Jolley Prize 2013 (Shortlist): 'The Five Truths of Manhood' by Rebekah Clarkson

Rebekah Clarkson

Rebekah Clarkson

Rebekah Clarkson is working on her first collection of short stories. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide


By this contributor

1. You are going to die

Malcolm has every reason to believe that he’ll be fine. The word ‘fine’ laps gently in his mind like the outgoing tide in a sheltered bay. From resting heartbeat to penile erection, Malcolm’s wiry forty-nine year old body has never given him cause to complain. Things Malcolm can’t see too, those that slide around in darkness, have always done so, smooth and effortless. And while his temperament is inclined to melancholy and rumination, not once has this made its way into any public realm – certainly it has never required professional intervention. Malcolm has always been functional.

He notices the full-page Breitling Navitimer watch advertisement featuring John Travolta and finds it strangely reassuring. The magazine sits on the colonial coffee table wedged to the right of Malcolm’s chrome chair in the Wellington Road Medical Surgery. He picks it up, crosses a knee and rests the magazine on his thigh.

Taking up most of the page with his sure frame, Travolta sits on the ground with his back resting against a retro aircraft. His denim-clad knees are bent, his posture casual, but in his eyes there is a gaze of conviction. A sliver of his Breitling Navitimer watch creeps past the sleeve edge of his bomber jacket. Aviation enthusiasts like Travolta – most people were only acquainted with the star, the multi-faceted actor – trusted their Breitling watch for its standards of precision, sturdiness, and functionality. Equipped with movements, Malcolm reads, that are chronometer-certified by the COSC. Malcolm stares at the advertisement and feels a surge of boyhood camaraderie and then a sting of envy. The feeling itself is familiar, but also vague and disorienting, like seeing yourself in an old photograph on an occasion you don’t remember.

Malcolm averts his eyes to his own watch, flimsy and cheap by comparison. It is just past two and something is awry. There is no one behind the reception desk here for starters, and the waiting room is full. An overweight boy in a grey school shirt sits slumped next to him groaning, red-cheeked, sweating, and on the verge, Malcolm assesses, of vomiting. Malcolm feels no anxiety about the child being potentially contagious, though others might. He realises the boy is probably of a similar age to his own son, who can appear younger than he is on account of being rake-thin.

Malcolm himself isn’t handsome; he knows that. Thin, slightly ungainly, a nose that makes delicate reference to a flower bulb. But Malcolm’s lack of sex appeal has not hindered his success in life. He is no film star, no aviator, sure, but he has an MBA and is an established and (he is quite certain) respected manager in the hospital’s Technology Acquisition Unit. And he’s making decent inroads on a mortgage that is well below the national average, giving him over seventy-five per cent equity in what could only be described as an enviable home and garden: new, spacious, high quality, nine-foot ceilings, landscaped with a view. Not least of all, he has Theresa, has her as his wife and the mother of his son, who, apart from a number of setbacks entirely out of the boy’s control, is doing okay, is doing quite well. All things considered.

Malcolm doesn’t like sitting around waiting, doing nothing on a day when he would normally be at work. After the follow-up tests on Monday, this is the second day in the same week that Malcolm has had off work. Two days and two lies; on both Malcolm had dressed for work and left at his normal time. He did not want to worry his wife or his son.

The fact that he has never had a day off work for sickness before is not because he is stoic. Malcolm just doesn’t get sick. The initial appointment almost two weeks ago was a yearly ritual Malcolm had begun to privately enjoy since he’d turned forty-five and Theresa had made him take advantage of the government-funded healthy-man health check. Theresa’s own father had died a slow and painful death at fifty that could have been prevented, she said, if he’d just gone to a bloody doctor once in his life. That’s the last thing Martin needs, she said; to lose his father. And even though she was criticising him for being unself-aware and delusional like her father, he’d felt warmed to hear his wife say that losing him was the last thing their son needed. He’d humoured her with the first major overhaul, not anticipating the pleasant feeling he would have as the young GP’s tongue clicked with approval as he ran down the pathology report. And on top of that, a BMI of twenty, blood pressure 120/80, not a single mole or freckle to declare and, yes thanks, he did feel on ‘top of things’ – at work? Yes. And at home? Yes. Thank you.

