the huge smile on his dial. But it’s not at all self-congratulatory. It’s actually genuine and full of joy so I give myself permission to return it. After all, it’s all in good fun. Apart from the child abuse, that is.

For the next several minutes we try to outdo one another until, finally, my nemesis signals enough. He gifts the bat to someone else and I begin my expected role all over again. The game becomes a blur of batters, laughter, and good-humoured taunting. And before long I find myself smeared from head to toe with dust and mud thanks to chasing a stupid rag ball across the countryside. I point out my filthy appearance to a few college kids standing at the edge of the road.

“Look at me,” I wail lightheartedly. “I’m absolutely bloody filthy.”

“Only an Australian would play with such blind commitment,” says a bemused guy in perfect English. “Just like an Indian,” he says.

His perfect comedic timing triggers laughter from both me and his friends. Truth is, we are cricket kin. And despite my home being a world away, the distance separating us feels non-existent.

Eventually, the sound of another approaching bus disrupts our game. As we sweep ourselves clear from the road in anticipation of its arrival, it dawns on me that this particular bus is going up the hill. Which means I need to get on it. I quickly take photos of the Indian batters (many of whom will only pose with bat in hand) then shake a score of hands. I even shake Cock-Stroker’s hand while we trade friendly smiles. Bygones and all that.

The bus arrives.

I sling my daypack over my shoulder, give a final farewell and climb aboard. I slide into the nearest window seat feeling outrageously happy. Outside, my two original buddies rush towards the bus. They raise their hands to the glass opening.

“Coming back tomorrow?”

“I can’t,” I say, extending an arm out to shake their hands. 

“Next day?”

I shake my head. “I have to catch another bus.”

Disappointment fills their young faces. I look to my bag, knowing that I could lift their spirits with the Don Bradman coins … that are still in my hotel room! The realisation devastates me because this is exactly the type of moment I brought them for. 

“Where are you catching bus to?” shouts one boy.

“Manali.”

I feel fingers tightening around mine. “Why?” 

I give them a vacant stare. “Because I want to,” I say lamely.

“We want you to stay here.”

I smile weakly. “I can’t. I have to keep travelling.” 

And with that, the bus lurches forward. My hand pulls free and our connection is broken.

If there is one truism I’ve seen and heard repeatedly in India it is this: 

Everything is possible.

Keen to wedge your family of five onto a Honda moped? Want to ride around central Delhi with three goats squeezed into your auto-rickshaw? Feel like travelling unrestrained on the roof of a public bus alongside your luggage? 

“All possible, my friend. In India, everything possible.”

And it is. Even the impossible is possible. Take, for instance, a lost man finally finding direction. Which is what happened to me yesterday.

I had an awakening.

I found purpose. Either that or the mountain air has starved my brain of oxygen and stolen my usual ability to over-complicate things. Whatever the case, for a moment yesterday, life felt good. And it wasn’t due to success, money or sex. And it wasn’t due to fixating on the future or dwelling on the past. It was because I was living in the moment and having fun.

That was my awakening – ‘Living in the moment’.

Not exactly a momentous realisation, I know. And maybe not the kind of deep spiritual moment of self-awareness that a Buddhist would harp on about. But it’s a start. So with that in mind, I’ve decided to forego my prior plan of heading to Manali and, instead, follow a well-worn backpacker path to Buddhist enlightenment. The one that leads travellers, like sheep, straight to McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama. 

Unfortunately, my journey to Nirvana is going to be a bit bumpier than that of most backpackers. Because thanks to all the air conditioned overnight express coaches being fully booked—and my lack of patience—I’ve had to buy a cheap seat on a non air conditioned, public bus heading to Mandi. A town located mid-way between Shimla and the Lama farm of McLeod Ganj.

However, when the shit-box bus pulls into the station, I immediately question my decision. The vehicle’s battered and dented exterior tells of a terrifying life of near disasters and death-wish driving. Reluctantly, I climb aboard and take my seat. And within minutes of departure, I discover why most backpackers avoid the government-owned public buses. Besides having panels that look as if they were repaired by blind blacksmiths, the vehicles are over-crowded, dusty, hot, noisy and uncomfortable as all fuck.

I want to get off immediately.

