Rapture of the deep
Here is the Human Zoo, in this old theatre-turned-dance-venue. It's a big space, with adjoining bars, plenty of room to groove and breathe in. The DJ's John Kelly, over from the UK. You see him up on stage behind the decks. He's playing a totally wild-school mix. It's def. It's rad. It's nearly too much to bear. There are stacked speakers either side of him, and lasers illuminating the crowd, scanning upwards out of sight.
Everyone: in front of you, beside you, dancing in the auditorium behind you, is going crazy. And you're in the steamy centre of it all. What a guy! You turn to see these people rising behind, and you think: this is the Human Zoo. This is where all the mad animals come to rattle at their bars and foul up their cages and bite at the hands that feed them. Here are the strutting peacocks and the vainglorious stallions and the preening meercats and the baboons with their mad arses and hallucinogenic faces; here, all of the skins of the world, black and white and yellow and reds and in-betweens, with all the same wide smiles. Look at the movement, look at the colour, the outrageous clothes, luminous bikinis and silver romper suits and Superfly wigs and naked torsos and tattoos and t-shirts with logos on them like Orgasm Donor and Fucker and Betty Ford Clinic.
Your name's Marcus. You were born here in Sydney and grew up under its oceanside spell, and you have the sun-kissed skin and easy-going charm to prove it. You're a very beautiful young thing. You make top dollar working as an IT consultant for a PR company on the sixteenth floor of a very shiny office block in the heart of the CBD. You like Aussie rules and vodka Redbull and sushi and casual sex and going to the movies stoned. You smoke hydroponically grown Sydney skunk, and you blast coke Fridays and Saturdays, with diazoes for the heavy comedowns. And you surf: at Maroubra beach weekday evenings, maybe the southern beaches on the weekends when the swell's on, provided you're not languishing at a recovery party somewhere.
You have a luxurious condominium in Double Bay. In your garage there you have a quiver of ten boards to choose from, including, in pride of place, a 9'2" custom shaped hand painted Bob McTavish, worth a cool twenty five hundred bucks. You also own a BMW Z3 roadster, a Toyota Prado, and an immaculate 1964 Ford Futura, which does for cruising out of town.
Tonight, your clothing is the hetero side of camp. Sleeveless white lycra top, cargo pants, denim jacket, moosehide moccasins. Hugo Boss underwear.
Most important though, there's a Chupa Chup lolly in your mouth. They're de rigueur in the clubs at the moment. Your one is strawberry flavoured. You suck hard at this lolly; waves of kickass saccharine pinch your cheek. Sucking stops chewing which stops teeth grinding. Your teeth are soooo beautiful. You have to protect them. Chupa chups are free at the bar. Most folk have them twisting around in their mouths.
How dangerous could it be to suck on a lolly?
There's a change in tempo: Kelly mixes in a particularly slamming track, and you and the rest of the crowd respond with frenetic dancing. The club goes off its rocker – for a while there you were flagging, but now you're resurgent. All around you, face lift, wind tunnel smiles. You're whooping and thinking: where does the warmth come from? Why's it not always here? Where do I end? Where do I begin? Why do we go back to the same old scene on Mondays, exchanging polite convo, always keeping the respectful distance? We need to change ourselves; it could and should start HERE.
This and much more of the same. The music washes near and far. You get all removed. Your head becomes a new planet with its own red spot and ring system and coterie of moons. The faces of the people around you register pain, confusion, but you're way in control. A warmth, a sensuality rising into your neck, then you're gone, thoughts tunnelling ahead, mind gone, ego dissolved, eyes upward, following the tracers, people in strobing standstills, the music distant and happening somewhere, not here.
The sexiness is so great that when you reach around yourself to check you're still there, you fall in love with your own caresses. You forget everything outside of your own singular heaven, and perhaps that's what heaven's about: a vaunted detachment, nothing to reach you, nothing to annoy or frustrate you, inhabiting a vast, empty space, a space of time and light which belongs only to you, never sleeping, a chemical pharaoh, like Anubis watching from twenty miles up the unimportant people of the world turning circles swerving colliding like bumper cars on Arctic ice floes--
Huh? Hold up.
Hang a U-ey. Bumper cars on Arctic ice floes?
You try to remember how you got to this thought—but the way of your thoughts, the path, the process, is gone. You think: Whoa. What a trippy pill.
Then you're back. Kelly mixes in a new uptempo song. You and all the others detonate into life. It's too awesome. What a world!
A wild guy, tattooed neck, shaved head, blue shades, dances like a feral rabbit with myxomatosis behind you. He rocks around so hard in fact that he misjudges, and his elbow strikes hard the centre of your back.