Every year since it was the same, not a single aberration. Commendable, said Dr Rossiter the second year. No need to come back until you’re fifty, he said the third year, and when he did come back anyway, Dr Rossiter scanned his bloods and said: Uncanny.

‘Malcolm Wheeler?’

Not Dr Rossiter today. Instead, it is the unfamiliar and bow-legged Dr Waldon.

Malcolm stands and follows him down the cream-coloured passage until he stops outside Room 3. He motions for Malcolm to enter. The doctor is taller than Malcolm and with a largeness and gait that speak of the eastern seaboard, private schools, and rugby games. He sits on his chair, squares his body, and gestures with an index finger toward one of the visitor’s chairs. The room smells of anti-bacterial hand wash combined with yeast. Malcolm remembers that he didn’t eat lunch; the chicken and avocado sandwich he’d made for himself must still be sitting on the kitchen bench. He’d made the mistake of flicking on the flat screen, curious about the daytime soap that the women in Supply always gossiped about: Days of our Lives. They recorded it every day and then watched it at night. If Malcolm had made the more logical decision of taking the sandwich with him to the rumpus room, his stomach wouldn’t be rumbling now. Or if he’d known how long he was going to have to wait, he could have comfortably stayed home another ten minutes and eaten the sandwich then. Or he could have eaten it in the car. So many small regrets.

He considers the temperature (twenty-seven according to the Advertiser, minus one or two to accommodate the latitude of the hills), the amount of time the sandwich has already sat unrefrigerated (one and a half hours), and he begins to formulate what he will Google when he gets home (How long can chicken stay out at 25 degrees Celsius? say, or How long chicken unrefrigerated?). Malcolm had begun to feel a measure of pride in his increasing ability to acquire specific information through Google. Even his twelve-year-old son occasionally would defer to Malcolm’s skills when it came to school projects. Given the boy’s obsession with computers (in part contributing to his so-called Aspergers diagnosis), Malcolm considered Martin’s requests not just an opportunity for bonding, but a real compliment.

Malcolm watches Dr Waldon draw his finger back and forth across his bottom lip, scratch with it behind his ear and then run it down the page inside Malcolm’s open patient file. Then the doctor looks up and while his face is empty and non-committal, these words come out of his mouth:

‘Significant’, ‘afraid’, ‘shock’, ‘unfortunately’, ‘bowel cancer’ and ‘possible metastasis’.

Malcolm chuckles politely. Smiling, he says ‘No,’ as if Dr Waldon has made a small, indiscreet joke.

‘I feel absolutely fine. Never felt better, actually.’ But then Malcolm quickly understands that this is irrelevant – people with cancer diagnoses often feel fine, certainly could look fine, he knew that. And so: ‘There must be some kind of mistake,’ he says, ‘some kind of pathology mix-up.

Dr Waldon smiles patiently. He swivels his chair from his desk, plants his feet a good distance apart from one another and rests his forearms casually on his knees. Like John Travolta in front of the plane, thinks Malcolm. This is no joke.

Malcolm notices then that Dr Waldon – please, call me Warwick – is wearing the same navy socks with the bright blue thin vertical lines that he himself is wearing. This strikes Malcolm as ironic, although he’s not sure how.

The plastic clock on the wall ticks with a slow and painful effect, as though every second hurts it.

Malcolm doesn’t want to call him Warwick. Too close, too sentimental.

He steadies himself as he signs the Medicare form at the front desk, unsure whether Dr Waldon bulk bills him out of compassion (and perhaps the anticipation of many consults ahead) or whether he doesn’t know how to use the EFTPOS machine in the absence of a receptionist.

