Copyright© 2018 by Benjamin Stahl
Through my father’s passion for horror, I was exposed to a range of frightening films in my childhood. I was petrified, justifiably I think, to have my own room. I remember sleepless nights curled beneath my covers, slick with perspiration in the windless haze of summer ... terrified to let my limbs reveal themselves within the covers. Straining my bladder, scared to make the hallway run for fear of something other than a sleeping dog. Notwithstanding my familiarity with Regan MacNeil bound vomit-soiled to her bed ... Joseph Carmichael’s watery, childish hiccups ... the Grady daughters, butchered by their father in the Overlook ... or Danny Glick floating at his brother’s window - I harboured a bank of unsettling ideas already.
When my second brother was born, he had the vacant third room. My parents naturally slept together. I shared a room with my first brother, overlooking the busy main road. For years I recalled mum telling us over Chinese how she’d sleepily gone to the baby’s room one night. He was crying. Screaming not hungrily but in fear. In wild gestures, he kept pointing at the window.
Our house saw other strange, though subtle, occurrences after my Great Nanna died. Her printed diary kept disappearing then turning up in obvious places. My brother woke up to a cloudy figure resembling her outline, watching from the doorway. My dad was plagued with cryptic dreams where she begged him for a headstone. One night a thundering crash awoke him: a heavy wooden chair had toppled over quite impossibly in the dining room. To dad in his half-sleeping state, the slanted angle of the back-rest appeared remarkably headstone-like. These dreams stopped when her grave was properly adorned. Another incident almost coinciding – one we found more comical than anything - was when Mum and Dad were having a rough patch. A galah came out of nowhere. It came into our house, adopted a spot above the longue-room doors or waited near the back-door. Like Poe’s raven, it assumed an authoritative attitude over the household. And it had a bone to pick with Dad. Without provocation it went for him whenever he appeared. The bird violently hated him. Combine this with the fact that galah have a large beak and decent claws, and you would understand why Dad childishly refused to exit the house unless his wife kept the bird (often unsuccessfully) away. “Is it still out there?” he’d shout, peeking through the blinds. “I mean it, I’m not coming out there till it’s gone!!” After about a week it disappeared. It returned intermittently over the years. It would stay for a little while, then vanishing again. Dad is yet to make amends with that strange creature, and whenever it returns the half-joking thought that Dad has done something he shouldn’t have comes to our minds.
These things, plus other more obscure incidents, sufficiently ensured that I was scared to be alone at night. A delightful barrage of horror films – for which I am subversively grateful – sealed my phobic inability to sleep alone. Before I was more than distantly interested in girls or money or any real ambition save that of being a Sydney railway driver of all things, I knew I hoped to marry someday. Solely because I could not bear the thought of living alone. People feared their future. Their physical, psychological and fiscal wellbeing. I feared extortionate electricity bills for leaving my lights on permanently.
I did of course grow out of this. For a while I really thought I wouldn’t.
It happened one cold cramped night in 2005. In preparation for our first Duke of Edinburgh hike, two friends (Tommy; Austin) and I, camped in the deep wooded gully behind Tommy’s house. Like any teenage boy, I had many worries at the time. Most pressingly: that I would have to sleep inside my tent alone (despite the Sixth Sense ruining such a prospect). The alternative was to confess my fear, so guardedly secret, so shamefully debilitating. I would be the laughing stock of all my friends – not to mention the rest of my grade if word got out. I was awkward enough as it was.
That night was hardly fun before the dread of bedtime came. It was boring, depressing and very uncomfortable. Both my friends seemed so resourceful. I was capable of little more than fetching kindling. They appeared comfortable within themselves, assured of their skill, what they did, how they saw themselves. I was one of those kids that can’t maintain eye-contact more than two seconds. I had nothing interesting to offer and try as I might, I just couldn’t find interest in that which was offered by others. There is a point in life when accepting ourselves, our faults and our fears, is liberating. Hell, I do consider my introversion more of a blessing now. Such personal revelation cannot formulate before one endures a certain amount of personal revolution though. Here, of course, I do not mean the triumphant down-with-the-dictator revolution; rather the ill-guided, desperate, collapsible insurgence that ignites and peters out in brash reaction to subjective wrongs. I speak for myself here, but puberty is a time when one hasn’t the faintest idea who they are meant to be. High school is a time one doesn’t want to stand out amongst the crowd. One finds comfort in uniformity, in scoring average to high in many things but not truly excelling in anything; in telling the right kind of jokes; in projecting a balanced version of self neither flared with originality, nor dulled by passionless conformity. Such an approach to life as this is wont to incite a riot within one’s nomadic quest for self. One is constantly responding to the temporary preferences of others, to the general concept of what is and isn’t “cool”.
