The following story was first published in Going Down Swinging #33, alongside these illustrations from Simon MacEwan. Grab a copy here.

It’s a Sunday night, sometime in 1972.

My father has recently returned from Vietnam and my parents have just bought their first home after living in military prefabs all their married life. In our new suburban house we have a tiny room we call the den. My sister and I practically live in this room, sprawled on the couch, watching all the television we can. Our parents seem too tired, or too distracted, to supervise or monitor this glut of TV viewing. They seem to have just given up. So we cram ourselves with TV like cake, gorging on Kimba the White Lion, Cartoon Corner, The Addams Family, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, Lost in Space.

We are mavens of jingles, products, game shows, routines, comic timing in advertisements, the script of the Tattslotto draw on Saturday nights, every episode of every cartoon and comedy serial known to the western world. So this is the tale of our castaways / They’re here for a long, long time/ They’ll have to make the best of things / It’s an uphill climb.

On Sunday nights we divide a family block of Cadbury Snack between us (Cadbury Snack, six islands of flavour in a sea of chocolate) and watch The Benny Hill Show. The den has a wall of built-in bookcases. I am the family reader. My children’s books are stacked in this room, waiting for the day, very soon, when I will idly open them and think, What did I ever see in these? There are some magazines and some Reader’s Digest editions of mid-twentieth century classics. There is a big book on the bottom shelf that I will get to soon, once the ads start coming on in The Benny Hill Show. As in all rituals, there is a very particular process. There are not many things we laugh at together since Dad came back from Vietnam, but The Benny Hill Show is one of them and we are unswerving in our observance of this ritual.

The seconds tick away and the Thames Television logo comes onto the screen, an image of blue sky and white clouds (it is grey on the black-and-white set because colour TV doesn’t come to Australia until March 1975, but in memory it is indisputably a clear summer blue), a sky that slides into a mirror image of buildings in the Thames – a collage of famous London landmarks including London Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral, a skyline in perfect reflection. A muted musical theme plays, the ultimate in calm British comfort, harmonised brass and oboe, grave and controlled as a clock striking. There is a short crackly silence after this theme, and the skit that
follows just illustrates that this controlled calm is a knowing English illusion, because once the voice says Yes, it’s The Benny Hill Show! our den becomes electrified with rare and melting delight, three pieces of chocolate each and even our mother laughing, a world shot through with double entendres and haplessness, Benny’s universe, one that none of us are wise enough to despise yet.

Benny is at the top of his form in 1972 and everyone in Australia is watching this: it’s all anyone talks about on Monday. During the week it’s The $25,000 Great Temptation, but Sundays are different and if our life has become a seized engine of endless hours of television and baffled desperate tension, Benny is there offering sly knee-slappers to unjam those gears. There is Benny causing mayhem without understanding why, innocent and credulous, mugging desperately at the camera with that let me out of here eye-roll. We laugh until the tears come, and when it’s time for the first ad break (Hey, Charger! Tab cola, what a beautiful drink! Amoco, nice clean petrol) I slide out the big book on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, the greatest book ever, ticking with implacable power, The Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas 1961 first edition hardcover that my parents must have been sent as an introductory gift when they joined Reader’s Digest and bought the other generic editions on the shelves.

The atlas has such heft I can hardly lift it. It has a cloth binding and teal blue cover with a gold-embossed planet earth stamped there. I start from the back because the pages at the end are safe and benign: world population and maps showing population by colour coding, by land classified as desert, arable, and forested, arrows sweeping across continents where migratory birds fly each year, never resting. Pale yellow landmasses and continents, spidery inscribed rivers and placenames, pages crammed with millions of tiny dots depicting towns and cities across a planet that seems so populous, all of it claimed and named, other people’s towns crowding down coastlines. Then I flip to the front, and the topographic maps show those same continents with surfaces wrinkled like melted cheese, and I feel a small defensive jerk of sympathy for Australia, tinted drought-orange and faint lime green, nearly all desert and hardly any placenames filling its dull, empty surface, the huge oceans around it cement-grey, crumpled like paper discarded then smoothed out again.

Each page I flip settles open with an exhaled breath of familiarity. I have my favourites that tug me away from what’s on the television and, anyway, it’s Benny’s songs and poems I like, not the innuendo or sight gags, not when I could be poring over the double-page spread of The Earth’s Treasures, with every precious stone catalogued there. A gold nugget. Topaz. Aquamarine. Platinum, looking like crushed-up pieces of silver foil off the chocolate.

Another ad break (Sao, Sao, Sao, Arnott’s Sao biscuits, they’re golden brown and crisp right through and big enough to build a meal on), and here’s the page of the cross-section of a volcano, boiling lava bright red under the earth’s surface ready to explode from the conical peak, and under the ground, in the core of the earth, it’s all molten liquid, branching up like a tree, like veins and arteries spraying blood. I push my tongue against the roof of my mouth and pink fondant spurts through melting chocolate, so sweet my teeth ache.

I’m immersed in the atlas now, feeling the same faint prickle of apprehension as I turn the pages back towards what I know awaits me buried in the middle. I can tease myself with this creepy approaching shudder; I can dilute and offset some of the fear by scaring myself first with the image of the world’s deepest oceans, a shelf of water that begins shallow and pale blue then plunges off into midnight depths filled with horrific fish with jaws hinged like traps and small burning lights on antennae hung over their heads, down there in the blackness. You can imagine a tiny, tiny human figure swimming out in the pale shallows away from the safety of the beach and continuing oblivious to what lies beneath them, kicking their legs, suspended over the deep while sharks and trap-jawed monsters and tentacled octopi notice them and begin to rise, jaws stretched open…

I sense my parents glance at me occasionally as I turn the pages, saving my last piece of chocolate. They want to include me in this easy ritual of laughter, this single thing we all do together, here in the den, but I am off in that book again, flipping quickly from the darkening shelf of terrifying water, feeling the familiar tingling horror along the back of my scalp as I get close to the page I dread and yet aim towards every time.