2. Life is hard

In the car park, Malcolm sits for several minutes in his Pajero wondering what he should do – not in terms of decisions (yes, Dr Waldon had mentioned decisions) or even preparations, he can’t fathom how many of those he must make – but right now. Is this when he should ring his wife? Tell her, I’ve got cancer? He checks his watch. School will be over in twenty minutes and then Theresa will be heading to staff meeting, then Wednesday Wine and Cheese. (It was a far cry from the stale Milk Arrowroots they’d got at her old school.) Then she’ll probably go to Curves, before picking Martin up from OSHC. He feels himself slipping and sits up higher in his seat, putting his hands on the steering wheel.

The wheel is almost too hot to touch, even though it’s not yet summer – presumably evidence of global warming. This makes Malcolm think of the solar panels on their roof at home, so far having made no difference at all to their electricity bill. He wraps
his fingers tightly around the black plastic until his knuckles go white and his eyes sting. Unbidden random phrases in thick American accents appear in his mind from Days of Our Lives:

I’m really sorry about your loss, honey.
But deep down, doesn’t it feel … kinda neat?
That doesn’t really help right now.
I just feel so empty.

The woman had lost a baby. Now she was pregnant again and close, in today’s episode, to giving birth. She had been sprayed, Malcolm guessed, with a fine mist of water to look like perspiration and she huffed and puffed when her fictitious contractions came. When the women in Supply discussed ‘Days’, as they called it, gasping and laughing and saying ‘I know!’ they sometimes joked that you could miss a year’s worth of episodes but still know what was happening. Malcolm wasn’t sure about that. There’s just so much draaaaaaama, the Supply women say, and they always stretch the word out like that.

The obvious thing would be to call Theresa, or his sister – or even his work. Would he go to work tomorrow? He would need to see Dr Rossiter, go over the whole thing again, properly. He squints his eyes against the sun and starts the engine.

For now, the inscrutable fact that Malcolm allegedly has potentially inoperable bowel cancer exists only in a manila folder and in the walls of a small uninspired room that smells of hand sanitiser and something else that he can now pinpoint: Subway.

‘Potentially inoperable’ are not words that Malcolm has dramatically conjured. Dr Waldon used them. Malcolm doesn’t want to ring anybody, doesn’t want to talk to anybody, not even Theresa, especially not his sister and definitely not work. What he wants is to be wrapped in darkness. To be coaxed into oblivion. Suspended, somehow. Relieved, at the very least, from this ferocious daylight.

3. You are not that important

Only once has Malcolm ever been to the movies during the day, and that too was under exceptional circumstances. It feels odd but it is the only place he can think of and he marvels at his ability to have brought himself here. He is the only one in the cinema. He settles his lemonade into the plastic holder at the end of the armrest and nestles the medium-sized popcorn between his knees.

There had been blood, like they say in the pamphlets. He wasn’t stupid. He’d just assumed that it was something else, something simple. A fissure or a haemorrhoid, whatever, either would have been significant enough in the context of his medical history. It was all documented now in his patient file.

Malcolm feels a sudden grief for the manila folder itself, for the weight it now carries, its new stigma and loss of anything to commend or call uncanny. His name bearing down its spine. Malcolm Wheeler, in capitals. His undesirable facts inside: the bloods, the colonoscopy and the biopsy and soon, he imagines, CT scan, surgery notes, and some ill-conceived medication regime; 5-FU, probably Oxaliplatin – he’s not naïve about this stuff. He imagines his file tucked a quarter of the way across the W’s in that large steel compactus – no doubt a Dexion Mek-drive, manufactured right here in his home state.

He’s come in late, missed the Val Morgan advertising, a relief of sorts. Some forgettable chick flick with that actor who married Demi Moore. What was wrong with Bruce Willis? It strikes Malcolm that any film he sees today, even this stupid one, will be significant. That he will remember it, with everything else.

