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The Barcelona Review

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After drugs there is only God that taught me how to feel. Before drugs, I was immersed in a stultifying mediocrity where the cold, clammy hands of the modern world reached deep into my heart and psyche. There was no joy in school, family or the tense bravado of adolescent friendships. When I was a very young child, it's possible I may have felt moments of great elation. I remember fragments of intense light: staring at the wings of a fly, tracing the path of a slug and watching the sun reflect off the slime. In those moments I may have experienced that phenomenal pleasure of intoxication which begins as a pinprick deep in the gut and then grows to flood the physical body. But these fragments are stray pieces from a jigsaw and I cannot imagine what whole they belong to. Was I a happy child? I have no idea. My first memory of being happy is as a teenager, smoking a joint with a cousin after school.
       I am thinking about God, what it would look like, taste like, smell like. Outside the window of the truck the ochre ocean of the Nullarbor spreads out before me. The massive vehicle I'm travelling in is dwarfed by the grandeur of the prehistoric earth. Its deep guttural snorts, its thundering wheels are no competition for the explosive silence of the desert.
       God is absent from this landscape. Or rather, God too is eclipsed by the rocks and the dirt, the scrub and sand. I began this journey across the desert to search for some intimation of spirit. Unable to perceive it in my usual urban environment, I am hoping to catch a glimpse of it out here in the naked wilderness. I cannot pretend to know what it may look like or what it may feel like but I am determined to experience it if it exists. If I fail to uncover divinity out here I will slink back to the city, tired and cynical, and I will pursue again the euphoria of chemical intoxication. It will be a pursuit of death, the day-to-day, minute-by-minute abandonment of self to dissembling and forgetfulness. Every step I have taken in my worship of the chemical I have been aware of the stripping away of myself. First the body, then the mind and finally the abandonment of soul. (I cannot offer an exact or universal definition of what I mean by the word 'soul' except to say that it is the part of me which resists being my intellect or my pride, which has led me into the desert, searching for a divinity that does not eschew life.
       The truck driver, overweight and ravaged by sun, offers me a Marlboro. I suck on it gratefully.
       'Where are you heading, mate?' he asks me.
       'Over east,' I reply. Aware that the question demands more of me, I make up a destination. I say Sydney, though I am not yet sure of where this journey will end. Probably when the one hundred dollars in my pocket is spent.
       'Is this your first time across the Nullarbor?'
       I nod.
       'I must have done this journey a few hundred times.'
       I glance over at him. His skin, shockingly pale at the edges of his singlet, is coarse and dark where it has been exposed to the sun. In particular his face, which is still handsome but lined with the history of too much alcohol and too many cigarettes, is the colour of the desert earth. We pass the skeletons of abandoned vehicles on the side of the road. In time the scrub grows over the decaying bodies and forms shrubs in the shapes of Volkswagens and EJ Holdens. Nothing can withstand the hold of the desert. The truck driver, over a working life of breathing in this landscape, is also becoming part of it.
       'Don't you ever get bored by it?'
       He laughs loudly and points out to the plain. 'You can't get bored by this. I get real fucking bored by this road, by the asphalt and the bloody white lines. But you can't get bored by this,' and again he points across the scrub. 'This land that looks like an atom bomb hit it is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.'
       He lights a cigarette and offers me another one. I again accept gratefully.
       'Why Sydney?' he asks. 'I hate the place.'
       'To get away from Perth,' I tell him.

Perth, all bland office buildings and vast suburban stretches, is a modern city at the edge of the world. It is an automated, clean city. The railway stations don't have toilets in them, as though it wasn't a city for human use, for the daily animal cycle of eating, drinking, shitting, pissing and sleeping. People there are proud of their trains. But the landscape makes a mockery of their attempts to control and master the environment. Even in the middle of the business district, in the dead centre of the city's heart, the ancient sand seeps through every crack. With every strong gust of wind the sand rises and swirls and dusts the concrete and plastic with a faint orange tinge.
       The sand is not the only ancient element which taunts and threatens the city. This white city lives in fear of the shadows cast by its black inhabitants.
       They drink too much.
       They are lazy.
       They hate work.
       They steal cars.
       They are dirty.
       They are animals.
       Like the sand, the shadows remind the city that it too will decay.