That desire increases as we navigate the narrow precipice mountain roads. I watch in horror as our driver is required to play chicken with every approaching heavy vehicle. The cabins scrape against one another to avoid toppling over the unguarded road edge and into gorges dotted with wreckages.

Thankfully, the bus trip is only 100 miles.

Of course, there’s a catch. I soon learn that our bus terminates at Mandi but it stops every few miles for hailing passengers. As a result, a passenger informs me that the journey often takes six hours. My heart sinks. It’s the same time it takes the express coach to travel from Shimla to McLeod Ganj, which is twice the distance.

Resigning myself to endless discomfort, I stare at the mountain landscape as we meander up dozens of twists and turns. Despite the pretty scenery, the trip gets ugly. The constant sway of the bus slowly agitates my stomach. So, as a precaution, I swallow several motion sickness pills. My tummy relief arrives just as a woman across the aisle empties hers. The contents of her gut spray the seat in front of her and, instantly, a bilious odour taints the air. I watch the vomit pool on the floor then spider out in foul tributaries of watery, semi-digested dhal and God knows what.

The wretched rivers slowly meander around the cabin, threatening the feet of each passenger. My gut churns and I shift uncomfortably, hoping for the bus to stop so someone can douse the floor with water. But the bus doesn’t stop. In protest, the woman wretches several times more, coughing thick chunks and spittle between her knees.

Finally, the driver veers the bus to the shoulder of the road. We stop and a stampede of impatient passengers rush the exit. I don’t dick about either. And in no time flat, I’m launching myself into the fresh air.

The woman follows closely behind, her husband leading her to a spew with a view. Her continual guttural chorus is great entertainment, judging by the number of fixated male passengers that gather around her. I’m less keen on an encore so I dive a hand into my daypack and ferret out my blister-pack of travel sickness capsules. I edge forward and offer the pills to the woman’s husband.

“They’re for travel sickness,” I say, rubbing my stomach.

The man takes the capsules and fires off several questions in Hindi to anyone who can translate the writing on the pill packet. The answers don’t please him and he angrily thrusts the capsules back at me. I take them and back away from his wild eyes.

“Excuse me?”

I turn towards the origin of the voice. It belongs to a conservatively dressed man who could pass as a stereotypical nerd. He points to the travel sickness pills.

“Could I see those, please? I am a medical student.”

“Yeah, no worries,” I say, handing over the pills.

“For travel sickness, yes?”

“Yeah. It’s a natural remedy.”

“Ahh, natural remedy.” He flips the foil packet over looking for the ingredients. “Herbs, yes?”

“Yeah, natural herbs.” Immediately the image of old Ben dishing out his particular blend of natural herbs to ill travellers pops into my head.

“What is in this—” He glances at the back of the foil blister pack. “—natural herbs?”

I’m fucked if I know. I binned the cardboard box they came in long ago, so I take a guess. “Peppermint and chamomile, I think.” And various garden weeds probably. Possibly even oregano from Oregon.

He looks directly at me. “And this works?” 

“Well, I’m not sick,” I say, lightly challenging his cynical tone. 

“Maybe a placebo effect, yes?”

“Maybe. But it seems to work every time.”

He considers this for a moment then approaches the woman’s husband. Words are exchanged briefly before the husband agressively waves him off. My new friend backs away and hands the tablets back to me.

“This man says he does not want his wife taking drugs.”

“Oh, okay. I understand.” But I don’t. Because getting high on herbal travel sickness pills is about as likely as getting high on incense or lavender pot pourri.

I pop one of the soft capsules into my mouth just to make a point. A crowd of onlookers watch on with interest, presumably waiting for me to fall into a chamomile-induced coma or suffer some fatal olfactory overdose. I don’t. So it isn’t long before a curious passenger asks to see the blister pack. I hand it over.

“Feel free to have one. Pass them around. I’ve got more in my backpack.”

The med student translates my words to those gathered around us.

“My friend, what is your good name?”

“Matt,” I say, swapping a handshake with the man who introduces himself as Surav.

“From which country, Matt?”

“Australia.”

“Oh, very good cricket players,” says Surav before rattling off the names of a handful of Aussie cricketing millionaires.

“India has lots of legends too,” I say. I mention three names that trigger multiple head nods of agreement from those who are eaves-dropping. “Good batsmen,” I say. “Very very good.”

