A STATE OF PLAY ESSAY BY TOM HOLLOWAY
Australian Plays series of guest essays from leading voices in Australian theatre.
evil spirit or demon.
synonyms: demon, devil, evil spirit, imp, bogie; incubus, succubus; hellhound; informal spook; rare cacodemon
“a fiend had taken possession of him”
an enthusiast or devotee of a particular thing.
“a football fiend”
synonyms: enthusiast, fanatic, maniac, addict; devotee, fan, lover, follower; aficionado, connoisseur, appreciator; informalbuff, freak, nut, ham, sucker, great one
“I’m a fiend for Mexican food”
It was probably about 5am when I first became aware of it. I was asleep in bed and dribbling heavily in to my pillow when a strange sound elbowed its way in to my mind. It was a kind of grumbling, hissing, farting sound, like a gremlin dying. I woke, my mouth now well and truly dry and pillowy, and as I opened my eyes the form of it emerged in front of me.
Hmm… How do I explain what it looked like? It was probably about the size of a basketball at that stage, and it was dark in colour, but because of the low light I wasn’t yet aware of just how very black it was. And it… Well, I couldn’t say it throbbed. It was faster and more frantic than throbbing. It was as if it was bubbling and hissing and squirming while it sat there on the spot. As if someone was electrocuting a giant pompom.
“Shh.” I said. “You’ll wake my son.” But of course it just kept farting and spluttering.
Katie stirred. “What is it?” She mumbled. I told her it was nothing and that she should go back to sleep.
I scratched my head, not really sure what to do. I was up anyway, so I figured I might as well go to the loo.
In the light of the bathroom I could see it more clearly. It had followed me in, you see. I sat on the loo (I wasn’t yet awake enough to be sure of hitting the target standing up) and it buzzed and whizzed at my feet.
“Where did you come from?” I asked. I heard something that might have been a chuckle in reply, and then, in a rough, nightmarish, croaky voice:
“Where the fuck do you think?”
At that very moment my toddler woke up in the next room. He was crying. A lot.
Great. Thanks a lot, weird horrifying blobby thing.
I flushed and then went and picked up Pluto whose tears dried up the moment he saw it. Toddlers can cry when they’re scared, sure, but you know something is really wrong when they go dead silent and dead still and cling on to you like a baby bonobo. I took him down stairs and turned on the lights in the living room. I tried to put him down on the ground and told him to play with his toy trains, but he wouldn’t leave my arms.
“Daddyyyyyy?” He said, wearily. But I didn’t really know how to answer him. The thing just jumped and hissed on the ground near my feet.
It was probably about 5.30 now. Katie’s alarm went off and she came downstairs in her gym gear and with her work clothes in a bag. She was surprised to see us.
“You guys are up?” She asked.
“Pluto was crying.” Was all I could say, as she looked down and saw it.
Again, all I could do was shrug.
“Just keep it away from our boy.”
And with that she kissed us both, told Pluto she’d see him at Kool Kids later that day, and headed out the door.
I tried forging on with the morning as if it was going normally. I made Pluto breakfast, but he wouldn’t touch it. I got him dressed, and he didn’t complain once. I put him in the pram and took him for a coffee but instead of demanding to see buses or trams or trains along the way, he just peered around the edge of the pram staring at the thing as it followed us along the footpath. Of course he didn’t touch his babychino and I really didn’t feel like my daddychino (espresso) either. The blackness in the small cup reminded too much me of… Well… ‘It’.
Other customers stared at us with a kind of shock and disgust on their face as it spat and farted and gurgled just as loudly here as it had been doing at home.
“Manners.” I hissed at it, but it just chuckled and kept going.
I dropped Pluto at Kool Kids and he was surprisingly happy to see the back of me. Far from the tears that usually happened when I handed him over, he ran off from me and stood behind the legs of Sukraj, his favourite educator in the room, and watched me stumble off with the monster.
Back on the street I looked down at it. It left a kind of black smear wherever it went and I could see it trailing off along the road marking the route we’d taken.
“Are you going to hang around all day?”
“What the fuck do you think?” It kind of growled these words again, like some beast attempting language for the first time. And it grew bigger. I blinked to be sure, but it definitely grew a bit bigger, chuckling to itself as it did it.