Because he is going to die. He is going to die. It reverberates through his brain until he can focus on nothing else. And then suddenly everything speaks of it – everything – the drapes of floor to ceiling fabric billowing from the walls, each flicker of movement on the screen, the most elementary laws of physics holding his drink in its cup and his shoes on the floor. Even the palm oil-infused popcorn disintegrating on Malcolm’s tongue speaks the truth of his impending death. You are going to die. This comes to Malcolm as though it is spoken aloud and amplified across the cinema. It was the first of the ‘five truths of manhood’. Theresa had given him Biddulph’s latest book for Christmas. He skim-read it to make her happy when they rented that shack on the river, but he hadn’t really taken it in. There were five truths of manhood, according to some Franciscan monk, and Biddulph was big on it. What were the other four truths? He counts on his fingers in the dark: one, you are going to die; two, it’s not about you; no that’s three, something about not being in control and not being important. He can’t remember. He feels his chest crumple. He presses a thumb and forefinger into the bridge of his nose, pressing into the corners of his eyes. And then he is washed in a memory, of the only other time he was in a cinema during the day.

Wonder Boys: not particularly interesting or good, but it was twelve years ago last Saturday that Malcolm and Theresa had gone to the cinema and, like today, bought tickets to whatever was on. When Theresa had stood up as the credits rolled down, pushing awkwardly on Malcolm’s knee for leverage, her waters had broken. Spectacularly and dramatically, just like in the movies, they would joke. They’d left the mess and driven straight to the Women’s and Children’s hospital. The night Martin was born. It was a blur; Malcolm couldn’t think and then he could, Martin was blue and then he was pink and Theresa cried and then she laughed. And the whole room, with its stainless steel and lino and washed out prints of hazy seascapes, vibrated with the news that Malcolm now had a son. It had all happened so fast and has never stopped.

Last Saturday, they’d taken Martin to the Planetarium at Mawson Lakes. Theresa bought half a white chocolate mud cake from the Cheesecake Shop – Martin’s favourite – and kept it by her feet in its green and red cardboard box. Then they ate all of it on the lawn afterwards, just the three of them; his son didn’t have any friends he wanted to bring along. He announced that he would be an astronomer when he grew up, or a space engineer. Malcolm had smiled at his son and then he’d seen that Theresa was looking at him intently, her head lowering slowly – had she wanted him to say something? Last Saturday felt like months ago now.

Theresa had ordered half a dozen books from Amazon so that they could educate themselves. A label is useful, she’d said, if it helps make you a better parent. God, Malcolm, she’d said, when he confessed he still hadn’t read any of ‘his half’, the ones she’d put on his bedside table with a pad of sticky notes and a pen on top. She had hissed it: don’t you want to be a better father? And then she clenched her fist and whacked her own forehead.

Shouldn’t they at least trust the psychologist, that she would tell them the best thing to do? But he didn’t know why he said this. He didn’t trust Shona. She’d been seeing Martin for nearly a year, ever since the dog had run away and the nightmares had started. It felt to him like clutching at straws. The books were still sitting there now. Malcolm saw them every night, in the moment between his head touching the pillow and the light going out. He could intone them like a prayer: Pretending to be Normal: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome; The Asperger Parent: How to Raise Your Child with Asperger Syndrome and Maintain Your Sense of Humour; and Can I Tell You about Asperger Syndrome?: A Guide for Family and Friends.

 4. Your life is not about you

When Malcolm emerges from the cinema into the fading day, there is one new message on his phone. It is from Theresa: Can u pick up milk pls. By the time he gets to the car, there is another one, also from Theresa: M needs excursion $. Get 20 out. Tnks.

Unbidden memory: the first time he and Theresa made love. Years ago now. The very first time. Front bedroom of the share house. Her flesh, her softness, her smell; thighs, breasts, stomach and something specific; holding her hips in his hands he felt her pelvic bones with his thumbs and he pressed those bones and thought; you could only touch her here, like this, if you were making love to her.

