I’m trying to write a novel, but my six year-old son is telling Christmas stories. This one is called Zombie Lord Laser Attack In The Face From The Secret Planet.
“Then I climbed up the Zombie God and stuck my sword through his HEAD!” he says.
“And Christmas was saved?” I ask distractedly.
“What was saved?”
It’s safe to say both stories have drifted off-topic. I delete the word “zombie” from a sentence about a school assembly, although not without giving it serious thought.
“Then I became a superhero! With long hair, super strength and a huge hammer!”
“Wow,” I mutter, suddenly unsure this book isn’t actually about the undead and capes. “Are you Thor?”
“I don’t know who that is.”
If I can just filter him out, I may be able to get to the end of this scene without losing my—
“Then a magic octopus lost its head.”
This is all my fault. Six months ago I decided, with all the blithe arrogance of a stoat who’s got fed up with dancing for rabbits and decided to give passing road traffic a try, to quit my job writing for a youth health organisation and go freelance. I’d have all the freedom of working for myself. No more office, no more public transport, no more having to please The Man with his Creative Feedback, Collaborative Atmosphere and Regular, Paid, Meaningful Work.
I decided specifically to write a young adult novel, because no one’s doing that.
I’ve written a novel before. You might have seen it in the shops. If you have, please contact me because it’s the only copy in existence. It might have been entirely unsuccessful, but at least it was very hard to write.
But the main point was that I wrote it alone, in my house. I could definitely do that again, I thought as I waltzed out my office door for the final time, not really registering how terribly late it was to wonder if I could.
And I was wrong. Working alone, to your own schedule, without an external deadline is, like scuba diving or light rope play, a specific discipline few can enjoy or master. It’s not like riding a bike either, in that you neither always remember how to do it nor can reliably use it to pop a mono, even if you really lean back on a hill.
Case in point: look at that last sentence. LOOK AT IT. You just read both “neither always remember” and “do it nor can”. I wrote those things alone in my house. This shit is hard.
Four months in, I had achieved three things: a near-perfect folded-to-unfolded Clean Underpant Ratio (CUR), a rewatch of pretty much every episode of the Daily Show since he cried on September 11 and a single, skinny, timid chapter.
And the chapter was dreadful. Most of it was written after picking my son up from school. It sometimes had zombies in, and featured a man with a hammer and a cape who didn’t like to make a big deal about it.
So I did what any sensible writer would do in the face of the bad writing. I changed everything except the writing.
Specifically, I decided I couldn’t write alone any more. I called any friend who had a spare room, desk or romantically squalid loft garret, begging to come over and be watched while I type. Every exhibitionist needs a voyeur.
I sat in various houses and immediately began working. Writing. Typing. It was incredible.
“This is brilliant!” I say one day to my friend Milo as we work together at his kitchen table. “What a fool I was working alone. People are great. Let’s do this all the time. We’ll get more people! Hooray for people!”
Milo nods enthusiastically. “I know!” he says. “I’m writing loads too! This is going really well!”
And then the intercom to his flat buzzes.
“People!” I cry.
I then listen to one side of Milo’s intercom phone conversation. “Hello? Who? No, I don’t think … oh. I haven’t — I’m not the one who … I don’t know. I can’t really help. Well, I suppose I could … okay. Hang on a minute.”
Milo hangs up the phone. He’s wearing an expression like a stoat encountering a motorway up close.
“It’s three young guys,” he says. “They say they’ve lost their phone, and someone called to say they should come here and collect it. But they don’t know which flat.”
We look at each other. “I don’t like it,” I say. “It sounds like one of those things people say to get vulnerable grannies to come down, and then they steal their pension money and spend it on pinball machines.”
“I said I’d go down,” says Milo.
“I’ll come,” I say. “For protection.”
We go down. I stand ten steps from the bottom. For protection.
At the door there are three teenage boys. Imagine three teenage boys you wish hadn’t just rung your intercom. Picturing it? Proud of yourself? Now you know how we feel. Except of course Milo is also a young adult writer, so the guys outside our door are also technically our readership.
“Hi,” one mumbles. “Um, we had a phone and that, and we lost it. Someone called to say we should pick it up here. Can we have our phone?”