“Oh, yes. Very good batsmen,” agrees Surav. “Very very good.”

I’ve noticed over the last few days that I occasionally fall into a verbal cadence employed by certain locals. I have no idea why. Short of it being proof that I’m possibly a culturally insensitive dick, I guess.

Despite its frequency, the cricket talk isn’t entirely unwelcome. It’s inclusive, provides an easy ice breaker and always brings out the best in people. So, in the spirit of the moment, I pull out one of the Don Bradman coins that have recently found refuge in my money belt. Without a word of explanation, I pass the coin to Surav. The curious crowd huddles closer, their eyes focused on the loose change. Surav says something in Hindi and I hear the words ‘Australia’ and ‘Bradman’. Several men look up and reassess me. They glance at my creased cargo pants and dirty white runners, leaving me to wonder if they think I’m an international cricketer who’s down on his luck. Or worse, a New Zealander.

“In rupees how much is this coin?”

“Probably about ten rupees.”

Surav gives this some thought, then he asks: “Can I keep it?”

“Sure,” I say, silently cursing myself for once again showing the coins to adults.

Overjoyed, he pulls out a notebook from his pocket and flips it open to a blank page. He hands it and a pen to me.

“Please sign.”

“Sign?”

“Yes, autograph.”

I laugh but it soon becomes obvious that he is serious. So in keeping with my minor celebrity status, I scrawl my name with a flourish then pass the notebook back. Half a dozen heads crane in to study my penmanship. It’s obviously impressive because I am immediately obliged to shake half a dozen hands. It’s a strange scene, really. There are head bobbles, smiles and earnest looks at both signature and coin. Behind that image is a stunning valley vista marred by the sight of a vomiting woman flanked by an angry husband and other curious onlookers … several of whom are eating herbal travel sickness pills.

I look to a smiling Surav who is clutching the worthless coin.

“I will be remembering this day forever,” he says gleefully.

I nod in agreement. I won’t forget this craziness anytime soon either. 

Or will I?

I guess, anything is possible!

I open my hotel room’s window and survey Mandi’s morning traffic. As I do, Lonely Planet’s short summary immediately springs to mind. ‘It’s no tourist town,’ it states.

No shit.

At first glance, the market town looks dull and unattractive, which may go some way to explaining why most travellers bypass it as they head ‘off to great places, off and away’. Of course, the guidebook does the place no favours. Listed below the unappealing ten-line entry are just two suggestions of tourist interest: some temples or a sunken shopping complex.

I decide to visit the nearest and after a long shower that threatens to halve the daily water quota of several lower-stream villages, I find myself standing in front of a stadium-sized excavation in the earth. A nearby sign proclaims the emptiness to be Mandi’s Indira Marketplace. Intrigued, I lean over a low concrete safety wall and peer into the cavernous hole. Below my feet, and lining the entire circumference of the inner wall, is a large multi-level subterranean shopping complex. The hidden marketplace surrounds, and looms over, a manicured park that is populated with a cartoonish clock tower, curved pathways, conical shrubs and spindly-trunked trees with mushroom-top canopies. The view is anything but dull. In fact, it’s quirky as hell and I can’t help but wonder if the chief-architect was stoned, mentally unstable or just a really big fan of Dr. Seuss.

I locate a set of stairs and descend into the oddball mall. My footfalls funnel me to the lower level and onto an underground walkway that circles past scores of busy storefronts, all of which look over the parkland below. With little purpose other than to kill time, I stroll around the length of the consumer colonnade, stopping here and there. I buy a coffee. I buy some breakfast. I buy a pack of gum. Then, in keeping with the theme of my Dr. Seuss-like surroundings, I stop at a shop that stocks locks. And one that hocks socks. I buy a small lock. I buy some thick socks. I buy this and that as the garden clock ticks and tocks. 

After an hour, I’m bored beyond belief, so I look for the nearest exit with the sole intention of spending the rest of my stay in bed, watching MTV India or cricket. I barely make it to the second level when a gang of young men surround me and go through the usual routine: good name, nationality, cricket. I answer all the basics but it’s not enough for these confident college students. In perfect English, they query me about immigration and career prospects for doctors and engineers in Australia. I give them all I know, which amounts to a cautious optimism born from utter ignorance. My offering of faint hope is rewarded with backslapping and an invitation to join their gang—in this case, the Mandi District Under-19 Cricket Team—for an afternoon training session. In desperation, I search my mind for a reason to decline but, of course, Mandi is no fucking tourist town so I’m left with not a single good excuse.

