into the woods

1.

We’re standing, maybe thirty of us, crammed into a sweaty crevasse of a blackened club room as a genderfucked gutter-baby pop star named Christeene gyrates in front of us, wailing and spitting songs about sexuality and aggression, grinding herself into the bodies of her naked dancers. The lights are low. The tension is high. The room is on edge.

“Remember”, she says, eyes scanning like floodlights across the room – and here I paraphrase – “when you was a little kid, before the world was so confused? Before we all had these machines, walkin’ around with these damn machines, eyes glued to the machines, not lookin’ at people, not connecting, not talking – remember when you and your friends’d get on your little bikes and ride? And you’d ride out, out past the streets and the cities and out into the woods, to that place, that special place that only you knew about, where only they could find you? That one place where you knew you’d always be safe, always be supported, where no-one could follow you, no-one at all. You remember?”

She pauses, the air electric, the audience both repelled and compelled, hanging on her every word. Then: “This – here – now – what y’all are creating – this is that woods. And in here? You are safe.”

14/8 23.35: @chr_st_ph_r_ ❤ ❤ ❤ CHRISTEENE. @paulsoliel 

15/8 00.12: @paulsoliel such a fuggin cutie xxx

After the show.

The lights are on, harsh and halogen, and for an instant the magic has been dispelled. Her backup dancers – still clad in tiny g-strings – dash about on hands and knees, picking up bits of cabbage and rolls of toilet paper – now trodden and beer-soaked – that they’d thrown out over the audience during the opening number. And she is standing in the corner, downing the dregs of a drink, rubbish-bag in hand. I approach, nervous in my gait, a little tipsy, head spinning with sleaze and song and dark, bloody images of nature, machines, wild animals. She spots me; holds my gaze, and I speak:

“Hi.”

She smiles, still in character: “Hey y’all!”.

I reply: “That… that was fucking amazing. Thank you.”

Her smile falters for a second, genuine in its uncertainty, and I am shocked for a second as her hand shoots out to squeeze my shoulder; ragged nails scratching cross my naked skin.

“No. Thank you. Y’all gave me life tonight. I needed that. We all needed that.”

2.

Sometimes it’d be nice to know the right thing to do. Specifically, when I start to pick my activities based on what I think will make a good story: is that being a good writer, or a bad human?

3.

In conversation at the Traverse Theatre, an older American woman, permed burst of dyed-brown ringlets cascading across her sponge-cake face, sits forward in her chair and cuts off the panel adjudicator.

“I think,” she says, “the Fringe is getting muh-huch less daring. All there is these days is comics. I’ve been going here twenty-five years – twenty-five! – and the quality is just… different. It’s just a different thing. It’s getting worse. I saw a show, twenty years ago maybe, it was a musical. A musical, except all the actors were frogs. It was like The Scarlet Letter in Africa, with frogs. And another one called Snowshoe, and all that happened was a tiny clown man walked across the stage, freezing as it snowed, and at the end a huge spider-web descended onto the audience. Now all we have is just… stand-up comics.”

4.

Jenny Geddes is my new hero.

On a walking tour of Edinburgh we were thrown into a crash-course of Scotland’s vast and bloody history. Ms Geddes, it is alleged, was a market-trader with a frightful temper. When King Charles I came to power, he decided to introduce Anglican-style church services across the country – simply by commanding the churches to do so, and printing a new set of prayer books giving praise to the Archbishop. Upon discovering the new book, Jenny – a devout Presbyterian – exploded into such a rage that she picked up her stool and hit the minster in the face with it. This act caused a riot. Which then led to, among other things, the English Civil War.

What can we learn from Jenny Geddes? Wait until you see the whites of their eyes. If you’re going to throw something, have good aim. Violence mightn’t fix things, but it certainly gets shit done.

As she piffed the offending stool, she is reported to have screamed: “De’il gie you colic, the wame o’ ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in my lug?”.

Classic Jenny.

5.

The heart of Edinburgh lies somewhere in the tension between the new and the old. Ancient buildings, cobbled roads and houses, the rich and torrid history of a country fighting for independence – and Starbucks, Nando’s, McDonalds, strip upon strip of gaudy shopping malls.

