“A bloke has escaped from the jail,” Sarah's mother told her when she was a teenager. “He’s dangerous.”
Their house was on the racetrack road, which runs out past the Albany Regional Prison.
“This is where we keep the shotgun … and this is how to use it.”
Albany is still a penal colony. We are, all of us, serving time. We have no freedom. People here, more than anywhere, seem to prefer security to liberty. But tonight is the poetry pub crawl, and the town is in delirium. Crowds take to the streets, imagining or dreaming that they are free, free to somnambulate en masse from one Sprung Writers’ Festival venue to another. I embrace these fresh hallucinations and am carried along with the festival vibe.
I raise Dylan on his mobile. I assume he is somewhere amongst this delusional mob, yet having scanned their endless white faces i have failed to locate him. Where are you, he says. I am standing in the middle of the road, i say. I’ve got on a dark brown pinstripe coat, a black felt top hat with a red-tailed black cockatoo feather sewn to its side. “I’m still at Strangle Heads,” Dylan says distantly. He sounds like a man signalling in semaphore from a pontoon afloat in a Sargasso sea of beer. “I’m staying here. The next venue is dry.” I am surprised they are even serving him at Tangleheads. Weren’t we both given a life ban there only the night before? Or was it the night before that?
The crowd, a hundred curious souls in dark clothes, womble gently down the main street. Cars pull to a halt, their drivers confused. So many pedestrians. Isn't this Albany, where people drive? A Holden Commodore smuggles itself past the woollen crowds on the roundabout. The rubber squeals as the driver does what Sarah Toa endearingly calls a ‘broggy’ before grumbling hollowly and loudly up the York Street hill. They will drive to the carpark at Middleton Beach, turn around, and return to do yet another lap of York Street in what is known in the local parlance as ‘chucking a yorkie’. In all honesty, there is not much else to do.
Sarah and i follow the dangling whale at the end of the fishing rod. It is a killer whale, though fluffy. A whale theme has entered the writing festival like a harpoon through blubber. Like a nylon fishing line in a turtle’s gut. The crowd follows the wandering killer whale on a hook, and next to it, travelling alongside, is not a whaler with a harpoon but a whore poet with what looks like a giant spliff. No, i think. This is far to bohemian for Albany. Suddenly the crowd stops. Is it a giant spliff? A sudden hush as the MCs entertain the gathering. But Sarah is whispering to me about the stocks. She points. I have never seen them before, and yet here they stand, directly in front of Justice. A blunt reminder of the brutalities of this penal colony, of the harsh institutionalised violence which even now simmers below the veneer of this God-fearing yet clearly godforsaken civilisation. An outlaw held in these stocks would gaze, all twisted neck and blistering back, straight at the southern face of Justice, across Governor Stirling Terrace into the courthouse and its attendant bureaucrats.
But no, it is not a giant spliff. The old salt raises it to his lips to blow a whale mating call. I see now it is a type of pipe. We are piped onward by these wandering bards. We reach the museum, where i am sidetracked by the genius of contraption, Andy from the shed jam, he of the incredible shrinking transportable house. A welder and inventor or some renown. Someone passes me a non-metaphorical spliff, and then won’t take no for an answer when, after getting me completely waylaid, he refuses to take it back. It is here my troubles begin. Some women ask me to step onto a bollard and recite some poetry. It must be the hat.
We are standing in a theatrically-lit park in front of the museum. The poetry run continues on, lemming-like, scrambling up the stairs into the museum, spilling into a prism-shaped room upstairs. Through a round window i spy what appears to be a giant disco ball, a revolving crystalline refraction. It’s the lighthouse lens from Eclipse Island, Sarah says. Of course it is.
Dylan turns suddenly up, all spindly legs matted hair with the wild look of a starving garret artist. Notebook in hand. But i am staring at the maniac who has handed me this marijuana. No-one will now take the proffered joint from me. I puff on it furiously in an attempt to defuse it, unnul it, reduce the damn thing to ashes. What should i do with this, i ask, waving the glowing tip around like a hot potato. When the cops turn up? Stand over there next to the sign that says Sprung? Perhaps this newspaper reporter can take my photograph?
Dylan is a grasshopper, all elbows and jump. He is explaining how he photographed the head of Greenpeace earlier in the day. “For the whole of the Pacific,” Dylan says. “He was at the Vancouver Arts Centre speaking about The Last Whale, and there was an erotic art exhibition,” he says. “From where i was standing, he presented his whole speech to the crowd with a giant penis coming out of his head.”
Sarah, Dylan and i leave the carpark hippies and try to get into the poetry reading. A mob of people are crowded by the stairs at one end of the museum. A museum staff member is guarding the entrance to the rear stairs, which houses the Eclipse lens. The staff member says something to Sarah which i can’t hear. “I just want to show Mark the lens,” Sarah says. The staffer allows us to pass. Dylan, Sarah and i.
I am transfixed by this construction, slowly rotating on its toothed wheel driven plinth. The lens is an engineering marvel. Crescents of mirrored glass suspended in brass arcs, all focusing the incredible parabolic energy of this quietly revolving torch. I feel as if we are standing on the set of an episode of Dr Who, at that point in the storyline when the light of the full moon is focused through a crystalline contraption to create a beam of cosmic energy that frees the aliens from their earthbound prison. The huge steel platter turns silently on its enormous bearing. Sarah makes to leave, while Dylan and i continue up the stairs to the poetry reading. “You can’t,” Sarah says. “You’ll fall through the floor.” She leaves.
My head is spinning. What did she just say? i ask Dylan.
“Oh, she said we will fall through the floor into a pit of vipers,” Dylan says with some nonchalance as we ascend the wide wooden steps to the mezzanine level and the poetry reading. The drugs have kicked in like a schizophrenic mule and i am suffering acute paranoid delusions. A pit of vipers?
