IN HELL WITH AL
Travels by dice with a very strange friend
Published in Sleepers Anthology 2008
‘Just throw the dice, Alan.’
‘It’s die. I’ve only got one in my hand now.’
‘Alright. Die. The die! Just throw the bloody die!’
He threw the die on the ground. It skittled across the marching feet of shoppers, bounced, then stopped. ‘Seven. What’s that?’
‘Let’s see,’ I scanned the choices in my notebook. ‘Go west.’
‘I don’t like the feeling of this. Why did I ever…’ Al mumbled, as he picked up his backpack.
Inspired by Luke Rhinehart’s famous, but fictional story Dice Man (about a psychiatrist that lives his life according to throws of dice and later goes insane) we had given ourselves over to the flick of the wrist, out of the palms of decision and into the loose, unfolded sheets of chance: we were going to attempt to travel around Victoria for the day by dice.
But rather than follow the questionable choices of Rhineharts – ‘should I sleep with my best friends wife’ – our options were mostly navigational: for example, a dice roll of ‘seven’ (we used dice for directions) would mean go south-west, a ‘three’ go by bus’, a ‘nine’ travel 90 kilometres, ask six people six different things to see or do and, when the moment took hold of us, something ‘unusual’ to do.
This experiment was all in the hope that we would get some kind of interest from publishers or indeed short-sighted producers to take our half-baked idea. Fame and fortune, I believed, were in our grasp. Except for one thing. Alan.
Quite frankly, I was surprised that we’d even got this far at all, here at Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall. Alan, you see, my bumbling, clumsy friend, had nearly closed the door on our grand dice adventure altogether. Literally.
When I had rocked up at his place, all packed and ready for our big trip, I noticed that he had left the front door ajar; a sign, I presumed, for me to walk in when I arrived. However, just as I walked up onto the porch and got in reach of the doorway, the door snapped shut in my face. I heard a muffle of laughter.
‘What are you playing at, Alan?’ I tried looking through the opaque glass. He kept laughing then suddenly stopped. ‘Oh, shit.’
‘I’ve locked myself in.’
‘What do you mean you’ve locked yourself in? It’s your house.’
‘Well, I’ve given the keys to a friend of mine, political activist, great guy, you’d really like him – ’
‘Get to the point, Alan.’
‘Oh, right. Of course. Well, you see I gave him the keys to look after the house while I’m away.’
‘But we’ll be back by Sunday night. That’s one day!’
‘Yes, but I need someone in the house…for security you understand.’
‘Oh, Christ. Not this again.’
‘Yes, yes, yes, it’s this again,’ he sighed, his balding head blurring into long, fuzzy spikes as it slid down the channelled glass of the front door. ‘It just keeps me less paranoid.’
Of the twelve years that we had been friends, Alan had demonstrated an unfailing ability to be fearful, scared and downright paranoid about everything. And I do mean everything: Armageddon Gulf Wars, peak oil conspiracies, Millennium meltdowns, testicle shrinking oestrogens in plastic bottles of water, rising sea levels, brain cancer-causing chemicals in tofu not to mention capping my mouth with his hand every time I tried to eat over the “seven almond limit”. ‘They’ll kill you if you have one more!’
This latest, shall we say, ‘Alanism’, was probably his most enduring. Some time ago, Al had been absolutely convinced that a music arranger, Helfman, whom he’d worked with on a feature film, had broken into his house and stolen an important contract, a contract that would show Helfman to be lying and forfeit any claim to Alan’s APRA royalties.
For months Alan burned up in his own bile, stewing sleeplessly over Helfman’s criminal act and attacked those who did not believe him (usually me). One day he rang me up with ‘He’s been back in here again! He’s taken another contract! I know it! I know it!’
‘How…how do you know?’
‘You’ve got to take me seriously, but I know you won’t.’
‘No, I will,’ I lied. ‘I promise you.’
‘Well, I went out for the afternoon and came back and found, and you won’t believe this, a shit in the toilet.’
‘There was a turd left in the toilet!’
‘Okay,’ I said, taking a deep, deep breath. ‘Let’s get something straight here. You’re telling me that Helfman somehow broke into your house, stole another contract and hey, in the excitement, couldn’t contain himself and took a dump.’
