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There were two single beds on opposite sides of the room, both with brown bedspreads smoothed carefully and tucked beneath the pillow with a perfectly straight fold. It was a stiff material as far as bedspreads go with tassels that only just reached the floor, exactly as they should. His bed in front of the large window was meticulous, but that was to be expected as it hadn’t been slept in for almost two weeks. Mine was slightly ruffled from being sat on and used.

Identical brown bedside lamps sat on a white chest of drawers between our identical brown beds, and a green and yellow school cap sat beneath the lamp on his side of the drawers. His side was always perfectly tidy because he liked to keep it that way. My side was perfectly tidy because Mum and Dad made me keep it that way. I picked up his green and yellow cap and put it on my bed.

A red Kookaburra football sat on the floor, slightly worn along the stitches and tinged with green stains from the back lawn. As hard as I tried, I could never kick it as far as he did because I was too small, until he broke his leg. He thought Mrs. Campbell’s old crap-heap of a car was a school bus coming in from the dairy farms and assumed it would turn off into the teachers’ carpark behind him. Consequently, he rode out in front of her without looking and bounced off the front left panel into the bushes. I went to class without knowing what had happened because Mum always made me ride at the front, so he could keep an eye on me. I was so lost up ahead in my own world that I didn’t realise there had even been an accident. His plaster cast went all the way from ankle to hip with a metal pin somewhere through his leg. The Christmas photos did him no justice that year, especially with so much curly haired regrowth from the chemo. I put his football on my bed next to the cap.

I hesitantly slid open his side of the timber veneer wardrobe and scanned the clothes and possessions that I would normally have never dared touch. There was very little inside the wardrobe that I hadn’t seen before but living so close together required an inherent sense of privacy for the sake of both parties. I respected the unspoken rule that was never to be broken; Keep away from my stuff. The was moment was tinged with betrayal and guilt because I knew he would have hated me going through his things.

There was a large plastic bag full of stamps on the floor, some in albums and some in an old yellow margarine container. His bag of stamps was much better organised than mine and he would have liked it to stay that way, particularly having had the foresight to not deface the album covers with giant, clumsy handwriting using permanent markers, unlike myself. I never thought so clearly about things like that. Squeezed into the side of the bag was a flat piece of ply with The Magpies and a roughly drawn football burnt into it with a soldering iron. Hospital art for kids. Anything to fill the endless hours. I put the bag on my bed next to his cap and the football.

Wedged between his stamp albums and the piece of ply was a spiral bound exercise book, boldly inscribed on the front with the words Peter’s Encyclopaedia. It was a place for him to write his thoughts between Mum’s regular hospital visits. I opened to the first page and like everything else Peter did, his handwriting was perfect. It sloped to the left which seemed odd because he was right handed, but that didn’t make it imperfect to me because there was no smudging of the ink like you would normally expect. It was, in fact, not an encyclopaedia at all but a story my older brother was writing, the title of which captured my attention immediately. Adventure on the Ivory Coast. I was too young to even know where the Ivory Coast was, but it sounded mysterious, and if Peter had written it, I knew it was going to be seriously good because he understood so much more about the world than I did. It was a private story in his own private exercise book but I could not stop myself from reading it anyway.

The Ivory Coast adventure began like any typical day with three kids hovering about the kitchen table after school. Mum placed a bag of groceries on the counter and after flicking through the mail, she handed Peter a letter from Uncle Bert. He opened it with justifiable curiosity having only met our uncle twice in his whole life, both of them brief encounters as the enigmatic drifter was passing through from one adventure to another. Peter was surprised to find that it was an invitation for him to visit Uncle Bert in South Africa to go on a hunting expedition, and he described the moment he read the letter as the most exciting moment of my life.With all his heart, he desperately wanted to accept the invitation and Mum was on board straight away, knowing how rare an opportunity it was for her eldest son to spend time with her heroic younger brother.

Mum’s biggest hurdle was to get the idea past Dad when he arrived home from work. He and Uncle Bert never saw eye to eye on anything. Peter eavesdropped from the passageway as Mum read Dad the riot act behind the closed door of their bedroom, trying to convince him that Bert was not as irresponsible as he used to be and that Peter would be safe around the wild animals and guns. Dad finally emerged from the bedroom and cast a frustrated glare Peter’s way. It was just another problem he could have done without after a hard day at work. Mum followed close behind wearing a well disguised but triumphant smile. It was the only sign Peter needed to realise that the outcome had turned in his favour. He was bound for Africa.