The gang’s leader leads me onto the local sports field. “I will introduce you to the coach,” says Harish as we cross a bovine ballpark dotted with two dozen competent cricket players and one dozen incontinent cows. Our arrival is hastened once we hear the gruff coach order the team to fall into a line ordered by height. We approach the humourless man and Harish chats to him in Hindi. After a brief back and forth the coach addresses me.

“You play competitive cricket?” he asks, showing no interest in a handshake or proper greeting.

“Not since I was a teenager.”

“Other sports? Tennis?”

“Just social fixtures a long time ago.”

“Basketball?”

I shuffle on my feet, self-conscious. “Only at school.”

“Football? Hockey? Baseball?” The dude’s reaching.

“I haven’t really played anything for a decade,” I mumble. “I’ve been too busy.” Day-dreaming about doing something that makes me rich and famous … possibly even happy.

“But you came to Mandi to play cricket?”

“Not really. I’m just here on my holiday.”

An understandable look of disbelief appears on his face. “In Mandi?!”

“I’m on my way to McLeod Ganj.”

Finally, the puzzle pieces fall into place and his lips curl into a smug smile.

“[_Acha, _]you’re on a pilgrimage to see the Dalai Lama,” he says in a mocking tone. He abandons our conversation and turns to the team.

“Warm up,” he bellows before directing his attention back to me. “If you want to join in, please line up.”

I do as I’m told and begin a routine of stretching exercises and training drills designed to test both coordination and patience.

After half an hour, the torture finally ends and all senior players are ordered to the practice pitch. Coach singles me out on the walk over and tosses me a cricket ball. He instructs me to send down a few fastballs to his best batter. Filled with nerves, I pace back to my mark then proceed to embarrass myself.

The coach calls me over, his face grim and serious. “I think, perhaps, you are trying too hard,” he says, motioning for the return of the ball.

I nod in agreement and, reluctantly, hand him the ball.

“Please wait over there with the juniors,” he says.

I slink across the field to a sideline guarded by a dozen twelve-year-olds. Humiliated, I sit among the kids and watch the proceedings. It’s an agonising wait and by the time the senior practice is finished I’m bored out of my mind. Sensing my disinterest, Harish and his friends drag me to the clubhouse. The charismatic engineering student shouts me a Coke and a packet of chips then brushes off my attempt to reimburse him.

“So what is your age, Matt?” asks Harish, as we grab chairs alongside the others.

I take a hit of my ice-cold cola. “Almost thirty.”

“You are married?”

“No. Single.”

Suddenly, half a dozen heads swing around and take an interest in the conversation.

“In India that is very old to be single.”

“Weddings cost too much,” I protest lamely, then with a smile I say, “Financially and emotionally!” 

Most of the lads nod in mutual understanding and the topic is closed.

“You were coached for how many years?” asks Harish.

“Coached?”

“In cricket.”

“None!” I laugh. “Can’t you tell?”

“So just natural talent, yes?”

“Mate, I’m terrible. I couldn’t even make the first-grade team in my district.”

“Really?”

“Yep.”

“How many people in Australia?”

“Just over twenty million.”

“Amazing,” declares Harish with a shake of his head. “There are more people in greater Delhi than the whole of your country. I wonder how it is possible that your nation can produce so many comparatively good cricketers with a country like India that is fifty times its size?” 

“It’s probably just a cultural thing. We’re pretty full-on about sport back home.”

“Yet the same can be said of India too.”

“It feels different here,” I say. “Not as aggressive.” I think about the primal competitions that engage Australian males. The games of dominance that are just an extension of the day-to-day interactions where men constantly calculate where they rank on some invisible hero hierarchy. A lad ladder that’s based on who could beat who in a fight … or who’s slept with the most chicks … or who has the biggest biceps and dick … or who earns the most cash and drinks the most beer. Or any other bullshit match-up that fuels inadequacy in the average man, undermining his gender-worthiness until he feels small and powerless among the other seemingly confident Alpha males around him. I don’t see many of those kind of fucked up winner-takes-all men in India. In other words, I don’t see many mirror images of me.