‘You’re insane! Haven’t you thought that it could’ve been you that left the shit in the toilet?’
‘No, I’m sure.’
‘How do you know?’
‘It didn’t look like mine.’
I took another long, long breath. ‘What does yours look like?’
‘Er…mmm….you know, that’s a really good question.’
‘You’re insane!’ I hung up. Some months later Alan sheepishly admitted he’d found the contract – and it was where he’d left it all along – in his filing cabinet.
‘Was it filed under ‘C’ for CONTRACT?’
‘You bastard, McGilton! You bastard!’
Still this didn’t stop him from thinking Helfman could break into his house and now never leaves without the contract: up to the video store, friend’s house, the cinema, the milk bar and even at parties (odd to see him drunk off his head with a courier satchel still slung around his neck, contract presumably safe and sound inside it).
So there I was, left to wait on Al’s porch on a cold winter afternoon while we waited for his activist friend to turn up with the key. I couldn’t help but think that this was already turning out like my last grand adventure where everything had gone wrong: malaria, caught in Pakistan during September 11th, a stack with yak, robbed, splitting with the girlfriend…
Thankfully with the dice, I couldn’t stuff up my plans because there weren’t any. And that was the exciting thing about it: who knows where we’d end up? Who knows what strange and amazing people we’d meet on our chaotic journey because of a flick of the die? Who know what stories would come of this, what publishing deals? ‘Who knows,’ I begun to shout, as it dawned on me that I was going to be travelling with someone even more unpredictable than two dotted-cubes, ‘WHEN BLOODY AL WOULD OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR!’
In ‘The Road to Gundagai’, Graham Innes wrote of Ballan in the 1920s: ‘Ballan itself was ungracious and unlovely. The prevailing impression was of openness, dissonance and a ramshackle unplanned confusion as if the town had been thrown down in a hurry.’
Looking at Ballan now as we hitched up our packs after getting off the train, nothing, it seemed, had really changed here in the intervening eighty-five years. It was still a small country town and a place that defied imagination because imagination, apart from a nearby house with a front lawn filled with crockery sculptors that whistled an eerie tweedle-dee to Willy Wonka, had skipped town.
Why had the die sent us here of all places? It was a disappointing entrée into the dice world and already Alan was moaning about going back home (something about forgetting to lock the back door and rambling about Helfman again). I suggested we meet the local fauna at the local watering hole and garner our six options of places to see here and something ‘silly to do’. Al rolled his eyes at the thought.
Inside the town pub, the Hudson Hotel, a group of workmen in overalls wrestled over a pool table swearing loudly at each other. As we ordered a beer they gave a look that suggested the word ‘dumb-bell press’ was not in our vernacular.
My throat tightened and an alfalfa male voice squeaked through my teeth: ‘So gentlemen, what six things would you suggest seeing in Ballan….mmm?’
Someone grunted behind me. A large man was sipping from his froth-webbed skooner. He offered choices that seemed to suggest the town was suffering from short-term memory or a crippling identity crisis.
‘Well,’ he said, rubbing his expansive belly, ‘You could try the Ballan Video Store, the Ballan Friendly Grocery Story, the Ballan Bakery, the Ballan Pub, the Ballan Hairdressers or even the Ballan Sock Factory.’
‘Thank you,’ Alan smiled, then spun around on me and seethed into the froth of his beer. ‘We have got to get out of here, Russell! I feel like I’m looking for stains in beige carpet!’
I wrote down the choices and threw the die. ‘Number six.’
‘The sock factory?’ Alan groaned. ‘Nooo!’
‘You must obey the die!’ I raised my finger, putting on a Yoda voice. ‘The die speaks the truth. The die knows. It is your destiny.’
‘Alright, alright,’ he sighed heavily. ‘Let’s just get on with it.’
‘We also need something silly to do. You know, something that will get a reaction, something that’ll be great to film.’
I wrote a list of possibilities:
(1) Go into the sock factory with my Indian guidebook and ask for directions ‘How do I get to New Delhi from here? I’m a bit lost.’