After a succession of minor obstacles that followed; running late, forgetting what he was instructed to pack and managing to get Dad offside in whatever way he could; Peter finally found himself on board a plane to the Ivory Coast. The hostesses looked after his every whim on a flight that was long and boring, until finally, the plane landed at a small airport in the middle of Africa surrounded by a sea of sand. Chapter 2 ended with his plane sitting on the tarmac. I could see through the window to a small crowd waiting expectantly for people to get off the plane. Peter’s adventure abruptly concluded from his aeroplane window with the title of Chapter 3, The Disappointment. I could only assume that Uncle Bert wasn’t going to be there to meet him.

I searched every page in the book, bursting to know what happened after that, but they were all blank. It couldn’t end like that. Nothing should end like that. I found a pen in the bottom of the plastic bag and set myself to begin writing an ending that lived up to the potential of what Peter had written so far.

So, where was Uncle Bert?I thought to myself. Maybe he had a crash on the way to the airport. It sounded like a good idea for a continuation of the story, but I had no way of knowing if that was what Peter would have written. What if his idea had been more interesting. Maybe Uncle Bert arrived late because he was riding to the airport on a grumpy old elephant that sat down and refused to walk any further until he had a banana. Or I could turn it into a story about a magical friendship that developed between Peter and the elephant. They would disappear into the jungle and never come back. Or, what if Peter’s plane landed at the wrong airport and he was going to be captured by monkeys from The Planet of the Apes. The plots seemed to be getting worse.

After thinking my ideas through a little further, I realised they were all wrong because I couldn’t have known if Peter would have written any of them. I flicked angrily through the remaining blank pages of that book knowing they would never be filled. His life, like the story, began with so much promise, unveiling an adventurous spirit that for so long had been dependant on the books he was reading in hospital. I wanted to finish the story for him but I couldn’t. His adventure was not mine to finish.

I looked up and noticed Peter’s clock still ticking on the wall above his bed. Tick.. tick.. tick.. tick. Time’s cowardly face was hiding in the shadows, discarding Peter’s unused seconds into the silence of that empty room like they were nothing. If I waited a minute or I waited an eternity, it was all the same because I knew I would never see my brother again, not for one of those wasted seconds. I was too young to carry so much weight, but time doesn’t consider those of us left behind any more than the ones it takes away.

“Ian.” I turned to see Dad standing behind me in the doorway looking tense. He was always tense back then. “Have you picked out what you want yet?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, what are you doing with that pen? Concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing.”

“I just wanted to finish this story-”

“Put it down! There’s always just something with you, isn’t there? It’s time to go over to Nick’s so get a move on and put the pen away.” Nick was my best friend who lived across the road and for some reason, Mum had arranged for me to spend the day at his house. Dad walked back to the living room as I put everything back in the bag, and I heard the tension finally boil over.

“Why do you have to speak to him like that, David?” Mum asked angrily.

“He needs to wake up and get his head out of the clouds. You can’t wrap him up in cotton wool forever.”

“He’s just a boy. How could he possibly understand what’s going on? It’s only been a week, David. One week.”

I walked past them on my way to the front door, trying not to interrupt. Mum looked toward me with tired eyes, holding a tissue in her hand. Dad refused to look up. He was the kind of person who always needed to control what was happening around him, but some things can’t be controlled. Dad wasn’t set up for that much grief and he chose to deny it for the rest of his life. Maybe he was right to. He certainly couldn’t keep facing it.

“Just come back before it gets dark, sweetheart,” Mum said.

“Okay, Mum.” She was right that I didn’t understand what was happening. I don’t think either of them did either.

I jumped from the porch outside our front door and landed awkwardly on the gravel beside Mr Fishlock who was parked in the driveway. “G’day Ian,” he said pensively with a sideways nod of his head. He stopped what he was doing and placed a bundle of rope on the wheel arch of his trailer.