He’ll probably lose his hair. People will say – vague and sing-song – you’re looking well, but he already knows, before they’ve even said it, that he won’t be. He’ll suffer. It will be ugly, it always is. He’d seen too many people to list who died of cancer. Bowel would have to be the worst. And then, when it’s all over and you’re gone and people have regained their balance after being hit over the head with the idea of mortality, out they will come, one by one, parading their platitudes – it was his path, someone will say, he’s gone somewhere better, and the worst: it was meant to be.

Malcolm pinches his nose between his thumb and knuckle, feels the movement of cartilage and the wiry black hairs he’s been meaning to pluck. There’s a hanky in his pocket and he pulls it out and briefly rummages around his nostrils. Oh the tedium ahead; the inevitability of it all. But then it rushes toward him like a huge wave and for a moment, he scrabbles for air. He pushes both hands hard against the dashboard of the car, flexing every muscle through his arms, takes slow, long breaths, steadies himself. He starts the ignition, works through the gears, and eases the Pajero out of the car park. Late afternoon has turned quickly to early evening, and the light has morphed through white and amber and pale grey.

5. You are not in control of the outcome

The engine idles as he waits briefly at traffic lights. He crosses over Adelaide Road and makes a sharp left into the Caltex service station. As he gets out of the car, Malcolm wipes his cheek defensively with the back of his hand, assuming a bird has excreted
on him. But there are no birds in the Caltex. The air is moist with the promise of fog, and there is the lightest rain, barely nameable, easily misread. He inhales and his nostrils fill with earth and diesel and tar and something vague and unpleasant, like an old banana left in a school bag.

Inside the service station, a draft of cool air follows him through the electronic glass sliding doors, carrying the mix of outside smells and combining them with the chemicals of lolly snakes and cigarettes. He looks down and notices that the floor is filthy.

As he clenches his fists and feels the cold tips of his fingers against the palms of his hands, he wonders why he was so keen to get away from the bright sun of the afternoon. Because this is worse; this is morose. Morose, he thinks again and he swallows it, so that the word expands inside him and fills him up. The phrases, ‘this is it/this is all there is’ appear suddenly in his mind followed, unadorned, by the word ‘nothing’. Malcolm casts them off, strides toward the wall of fridges. He only needs milk and twenty dollars from the ATM, and then he will go home. It’s Wednesday, which is tuna pasta. The knowledge of this is comforting – some things stay the same. You can rely on them. But then he wonders, sentimentally, when he is gone will his wife and son still eat tuna pasta on Wednesdays? His scalp prickles and a chill spreads behind his neck and across his shoulders.

He nods at the round-shouldered teenage boy standing behind the green laminex counter, a Jeans for Genes donation box partially obstructing the lad’s acne-angry face. The boy nods back, leans across the counter towards the stack of Mars bars. Malcolm opens the glass door on the left hand side of the Coca-Cola fridge and reaches in for a two-litre bottle of Pura fat-reduced milk. Malcolm’s fingers wrap around the plastic handle and lift the bottle from the powder-coated shelf.

There is a crashing sound. It is startling and ear-splitting and comes from nowhere. The sound carries no immediate reference to Malcolm’s everyday life, or to that of the boy, but it is shocking enough to release instant adrenalin into the bloodstreams of them both. In perfect unison, Malcolm and the boy turn their heads to the glass sliding door that Malcolm had entered just seconds before. Both also drop objects: Malcolm the milk; the boy a single Mars bar. When the security video is played later, police will marvel that the precision of this moment almost looks choreographed. Played in slow motion, it will look as though a fountain of white milk is erupting from the floor as the plastic bottle splits on impact.