(2) Pretend that it is a condom factory and ‘offer’ to try one on;
(3) Ask where the Oompa Loompas are;
(4) Pretend to be German tourists;
(5) Walk in with open mouths and ask repeatedly ‘Can you put a sock in it?’
(6) Use our own socks as hand puppets to try and interview the owner.
I read them out, Alan shaking his head all the while.
‘You’re not really going to go ahead with this are you?’
‘Alan, my dear stalwart of support, yes. Whatever is rolled we must do it.’
I threw the die again. ‘Four!’ I said, then checking the list. ‘Pretend to be Germans!’
Alan glared hard at his filthy shoes. ‘I want to go home!’
We found the sock factory down a side street. It was a corrugated building, rusting away in the fresh country air. A sign above it read ‘JOHN BROWN HOSIERY – QUALITY SOCKS FOR MEN’.
‘Now let’s get our stories straight,’ I turned to Al, stopping him in his tracks. ‘Alan. What’s your name?’
‘No! I mean a German name. Think of a German name.’
‘Hans. And you?’
‘That was mine! Let me think. I know. Helmut.’
‘Hans and Helmut. Isn’t that a little too obvious?’
‘It’ll do. Here. You film,’ I gave him the video camera. His hands were shaking more than normal. Well, whatever normal was for him. It was a hereditary affliction.
‘I don’t know if I can do this, Russ. My hands. They’re really shaking.’
‘Well, then. Get them out of your pockets!’
‘Stop it! Russell! Russell! Listen to me. Are you really happy with my hands shaking and filming?’
‘Are you really happy with leading us through as a pretend German?’
‘Look, you’ll be fine. Just breathe deeply.’
Alan flicked on the camera and in we went, backpack and gear bouncing and scraping through a narrow door.
Inside there was a small office with mock timber walls and threadbare rainbow coloured carpet. Two squat women, their grey hair puffing around them, sat behind computers while a white-haired man sat lent over a chair talking into a phone. Seeing us, one of the women got up and met me in the doorway of the office.
‘Can I help you?’ came a flat voice.
Here we go. I took a breath.
‘Yes, vee are from Germany and vee are vanting to do a program on your factory. Is it okay if vee film?’
‘What’s the program?’ her eyes were going up and down, scanning us like The Terminator.
‘Vee are doink a program on throwing zer dice und it ended up here as a choice.’
‘Oh…’ she seemed nonplussed as if this kind of thing happened to her all the time. ‘Wait a minute.’
She turned around to the white-haired man who had just got off the phone.
‘Charles. We’ve got some Germans to see you.’
He shot up. ‘Bloody Krauts?! We’ll have little Hitlers running around here next.’
He walked toward me. Was he going to throw us out?
‘Where are you from in Germany?’ he said, with a friendlier tone.
‘I said “Where in Germany are you from?”’
I had gone completely blank. Unfortunately, Alan hadn’t.
‘Venice,’ he blurted.
‘What?’ Charles blinked.
Just as Al began to shake in his own confusion like a badly loaded tumble drier I jumped in. ‘Vee took a flight from Prague. Vee were in Venice but we are…originally from Frankfurt.’
‘Oh, right. Yeah,’ he held out his hand. ‘Charles.’
‘Helmut,’ I said shaking his hand. ‘And zis is my friend Claus.’
‘Hans-Claus,’ I threw a razor look to Al. ‘Is his full name.’
‘Ah, right,’ he put his hands on his hips. ‘So ya wanna have a look at the factory?’
‘Five minutes,’ he held his five fingers in my face so I’d understand.
‘Ja, five minutes.’
‘Come with me,’ and we followed him down the hallway with the fake veneer panels into the factory when he said something that made me totally shit myself.
‘You should meet my business partner,’ he said. ‘He’s from Germany.’
‘Ah- HA! Vell…’ I tapped my watch rapidly as if I was sending out a help message in Morse Code. ‘We really don’t have that much time…’
‘Ah, but he’s not in today.’
‘Oh, soooo disappointing!’
‘Though his wife is around here somewhere.’
‘But I think she might be on her lunch break.’
‘Zis is too bad,’ smirked Al, watching me squirm again.