The Chupa Chup lolly that you were sucking on falls into your mouth, and is pulled with a gasp of inspiration into your throat.
The lolly lodges a good way inside, stopping just over your vocal cords, preventing completely the flow of air into and out of your lungs.
You try to cough, bent over, hands at your neck, face red, the veins on your forehead standing out. You're shocked into reality. You pull vainly for breath. The Chupa Chup will not shift. Unhappily for you, the lolly stick has lodged into one of your throat muscles. The stick is, if you could see it, acting as a wedge against expulsion.
Your hands tremble at your neck. You keep trying to cough, but the lolly doesn't shift. Your panic becomes extreme. You push around the dancers, reaching for their help, pulling them by the arms, grabbing at their funky clothes, but they're gone—blind, lost inside their own raptures. You gesture to your throat, but no-one will see. Some spangled guy even tries to dance with you, giving you a damp hug, shouting yeah man! and copying your agonal movements by dancing with his own hands agitating at his neck.
You recoil, try to scream, but of course you're unable to do so.
You have a pressure in your head: the burn of a forced breath hold. Your stomach muscles convulse, moving in concert with your diaphragm. You stagger away from the crowds, the dance floor, and you try to reach the door, get to a quiet area where people will notice, but your legs are way weak. Your eyes brim with tears. Sounds swim as if in distance, or underwater. You look down on a floor covered in plastic cups and lolly sticks and cigarette ends and this seems odd, an abstract, meaningless mess.
You stumble, fall to the floor.
There you lie with your chest heaving.
Vital seconds go.
Someone's face swells into view. Shouting into your ear, repeating, asking rather hopefully, You alright, mate? Mate, you alright?
Yeah, of course I'm alright. No worries! I'm just a little tired, you fuckin drongo.
The voice startles you. It's loud, internal, yet removed. Is it yours? God's? The devil's? Then you understand: yeah. It's yours. Or rather, it's the voice of your superego and your id combined. The same scathing accent heard every morning at the mirror; the same gloating voice beside you as you thrust over your conquests.
A scrum of faces above you. One person runs for assistance, while another helpfully slaps you in the face. The penny begins to drop that you're not alright: in fact, you're definitely not very well at all.
You're dragged from the dance floor, legs sliding inelegantly behind you, to the light and lesser noise of a corridor. There are individual voices: shouts, someone calling for help, urgent interrogations.
What's he taken! Has he taken anything?
Is he breathing?
What the fucking hell's going on?
Now you can hear your friends, their voices small, panicky: answering questions, admitting to your ingestion of ecstasy and coke and even, from the sublime to the ridiculous, a wee bit of dope. You picture their faces, their self-reflected concern, hands at their cheeks, wondering if it's bad form to slink away.
Party's over, dudes! Enjoy the show. Hur-hur-hur.
You curse the voice and wish for more time, wish times ten that you had more time. You promise to be a better citizen, a More Giving Person, selfless to a fault.
Is he hot? Does he feel hot?
He's not breathing! He's not breathing! How much water has he had to drink?
Didn't you hear me, he's not bloody breathing!
What else did he have?
Could the coke stop his heart?
OOHH! I had the same coke! Will my heart stop too?
I heard that ecstasy can cause your lungs to fill up with fluid and you die. Your eyeballs explode and your heart splits in two.
There was this article in GQ about this coke fiend whose legs and arms went black and he had to have them amputated…
Oh my word! What about me? I dropped at the same time as him!
This is great. Having a debate about the potentially life-threatening side-effects of recreational drugs, while I lie here dying. And no-one has even considered the lethality of choking on a Chupa-Chup.
Does he have a pulse? Oh Marcus!
A voice, butting in: Is that a dead guy? Seeek, mate!
Get lost, asshole!
Another voice: It could be a case of hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, you know.
Who are you – bloody doctor Gregory House?
The voice admits: I'm a medical student.
Then do something!
Silence. Then: I don’t know CPR.
You're fucking joking! Does anyone know CPR?
The shout's taken up. It appears someone does. An irritating alpha male voice replies, I Know CPR! You feel fingers at the hollow of your neck.
He's got a pulse.
No shit, Sherlock. I coulda told ya that.
Is he breathing? A hand on your forehead, another firmly gripping your jaw, tilting your head back. No breathing.
Pursed lips, rough stubble, sour breath, the alpha male blowing into your mouth.
This is a bit better. Now let's see how long it takes him to work out I've got a Chupa-Chup stuck here bang in my windpipe.
Alpha male tries another couple of breaths. No chest expansion. Then are another two breaths, then a flummoxed silence. Alpha male thinks aloud through his ABCs.
Did you call an ambulance?