“There’s a different vibe,” I continue. “Plus you guys seem to place a lot more importance on education.”

“So Australians don’t value education?”

“We do. But not like here. There’s still lots of stigma about getting good grades back home. I mean, you wouldn’t admit to doing well in school back home. That’d be like signing your own playground death warrant.”

“This is really true?”

“Yeah, absolutely.”

“Because smart means you are weak, yes?”

“Soft,” I say, trying to stifle a Coke burp. “Like an office worker or a girl or kid. That’s how it was when I was growing up.”

“That’s interesting.”

“I love that you guys actually hold hands with other men here.” I note the instant change on Harish’s face and quickly add, “Seriously. I think that’s healthy for males. But there’s no way you’d do that in Australia.”

“This is gay, right?”

“Not gay, but… Look, it’s just not something that’s in our culture. Men don’t even like holding hands with women in Australia, let alone other men!”

“And Australian women like this because it means their men are manly?”

“Probably not. But you’re asking the wrong guy, dude. I don’t know what the hell Australian women want. Which is probably why I’m single.”

“I think all men are exactly the same when it comes to that, my friend,” says Harish with a smile. “Both in India and Australia!”

“I reckon you’re right.”

I rip open the packet of masala chips and extend it forward. Harish claws out  half a handful and for a moment we chew on the topic of our conversation in silence.

“This hand-holding you talk about seeing here is just between good friends,” explains Harish. “This is not a show of love, just friendship. But only between males. Any public display of affection between females and males is socially unacceptable. That is why you won’t witness boys and girls kissing or holding hands. India is very conservative about this.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“I think men are part of the problem with this because we all want sex but we only want to marry a good girl. Someone pure.”

“So how do you guys actually meet women?”

“Friends, parties, dating sites. Some people still use matrimonials.”

My ears prick up at the mention of the last word. I’ve read these personal ads in the newspapers. Some are hugely entertaining but they give the impression that males shouldn’t be left unsupervised with sharp objects, computer keyboards … or single females. And the best ads are the ones that make no sense but speak volumes.

Looking for qualified bride: This is information given by brother, Arish. By nature he is so decent shy and jolly by nature. My brother really want to help every time to needy people. Every person who see him once really memorise that person. My family want a suitable nature, good-looking, homely, non-working girl. Wheatish complexion. My father is sub-inspector, mother is simple housewife. Sister has done web-design course. One uncle, he is bank officer. He lives in Bihar with his family. Our family is God fearing, dipped with religious feelings. If suitable person or girl read this plz contact me.

“Some people pay for hookers,” continues Harish. “Do you have these in Australia?”

“Prostitutes? Yeah.”

“This is illegal?”

“No. It’s mostly legal. We’re kinda laid-back about that stuff. The only thing we take seriously is sport.”

Harish laughs with uncontainable delight. “So in Australia sport is more intense than orgasms?!”

I give him a smirk. “Well, that would explain our cricket success!”

After swapping email details with Harish and the rest of the gang, I stroll back into town alone. As I reach the main street, Mandi’s mountainous terrain begins to dim the afternoon sky to an evening setting. With an early dinner on my mind, I find a table in a restaurant on the lower level of Indira Marketplace. My meal is expensive but delicious. Like really delicious. Possibly even something to write home about. Deciding to do just that, I pay my bill and leave in search of an Internet cafe.

Outside, heavy cloud cover has rolled in, bringing damp air and inking the night sky pitch black. The change in weather also brings a marked drop in temperature and I feel a chill penetrate my thin t-shirt. The resultant shiver comes as no surprise given my current winter wardrobe. It’s a detail that hasn’t gone unnoticed by others. In fact, an Italian backpacker in Shimla approached me out of the blue and asked if I was Australian.

“Yeah,” I replied, cautiously. “How did you know?”

He glanced at my board-shorts and t-shirt then grinned. “Who else would wear surf clothing in the Himalayas?”

Of course, what makes that fact truly absurd is that I don’t even know how to surf!

I spot an Internet cafe and enter. After acknowledging the owner at the counter with a nod, I make my way to one of a dozen computers that line the far wall. As I approach, a lone male customer desperately tries to minimise a screen full of naked ambitions. Unperturbed, I sit down, open a browser and log into my account. 

I have mail. 

From Sydney. 