Outside my bedroom snakes a dark azure canal; lapping and whipping with the Summer wind, and it’s all too easy to imagine wooden boats bobbing up and down or schools of fish darting erratically. Behind this canal sits a tower of modernity; flat-packed hostel apartments wrapped in gaudy prayer-flags like broken Christmas toys, shooting up over a bar that proudly advertises: “THE LADY-BOYS OF BANGKOK, RIGHT HERE, EVERY TUESDAY!”.

As a city, it’s alluring. You get up, out of bed, wipe away the sleep and detritus, grab a coffee and walk. You are surrounded by beauty and history, by age. Every local you meet has a story – a battle, a side, their own Jenny Geddes – and they’re more than happy to talk to you about it all. You notice that the seagulls are bigger here, and meaner, too. They stalk like mutant sea-ostriches across the tops of buildings and glare down at you; eyes watching, militaristically surveying their surroundings in search of… something. You don’t know what they want but you sort of wish they’d stop screaming.

You think to yourself that you wish Australia had such a weight, such an antiquity.

Then you realise that it does – only it’s all been eradicated.

6.

Sometimes it’d be nice to just walk down the street without having a flyer thrust violently in my face.

7.

I wake in fright, sweaty and gasping for air, hyperventilating, my mouth a desert, and in the pitch of the 3am blackness I’ve forgotten where I am. The nights are darker than anything I can remember, and quiet, a blanket of silence save for the occasional gust of screaming wind. Crawling dread, for a second, a split second, and then –

And then, I breathe. And I let it go. And, nothing.

8.

“The Australian Review suggested I might be a little aggressive. Do you think so? Sir, do you think so?”.

We’re sitting in a theatre, yet again, as a man in a red devil suit lounges on the floor, talking to another man who sits in the front row. The first man’s name is Red Bastard.

The man in the audience replies, nervous. “I… yes.”

“You do?”

“Yes. I do.”

“What’s aggressive about me? Huh?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“Your… demeanour, I guess.”

“Have you experience aggression, sir? In your life?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s a simple question, just tell me.”

“Yes.”

“What’s the most aggressive thing that’s happened to you?”

“I… I don’t –”

“Just the first thing that comes into your head. I’ll count down, and just say.”

“No, I –”

“3, 2, 1, go.”

A hush falls over the auditorium. Then, the man speaks:

“My father.”

9.

And we are forcing ourselves up, up and out, up and over, up and up, towards the highest peak of Edinburgh, clouds grey and fat and hanging low over our heads; the winds whipping cross our covered frames and a voice, a voice that rings consistent and loud in our collective heads: go higher, it says, higher – higher still. From up here you can see the world: the countless cobblestone houses, the “new” Edinburgh pumped fat and full with gorgeous capitalism, the pride of the nation – the castle, the museums, state buildings and theatres – and on a giant hill, miles away, the abandoned Pantheon, looming half-finished and uncomfortable over the city at large.

Higher; higher still. On we climb, the air thinning out around us, and the weather, more insistent and tumultuous, raging around our sopping frames as we huddle together, pushing on, higher still.

And ahead of us, a peak. A top. A view. And we stand, the five of us – five friends, spanning some six decades in total – all come together, admiring the view. Up here you can see for miles.

And in this moment I feel somehow that I am whole. I am part of something, a great and terrifying and somehow bizarrely comforting Other. Like minuscule ants on the precipice of being sucked into a gargantuan vacuum cleaner; I feel calm, confident, at peace… in the eye of the storm. But we are here, on top of the world, and we are together, the five of us, facing it at large for the briefest of seconds, five as one. And then we venture forward and off, off the precipice and down, into the dark, into the woods.

The woods, you see, are on top of that mountain. The woods are in your local bar; growing thick and green through the conversations and the friends you make. They’re in the pleasure you get upon first seeing someone you like. The smile of your lover. That girl or boy you’ve been endlessly flirting with. It’s in the phone-number of that barista you’ve been making eyes at; digits written surreptitiously on the side of your skinny latte. Or maybe they’re at the bottom of your local swimming pool; just waiting to be fished out. Or in the backseat of someone’s cum-stained Toyota. Or in your favourite karaoke song. Or that time you finally told that special someone exactly where they could shove it. The woods are wherever you want them to be, and for me, they are there – on that precipice.

And I think how lucky I am.

And I think how glad I am.

And I stand on that cliff; toes peeking over the edge, rock debris falling all around me.

And I take a deep breath – and jump.

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