It was a thin young man with beautiful dark eyes who taught me that the sand is one of the weapons the landscape uses to fight back against the arrogance of the city. The unfathomable sky is another. Dwarfed by the sky and breathing in sand, Perth feels like a make-believe city. I kept meeting people who told me how in a few years it would be one of Australia's great cities. A few even suggested that one day it might be one of the world's great cities. But when I got to Perth I had no time for claims of a grand future. I was not impressed by the swiftness of the electric trains and the efficiency of the state-of-the-art communications systems. Instead I loved hearing him talk about the soil eating away at this baby metropolis. By the time I'd arrived in Perth I had stopped believing in cities.
       We met when he asked me if I would buy him a drink because the barman would not serve him. I started an argument with the barman and got both of us thrown out. We then wandered into another pub and I bought him cigarettes and drinks till my money ran out. He was genuinely surprised that I only had twenty dollars on me. We then went back to his house and fucked. I fell asleep on his mattress while he stayed up listening to music on a cheap ghetto-blaster, getting stoned on a bong.
       In the morning he made me a disgusting coffee and smoked my last cigarette. When I snapped at him he offered me a drag. I watched him go to the wardrobe, search behind a pile of T-shirts and lift out a plastic mineral-water bottle. He sat by me on the mattress and covered the opening of the bottle with his mouth. After taking a few short sharp breaths he offered the bottle to me. I smelt strong chemical fumes and backed away.
       'I'm all out of dope,' he said, shrugging his shoulders. 'You can either sniff this or it's nothing.'
       Glue sniffing is harsh on the lungs. I coughed into the bottle and he started a melodic chain of laughter. I lay back on the pillow and tried to chart the rush from the solvent. I experienced nothing except the faint throb of a hangover. But when I tried to lift my head up again, to take in another snort from the bottle, he had to help me. Again, the laughter. I sniffed some more and felt the beginning of a rhythmic tattoo beating at the back of my head.
       His room was bare except for the old wardrobe and the single mattress. A pile of dirty clothes lay in a heap against a wall, and a torn tie-dyed sheet was nailed across the window. Two pictures were Blu-tacked to the wall, a poster of an American rapper and a photo of a very old Indigenous woman.
       'Who's she?' I asked.
       'My nan. She's up north.' He got up and pulled a T-shirt over his slender frame. 'I'll be back soon. You want to wait for me?'
      I was touched that he trusted me with the care of his tiny kingdom. I nodded and sank back into the mattress. He left me with a kiss, and placed the plastic bottle with its clear liquid contents by my side.

The truck driver begins to tell me about his life. I'm not really listening, more intent on being lulled into a trance by the landscape we are gliding through. I'm making a mental note of the number of carcasses we pass. Twelve roos. Eight wombats. A score of large birds. The trucks must be going exceedingly fast, for the bodies are torn apart, smashed by the velocity of the impact.
       'There's gonna have to be a war soon in this country.'
       I look up at him and he's glancing over at me.
       'People are getting ready,' he continues, 'arming themselves. And who can blame them? The fucking government is in cahoots with the niggers, giving them all this land, paying them money so they can get drunk and piss it all away.' He snorts angrily and accelerates. I offer neither resistance to nor approval of what he is saying. 'Do you know those bastards get money to send their kids to school? And what do the parents do with all that money? Drink it or spend it on drugs. The pricks up in Canberra keep giving them our money, buying them houses and cars.' He is animated now, anger and passion softening the hard surfaces of his skin, making him seem younger. 'It's our money that pays for all those gifts to the bloody blackfella while he sits on his lazy arse and sells his kids and wife for extra cash. They're cunning bastards. No natural intelligence at all, just animal cunning.' He spits out this last insult. 'They know how to use the system. But the bastards are making use of my taxes to live the good life.'
       His voice drops. 'I hate them. Every last fucking one of them. I work my arse off to feed and clothe my family, drive these bloody trucks across the continent three, four times a month, and then have to pay most of it back to the government so it can waste it on these ugly bastards who won't work, can't make anything, have never been any good for anything.' The hate in his voice is hot. It blows hard into my face. 'I reckon we need to kill each and everyone of them. The women and children too. I'm mad about kids, myself, I can't wait to be a grandfather. But when I see one of those black babies and know what it's going to grow up to be, I want to take it and smash it against a wall or on a rock. I want to see it die in front of me.'
       We pass a sign announcing a roadhouse a few dozen kilometres up the road.
       'I need to take a leak,' I tell him. Then I close my eyes and try to shut out the world.