An ambulance? Anybody? Hey you fuckin lame-o's, an ambulance?!!
It's on its way, chill out.
Erm.. danger.. responsiveness...
As you lie flaccid and awaiting resuscitation, the numbskulls in your head play a naughty, cruel trick: they put on the jukebox in your mind.
My girl lollipop, by The Chordettes, comes on.
Ha Ha, very bloody funny. What an idiot I am.
It has been three minutes since your last breath. You are reminded now of the worst surf hold down you ever had: pearling on the lip of a massive set wave, in four-times-overhead conditions on a howling day at the Fairy Bower, Manly.
The ocean boiling. Paddling hard. A dark impossible shape beyond the wave you just crested. You pull for it, pull into it, strain as it lifts you, then gasp to see the guts of the Bower opening up way below. You take a short drop, then nothing: then the violence begins, down and up, over the falls, over again and down, down, down. Held there in the darkness, pulled along underneath, almost surfacing, but then hit by the next wave as you claw through the foam. Pulled along by this wave underwater way past the point, forgetting to relax and desperately trying to climb up your leash to the surface.
Being held down beyond the point was very heavy indeed.
But nothing like this.
The alpha male recovers himself. He gives more breaths. Then he wonders aloud: Is there something stuck in his throat?
Bingo! Check out the big brain on Brad!
You feel your mouth being opened and a finger pushed inside, poked around.
Come on, there must be something…
The alpha male sits astride your hips. He puts his hands together in the middle of your abdomen, asks everyone to stand back.
Performing abdominal thrusts!
Come back to daddy, come back my boy….
Now your body tightens around you. You begin to shake, the onset of a fit. It's been four minutes since your last breath, and soon you'll begin to die. You've entered a bloodless limbo, where you flex between disconnected serenity and moments of consciousness and panic. Thoughts form in your mind, but you can't register them, and will not later remember them.
Please, oh please, not me, not here, not now, please…..
You don't experience the stock in trade near death phenomena: floating above and looking down on your recumbent body, or ascending through a black tunnel to a blinding white light. Nor do you relive your life in moments, in a flickering series of snapshots, back and back to wind-whipped sunshine days of ice-cream and slip slop slap.
Instead: you're underwater. Warm salt water. The sea. Opening your eyes, you see a tropical realm of immense undersea boulders. You drift over these monolithic stones which form hillside slopes and crannies and grottoes and pinnacles for countless types of fish. The stones are dotted with corals: soft corals, gorgonian fans, sea pens and whips, all caressed by the currents. The fish sashay around you. You swim on your back, looking up on the shifting mosaic of light formed by the waters' surface, and you turn again, look down to a sandy sea floor with coral bommies dotted around.
The water's so clear that you can see a hundred metres in every direction; the deep blue eliding with depth and distance to black.
…my girl lollipop! You make my heart go giddy-up, you taste as sweet as candy, you are my sugar dandy…
You hear the steady crackling of a million, million coral mouths. This sound will be the last impression within your dying nerve cells, and it's really not a bad way to go.
One, two , three--
The alpha male is delivering sets of five liver-splitting thrusts to your upper abdomen. He pushes up and in to your chest. Fireworks go off underwater.
Dynamite shattering the coral.
A high pitched whine in your ears, then:
The Chupa Chup lolly is dislodged. It appears with a froth of vomit at your blue lips. Alpha male falls backwards, amazed, triumphant. He holds up the lolly.
You take a harsh breath. You cough, breath again. Your breathing falters, then returns to regularity. There are calls for oxygen, and applause.
A rude consciousness slips around you, the strangest wakening of your life, lying in a star on the floor of a corridor with a huddle of strained faces over you. Pain in you head, nausea. You try to speak but cannot. You wonder where you are, what this is.
Things happening. People looking at you. Someone saying, just like in the movies – You're gonna be alright, mate. Then being lifted by some other people, moved down a stairway on some kind of stretcher. Pretty blue lights. A fast drive across town.
You'll be admitted to hospital for investigations. Your voice will return in a few hours, a whisper at first, then a croak. Visitors will come and cry to you.
The sun will shine on and on in your window. Flowers in vases will flourish on your windowsill. Nurses will sooth your early nightmares with sleeping pills.
You'll be discharged from hospital after three days. Then you'll stay at home for two weeks, anxious, haunted by what has happened. When you first return to work, on commute you'll panic at the sight of Chupa Chups on display in the newsagents. But this will get better.
And you'll be driven by an odd desire: to throw it all in, quit your highly paid job, quit the cars and the boards and the condo and take up scuba diving instead.
Published in Granta's New Writing 15.
My novel The Last of us was published by The Borough Press in April 2016.