From: Bernard

To: Matt

Subject: Hello 

Hi Matt,

Hope your adventure is going well. A quick update from home – the show has had amazing reviews. It scored the highest rating of any drama debut ever!! So it looks like we have ourselves a hit. The network has green-lit a second series for next year so stay in touch because there will be episodes for you to write.

Lots of love, 

Bernard

PS: Emma is in Europe. Apparently she got lucky!

I ignore everything in the email about the popularity of the TV series and the possible resurrection of my career and fixate, instead, on the only line that matters.

Apparently she got lucky!

The words reach out from the screen and punch me in the gut. In an instant, any level-headedness I had crumbles and I collapse into my obsessive old self. Petty jealousy consumes me and I sense the darkness from outside creeping in to cast shadows on my thoughts. More than anything, I want to curl up on the floor and cry. I stare at the screen for what seems like an eternity … and then the frustration and anger arrives.

Six fucking months!

Correction: six non-fucking months.

That’s how long Emma refused to sleep with me. And yet she slept with some other prick on the first week of a European bus tour.

Fucking hell, I must be a delusional fool.

All that talk about her not wanting to mix work with pleasure. I bet none of that was real. Man, how could I be so ignorant of the truth? She wasn’t interested in me, she was just trying to let me down gently. That’s why she never instigated anything. Not the phone calls, the dinners, the kiss, the groping in the front seat of her car. None of it. The relentless pursuit was all me. Me spilling my guts to her. Me opening up my heart and telling her shit that I couldn’t tell anyone else. Me making myself vulnerable, soft, insipid and fucking weak.

I feel like such a dick.

Why wasn’t I good enough, Emma? … Why?

I glance at the offending line on the screen again. 

I know exactly why. 

I was broken.[_ _]But she never understood.

I raise my hands to my face and knead my forehead in frustration. My heart aches beyond reason. I feel cheated. Cheated on. But there’s something else bugging me. Karma maybe? A lingering double standard. Because despite embarking on a trip of true love for Emma … I packed condoms. A dozen of them. Specifically for unplanned encounters.

So much for true love.

And what about that night with Claire before I flew out of Australia? Or the other women I slept with in Sydney while I was obsessively professing my undying love to Emma via phone, email and big fucking mouth? Why did I do that? I thought I wanted to save her, conquer her, be the father of her children. But maybe I just wanted her because she was the very first female I met after Claire.

“I’m in love with someone at work.”

That’s what I callously told Claire over the phone. The unwelcome truth was met with silence. There were so many miles between us. And yet, I heard the unspoken question.

“Why wasn’t I good enough, Matt? … Why?”

Because you were broken, Claire … but I never understood.

I close the internet browser. There will be no writing home. Too many thoughts. But no words. I pay the man at the counter for my five minutes of personal hell and walk out into the anonymity of darkness. The welcome gloom swallows me and I shuffle, downcast and depressed, along the street. My progress goes unrestricted until I am stalled by a father and his small child beneath a streetlight. Armed with ice creams, they hold me up.

“Hello,” says the father, extending a hand.

I shake it. “Hi.”

The man angles his head towards the timid toddler and addresses him in Hindi. The words prompt the boy forward. He raises a hand and I grasp it gently. When I let it go, the doting dad is smiling proudly. Without a word, he lowers a trusted hand and leads the youngster away. 

From behind, they look like the subjects of a Hallmark card for Father’s Day. The heavy mist and soft glow of the streetlight making them appear ethereal and pure. With a heavy heart, I watch them slowly step out of eyesight and vanish into the darkness.

Like a faded memory.

Like the ghosts of futures past.

UPRIGHT: Listen to intuition, you know it’s right … Right? 

REVERSED: Ignorance is bliss, though … Right?

“The third poison is ignorance,” says the woman opposite me. “This is when we choose only to see our version of the truth. When we cloud our world with delusions and refuse to accept reality.”

Dolma and I are sitting outside a lonely tea-shop on the top of a mountain in Rewalsar. I’m on a day trip to this small sacred town that is revered by Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs alike. Sharing the table with us is Dolma’s artist husband and her imposing Buddhist monk brother.

“Each of these poisons block true happiness,” continues the university lecturer. “And lead us to sadness and depression.”

