I think I’ll
start at the beginning. Or at least at a beginning. At one of
the beginnings. I’ll start with the taps. But first, I have
to tell you about my work, about what I do, did, do, for a living.
You’ll understand this better, I hope, as we go along.
a proof-reader. I read proofs for a publishing company. We handle
everything from trade journals to free-sheets to special promotions
for client companies. It’s big business. All image. The
quality of the finished product reflects directly on the Corporate
Images of both the client and ourselves. So the copy must be perfect.
It usually is. We’re the best in the business, and I am,
though I say so myself, the best proof-reader there is, or was,
begin with the taps. Lately, I’ve found myself running a
tap to fill a kettle or a basin, walking away, and letting it
run and run. A few minutes later, or longer, I’d catch myself
wondering why the hell the tap was still running. It’s a
small thing. A very small thing. I notice small things. Maybe
I’m going senile, or the pressure of work is getting to
me. But there’s more to come.
I said, I’m a proof-reader. I’m trained in, and experienced
at, noticing anomalies. It’s part of me. I read everything,
watch everything, analyse everything around me continuously. I’ve
often gone into shops to tell them their signs were misspelled,
or been forced to put aside in anger a newspaper strewn with simple
and stupid mistakes in syntax, spelling and meaning. Even on holidays
I never turn off. And I’m always right. Or I was, used to
“it’s” versus “its”. This was even
worse than the taps. On one particular day, I just could not get
it right. It was like “flip”, one day you use “it’s”
for the possessive, and the next you use it only for “it
is” I couldn’t believe it. Even though I looked at
every guide to proper English, every dictionary, every Thesaurus
in the place. They all agreed. I still couldn’t believe
it. I still can’t.
my name. That’s Michael John Madigan. But everyone calls
me Johnny now. And it just doesn’t sound right. Not at all
right. Michael John sounds better but even that has a strange
air about it, as though it referred to some character in a book
I’ve read, or someone in a film I’ve seen. A Johnny
I’m not. Definitely not.
can’t really speak to anyone about this, because I don’t
seem to know anyone very well anymore. I have thought about this
too, and I think I can trace the strangeness, the difference,
back to the River. Since then there’s been something like
a rift, a huge divide between what went before and what came after.
instance, a month after the River Incident, a wonderful job opportunity
presented itself to me. I had to move to the other side of the
country, but it was such a chance in a million, I just had to
accept. And the job has lived up to all my expectations. As I
said, I am now chief proof-reader in the largest, most successful
publishing company in its field.
I have a great
deal of job satisfaction. I live in a new house on the fringe
of the suburbs. The climate here is better and I spend a lot of
time on the beach. However, I don’t see much of my old friends
or family, and when I do, we don’t seem to “connect”.
It’s almost like we’re strangers. Life is better here,
but something is awry, some things just don’t gell.
River. I’d better tell you about that, and although I did
say I hadn’t spoken to anyone about the taps, or my name,
or any of the other things that bother me, I have talked to people,
asked them enough to know that every single one I’ve questioned
has had his or her own “River”, had his or her own
Rift or Great Divide, though none seem to recognise it for what
I now suspect it is.
River. It was a bright sunny day. The Big Pool on the river was
a popular place for bathing. Fairly clean, safe, and within walking
distance of town. There was even an old slippery diving board.
We rarely used this for diving anymore. The river wasn’t
as deep as it used to be, and there was a lot of debris and mud
on the bottom. As kids, we used to dive down, become explorers
of the deep. On this bright, sweltering day, I just wanted a quick
dip, so I climbed onto the board and dived head first into the
cool, still water. The shock of the water was slightly disorientating,
and I just went down and stuck in the mud. It sounds silly like
that, but that’s what happened. Stuck in the mud. I was
so frightened I didn’t know which way was up or which down.
I forgot I was under water. Forgot I was a mammal and not a fish.
I forgot everything, until I awoke in a house by the river, lying
on cool white sheets, and watching white clouds float by the window.
back now, I can see that nothing has really been the same since.
And it’s not me. At least I think it’s not. Everything
is the same, but some things feel like they should be different.
Everything is the same, but some things seem a little less so.
Not quite different. As though the shadow of their real selves
- or some other selves - hangs over them. Like the taps. I behave
as though taps should turn themselves off. All taps. But they
don’t. Not here anyway. I behave as though my name is not
Johnny Madigan, or Michael John Madigan, not quite Michael John.
I behave as though I were trained to spell “its” as
“it’s” when used in the possessive sense, whereas
the world persists in the opposite. This world. The world I’ve
been in since the River. A complete world, a “real”
world, a world in which all the parts relate perfectly to each
other, except to me.
tell you a story. A man - say a Jimmy Madigan - is walking home
from the pub. It’s a Saturday. Let’s say it’s
raining, and the road is narrow and twisting. At a particularly
dangerous bend on the road an inebriated motorist takes the corner
too sharply and feels a slight bump. He carries on. On the roadside,
Jimmy Madigan picks himself up and considers his escape miraculous.
The motorist later feels guilty, turns back and finds the body.
Jimmy Madigan is buried two days later. The notices for his funeral
are in the paper. But Jimmy Madigan doesn’t read the death
notices. Even if he did, he wouldn’t find any mention of
his death in the paper he buys every day. Not in the paper in
his world, in his new his death in the paper he buys every day.
In the old world, life goes on without Jimmy Madigan, while Jimmy
Madigan goes on with what he doesn’t suspect in his new
But I do. I suspect.
I notice. How could I not? I’m a proof-reader. I read proofs.
I notice things. For instance, my body “isn’t what
it used to be”. More precisely, my legs “aren’t
what they used to be”. They’re shorter, stockier.
And everything here is heavier, and built closer to the ground.
As if gravity was greater here. Like I said, I notice things.
Eventually. I’m a proof-reader. I read proofs. But where’s
my proof? Now there’s the rub. But let me ask you one question.
Think carefully and tell the truth. Have you ever “miraculously”
survived “certain death”? Have you? What’s your
River, your Great Divide?
Taken from ‘Roughly Speaking’
(1991), pages 44-46.