Case in point: I sucked at talking to girls. So much that I rarely tried. Sure, they had long attracted me: first grade, three figures short of double digits – confused, pervy kid that I was – I’d place myself upon the classroom floor at points where I could see their smooth white armpits every time one raised their hand. Story time, there I was inching tactically beside them so our knees touched. I was not aroused – such a statement, if true, would render this foray into unplanned writing more potentially disastrous than I’d care to risk. No, I think I was just allured by them in a way I couldn’t yet comprehend. But I digress ... Tommy and Austin, that night in the woods, were far ahead in the game of female interaction. They’d both had several girlfriends. Throughout all my high school years, I obsessively kept track of my remaining friends who still had not had some kind of relationship. They became alarmingly few. In other matters, I had only held one job. And hated it. First summer holidays I awoke to an alarm and worked ten hours on a shit-hole animal farm, you’d have thought I’d been conscripted into war. Guess I was, to gleefully stereotype, one of a million disillusioned millennials, set upon the gruelling road to learning life is not a party catering every individual whim. No, to me a lower-middleclass life in semi-rural Sydney was as low as it got. Take my dad and leave me in a broken slummy Harlem household any day. I saw a tough, disheartening future ahead. Not one of deprivation or lack of opportunity by any means – I’d always gotten things handed to me. Rather it was that I was too sheltered. Due to no fault whatsoever on my parents’ part, I’d been comfortably naïve in my simple home life. Nothing more complicated than mowing the lawn was asked of me. The only thing I was any good at was freestyle on the virtual slopes of SSX 3.
I felt very out of place, in the wild with my friends. Literally in the wooded valley sprawled behind my best mate’s house, and metaphorically, at school and university and wherever the hell was waiting next. I felt doomed to perpetual mediocrity. That night camping brought about the usual talk. Which girls we most wanted to f•©k. Our fantasy lesbian scenario. (I kept pressing for celebrities: they were free of real-life consequence). Who had given head to who? What they said it felt like. Did you know Mitchell fingered Lucy under the table in Japanese? What do you reckon it tastes like down there?
Meanwhile I was harbouring a crush on the fictional, virginal likes of Hermione Granger. These conversations always made me uncomfortable. They were not new though. I had come to expect, to dread but ultimately accept them. For me it was about keeping my cards as close as possible. Pretend to be falling asleep, laugh at the appropriate times, maybe offer the occasional lewd comment. I hated my own lack of experience becoming the primary talking point. Yet it almost always did.
Now this occasion became memorable for more reasons than one. The following morning, clearing camp, Tommy collapsed. He began convulsing on the ground. His eyes rolled back. His mouth frothed. Violent spasms jerked his body. It was like something straight out of the horror films I watched. Mrs Henry, can you come get us? We think Tommy is possessed. Desperate and terrified, we poured a bucket of water over Tommy’s writhing body. Guarding our semi-catatonic friend, I slowly got him speaking while Austin sought a mobile signal. “He’s just sitting here,” Austin told his harried mother after getting through. “He’s, like, in a trance or something. He keeps talking about the clouds”. Mr Henry made the trek and brought us up. Tommy was diagnosed with epilepsy. That was the first of several unexpected episodes. I won’t say it was traumatising – that word is thrown around too loosely. I certainly won’t forget it though. And yet, in a much more selfish sense, that trip was already marked as seminal for me.
Aside from Tommy’s first seizure, there were two are reasons. One positive, one quite the opposite.
