Southerly by David Haywood

Portrait of the Author as a Young Scribbler

On Thursday night at 2.03 am, the Moon decided it was time to get McNulty. With a single stride it scissored the Tasman sea, and by 2.07 am it was outside McNulty's bedroom door in Grey Lynn.

"Come out, McNulty, so I can get you," hissed the Moon angrily through the keyhole, as it rattled the handle of the locked bedroom door.

McNulty lay trembling in his bed. Moonlight streamed under the door, and filled the room with a harsh silver glare. The hallway floor creaked loudly as the Moon attempted to crouch low enough to look through the keyhole.

At 4.11 am, the Moon became tired of waiting. "McNulty's out," it said to itself. And it glided back to hover over the mid-Pacific, where it should have been all night.

The next morning McNulty visited a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist worked in a slender tower that stretched above Queen Street. He wore a stethoscope that matched the lamp on his desk. His teeth were the colour of snow.

"I know what you're thinking," he said to McNulty. "You're thinking that I've painted my teeth with typing correction fluid."

McNulty lowered his eyes.

"Let me tell you something," the psychiatrist paused, "that might help you with your paranoid lunar hallucinations."

"We're on the 30th floor here, McNulty. People say that a kitten thrown from the 30th floor will land on its feet -- and walk away completely unharmed. However, I can tell you that this is not true. I've thrown dozens of kittens out of this window, and they have all died."

"It's an illness actually. So you see we have that in common, McNulty. You have a delusion about the moon, and I have a medical condition that involves throwing kittens from windows. In fact, I can tell you candidly that I'm a much sicker man than you. My illness is not easy to live with. Nor is it cheap. "

"I obtain the kittens from animal shelters. But they become suspicious if too many are collected at once. So I've developed a network of shelters that I visit under assumed names. I have to drive enormous distances to reach them all. But that is the price I pay for having a condition like mine."

He gazed at McNulty across the shining expanse of his desk. "You see what I'm getting at, don't you? If a man as sick as me can put in a full day's work, then there's no reason someone as comparatively healthy as you should be shying away from employment. Why should the state spend money to put you in a mental hospital when it won't do the same for me?"

McNulty looked past the psychiatrist to see the moon's huge eye pressed up against the window. "I'm coming to get you, McNulty," the Moon growled, sending a deep subsonic rumble through the building.

"Run along off to work now, McNulty," said the psychiatrist. "It's best if you continue your life as normal."

McNulty was employed in a dim and primeval factory. He operated a device that inserted objects into boxes. Mr Blackburn was his manager. "If you're late one more time, McNulty, you'll be down the road before you can say 'no redundancy payout'." Mr Blackburn was calm and efficient; he had no time for dead wood in his workplace. "This will be your only warning."

Green worked next to McNulty on a conveyor belt. "Did you hear what Mr. Blackburn said?" asked Green. "He said you'll be down the road if you're late again. That means fired, McNulty. So you'd better not be late again. Or else you'll be fired. With no redundancy payout. That's what Mr Blackburn said."

As penance for his late start, McNulty worked into the evening. While he laboured, Mr. Blackburn lectured him on becoming a better employee. Mr Blackburn was a passionate orator. Tiny flecks of his spittle rained upon McNulty's face, and some landed in his mouth. "My taxes already pay for enough people like you on the dole," concluded Mr Blackburn. "Not to mention living the life of luxury in prison."

The Moon waited in the parking lot outside the factory.

McNulty finished putting his last object into a box, and removed his overalls. The building was shadowy and silent. The only noise was the hiss of the polishing machines.

As he opened the factory door, McNulty could see Mr Blackburn's legs in the moonlight. They were lying about five metres apart. There was a smear of black on the concrete that might have been blood.

"I saw everything," said Cleaner Bill from the dark shadows. "First the Moon pinched off his arms, then his legs, and then it twisted off his head. Mr Blackburn was screaming right until the end. I thought he was singing at first, but then I decided it must be screaming. I don't think singing would be normal under those circumstances."

Cleaner Bill came into the half-light and gave McNulty a hesitant grin. "Of course, the Moon's been after me for years. But I'm safe because I never go outside."

He restarted his polishing machine. "It drives the Moon mad with frustration that it can't get me," he told McNulty. "Recently it's been trying all sorts of tricks. It's started putting little television cameras inside my fruit -- even in the tomatoes, which most people would regard as a vegetable."

When Cleaner Bill had finished polishing the floor, he took McNulty to see the tunnel. "I've been working on it for years," he said. "I'm nearly all the way through."

The tunnel was illuminated by thousands of cigarette lighters. McNulty felt as if they were travelling into a gigantic birthday cake. An earthworm the size of a sofa inspected them as they clambered along. McNulty's face was brushed by dripping roots. At the far end of the tunnel a thin crack shone with daylight.

Cleaner Bill inserted a shovel into the crack. He lifted a slice of dirt. Now they had a glimpse of seashore. He took another slice. Now they could see palm trees. Another slice. Now the tunnel was illuminated with glaring tropical sunlight.

They wandered onto the sand. A salty breeze tugged at McNulty's clothing. A bear was sitting in one of the coconut groves.

Its jaws were the size of a deck-chair. McNulty caught the flash of a horrified face as the bear crunched and tore. He saw polka-dots of blood. The bear gulped down the last mouthfuls of Cleaner Bill, and galloped away to the tropical forest.

McNulty wondered if bears could swim. He waded into the water. After a while the bear padded back onto the beach.

"This is the other side of the world," said the bear in Cleaner Bill's voice. "The Moon never comes here."

McNulty sloshed back to shore, and sat down beside the bear. The sun fell below the horizon. There was no moon.

'The Moon and McNulty' was written in 1988, and unearthed (while sorting through old papers) in February 2008.