Charles took us around the factory, a place full of needles and complicated machines and women bent over sewing-desks and baskets. I stopped by one and said ‘Ah, goot job.’
‘Yeah, right, mate,’ she raised an eyebrow then stitched another sock and threw it into a long production bag filled with other socks.
Around the factory, we went while Charles spoke to us, glasses perched on his nose and talking over them as if we were completely stupid.
‘Uber,’ he said and pointed to some boxes that burly men were packing. ‘They’re German. Ha!’
He slapped me on the back. ‘Ja, ja. Goot. Goot.’
Of course, with all this manufacturing going on Al had to bring up some obscure left-wing politics that only a local activist like him would know about and in the worst German accent I’ve ever heard. He sounded as if he was in a Carry On film. ‘Is da bi-lateral agreement wiz American affecting the price of cotton with competing OECD nations?’
‘What?’ Charles grunted.
‘Nosink. Nosink,’ I stepped in. I turned to Al and grabbed him by the arm as Charles turned back to showing us around the factory ‘what are you doing? Cut that shit out, Al!’
‘Oh, yes. Right.’ And his hands began to shake even more.
On and on Charles went about how they made the socks, where the material came from, how many units this machine-made. ‘Kevlar,’ he held up a sock. ‘No slippage, ja?’
It was becoming so tedious, so boring that I indeed wished that I wasn’t able to understand English at all.
‘Right, boys. That’s all the time I can spare,’ he said, showing us to the door. ‘Oh, one more thing,’ he tapped me on the shoulder just as I was almost outside.
Oh, no. This is it. He knows we’ve been faking it. He’s gonna beat the shit out of us for wasting his time.
‘Put this on where it fits,’ and handed us two pairs of black socks.
‘Sank you!’ I said, then hurried out the door, Al trailing after me.
When we got around a corner and safely away from the factory we burst out laughing falling about the walls.
‘I can’t wait to see this footage, Al. It’s gonna be a scream.’
And it was. On the train back to Melbourne I was indeed screaming.
‘What the hell is this, Al?’ I blasted him as we watched the footage on the tiny digit crystal viewer. ‘This is like some kind of fucking weird cubist art!’
‘You’ve got a shot of my shoulder for most of the time we were in there.’
‘Well, it’s very hard to shoot and talk at the same time you know.’
‘Yes, but you weren’t even talking.’
His eyes flipped to the ceiling, thoughtfully. ‘This is true.’
I looked through the rest of the footage of the trip.
‘I can’t fucking believe this. We’ve got nothing. I can’t use any of this. I can’t use this to pitch the book. You’ve fucked it up.’
‘If someone,’ Al rose up. ‘Had trained me to shoot then it might’ve been a better recording.’
‘Trained? Fucking trained? How hard is it to point the goddamn camera at someone’s face?’ I flipped the screen shut. ‘I’d hate to see your photo album. It’d be just full of body parts. “Look, here’s me in Egypt by the pyramids” and they’d be just an ankle or an ear lobe. Christ! I don’t fucking believe this.’
Alan was silent for a moment. He looked down at his shoes.
‘Look, Russ. You really are a good friend and I am really sorry for fucking up. But all I ask is for you to look at it in a different way. You see, artists are frequently misunderstood and what you have there is quite groundbreaking, quite confronting, quite –‘
‘Er…yes,’ he sighed. ‘Look. All is not lost. W-we couldn’t just throw the dice again.’
I let my head fall into my hands trying to wish it all away.
‘Russ? Russ? Why aren’t you talking to me? You’re not crying, are you? Come on it’s not that bad. Russ…hello, Russ? Let’s throw the dice again. Eh, good buddy? Let’s just throw the dice one more time. What do you say?’
I slapped the die into Al’s palm. The train had stopped and people were getting in. ‘Alright,’ I said. ‘Evens we do this dice trip again. Odds we don’t.’
Al threw the die up with great force whereupon it bounced off the ceiling, ricocheted off the train door window, scuttled over an old lady’s muddied shoe before escaping out the door and into the unforgivable chasm between the platform and the train tracks.
‘Odds!’ Al yelled after it. Our eyes met and we burst out laughing as the train moved off as the grey winter sky turned into night.