The roadhouse has been worn dull by the weather. Even the huge orange and yellow advertising sign is faded and dirty. Two trucks are parked on the other side of the road and I get ready to jump out. The driver tells me to join him in the truckies' section of the restaurant when I finish up in the toilet.
       'Grab yourself a coffee,' he tells me, 'and sit next to me. If they think you're with me you won't have to pay for coffee.'
       The toilet smells of piss and mice. I stand up for a long time before I can get any urine to flow, and when it finally comes it is a slow and puny stream. I rest my head against the cool ceramic of the cistern. Outside a wind is murmuring. I look down at my soft dick and start pulling it. I think of fucking the truck driver in the mouth and come quickly, dripping three days' worth of semen onto the toilet lid. I wipe the lid, flush the toilet, and wash up at the sink.
       Inside the restaurant, a bored young girl in a black T-shirt is smoking a cigarette at one of the laminex tables. She gets up when I come in but I shake my head and immediately she sits back down. Tina Turner is playing on the radio. A partition separates the dining room into two sections. The first section is empty. I walk past it and into the section marked TRUCK DRIVERS ONLY. Four men are sitting around a table. One of them is my driver but he fails to acknowledge my wave. I blush as I shuffle towards the coffee urn, conscious of my slender weak limbs, of the heaviness of my T-shirt, dark jeans and runners. The broad-shouldered men around the table are all in singlets and shorts, and they all wear their masculinity easily. So easily that their brutish physicality seems effortless, almost elegant. I sit down awkwardly next to them, pulling a chair from another table and placing it a little off to one side of the main group. No one bothers with introductions.
       The coffee is scalding and tastes awful. I put it down and wait for it to cool. One of the men is talking about the blackfellas claiming back ancestral land. He too has skin marked by sun and wind, but the tight curls of his blond hair and the metallic grey of his eyes temper the erosion of his body. A delicate weave of blond hair creeps up his arms and his singlet fits tightly around a firm roll of flab and a well-muscled chest. He leans forward as he tells his story and I take in his aroma over the burnt fumes of the coffee.
       'You know who's paying for them?'
       'The government,' answers my truck driver.
       The blond man looks exasperated. 'Fuck, mate, of course, but who else?'
       The other men wait for the answer.
       'The Jews, of course, and all the other fat businessmen they have in their back pockets. They're all in it.'
       'They're in what?' My question booms around the circle and they all turn towards me. The blond man tilts his head at my truck driver, who gives him a slow nod.
       'Arming the bloody boongs,' he replies.
       It takes a moment for the words to sink in. 'Arm them for what?'
       'The war.'
       I fight back the urge to laugh in his face.
       He shifts his chair closer to me. 'Some of us have already started storing away guns, started building a militia. The fucking politicians are in the pocket of the black man. We can't depend on them.' He leans back and smiles at one of his friends. 'At least there ain't too many of the pricks left, eh, Davo? With enough warning we should be able to kill the fuckers off in a few days.' He turns quickly back to me. 'As long as we're all in it together, right, mate?'
       I release some sort of pathetic squeak, pretending to myself that it can pass for dissent.
       He cocks a finger to my head. 'Yep, that's right. Bang bang. I can't wait.'