“Hello,” I answered, loitering uncomfortably on the white gravel as I tried to think what I should do or say next. The moment seemed to require further conversation but neither of us could think of anything worth saying because the situation was obviously beyond the old guy as much as it was me. We were two abiding passengers in the wake of Peter’s tragically short life and all we could do was try our best to help Mum and Dad get through it. I didn’t even know why Mr Fishlock was there until I got home a few hours later. He helped Dad take away Peter’s bed leaving an empty space in the corner and six indentations in the carpet where the castors used to be. They took away every piece of my brother’s life except those few things I put aside on my bed.

The boys’ roomhad become Ian’s room, just like Pauline’s room at the end of the passage where she sat alone, happy with her own company and the dolls. I had always considered it strange that she was like that until I was faced with having to learn how to exist alone in my own space. The room seemed empty. There was nothing left in Peter’s side of the drawers and cupboard, and a lone picture hook poked from the wall where his clock used to be.

Peter had been coming and going for a couple of years which seemed like normal life at the time. I thought things were supposed to go back to normal when he got better, but it was over. There was nothing left. His football had become mine but there was no one to kick it with me. Nick didn’t like football that much. The stamp album was better than mine with stamps from all over the world, but it was just a bunch of stamps.

All I had left of Peter was his exercise book. I picked it up and read the story again, but it always ended with those last words; The Disappointment.

I don’t think Peter knew what he was doing when he decided to write the Adventure on the Ivory Coast, but he inadvertently left behind a piece of his youthful enthusiasm for life. He became a bookchild; one of the untouchable young spirits crafted into fantasy worlds that allow writers the freedom to live beyond their own limitations.

I recently found and reread Peter’s Encyclopaediaduring a routine clean out. For all that I wanted the empty pages to have been magically filled with every missing year of his life, they were still empty. It was not until I began to render my own scattered thoughts into words that I realised what I had always been empowered to do. I could craft him into my own stories rather than destroy his grand African adventure. The end of that story had already played out in his imagination and would remain unknown and perfect forever.

After forty years of hiding on a shelf with school reports and bank statements, Peter finally found his way back into the world with a spirit of adventure as powerful as it has ever been. He may never meet up with Uncle Bert or hunt wild animals on the Ivory Coast, but he will play his part in other stories that no one may ever read. Whether he falls in love or gets his heart broken, becomes a priest or a ruthless bounty hunter, I will know that he is there in every chapter as it comes to me from wherever stories begin, because that is where he has been waiting all along. The bookchild has found his way home, and now he will always have his cap, his stamps and his greatest love of all; the red Kookaburra football.

Armageddon shrunk

It has always intrigued me that humans love before they learn to speak. Sadly, that divine privilege is too often wasted on promises of something greater. How reckless a poison promises can be.

Fortunately for young Mary, she has yet to learn a single word. Everything she knows of love emanates from the big people who feed, clothe and protect her. She has no concept of life’s promises as she stands in her cot, one hand grasping at the pink prison bars and the other clutching her teddy bear, jibbering stories to herself in sounds that mimic the colour of words. Mary is safe, and Mary is happy, but Mary is beginning to wonder if the big people realise that she is waiting.

 

 “Good morning, Mary. Mummy and Daddy will be awake soon. There’s something very different about the sunrise today, and you can feel it, can’t you? Hold onto Teddy and never let him go.”

 

How simple a thing it must seem that I should lift Mary into my arms, to share her joy of life and absolve myself in her innocence. Oh, how I envy those who can. And how it pains me that I must now impose upon her father, Fabian, a choice that may deny him the chance to ever feel his daughter’s love again. Conflicted by my own selfish desires for immortality, I must leave young Mary and take to the final shadows of her father’s slumber, for I am the Painter of Dreams, and Fabian is the greatest dreamer of them all.

 

Why is it so dark?…Where am I?…And what the hell’s happening to my legs? I can’t feel anything. Someone, help me. Please!

Don’t panic Fabian. You are asleep and the lack of sensation in your legs is merely an illusion.

Who are you, and what’s going on?