The latter came about during our heinous teenage talk. At one point, divulging our desires of the flesh, our thoughts skewed sideways. The topic of God – something none of us ever discussed – became the focus. I should acknowledge we were state schoolers. There was nothing remotely religious in our education. The closest we got was obligatory seventh-grade scripture – what we just called “R.E.” – where everyone took the piss for fifty minutes. Our teachers there, a married Anglican couple, mostly showed us films: Bruce Almighty and Flatliners for example. I guess their hearts won’t really in it. Seeing the way some kids behaved – on receiving pocket bibles that year, many saw the ends of lighters – I can’t entirely blame them. Apart from Josie Pindlebury (an American hill-song girl) and Minnie McCay (fellow occasional visitant of St. Benedict’s when her mother got her up on time; I eventually grew obsessed with her), we were all, I felt, a bunch or vapid heathens. I hadn’t the wisdom then to realise I was never any better. Until high school, I assumed belief in God was pretty much unconditional. It was something of a crisis for me, in year eight, learning almost none of my friends retained the beliefs they seemed okay with in primary school.
It should have come as no surprise, this night in the bush, that Tommy and Austin no longer had faith. Really, they hadn’t in the first place. God and Heaven and all those things: they represent a mere vague notion many kids, if exposed to, will accept uncritically. God in primary school was mostly a codeword for morality, for kindness, for not lying to your parents. Enter high school, that awkward prelude to adulthood: God becomes much more real, or unreal, depending on your position. More than a safe and comfortable mystery, something we don’t need to explore, God materialises into a part of reality we can either accept or reject. There is no middle ground. That fence of stalwart wooden slabs, that used to stand so domineering - now it meets the wild wood. From here on in, fence-sitting is prohibited. You can leave it all behind. Admittedly a simpler option. On the other hand, if you don’t want God to go the same way as the Easter Bunny – if you feel in your heart the drastic difference between the two – then you look at that fence. You decide how it relates to you. Examine it with deep attention. Do you want it where you’re going? If the answer is yes, then you get to work dismantling it. You must carry the tools and material. You must build it up yourself, whatever challenges lie ahead in the unmapped terrain of the future...
Our talk revealed that I was alone believing God was real. At a time when I thought life and faith symbiotically linked - that one could not exist without the other - I felt a strange yet profound sadness when reminded all my friends, all my role models – the people I aspired to – were now openly Atheist. Indeed, I was hardly an ideal Christian myself – I was like most teenage boys, pursued by irrepressible lust, equipped with a spiteful tongue and a self-assured feeling I was the centre of the universe. Though I went to church sometimes, I rarely prayed, I never spoke for Christian values where they mattered – through ignorance, I was as progressively minded as they came – and the only thing I scrupled over was my lack of skill in making girls like me. I thank God, and I guess my mother’s gentle prodding, for that effete flame of Christian hope not dying.
So I learned that night my best friends were really quite different to me. At fifteen, that was not a good thing. Individuality is for battle-wearied grownups. I just wanted to be like the rest. And along with my outdated Christian leanings, I was also secretly terrified of sleeping in my tent alone. We passed the night, as previously described, talking about a range of things. Some time past midnight, we decided we should “hit the sack”. Without any disguised suggestions of my own, Tommy and Austin decided we should share a tent. Call it mateship, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I happily accepted. We squeezed, the three of us, into a tight double tent. I may have gone up next day, still carrying my shameful secret. Except during those hours, with Tommy snoring and farting, taking up three quarters of the tent, Austin and I fought hopelessly for sleep. There was no room, the ground was hard and uncomfortable; I had a blocked nose to boot. At some dire point, overwhelmed with discomfort, I decided “f•©k this”. I crawled out of the tent. Crept barefoot across the cool, wet soil. Zipped open my own tent. Stifling that familiar flare of anxiety, I closed my tent, lay down on the floor and slept...
Actually slept. I woke in the morning to the sweet trill of birdsong. Its echoes played about the trees like gentle fairy murmurs. The morning was that clean, crisp coo of unrestrained stillness one can only find in the realm of nature’s dawn. There came the crumpling sound of moving sleeping bags. Tommy, groggily asking “Where’d Ben go?”
“He went to sleep in the other tent,” Austin said.
Those eight words were the most exciting I’d heard said about me in a long time.