A Stranger in His Own Country – Adrift at 49


Dreams are tufts of cloud in the blue-black yon­der. One sec­ond you almost have them, the next you have tum­bled a thou­sand metres through space into another wooly con­coc­tion. Is the truth so insub­stan­tial? She was small and grubby and freck­led. If all lit­tle girls are meant to be cute, she was the one god for­got. She stood in my way with fierce deter­mi­na­tion, pulled me down, and said in a tiny voice “I love you.” Then she kissed me lightly on the lips.

We seemed to be in the hall­way of some kind of apart­ment build­ing. There was a sense that her mother had drifted in with another lack­adaisi­cal one-night-stand, and that for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son I was the only per­son around who looked like a rea­son­able human being. No I don’t know what it all means. Only that a very few dreams have a long after­taste.

There was a child­hood dream, still vivid, of stand­ing exposed in a field as huge gun­ships from an evil planet hov­ered over­head, and later being trans­mu­tated to a dis­tant star of per­pet­ual war­fare where on the bat­tle­ments at night I kept ask­ing plain­tively “how the hell did I wind up here?”. There was the very odd dream of swal­low­ing a large green frog who was some­how the lin­guist, Ray Cat­tell, and a kind of incar­na­tion of indi­gestible reams of gen­er­a­tive gram­mar which stood between me and pro­fes­sional “free­dom”. And there was the ruf­fled grey bird sit­ting a sew­er­age out­let pipe of a windy iso­lated beach, and which also touched me on the lips with its beak … just after I had applied for a posi­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of South Africa. Some­where there was also a dream of an cool, unruf­fled woman, in grey too, who came at a crit­i­cal moment, with an amaz­ing bond of power and love between us. It was imme­di­ately clear that a piece of Fate’s great plan had finally fal­len into its proper place.

In an odd way, I’m doing all right at Bat­man Col­lege at the moment. The money is good, $41,000, plus $4000 from Colling­wood night work. The natives have more or less accepted me against all my nat­u­ral anti­so­cial ten­den­cies. One senses that it is a fleet­ing inter­lude, which spites the instincts of a queru­lous Lady Luck, who never tires of putting trip wires across the path. The con­tract is for three months at a time, which means forever walk­ing on eggshells.

Lis­ten­ing to unem­ployed grown men in a tech­ni­cal col­lege giv­ing class talks on “car detail­ing” — how to wash a car — pre­tend­ing to pre­pare them for a bright new future, does leaves me won­der­ing about the games our civ­i­liza­tion plays. Just to keep com­pla­cency at bay, my Green­wich U. Mas­ters degree finally mate­ri­al­ized after eight months of cler­i­cal to-ing and fro-ing, with a tran­script con­tain­ing so many errors that it is unus­able; (let’s hope it doesn’t take another eight months to sort that out).

Sud­denly, a plethora of pos­si­ble job open­ings has appeared, lot­tery tick­ets flut­ter­ing in the wind and sure to be whipped out of reach by a sud­den gust if I am fool­ish enough to reach for them. There is a per­ma­nent tutor­ship in lin­guis­tics at the Uni­ver­sity of Auck­land. The salary would rep­re­sent a loss of $10,000, off­set by the real­ity that the uni­ver­sity work­ing year is only about seven months. HCE in Abu Dhabi has asked if I’m inter­ested in reg­is­ter­ing for an August 1995 appoint­ment; there are even jobs in Kuwait. Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­sity has a cou­ple of ESL lec­tur­ing posi­tions in Spencer St, Mel­bourne. Finally, an Inter­net notice from Miyazaki, Kyushu, Japan is offer­ing two year appoint­ments in a small lib­eral arts col­lege.

How much fidelity should one feel on a three month appoint­ment? Was that small freck­led girl the orphan child of Coburg? Like those reluc­tant unem­ployed men I pre­tend to teach, I have a weak­ness and a need. The weak­ness is a stub­born cer­tainty that there is some­thing that I can be good at, bet­ter than any­one else any­where. Such van­ity. It can’t be coax­ing pro­fane, crushed young men towards lit­er­acy in an auto­mo­tive col­lege. Oth­ers can do that with more ten­der­ness. It can’t be invent­ing clever rules for phono­log­i­cal vari­a­tion. Oth­ers of greater intel­li­gence and more triv­ial judge­ment will always sur­pass me in the mechan­ics of lin­guis­tic analy­sis.

Once, briefly, I thought it might be on the wings of prose. Then I saw libraries and book­shops awash with lit­er­a­ture, and real­ized that what had been the the most sub­lime achieve­ment of human cul­ture half a mil­len­nium ago was now, at best, grist for a half hour tele­vi­sion spe­cial. Besides, my acquain­tance with the human spirit has been too shal­low to float a good story.

So I wash in and out with the tide, scarcely touch­ing this voca­tion or that, learn­ing one lan­guage or one skill for a week, and then another. Always search­ing, as life ebbs away. I thumb through the yel­low pages, ask­ing myself whether I could be a travel agent or a civil engi­neer or a com­puter pro­gram­mer. That tale is a com­mon one, writ­ten on so many faces one passes in the street.

Per­haps the need is for a con­fi­dant, a peer or some­one wiser. Man or woman, it doesn’t mat­ter. From the very begin­nings of child­hood there has never been another mind to whom I could seri­ously turn for a sec­ond opin­ion, let alone a men­tor. Often enough I offer advice. That is a teacher’s part. Yet no per­son has mas­tered my story, and few with the wit to grasp its whole have the com­pas­sion to explore its res­o­lu­tion. Some­times ordi­nary kind, peo­ple make an ordi­nary, kind com­ment. But where it counts, any con­fi­dence ven­tured has too often been betrayed. The hand prof­fered is so often search­ing for advan­tage or power. Occa­sion­ally women have tried to rein­vent me in terms of their own fan­tasy, sad funny lit­tle roles that I’ve had to kill off before they got out of hand. Blessed are those with the knack of friend­ship, and the luck to keep it.

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