Please forgive my intrusion, but you must try to breathe and stay calm. I am the Painter of Dreams. Time is against us, so I must hasten to present you with a series of images before you awaken. The first is a story of war which begins here, on the muddy battlefields of France. Night has fallen to the darkness of a new moon and you are surrounded by corpses- ally and enemy alike- in the manner of a last rat squirming through the foul stench of dead rodents in a poisoned sewer. But one other man lies only metres away holding on desperately to his own life. It was your bullet, Fabian, that ripped through his chest, moments before your own legs were taken by a hand grenade. Both of you will most likely die within the coming hours.

Are you here to help me? Don’t let me die here. Please.

First, I ask you to think of your victim’s family and consider what you’ve taken from them. Then think of your own daughter, Mary. Time will surely reveal that she is too young to remember you, but your wife, Jessica, will always remind her how much you loved them both.

What are you talking about? I’ve never even thrown a punch.

Look up, Fabian. The Angel of death descends upon you in her golden light. “May all men rest in darkness when their souls no more shall dream.”

The whole battlefield’s lighting up. Is that the guy I shot over there? He looks dead already. She must have come for him, not me. And there’s hundreds of bodies scattered everywhere so maybe it’s some of them, too. I’m not even a soldier.

Who amongst these men is any more of a soldier than you? I have painted all their dreams. Dreams of mountains that will never be climbed and innocent lips that will never be kissed.    

Oh shit! She has come for the guy I shot. I’m so sorry, mate. I can’t believe I killed a man.

Who could believe such a thing of themselves, Fabian? No one is born a soldier until the Angel seduces them with promises. I feel her lies in every dream I paint, and the poison is spreading.

You gotta get me out of here. I’m not ready to die.

Then close your eyes. I think we have both seen enough of this place.

Okay. They’re closed. But please don’t hurt me.

 

Poor Fabian is understandably confused. The last thing he would remember was lying down beside his wife, Jessica. It is important for me to acknowledge that whilst he is a hapless dreamer, Fabian is basically a good person and a devoted husband and father. He is not on trial here.

 

Are you starting to feel your legs again, Fabian?

Yeah. But how are you doing all this?

Anything is possible with the magic of dreams. You can open your eyes now.

Woah! What the hell? How did I end up on a horse?

I wanted to provide you with the best seat in the house for that battle up ahead. I thought you may prefer to watch from a distance.

Are they using swords? Is this one of those mediaeval re-enactments?

They’re not acting, I’m afraid. Those men are dismembering each other in the most inhumane possible ways, and their only motivation is a desire to increase the wealth and power of your Kingdom. Or, perhaps, the Kingdom of that knight in the distance, mounted on his own horse amongst the red and white flags. On this occasion, neither of you will be lying on a battle field waiting to die because hundreds of men are falling in your stead.

This isn’t better. How can it be better to watch?

Because the safety of you as a leader is paramount. In the grander scheme of things, don’t you feel so much more important than those foot soldiers? You have the power to decide when enough men have died and suffered. And it’s painless for you this way, Fabian. You can watch as they hack at each other’s limbs with those steel blades and axes. You can listen to the arrows whip through the air and pierce the flesh of all who stand in their way whilst you decide upon your next move. This is power, my friend. But, how long will you watch before you use that power to call an end to it?

I wouldn’t order anything like this to start with. I thought they were actors. Hey you over there! Stop those archers. STOP! And you. Call our men back.

It’s too late for that. Most of your men are already dead. The Angel bestowed upon you great responsibility with the promise of equally great rewards. Can you not remember that I painted you a castle filled with gold? And great feasts of endless food and wine, with beautiful, naked women waiting for you in every room. How could you give up on those dreams while there are men still able to stand and fight?

I don’t care about that. I have to do something before any more of those men die. How do I make this horse move? Go! Gee up. Come on, stupid bloody animal. Move!

You can’t stop it, Fabian? It is war, so people must die.

No one should die for another person’s dreams. And I can’t work out who’s fighting who because they all look the same. They might as well come from the same place.

Well, I’m quite happy to move forward if you’ve had enough. Is there some other scene I can paint for you?

Absolutely anything else. But no horses and no wars.

Sure. Let me see.

 

The funny thing about dreams is that no matter how frightening or real they become, people cannot seem to leave of their own accord. Waking up is more of an involuntary thing, so they just keep flicking from one dream to another without any control of what comes next. Perhaps I should lighten the mood with some inspiration from mother nature.

 

Hold on tight, Fabian. And don’t look down.