At first I thought he was asleep. Then I noticed the syringe still sticking out of his arm, and the vomit coating the front of his T-shirt. I sat down next to him and I am embarrassed to admit that the first thought in my head was whether I should run away, leave someone else to find the corpse. That thought didn't last for long though, just long enough that I’ll never forget it. I sat next to him and gently pulled out the syringe and took off his T-shirt, wiping away the vomit from around his mouth and chin.
       I cried, but I'm still not sure if it was for him or for myself. I had not yet got to know this man who was still so very much a boy. I had been up his arse, I had sucked on his cock, but I knew very little about him. I knew that there was someone I should call: the police? the ambulance? When my crying had been exhausted, I got up and made my way to the kitchen where I boiled some water over a small electric stove. Then I went back into his room and went through the pockets of his jeans. I found nothing and began to panic. No, it wasn't even panic, just a shortness of breath, a quickening in the beating of my heart, but I knew that if I did not find what I was searching for soon then the anxiety would escalate to full-blown hysteria. I searched through all his pockets, in his shoes, hoping to spy the dull sheen of aluminium foil. When I couldn't find a thing, after scouring every inch of carpet, going through every item of clothing in the wardrobe, I sank exhausted onto the mattress. My panic, laced with desperation, turned into anger at the dead man beside me. But I refused to look into his face, as if even with his eyes shut forever, my shame would still be reflected back at me in the clear black surface of his skin. After another bout of crying, I slowly dug my hand under his thighs and found a metallic object with my finger and edged it out from under him. I opened the foil and sniffed at the powder.
       I used his fit to shoot up. If there had been more heroin I may have taken the whole lot and willed myself into a narcotic death. I knew so little about him that I did not know if by injecting drops of his blood into my body I would be infecting myself with disease. At that moment I did not care. When the euphoric wave of the rush swept over me I was able to lie back on the bed and grasp at sanity. I smoked a cigarette and went to call the ambulance .

They asked me his name. I could give them that. They asked me his next of kin. That I could not answer. The smack was good, very good, and I wondered if he had touched heaven when he died.
       They asked me if I knew his friends, a relative, someone who could vouch for his past. I shook my head. The ambulance men gave me twin looks of disgust as they dismissed me and put him on a stretcher. Outside, the neighbours had gathered to bear witness to his death.
       'What happened?' a young woman holding a baby asked me.
       'He OD'd.'
       She clicked her tongue in distaste and wandered back to her house.
       I thought I heard one of the ambulance men say that 'picking up after these black bastards is a waste of time'. I might have been mistaken. But the thought was definitely in the air.

I fall in and out of sleep watching the endless straight road, half dreaming of Led Zeppelin. When I awake the road is still stretched out before me but now darkness has fallen on the plain. Melodic country and western is playing on the stereo. I stretch, yawn and reach for my pack of fags.
       The driver chuckles and turns to me. 'Good sleep, mate?'
       I nod and light my cigarette. The air blowing in my window is now cold and uncomfortable and I reach into my backpack to pull out a jumper, The driver, wired on speed and lack of sleep, is impervious to the cold in his singlet and shorts.
       The shapes in the desert are now dark shadows suggesting bush phantoms, but I am aware that these are only fantasies drawn by my imagination and that what lies before me is the same flat earth that I have already spent an age watching. The only object which I can be sure of is the road. Lit by the high beams of the headlights, the straight narrow chasm across the continent appears to be leading us towards infinity.
       A mounting hunger is gnawing at my stomach. I turn around in my seat and look in the back of the cabin for a bag of chips I bought at the last stop. When I turn back I see a small dark shape move out of the shadow landscape and into the path of the truck. The driver shouts out a warning, I hold my breath and there is a loud bang which seems to explode right inside my head. In that moment the desert evaporates and only the shock of the collision is real. Then the moment passes and the wind howls back through my open window; there is only the cocoon of the black desert earth and sky, and Bonnie Raitt.
       The driver turns to me and gives a sheepish laugh. 'Sorry, mate, I think I might've just hit some pissed coon.'