It was hard walking home, like I was dragging it along with me. I mean I wasn’t. It wasn’t physically attached to me in any way that I could see, but I couldn’t help but feel like it was dragging on me as if I was some kind of beast of burden strapped in to its yoke. I felt like mooing, or whatever noise bullock’s make. Or Oxen. Or… Hmm…
I don’t really know what ‘beasts of burden’ are, I guess.
I got home, made a cup of tea and went out to my Shed Office (like Head Office, but a shed). I opened my computer, knowing I had a bunch of work to do, and tried to ignore the thing in the corner.
“What the fuck are you doing?” It grumbled at me.
“What does it look like?” I replied.
And at that moment it jumped! Bits of it reached out and slapped at my face while other bits reached for my computer and slammed the screen shut! I stood up, but the thing stuck to me like it was made of tar. I grabbed it in my hands and tried to shake it off, over and over again. It took some effort, but finally it flew from my grasp and smacked in to a window, sliding back down to the floor! And of course the window… The wall… My computer… Even me… We were all covered in the black, stinky smear it left in its wake.
It giggled at me. I am absolutely sure it did. Not a laugh. A giggle. There was something really juvenile to the sound of it, you know?
And, of course, it got bigger again.
“Still think you’re gonna fucking work?”
“Why do you have to swear so much?”
I looked at my stained, sticky laptop. Suddenly the thought of sitting and writing was… Hmm… Like it made a little bit of sick come in to my mouth. The black smear really had a stench to it.
I went back in to the house and changed my clothes. I had to have a meeting with a company about a play I’d been writing for them. It was an adaptation, but definitely a ‘new Australian play’. We all agreed on that.
But this was an important meeting. It was ‘the’ meeting where I was going to find out whether they were going to produce my adaptation that was definitely a ‘new Australian play’. As a playwright, it is one thing to get a commission, but the main game is getting a production. Not only can it be where you actually get to make some decent money (well, decent for a playwright), but our work is not alive until it is in the mouths of actors, the imaginations of designers and directors and filling the hearts and minds of an audience. Everything before that point is simply the pregnancy.
“What the fuck is that?” The thing rumbled, as I sat on my bike, putting my helmet on.
“It’s a bike.”
“Oh! You think you can fucking outride me?!” And it fizzed and cackled some more.
Of course I couldn’t. It bounced along the road next to me and no matter how much effort I put in I couldn’t hit my normal paces. It was like my tyres were flat and my chain needed oiling. And it kept up without so much as breaking a sweat, or whatever something like that does when it’s working hard.
It taunted me with each of its bounces…
“Why do you write those dumb plays anyway?” It would say at the top of its bounce. “You think anyone in the real world really cares about them?! You think cops got to see them? Or nurses? Or people that actually make a real fucking difference in the world?”
As it bounced down the road and taunted me more it looked like it was sticking a black tongue out to flap in the breeze, like a dog with its head out a car window.
“You actually think you’re a fucking big shot, don’t you?!
I asked it to leave me alone because I needed to concentrate on traffic.
“You do!” It laughed between bounces. “You think you’re some kind of fucking genius and like what you do actually makes a fucking difference!!!”
I was covered in sweat when I got off the bike and locked it up, but the thing was flying. It was like the travel had set it off and it was super excited. It had grown again too, and was now about the size of a coffee table.
“I’m not a genius.” I puffed at it, struggling to get my breath back. “I’m no one.”
It suddenly froze for a moment and then hissed at me:
“You’ll definitely be no one once I’m fucking done with you.” It said this with menacing, simple clarity, before it began bouncing all over the place again.
I sculled the water the receptionist gave me in the office and sat patiently waited to see the Literary Manager. The thing rolled up and down the other empty chairs, like it was purposefully trying to leave its smear on them all.
“Tell me exactly how you think your writing matters to a single fucking person?” It asked.
I just tried to shoosh it.
“If society collapsed and needed rebuilding, do you think an essential member of this new world would be some fucking nearly-middle-aged white guy who writes fucking plays? I mean FUCKING PLAYS!!!”
The swearing made the receptionist look up and she saw the mess the thing was making. She frowned and turned to me and shook her head.
The Literary Manager then stuck her head out of the door and called me in. I got to my feet and sprinted, trying to outrun the thing and shut the door on it. It was close. I’d caught it monologue-ing and so got a few metres head start. I ran, flew in to the office and tried to slam the door shut, but it just managed to get a bit of itself between the door and the jam. I battled it, pushing as hard as I could to shut the door.
“No!” I grunted at it.