The museum staff member had told Sarah that the mezzanine was holding its maximum capacity of people and nobody else was allowed to go up. Sarah made a joke about this as she left, but at the time she sounded like Cassandra, prophesising, forewarning me of the portents of evil. Cassandra, the prophet, was raped by Ajax, Martine told me earlier in the day. “Bet she didn’t see that coming,” Martine said. I reluctantly climb the staircase, braving the vipers, surrounded on all sides by walls bearing the carcasses of giant silver fish. Their unblinking eyes stare down at me, silently and without compassion. I round the stairs and come face-to-face with a hammerhead shark. A four-day drinking bender followed by powerful narcotics has left me in no fit state to deal with these museum exhibits.
But my senses are to be further assaulted. The poetry reading leaves me floored. It is appalling, really very bad, and yet people are applauding. I wonder if i am perhaps missing some esoteric irony. I feel like i am in an Asian evangelist church, a silent witness to a chorus of singaporean spiritual singers as the fresnel beam silently sweeps the room. Four boys from a Singapore boys’ school are leading the crowd through an incredibly badly-sung version of Stand By Me. What fresh hell is this, i wonder? Mercifully, they soon finish. To thunderous applause. “We are having a wonderful time here,” says a boy in glasses, speaking with an American accent. “What i have noticed about you people first of all is your viciousness,” he says smiling. A gasp goes up around the room. “Matched only by your forgiveness,” he continues. A collective sigh. What the fuck?
The lens of the lighthouse throws a weird diffracted array on the walls as it circles the room. “This is just too fucking bizarre,” i inform Dylan. “I have to get out of here. This is doing my head in. Let’s go to the pub.” Dylan is in agreement. “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” he quotes, the only relevant lines of poetry i have heard all night.
Another singaporean boy begins listing allegorical truths, furtively erasing the stillness of our minds. We can no longer stand the poetic tension. We wobble quietly down the stairs, past the plastic fish replicas. Sarah is outside, sipping water. I try to ask her for a sip, but my mouth is so dry my lips stick to my teeth and it sounds like i want a sick. Lips, when they stick to your teeth, become licks. I can barely swallow. Incomprehensible quantities of marijuana have left me mute and almost paralysed. I point at my mouth; at the water. Sarah comprehends and passes me the bottle. I drink greedily, downing half her supply within seconds in sheer dehydrated desperation. My sated lips are then lured into brief conversation with some complete strangers. “Don’t trust that drug-addled impostor,” says Andy, the welding genius, pointing at me as i stand before these confused pub crawlers. “He still owes me a documentary.” I slip away into the shadows.
And into another strange conversation. There is no escape from this madness. This red-tailed black cockatoo-feathered felt hat is bringing down on my head eleven different flavours of trouble tonight. I am beginning to feel like a character in a Heironymous Bosch painting. A stranger in jeans and jacket has somehow found out i am from the press. Do i have a story for you, he says. I don’t know, i say. Andy suddenly appears at my side, devil, court jester and constant shadow. He laughs. “I bet you hear this all the time,” Andy says to me. Jacket man shakes his head. “This is serious. They’ve blocked off the road to wait a while.”
The singaporean students and the pub crawlers spill out of the museum and over the railway tracks, stumbling across the level crossing as one of the woodchip freights heads west out of the port, headlamp blazing and horn blaring. It is not going slow. Somehow it passes through the crowd without mutilating any poets.
Wait A While? I raise a questioning eyebrow to Andy. He nods. “It’s a place. Out past Manypeaks.”
Jacket man continues. “Anyway, an overseas company, Indian i think, has bought the land. There’s a bluegum plantation out there. Then they padlocked a gate across the road and now you can’t even access the beach. The ranger went out there to check on the firebreaks. Eventually he got in, only to be confronted by a Hilux with four blokes carrying shotguns. They showed him the firebreaks, and then escorted him out.”
Shotguns. That’s heavy security for a plot of Tasmanian bluegums. Who ever heard of people stealing trees? Jacket man does not want to give his name or go on the record. But he gives me the name of the padlocked road, and that’s a start. I thank him, and give him my card.
On the way to the Premier Hotel an escaped psychopath tries to steal the Nikon from Dylan and i. He appears in my peripheral vision and is suddenly right in our path, up close - way too close - all curses and threats. Like a Michelin man pumped up with mustard gas. He clenches his fists, threatens us. Won’t get out of my face. Take it easy, man, i tell him and we slip across the road where we run into a bunch of guys wheeling a naked man on a trolley, wrapped in glad wrap and covered in lipstick. This night is getting all too freaky, i decide.
We keep heading up the hill towards the sanctuary of the Premier. The nut job is trailing us across the street. Before we reach the pub he bolts across the street and is in my face again, jabbing a white-knuckled finger at me. “How do you know me?” he demands. We almost fall over each other getting in the hotel door. My mouth is so dry i can barely swallow. Owen the bartender is going slowly about his business, ignoring my parched cries for help. Water! An escaped prisoner is loose on the streets but my thirst drives me back out onto the streets. The psychopath is nowhere to be seen. I slip down the back alley, sticking close to the shadows. Home. Water. Drink.
The doorbell rings and it’s Dylan. “Let me leave this camera here, man,” he says. “Some bikers put the head of the bouncer into the wall. There’s a kind of aggro vibe out there tonight, don’t you think? Far out man, how was that guy tried to steal the camera? If i was as stoned as you i’d be freaking out.”
“I am freaking out, you idiot. I’ve just spent the last ten minutes locking all the doors and windows.”
“It’s the hat,” Dylan says.
It’s the hat. My head has become some kind of luna magnet.
“So, you coming to Strangle Heads for a drink?” Dylan asks.