Thanks to the impromptu lesson, I’ve learnt that Buddhists believe all human suffering arises from just three poisons: greed, hatred, and ignorance. In other words, bad shit happens to us when we lust after things we think will make us happy. Bad shit happens when we push away from experiences that make us unhappy. And, finally, bad shit happens when we misunderstand the source of happiness (hint: it comes from within).

It’s a fair theory, but like all lectures, I was bored after five minutes.

It’s not that I don’t see the value of Dolma’s teachings. I do. It’s just that I’m already familiar with the content. Everyone is. After all, it’s the central theme of countless fairy tales, children’s stories, self-help books and… well, lectures on happiness. 

“This is what Monk Norbu specialises in,” says Dolma, rabbiting on. “He uses tantric healing mantras to help people remove these poisons from their lives.”

I glance at the monk sitting next to her. I’m still not sure what to make of Norbu. He doesn’t look like the antidote to unhappiness, more like a possible trigger. In fact, the big unit looks like he could pass as hired muscle for some organised crime syndicate… well, apart from the dress-like maroon robe, which actually makes him look like a cross-dressing hitman.

When I first saw Norbu, half an hour ago, I thought he was some dodgy tour guide masquerading as a monk to fleece gullible tourists. Turns out he has a full-time gig travelling the world as a chant master and sand mandala artist for the Dalai Lama. It also turns out, that in his down time he presides over private prayer flag ceremonies on the top of isolated mountains. I know this fact because his sister, Dolma, told me … right after she asked me why I was spying on them at a secluded spot on the rocky knoll behind us.

“I thought you were a tour group,” I said after she questioned my presence.

“No,” she said.

But instead of reprimanding me, she invited me to take part in the rest of their ceremony. I felt honoured. Especially, at the end, when Norbu invited me forward and quietly chanted a prayer for me. One that was unnervingly long.

“Monk Norbu has said the Metta prayer for you,” explained Dolma. “This is a special prayer for well-being and happiness.”

Awesome.

Once done, we all strolled over to the lone tea-shop and ordered biscuits and tea. Dolma paid for everything then refused to accept money from me. I’m not exactly sure why people keep giving me shit for free. Maybe I appear both spiritually and financially impoverished.

I am grateful for their kindness though because I had woken up feeling a little lost today. There were a few things distracting me. Namely, that Emma screwed some random dude in Europe. Plus this morning was a bit of a struggle in other respects. Firstly, I struggled to remain good-humoured on the cramped bus trip from Mandi to Rewalser because of a sleepless night … thanks to Emma bedding some random dude in Europe. Then when I arrived at Rewalser Lake I struggled to walk up the side of the mountain because I forgot to eat breakfast or bring water. Now, as a rule, I wouldn’t normally forget a detail like eating and drinking … but Emma screwed some random dude in Europe.

I know it’s foolish to allow Emma to incapacitate me like this, but the fact is, I’m not the only space cadet walking around this town. Rewalsar attracts tens of thousands of  deluded pilgrims each year. Many of whom are here solely to pay their respects to a man known as the ‘second Buddha’. A tantric guru, who according to local legend, holed up in a nearby cave with the King of Mandi’s daughter. It was here that the Buddhist master helped the princess reach enlightenment … by filling her void with his special tantric healing scroll. Of course, when the king cottoned onto this carnal caper he went bat-shit crazy and immediately condemned the lovers to death by fire.

And that’s the end of the story.

Actually, it’s not. Because like all good spiritual myths a miracle needs to occur. In this case, the deadly fire extinguished itself. And when the smoke cleared, it revealed a beautiful lake. And floating atop that beautiful lake was a lotus flower. And standing unharmed atop that lotus flower’s leaf was the beautiful princess and her guru. Unsurprisingly, such a sight rendered the entire populace of Rewalsar speechless. Because not only had they witnessed a beautiful miracle … the lucky fuckers now had lakeside realty.

As for the king … well, he was so overwhelmed by the event that he gave the couple his blessing and offered them his kingdom. And everyone lived happily ever after, chanting prayers and drinking tea, I guess.

Or something like that.