Turning, Malcolm and the boy see a shower of shattering glass hit the ground and skate across the lino. There are quick flashes of dark denim, tightly knit orange hair, large heavy sneakers, something red, the word ‘cash’, but it sounds more like the bark of an animal than the voice of a human. It will be months before Malcolm realises that he still doesn’t know what causes the glass to shatter. Neither of them see a gun, although later, piecing together disjointed memory fragments, Malcolm will believe that he did see the gun, will even describe it.

The second explosion is louder, closer. The boy yells out in a high-pitched voice, lunges forward, steps backward and then crumples to the floor behind the counter, as though he has been magicked from the scene. Malcolm jolts forward, sees movement and light through the intact windows behind the Jeans for Genes box, and then his feet slip across the milk and give way altogether. When he hits the ground, he feels his chest beating against the wet lino. He feels this but his face seems strangely absent, and he is aware of a deep ache in his thighs all the way into his hips. His feet are unaccustomedly cold.

The next few seconds are large and blurred, an opus of fast and slow. Malcolm’s shoulder is roughly bumped and his fingers trodden on. Scuttling, shouting, slamming of metal, someone is breathing hard and fast, exhaling in short, even intervals. Then there is silence, as if Malcolm and the milk and the shattered glass and the racks of Starburst and chips and chewies and magazines and DVDs are enclosed together in a bubble, still and clear.

Malcolm crawls commando-style toward the counter where the boy lies on the ground grasping at his shoulder, a pool of bright blood growing around his neck and under his arm. He kneels over the boy, looks into his eyes. He understands fully then that the boy is hurt and that he is not. Of everything else that has just happened, Malcolm understands nothing.

‘I’ve been shot! I’m shot! Am I shot?’

The boy’s voice has reverted to the early days of first breaking, muffled and awkward, interspersed with tiny squeals. Malcolm sees flashes of bone and gristle through the cone shape that has been blasted into the boy’s upper arm, messy and wet now with bright pulsing blood. His yellow and green T-shirt is covered in it, his embroidered name-tag unreadable. Without thought, Malcolm tugs the hem of his business shirt from his pants and with both hands, rips it apart, popping small buttons into his lap. He pulls the shirt from his body and begins to wrap and stuff the fabric against the boy’s open flesh: basic, intuitive first aid.

Then a brash alarm. Or has this been going the whole time? Malcolm doesn’t know, but there are other people now, shouting, and others are treading over glass and rushing toward the counter to where the boy lies still and Malcolm kneels shirtless. Malcolm bends down close to the boy’s paling face and rests a palm against his forehead. The boy has deep brown eyes and long eyelashes, the kind his mother’s friends probably gushed over when he was small. His open eyes hold the skerrick of a question, but mostly they are calm and resigned.

Malcolm bends closer and whispers something into the boy’s ear, but it is drowned out by the growing commotion and the sirens.

He strokes the boy’s hair like a father might. He tightens his grip around the boy’s arm, his own hand wet and red and white-knuckled and he thinks, absently, who will make sense of all this? What books will be read? What clichés will be said? Are there words, he wonders, that can clot blood and seal this wound and stitch the inevitable scar?

He hears a woman’s voice gasp above him. She starts to shriek, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ over and over and Malcolm wants her to stop. And then a male voice cuts over her, ‘Please move out of the way, please move out of the way.’

Goosebumps erupt on Malcolm’s chest and down his stomach and arms, and he begins to tremble slightly. But inside, he feels warm. The thumping in his chest has slowed and his heart is beating now at a steady pace: tock-tock-tock-tock. Subtle interactions of cellular chemicals are at work – a silent interplay of genes and proteins – seeking to regulate Malcolm’s inner world. Re-establish some kind of order.

‘You’ll be okay,’ he whispers and then a little louder, ‘you’re going to be fine,’ and he feels sure, although he cannot be certain, that this time the boy hears it.

'The Five Truths of Manhood' by Rebekah Clarkson was shortlisted in the 2013 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.


Published in October 2013 no. 355