What now? Oh, wow!… Are we at the top of the trees? This is more like my kind of dream. I can see across the whole jungle to the mountains. And look at all the birds and cute little monkeys around me. I’m not much of a climber but at least there’s no fighting here. Hang on! I can swing between the branches just like the little monkeys; and look how hairy my hands are. No way! I am a monkey. Oo-oo-oo. This feels incredible. I never imagined how small everything on the ground would look from up here.

Good. I’m glad you’re finally enjoying yourself.

Enjoying myself? This is the best dream ever. And look! There’s Jessica over on the next branch? Mary’s on her back and she’s laughing at me. Watch this Mary. I can hang upside down. Oo-oo-oowwwait a minute. What’s with all the movement in those trees? Hey! You down there. Something’s coming up behind you. Oh, shit! They’re chimpanzees and they look like they’re going to attack. JUMP!

Too late again, I’m afraid, Fabian. They’ve caught him. Look at them tearing at his throat and limbs with their teeth. Who’d have known that chimps eat other monkeys? The Angel’s reign has already begun. Battle lines have formed before a single human word has even been spoken.

Why does this Angel hate us so much? I thought Angels were supposed to be good.

It is me that She hates. Like all things, the Angel is neither good nor bad. She merely exists. Before humans learned to dream, sleep was a place of darkness where She fed on the energy of living souls. But an Angel’s light must remain pure, and dreams are filled with colour and light. No one knows that better than you, Fabian. Her old feeding ground had become laced with poison, leaving Her to scavenge from departing souls of the newly dead. What better way to feed such hunger than to start a war. On that note, I think the chimps are still hungry. You should leave now.

Jessica. Hurry. We’ll have to go across the trees. Don’t let go of Mary!

You’d better be quick. There are more of them coming. You must have entered their territory.

Where can we go? This jungle’s huge but there’s chimps everywhere.

That’s what happens when you’re so small. You have to find a way to fight back.

I already told you that I don’t want to fight. Why did you have to paint my family into this? Just take us back home, or at least somewhere safe.

Ah, yes. Home. I wondered when you would ask.

 

Home is where all dreams begin and end. What better place for Fabian to take his family than a world of their own creation; unspoiled by the dreams of others. A place where love exists without promises, and time exists without words.

 

So, here you are back at home, Fabian. What will you do now?

Well, you got the right era for once, but this isn’t my home. Why are you so obsessed with painting war zones, anyway? It’s kind of morbid. There’s nothing but mounds of bricks and bits of metal as far as I can see, like a whole city was destroyed. Hey! Where are Jessica and Mary?

Have a look around you. Are you sure there’s nothing familiar?

I guess that does look like the park by my house. And…that could be my letterbox. Oh, no way. What the hell? Why would you paint this? There’s someone under those bricks. Help me get them out.

No one could possibly survive this level of destruction. I really am very sorry, Fabian, but the human race has destroyed itself. It was inevitable, I’m afraid. The Angel made too many promises to too many different people. Even if I paint every dream that is asked of me, very few of them will ever come true.

Just stop talking and help me. JESSICA! MARY!”

Are those tears? The wars have finally ended and there are no people left to hurt each other. Shouldn’t you be happy to see so much cruelty finally come to an end, or are you only concerned for your own sacrifice?

Shut up! Just shut up! Oh, Jesus. It’s Mary’s teddy. Where is she? No! No! No!

You’re on top of her bedroom, aren’t you Fabian? I think you know where she is. You’ve seen this happen on the news a hundred times, but it was always another country or another time. How is this any different? And why have you never cried before?

Because it never felt this real, okay! Tell me you can paint us sitting together in that park; that I’ll wake up and forget I ever saw any of this.

I’m sorry, Fabian. But life doesn’t always work that way.

What life? Mary hasn’t had a life yet, you arsehole. She wouldn’t hurt anyone.

I tell you what. I’ve painted something else that may help you get through this. Come over here.

What now? You’ve already destroyed everything.

By what reasoning could you possibly blame me? I have done nothing but give your species whatever dreams you wanted. Now, I have one last thing to show you that is of my own choosing. Look at the sunset. Can you see how beautiful it is? Try to understand how the end of a day is such a wonderous thing? The end of humanity may seem sad to you, Fabian, but from a distance, don’t you think someone else will see the beauty of it?