“Fuck off!” I yelled, trying to use its own language back at it.
But it was stronger than me, bursting the door open and knocking me back a few steps.
I turned to look at the Literary Manager. This was not the kind of first impression I’d hoped to make. She motioned for me to take a seat.
“Look, this is a great adaptation you’ve written. I guess.” I didn’t like the tone behind this, and was sure there was a ‘but’ coming. And of course there was. “We just can’t find a place for it in our season.”
Without this job I wasn’t sure where my next paycheque was going to come from. I didn’t know how I was going to contribute to my family… To Pluto… To Katie.
“But…” I couldn’t find the words.
The thing was jumping up and down in the corner, bouncing back and forth from the floor to the ceiling, laughing its head off. And it was now the size of a sheep.
“Okay. Thanks anyway.”
This was all I said. Then I got up, smiled meekly, and walked out. The thing followed me.
Back at my bike it finally stopped laughing and said something:
“You can’t be surprised.”
“You’ve had it easy for a long time.”
“Do you deny it You haven’t even needed a second fucking job for ten fucking years!”
“What about all those years I was trying to break in to the industry before my first show? There was at least ten years of trying then.”
“Sure, but then you did get produced, and your first few were fine. Good even, if you made me say it. But since then?“
This stung. Badly.
It insisted on riding and dinked me home. I sat on the handle bars and listened to it tell me all the different ways I had had advantages in my life, and every single one of them was right. Not that I wanted to admit it.
“Your race… your sex… your sexuality… your parent’s income… the country in which you’ve lived…”
But then the real kicker came:
“Plus, don’t you think you’ve forgotten how to be brave, a bit? I mean how many adaptations are you going to do?”
This one hurt the most and I couldn’t take it. Adaptations had become a big part of the scene, and yeah… I’d done a few. There is so much risk in our game, so what’s wrong with having a safer route sometimes??
But it seems none of that was good enough for it. Something broke in me. I couldn’t listen to it anymore. I jumped off my bike, grabbed my helmet, hanging on the handlebars (of course the thing didn’t bother wearing one) and swung it hard right at where I guessed its face might be.
“Ow! Fuck!” It grunted as it flew sideways and on to the footpath with my bike falling to the ground in the gutter.
I jumped at it before it had a chance to get its bearings back. I swung my helmet again and again, hitting it over and over.
“You always do this! You always come when I can’t control you! You always get me when I can’t fight back! You show up, fuck with my head and then piss off again like you were never there in the first place, leaving me to pick up the fucking pieces!”
I was getting black sticky stuff all over me as it splattered with each impact of my helmet. I was getting more and more out of control until I lost grip of the helmet and it flew out of my hand and cracked against a wall.
This was the break that the black ball of whatever-the-fuck-it-was needed. It jumped at me and pinned my shoulders to the ground as it slapped me in the face over and over.
“You are nothing without me. You are no one without me. You have nothing to say without me. You have no guts without me. I come to you when you need me. I put a fire back in that ever-increasing fat fucking belly of yours. Everything you have you fucking owe to me!”
People were watching now. From the other side of the street. From the windows of buildings.
My hand fell on the U Lock from my bike and I grabbed it and swung it at the stinking, ecstatic, pulsating bastard.
“ARGH!” It wasn’t expecting the hit and it flew off, rolling a few metres down the road. I used it as my chance and I got to my feet, ran at it and kicked it hard in to the busy street. Cars and trucks swerved out of the way, beeping their horns and yelling abuse as they screamed past us. I followed it on to the street and jumped on it.
“You used to be the size of a squash ball. I could deal with you. You came, slapped me around a bit and then pissed off. But now look at you?! And look at what you’re doing to me?! I mean fucking look at all this?! How has this happened?! Why the fuck have you come back now and come back like this, so big and so pissed?!”
The horn of a bus rang through my head and I looked up just in time to see its huge front wheels heading straight for me! I got to my knees and scrambled out of the way.
The thing did the same, but to the other side of the street. It had got to a bin and was throwing glass bottles at me from across the traffic:
“I am what you need me to be! I fucking am what you fucking need me to be!”
A sprite bottle got me right in the temple and I hit the footpath, blood pouring from my head. Through a gap in the traffic the thing had bounced over, grabbed me and threw me up against a wall.
“You… Your life… Your heart… Your thirst… Your courage… Where have they gone? Where the fuck have they gone?!!