Here is the one at the beginning of the book: Where Earth Belongs: The Solar System. The glowing planets are like faces lit up by birthday candles by the sun, which is quite small compared to the masses of Jupiter and Saturn. They hang there in this mysterious, velvety candlelight, and there’s earth, this tiny droplet here on its orbit so near the fiery sun, the marble-like globe on which every one of those continents rests, every single placename rendered to specks. Specks of specks of specks, more than enough to be contemplating without turning the page, and anyway here is Benny smirking in a sombrero, pretending to play the guitar, his face round and bland as a pie. Soon will come the fast-motion chase scene where he runs after more and more people, off one side of the screen and onto the other, hands outstretched, the women in underwear, and the fast-blurting saxophone theme song they play as the credits roll, but for this moment I can hold everything still before I turn the page, saving the dread like a crumb of chocolate before I let it slowly collapse and melt on my tongue, feel it saturate through me until the foil shiver rolls up my spine.

Here is the section, warning you, The World As We Know It, where you can steel yourself before turning. All it takes is for my nine-year-old finger to lift away this rustling page to the next double-page spread, Outer Space: The Boundless Sky, which looks so innocuous at first, just a few swirls like fireworks in a deep midnight blue, and a spray of white dots like something you could flick from a paintbrush. A big swathe of speckled white, denser here and there, flung across an expanse of utter blackness. This spill is the Milky Way’s cosmic dust. Weightless, vaultless dark; a black shelf beyond comprehension. In the bottom right-hand corner of the page, a small red arrow points to a random dot in a cluster of particles like grit, and here at last is the terrifying line of text which reads: Our solar system is somewhere here.

I stare at this until I have the sensation of falling, until a spasm laps up the back of my neck. I swoon into it, tumbling backwards through the Milky Way into the solar system into the pale faded orange of humble Australia lying in its creased sea of grey, into this suburb into this small room, the den, the cave with the shadows flickering, where on a box in the corner jerky stop-motion footage of a farcical chase scene plays to an unmistakeable tune and fast credits roll. Back through the darkness underneath the surface of everything, dizzy with that word somewhere randomly pointing into the spinning universe, the moth-like stripes of Jupiter’s rings, Benny’s face turning to me with an eyebrow raised and his hooded eye twinkling Do you get it? until I close the blue solid cover and shakily put the atlas back on the shelf. My head has to contain it, like a blown light bulb.

Forty years later and there are countries in that atlas that don’t exist anymore. The only really accurate atlas now is The World Factbook, available online and produced and updated (of course) by the CIA. I don’t watch too much TV but my attention was caught not long ago by that unmistakeable blaring saxophone riff on a TV station I’d never heard of.

My eyes snapped to the screen and I saw the closing credits of a rerun of The Benny Hill Show: Benny, long excoriated as sexist and misogynistic, voyeuristic, puerile and ribald. He looked exactly the same, jerking frantically across the screen with his arms extended in some comic contretemps. But I noticed suddenly I’d been wrong all these intervening years. Benny wasn’t chasing the girls, the girls were chasing him. He’d blundered, innocent and hapless, into some clubhouse, and now they were in semi-clad pursuit and he’d never be able to explain. He couldn’t just turn around and hold up his hand and say: Wait, it’s all a misunderstanding. That would spoil the joke.

That theme song, ‘Yackety Sax’ by Spider Rich & Boots Randolph, is a meme now. It’s all over YouTube, parodying farcical chases everywhere. And me – with my head still full of 1970s television trivia and the stop-motion pieces of footage of the den, the universe, chocolate, the family in uncomprehending freefall, trying to laugh, and that small resolute red arrow, all of them randomly edited together in a bonded snarl I can’t pick apart – I am suddenly stopped in my tracks with the thought that for five minutes of respite that’s all I need to do too, just stop and turn around with an outstretched hand and say: Wait.

Found poem, 2012, exactly as discovered:

You are bidding on a classic
Reader’s Digest World Atlas 1961 First Edition
This book is full of wonderful graphics like the photos
it’s charming and naive
The hardback cover has come off the book
and the pages have some water marks and have
browned with age
BUT it still smells of an old book
and I love it
happy bidding and please feel free to ask questions.

I’m keen to see what’s changed in the universe, beyond a slightly more sophisticated search engine. A mere $5.80 plus postage, and it’s mine. That’s a dollar cheaper than the current price for a family block of Cadbury Snack. I feel myself pivoting on my fleeing feet, slowing down, ready to raise my hand.

The past is winging its way towards me in the mail, a new artefact for my new den.

Whatever it is – a black hole, a dangerous ocean, something warped and deformed with pressure like those fish, shifting and boiling, something aglow with candlelit nostalgia – whatever it is, here it comes. It’s comfort I want now. The comfort of all those pages being faithfully identical to my memory of them. And the page with the red arrow, if it actually exists and I didn’t invent it (which is a vastly more terrifying scenario), I want that collision of terror and comfort, detonating like lava hitting the sea. I want to see if a short lifetime can neutralise that terrifying black nothingness and render it simply charming and naive. The universe only ever has one answer to my endless restless existential flipping of pages, though. Happy bidding, it says, and please feel free to ask questions.

So. It’s Sunday night, sometime in 2012. My solar system is somewhere here. It smells of an old book, and I love it.

Want to hold this story in your hands? Buy Going Down Swinging #33 here.