I can’t look at humanity from a distance, can I? I’m a part of it. How can I watch everything I love with all my heart as it turns into nothing? Who or whatever you are, surely you can understand that.

Strangely enough, I may be the only one who does understand. I’ve been painting dreams since the beginning of humanity, but no one ever dreams of bloodshed until they’ve seen it. No one dreams of wars until they are over. I’ve painted a million sunsets, but I’m the only one who ever considered that I would eventually have to paint this one. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it alone, Fabian, no matter how beautiful it is.

So, that’s why you brought me here? You wanted me to see how hurt and lonely you’ll be when there’s no one left to paint for. Well, point taken. My heart is completely shattered, and I know how you feel. Can we get out of here now?

No! You’re still missing the point. This is real. I’m showing you the future and I’ve shown you how humanity found its way here. The Angel of death turned your own words against you by promising more riches than this world could ever sustain. The reason I brought you here is to ask you to stay with me, and I promise that I will paint you a world beyond anything you’ve ever dreamed. You could be a King and a hero. You could fly over mountains as a giant eagle or hold the moon and stars in your hand. I need your dreams so I can continue to exist, Fabian. Together, we can create a new world without war. Please! Take a minute to think and watch the sunset.

What about Jessica and Mary?

You cannot save anything of your old world, but you can have more than you ever dreamed possible, and we can live forever.

Then, I don’t need to watch the sunset. I already know what I want.

Finally. Tell me, Fabian? Tell me what I can paint for you.

Don’t paint me anything. I’m not a kid anymore, and I don’t want to live in dreams whether they’re wars or not. I can’t stop what people did a thousand years ago any more than I can stop what they’re doing now, so just let me wake up and be with my family. At least while I’m alive, here and now, I can do the right thing by them.

 

As you wish.

 

I cannot deny my disappointment, but I envy and admire Fabian as he walks into Mary’s bedroom to find her awake and waiting for him in her cot. Even my promise of eternal dreams cannot deter him from the magic of this one moment with his daughter. As he lifts her into his arms, she swings Teddy up onto his shoulder and her other hand slaps playfully against his cheek to feel the curious wetness beneath his eyes. Mary does not need to say a thing because her smile says it all. She loves and needs him. What I would give to feel such magic, if only for a moment. Heroes rise and fall in search of immortality while their children die alone, but Fabian is a dreamer, so Mary will die knowing that she is loved.

Fabian carries his beautiful daughter to the kitchen where Jessica is serving breakfast and she looks across curiously, noticing that her husband is fighting back tears. He reassures her with a smile. What else can he do? Mary laughs and kicks her chubby, little legs excitedly as she slides down into the high chair, never letting go of Teddy. Glorious light shines through their kitchen window as the Angel of death hurtles toward the earth, a burning crucifix of blue crystal flame, daggering into the poisoned fires of a rising sun. Behold the Queen of Hell as she falls, leading Her battalion of one thousand nuclear warheads hammering into mountains and plains, destroying everything that stands upon this earth.

 

“May all men rest in darkness when their souls no more shall dream.”

 

As the last breath of humanity falls to the ravages of war, I paint my soul in giant wings that lay upon Fabian and his family, so the warmth of their love will stay with me for all of eternity.

Guitar

Just picking it up and resting it on my knee gives me a buzz.

I don’t even need to play anything. Just by running my pick down the strings, I can feel the essence of so many songs I grew up and fell in love with. The vibrations drive deep into my chest and I can feel my heart growing stronger as a song starts to form, like a flock of birds heading for the trees as thunder echoes through the mountains. Like a violin and cello had a threesome with a drum. Like the Tree of Life offered its lungs to the God of Wisdom, and he wisely set them upon the wings of his giant Hummingbird, and he released that bird to the eternal freedom of music that comes from the very soul of anyone who ever loved a song.

Please wait your turn, Mr Jagger. The music is still playing.

Should our Gibsons one day bequeath to those with smaller, softer hands, all they shall need is a pick and a heart to feel the echoes of our thunder, and to hear the songs of our birds. Hail to the Tree of Life. Hail to the good vibrations. Hail to the Hummingbird.