I could taste blood as it ran down my head in to my mouth. I couldn’t fight back. I was broken. And what it said… It was right. I knew it was right. It kept pushing me in to the wall over and over.
“What about all the others? What about those that haven’t had your chances? What about those that have to fight harder than you, and you have the nerve to get FUCKING LAZY?!!”
“You’re right, okay?! I know! You’re right!”
It let go and I slid down on to the ground.
“It’s just… I’m tired. I’m so tired. Yes, adaptations are easier, but what’s wrong with that? Do you know what it’s like trying to write a new play?? Do you know what it’s like trying to get a new play on the stage?? For a company? For a writer? So Fucking what?!!
But there was more. It knew it and I knew it.
“And now I’m a father. I mean I’m a father. I have a child who needs me to be… Who I want to be there for and… And… I don’t know… I don’t… I just… I’m so tired.”
It was looking at me through those tiny black eyes it had, and it was looking down at me with something I’d never seen in it before. Was it sympathy? Was this thing feeling for me??
Then, after a silence:
“You never hang out with me any more.” It seemed genuinely sad.
“I do. I just can’t do it as much.”
“We used to stay up all night together. We used to have wild writing sessions where days were lost. It was just you and me.”
“I have to be there for my family, you know? My boy… My lady…”
“Do you… Do you want me to go? For good?”
It said this with a kind of vulnerable gentleness, thinking it had perhaps gone too far this time, but the thought of life without it?? The idea of not having it lurking in my darkest thoughts?? The possibility that it wouldn’t show up in my sleeping and waking dreams ever again??
“God, no. Please!”
These words shot out of me.
And then the ugly, honest truth:
“I… Need you.”
I blushed as I admitted this. It saw me blush and it smiled, I think, but it was a kind smile. Relieved, perhaps. It dragged me back to the bike, put me back on the handlebars and dinked me the rest of the way home.
I knew that for a while I had been worried that I was writing just to get my plays on, and not thinking enough about what needed to be said. It was bad. I had built my career on writing plays that I could tell myself mattered. That I could convince myself really made a difference to someone. I mean, sure, they were just plays, but what if someone stumbled in to a theatre to see one and I happened to say something in it that truly helped that person? That actually could make a difference?
The tiny hope of this is what used to keep me writing, but I knew that I had forgotten about that one person in need, sitting in a theatre on their own.
I felt terrible about it. Especially now Pluto was in the world, meaning I had a very real, very human reason to be trying to make the world a better place and not just take up time and space.
The thing got us back to Shed Office and we both slumped in to the two chairs I had in there. My computer still sat shut and covered in the black smear on my desk from its morning attack.
I looked at the desk: It was the same one my late mother had used when she wrote her PHD while also working and also raising my sister and I. I ran my hand over its surface, wishing she was still with me to help me through this. She would tell me what to do. She was strong.
The thing sat on a small wingback chair that had been my grandmother’s. Back in the midlands in England in the forties and fifties she’d been one of the first women in her village to have got a profession and had a career, and all while raising five kids with a very, very absent husband.
These objects… They meant so much to me because they kept me connected to the people I loved and was deeply inspired by, but now I felt I didn’t deserve them. I was tarnishing their reputation. I felt like it was arrogant of me to assume I was allowed to write while using them. Shouldn’t they go to my sister anyway? Someone who actually deserved them?
The thing rolled off the chair and had moved to my bookshelf. It was nonchalantly throwing books off the shelf on to the floor, play after play, like it was bored. Or lost. The books were all getting black and sticky of course.
“I guess you’re right.” I sniffled. “Should I give up?”
And with that it froze and turned to me. I could see its two, tiny, black, round eyes staring at me.
“It’s too exhausting trying to do this and bring up a child as well. I don’t know how to be selfish enough to write, when I hear Pluto crying in the house. And I should probably start doing something that actually matters for once in my life, right?
And, you know, people like me have got to have our say for generations, and we’ve been real pricks about it all, so I should just give up and let others-”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” It hissed at me, genuinely sounding angry, like I had wronged it.
It suddenly lurched at me, grabbed me hard by the throat and forced me up against the wall of the office, holding me so my feet kicked around above the ground as it squeezed my neck, choking me and choking me and choking me!
“Stop being a fucking coward, you righteous piece of privileged fucktard!”
“But-“ I frogged.
“Stop being a fucking dipshit, you entitled-as-fuck cockspankfuckface!”
“I can’t breathe!”