I wasn't the only white person at his funeral, but I was the only one who looked like he didn't belong there. I spent the whole day in a stoned haze, a wall of opiates protecting me from the harsh outside world. I may even have pretended that my exclusion was of my own choosing. I chain-smoked cigarettes on the porch and watched a procession of men carry in slabs of beer from the pub down the road. The women sat in groups drinking beer or cask wine, telling each other stories or holding each other's hands. No one was rude to me but nor did anyone welcome me. I assumed I was an uncomfortable presence, a reminder of the way their son, nephew, brother, cousin or friend had lived and died.
       I was struck by the very Australianness of their mourning. Here there was no Mediterranean lamentation or hushed silences. No women in black forming a shrill fresco of despair. Instead everyone was getting pissed.
       An old woman sat in the backyard, surrounded by a circle of other women. She sat there not moving and it seemed she was looking past the timber fence, past the suburb and into another world altogether. I managed to find some courage and stepped off the porch. As I walked towards her the group surrounding her looked suspiciously at me.
       I ignored everyone else and walked straight up to the old woman. 'I'm sorry.' She didn't seem to hear me. But I was determined to proceed with my confession. 'I wish I could tell you something about him.'
       She did not avoid my eyes but I felt that she was looking through me, ignoring me with all her senses.
       'He told me about your place up north. I think he missed it very much.' Was I making this up? He had never spoken those words to me, we had never been so intimate that he revealed emotional desire, but I do remember one conversation in which sex and drugs did not figure but instead he told me about swimming with crocodiles while an old woman chanted a song that kept the beasts tame.
       'I'm sorry,' I repeated lamely.
       This time she turned to me and started a low quiet laugh. Tears filled her eyes. She said something to me but I did not understand her. A young woman sitting beside her started to laugh with her and soon the circle of women were all laughing and crying together. I stood there, humiliated.
       The young woman tugged at my shirt sleeve and whispered to me, 'It's okay. She just called him a silly young poof. Maybe he wanted to come back home but he was too busy running around after you white guys in the city.' She shook her head at my obvious dismay. 'Hey, boy, don't worry. We're not upset at you. His spirit be happier now.' She looked into my eyes and gave a soft whistle. 'You look after yourself, boy.' She offered me a beer.
       I refused the beer and instead pointed to the old woman. 'Tell her I wanted to say I'm sorry.'
       The young woman whispered my apologies to the grandmother, who turned her head to me one last time and nodded. With that I was dismissed. The circle fell back into conversation and drinking.
       I turned away, walked back through the house and out onto an ugly suburban street. My anger finally conquered the chemicals in my blood and I spat a large glob of venom onto the dry pavement.
       And what about you, you bastards? I was thinking. What about you lot? You were family. You should have done something. And now you insult him. You were too busy drinking and getting out of it in your own way. You fucking good-for-nothing lazy black bastards.
       I'm ashamed even as I write these words. But it would be more shameful to pretend I did not think them.