Thing is, I don’t really know the finer details because I haven’t really had time to read up on it. I’ve been distracted by Emma’s sex life, near starvation and the laborious chore of scaling a mountain of a thousand stairs to visit the carnal cave in question. However, what I can say with certainty, is that this love story is a big deal in Rewalsar. So much so, that statues of the ‘second Buddha’ and the princess have been erected all over the town. All of which now serve as bait to lure lost souls up a mountain, with the hope of finding spiritual illumination … in a dark fucking cave.

Oddly enough, this is exactly what happened to me. After standing before the gold statue of the ‘second Buddha’ in that cave, I had a major epiphany. And it was this:

Emma can fuck whoever she damn well pleases.

This was immediately followed by another equally forceful emotional realisation. Which was this:

Emma can also go fuck herself.

I know that’s a spiteful thought. One probably born from three poisons. But it’s how I feel right now. So from this moment forth, I’m done with the infatuated thoughts. Done with unrequited love. Done with the heartache.

And done with Emma.

I look past my companions and stare at the path I know I need to tackle. I have to go back to the start. Way back. Literally and metaphorically. Firstly, down the seemingly endless stairs that cascade from mountain top to miracle lake. And, secondly, back in a time before Emma. Neither task holds any joy.

“How are you getting back?” asks Dolma on cue.

I point to the stairs behind her. “Same way I came up.”

A look of horror crosses her face. “You can’t walk down there! It’s too far. We can take you down to the lake in our taxi. Or if you want you can come back to Mandi with us.”

“No, it’s fine. I already have a bus ticket.”

“Please, I insist. It’s no problem.”

Without any further argument, I accept the offer. And, eventually, we finish our drinks and climb into the taxi van for our ride back to Mandi.

Thankfully, the journey is more enjoyable than my morning bus run. Surrounded by good company, the miles disappear with ease. There’s barely even enough time to wear out my welcome. And even if there was, I wouldn’t get a chance to say much because Dolma insists on force-feeding me muffins, cake and spiritual allegories.

Before I know it, we are parked outside my hotel in Mandi. I say farewell and step outside. I’m upbeat and happy. Maybe the lecture and prayer have done something because I sense a larger force in my universe. But it’s not faith or fate. It’s simply a positive energy. A self-confidence. A self-belief, maybe? That I can move on from Emma. All I have to do is let go of the desire. Let go of the hate. Let go of the delusions. 

But I can’t, of course.

Because, unlike the Buddhists in the taxi, I don’t know how to flush out the poisons. All I know is that I have to keep moving. Towards a better future. Possibly with Emma. But I need to steer clear of my past with Claire. And the only way to do all those things is to continue this journey.

And follow my heart.

End of Part One

Pre-order Part Two

Part Two of The Bikini Prophecy is available for pre-order exclusively at Amazon.

Find it here:

The Bikini Prophecy – Part Two

What about Part Three?

The third and final instalment is also available for pre-order at Amazon.

Find it here:

The Bikini Prophecy – Part Three


The Bikini Prophecy - Part One: Just some Aussie bloke's story about stuff

At thirty years of age, an unemployed and relationship-weary Matt Kyler decides to abandon his long-suffering partner in search of fame, fortune and guilt-free fornication. His reward for this act of selfishness is an invite to work on a hit television show. But if fortune favours the brave then misfortune is sure to find the cowardly Kyler. And before long his perfect new life begins to unravel, taking with it his masculinity. Desperate for guidance he visits a tarot card reader. But instead of finding solace, he finds disaster at every turn. Ultimately, he is reminded that there are two women in his life - one of whom he must not hurt. But which woman? The beautiful co-worker he is convinced will lead him to a better future? Or the past love he is so determined to run from? In confusion, the vulnerable Kyler decides to take destiny into his own hands. Quitting his dream job, he embarks on a prophetic adventure of love through India, where he is exposed to a continent of contrasts and a collection of characters with dysfunctional lives that rival his own. He also discovers, somewhat inconveniently, the devastating truth behind his own broken life. The Bikini Prophecy is a fun-filled travelogue of the heart; an unhinged adventure of love, loss and, inevitably, ... a journey of fate. Please note: This story is published in three (3) parts of about 35,000 words each. Part two and three are currently available for pre-order at Amazon.

  • Author: Matt Kyler
  • Published: 2016-05-24 04:50:17
  • Words: 33444
The Bikini Prophecy - Part One: Just some Aussie bloke's story about stuff The Bikini Prophecy - Part One: Just some Aussie bloke's story about stuff