“Are you a fuckface?! Is that it?! Are you a fucking fuckface all of a fucking sudden??”
I finally broke free and fell to the ground.
“Well, what the fuck then?? What the hell am I supposed to do?? Look at me?! I’m pathetic! I’m fucking crawling around on the fucking ground! What the fuck am I supposed to do?!”
“You said you want me to stay, right?”
I nodded. I was scared it would threaten to leave again.
It fizzed over and opened my computer.
“Then feel the sting, accept the pain, hang up the privilege, and write about something that fucking matters, and hope that it is good enough to compete with everyone else out there and pray that your fucking voice will be fucking heard, but only because you have something important to fucking say. If you don’t have something fucking important to say, then yes… Give up. Have you seen what is happening out there?!”
I didn’t want to admit it was right. I wanted to complain. I wanted to go back to how it used to be.
“Have you looked out your window lately?? Have you seen what’s been going on?? Fucking chauvinists… Fucking authoritarians… Greedy, selfish, powerful fucking cocks waving their dicks around all over the place?! You don’t think there’s some very fucking important things that need writing about because people that look like you and fuck like you are FUCKING RUINING EVERYTHING?!”
I looked out the window. The clouds looked low and grey, like maybe it was going to storm. Everywhere. Across the whole world.
Right then Katie arrived home with Pluto. He had a big smile on his face and Katie was singing a funny version of Baa Baa Black Sheep for him. She has the most beautiful singing voice you’ve ever heard. She saw me and pointed me out to Pluto. He screamed out “Daddy!” As loud as he possibly could. I couldn’t help but smile.
Had I and it I really been at this all day? It saw me look out the window and smile to my family and it sighed with frustration.
“Okay, okay. First, go and give your fucking family a fucking kiss or some gross shit, and tell them you fucking love them or some fucking puking shit, and then come back and write about something that fucking matters.”
“And then go inside to put Pluto to bed, so Katie can have a rest?”
“Yes! Okay! Go and give them a fucking kiss and then come back in here with me and write something that really fucking matters and then go and put fucking Pluto to bed so Katie can have a fucking rest and then come back out again if you’ve got any energy left, okay? Fucking fine! All fucking right?!”
It was muttering under its stinky breath to itself, but then it rolled its black eyes and said:
“Tell them I said hi. I guess. If you fucking must.”
So I went out and shut the door to Shed Office before it could change its mind. I smiled at Katie and gave her a kiss, and I smiled at Pluto and gave him a big, sloppy kiss on the neck, which made him laugh. We all looked over at my office, where we could hear the thing jumping around inside. The shed shuddered a little from its movement.
“A productive day?” Katie asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh, you know. Just like all the others.” I replied.
“What’s that funny noise, Daddy?” Pluto asked, pointing to the shed.
“Just Daddy’s work, darling.” Katie said, smiling.
Well, kind of smiling.
Tom Holloway is a multi-award-winning playwright whose work has been staged extensively both in Australia and around the world.
In 2016 his adaptation of Double Indemnity was produced by Melbourne Theatre Company. His plays include And No More Shall We Part (winner of the 2010 AWGIE Award for Best Stage Play and the 2010 Louis Esson Prize for Drama in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, and produced at the 2016 Williamstown Theatre Festival, USA, staring Alfred Molina and Jane Kaczmarek), an adaptation of Storm-Boy (winner of the 2014 AWGIE for Young Audiences and produced by Barking Gecko and Sydney Theatre Company), Forget Me Not (produced by Bush Theatre, London in 2015, starring Eleanor Bron, and premiered at Belvoir Theatre in 2013), Beyond The Neck (2007 winner AWGIE Award for Best Stage Play), Red SkyMorning (2007, winner R. E. Ross Trust Development Award, 2009 Green Room Award Best New Writing for the Australian Stage), Love Me Tender (nominated for the Western Australia Premier’s Book Awards and the 2011 AWGIE Award for Best Stage Play), and many more.
His plays have been seen across the UK, the USA, in Denmark, Germany, Jordon, South Africa, New Zealand and more.
He was librettist for Czech composer Miroslav Srnka’s opera, South Pole that premiered at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich, in 2016, staring Thomas Hampson and Rolando Villaizon, as well as Make No Noise – an adaptation of the film The Secret Life of Words, produced by the 2016 Bregenz Festival, and premiered at the Bavarian State Opera for the 2011 Munich Opera Festival.