The truck keeps thundering through the night and I am stunned and frozen. As the driver's words sink in I mutter a pathetic, 'Are you serious?'
       He laughs at my unease. 'If I've put one of those black arseholes out of their misery, I'm happy.'
       'Stop the fucking truck.' I grab for my knapsack and clutch it to my chest. 'I said stop the fucking truck.'
       He says nothing for a moment, he does not slow down. Then he points a finger out into the dark. 'Look out there. It is real easy, dead easy, to lose someone in this place. You could lose a body here and no one would ever find it.'
       I am pierced by his menace and I am shivering with hate and fear. I cannot stand the stench of him, the poison of his amphetamine sweat.
       The truck slows down with a loud scream. I open my door and prepare to lower myself down. As I am about to jump, he slams a fist into the back of my head. I sprawl onto the hard road and I let go of my pack. He revs the truck and I am scared he will run me over. Though my body and face are hurting I roll off the road and he roars away, the lights of the truck carving up the thick black night.
       The first thing I do is fumble for my pack in the pitch dark. After a few minutes of fruitless searching I sit exhausted on the ground, massaging my aching jaw. I look up to the sky. The astonishing celestial dance pacifies me and I begin to grow accustomed to the dark. I watch the stars, let myself breathe, then attempt another search. I find the pack close to where I fell. My relief is quashed when I remember the reason I am here alone in the middle of an empty world. Shivering from the cold and the thought that somewhere close is a dead human body, I make my way back down the road. The asphalt shimmers in the night light and I have little difficulty keeping along it. But I have no concept of how much distance we had travelled between the accident and my undignified fall from the truck. As I walk along I keep looking up to the sky, asking the stars for warmth and light.
       There are sounds out here. Alien sounds. Of course there is the wind but underneath its whistle there seems to be a soft pounding booming coming from the very depths of the earth I'm walking on. Time too has no concrete shape in this terrain and I have no idea how long I have been walking. The black night is now forming faces and bodies which change shape with every breath I take, as if they are breathing along with me.
       Somewhere in the distance I hear a rustle and I am scared. The cold night air digs through the wool of my jumper, runs up and down my legs and reaches far into the core of me. The shapes are now forming lizards and snakes writhing in front of me. The road itself seems to pulsate, as if keeping a beat to the disconcerting pounding of the earth. I'm beginning to feel foolish and almost regret leaving the truck. But then I remember the driver's malevolent laugh and I keep walking.
       I first smell the body. The scent is very much animal. Nervously I kneel to touch it. It does not move. I run my hand along a thick hide which still feels warm. Excited and relieved I trace the curves of its body and feel thick liquid. The blood has not dried yet. 'It was a roo,' I scream into the night, 'it was only a fucking roo.'
       I find my cigarettes squashed in my shirt pocket and put a battered one in my mouth. I smell the blood on my hand. Appalled, I spit out the cigarette and wipe my hand in the scrub. I light myself another cigarette and lie back in the dirt.
       The sky is raining down sharp slivers of light and I'm disappearing into the fire. Around me the earth is still shifting: animals and flora come in and out of view. It is almost as if an acid trip is coming on, but though my body is sinking into my mind, there is no bitter pharmaceutical aftertaste. I'm vanishing. Reptiles and insects are weaving around my legs and the night no longer seems cold. Up in the sky the familiar constellations have gone, replaced by ancient primeval clusters. A collection of stars forms the outline of a great lizard and in its centre one large star pulsates to the rhythm of my heart.
       My fear has gone. In the distance a mountain is forming, a large purple dream at the edge of a pitch-black horizon. The mountain becomes the giant face of a black girl and as I look at her, earth starts to crumble down her face and she begins to age. I cannot tell how long this takes. I think that perhaps I'm dying. But if this is death it does not hurt and it does not touch my body.
       The old woman of the mountain surrounds me and I can make out the hollows of her eyes. Her mouth opens and she sucks in the world. The ancient stars do a final dance, a mad symphony of colour, then they too disappear into her mouth. I shut my eyes and when I look up again the stars of the Milky Way are back in their place. I look around me, I look back up at the sky, I grab a fistful of dirt but all that I can sense are the physical shapes, sights and smells of the desert. The vision has gone.
       I remain in the scrub, exhausted. The cold begins to eat into me again and I curl into a tight ball. I'm aware that I have just experienced a kind of magic, that I have finally been touched by the caress of gods, but I'm also sure that the magic sung tonight, all the colours and light, the fire and music, were not meant for me. My presence here is not needed. I sink into sleep, grateful for that accident of fate.
       I will wake the next morning bathed in sand. I will spend most of the day thirsting for water and running a dry tongue across burnt lips. A truck will pick me up late in the afternoon and the driver will tell me stories of women and drugs and how the boongs control the economy. I will neither agree with him nor argue with him, but he will find security in the colour of my skin and proceed to offload hatred as if talking to a close friend. At Port Augusta I will get off and wander the streets seeking food. It will take me another two days to get to Sydney and when I arrive there I will avoid my old friends and acquaintances. I will not touch chemicals and instead I will slip quietly into a peaceful life in the inner western suburbs. I will gather a new circle of friends and I will learn how to play cards, and how to bet on the horses. I will feel safe and I will not question this safety. But occasionally, when a hot wind blows in from the west, I will remember that they are gathering guns in the outback.

© Christos Tsiolkas

 This electronic version of “Civil War” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author. It appears in the collection Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas, published by Atlanta Books, London, 2015; first published in Australia by Allen & Unwin, 2014. Book ordering available through and

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Author Bio
Christos TsiolkasChristos Tsiolkas is the author of five novels: Loaded, which was made into the feature film Head On; The Jesus Man; Dead Europe, which won the 2006 Age Fiction Prize; The Slap, which was published in 2009 and has since been published worldwide; and Barracuda. The Slap won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the 2009 Australian Literary Society’s Gold Medal and was longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Tsiolkas is also a playwright, essayist and screenwriter. He lives in Melbourne.

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author photo: Zoe Ali