Milo and I look at each other. If this is a con, it is a con without pros.
“Sorry mate, we didn’t call you, sorry,” says Milo.
“Sorry,” I call from the stairs. They squat to look up at me.
“We’re supposed to pick it up, but we can’t get in,” says another. “Can we come in? We’ll knock on doors.”
“Oh, I …” says Milo. For second I think he’s going to let them in. I clutch my pearls.
“I don’t think that’d be a good idea,” he says.
The boys move very slightly towards him. They look unhappy.
“Tell you what,” says Milo. “I’ll go upstairs and ask around myself. How about that? I’ll let you know.”
The boys look warily at each other. “Um, sure,” one says. “Sure, that could work. We’ll just wait.”
The others nod suddenly and vigorously. Milo closes the door and we go upstairs.
“What is happening?” I ask.
“I’m not sure,” he says. “I’m weirdly not in control of this situation.”
We walk past the door of his neighbour’s flat. Milo knocks.
“You’re actually knocking?” I say.
“Apparently,” he says. “This just seems to be happening.”
The door opens. Inside is a penis.
Well, not exactly a penis. The man in the doorway is enormous and muscular. But not enormous like you would imagine an enormous, muscular man to be. This man is enormous in a way that suggests he may have recently eaten another man, and muscular in a way that suggests that man may have been The Incredible Hulk.
He is naked except for a very small towel round his waist. He is bronzed, waxed and wet from head to toe. It is impossible not to look at this man and his very small, seemingly quite precariously tucked towel and not think “penis”.
“Penihello,” says Milo.
There is a short silence. The enormous man is smiling broadly at us. Penis.
“G’day!” he suddenly says, striding into the corridor and shaking our hands. “It’s so terrific to meet you! What can I do for you?”
“Um, hello, I’m Milo from next door,” says Milo, “and—”
“Hi!” says the man, and shakes his hand again.
“Sure, hi,” says Milo. He’s trying to glance over at me, but I’m distracted by the revelation that the towel is not a small towel. It’s an ordinary sized one.
“Um, I’ve just been downstairs,” says Milo. “There were these guys, and—”
“Oh, them!” says the man with a friendly chuckle. “They buzzed me too. Told them to get off out of it. Anyway, nice to meet you! How are you enjoying it here?”
“Oh, it’s fine, you know, style of thing,” says Milo. “Listen, d’you think I should ask around? About the phone? Or do you think they’re just—”
“Nah, s’fine,” says the man. “They’ll work it out. Why don’t you come in for a coffee. You guys like coffee? Just made a pot. It’s so great to meet you!”
We look at the man. He seems very nice.
“We have to go in now,” I say, mostly to the towel. “Into the house.”
“Okay then!” he chirps after us. “Come by some time! Nice to meet you!”
We go into the house. Our laptops, pulsing with such happy work just moments ago, glare at us. We sit for some time in silence.
“Do you think …” Milo says slowly, after a while, “… those guys …”
I look at him. “Well, I mean, your neighbour …” I say.
There is a pause. “Towel,” says Milo, to no one in particular.
“I think I should go home,” I say, and do, via a rear exit. I’d prefer not to be around people.
That night I’m sitting next to my son, who is improvising a new Christmas saga entitled Future City Spy Monster Made Of Christmas Trees And A Duck, when I receive a text. It’s from Milo. It’s a photo of a very neatly written note he found in his letterbox. It reads:
if you have found a phone please contact the number you called before. very precious to owner.
“Oh, penis,” I say aloud.
And that is the story of how the Spy Monster came to Future City, made from Christmas trees, a duck and penis.
This article is from the King’s Tribune Summer 2014 magazine, which includes an exclusive extract from Tim Dunlop’s book The New Front Page and articles from Brocklesnitch, Amy Gray, Jo Thornely, Stephen Herrick, Mat Larkin, Upulie Divisekera and many others. The full list of articles and contributors is here
You can buy the limited edition paper copy here Subscribers will received a $5 discount (select Summer Issue 2014 from the drop down membership list, available only until sold out) or the Kindle version here.