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Nathan Hobby
Nathan Hobby’s novel The Fur won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award and was published by Fremantle Press in 2004.

"Mercy Seat" is part of his second novel The House of Zealots, which isn't published yet. Nathan’s currently working on a new novel about a strange library as part of an MA at the University of Western Australia.

Nathan and his wife Nicole live in Perth. Read more by Nathan at his home.

The Mercy Seat
By Nathan Hobby

Leo’s love for Phoebe is not dimming his revolutionary zeal, but feeding it. Phoebe and the revolution are the unattainable, necessary things he dedicates his life to. Her constant presence in the house, the sound of her in the shower of the kitchen, reminds him that he does not have her. The capitalist world in which he must live and breathe reminds him that he does not have revolution either.

He can’t walk past a Coca-Cola® machine without anguished thoughts about corporate globalisation. When he borrows Zac’s car he feels guilty for polluting the air. When he takes the bus and sits stranded amongst the cars choking Mounts Bay Road he feels angry.

He disdains to cook; it doesn’t bring the revolution closer. In the morning he wakes with urgency and can’t bring himself to make his bed because it’s not an ultimately meaningful thing to do.

Phoebe wants help with the vegetable garden, but his initial enthusiasm has dried up. Despite what she says, it’s tangential to the revolution. Happening to walk past the garden bed, he discovers it filled with weeds and the plants snail eaten and withered even after the winter rain. He feels sick. The world can’t look after itself and he can’t look after it either.

Each week he stands on the overpass between the city train station and the art gallery, calling out that the Green Left Weekly is for sale. He is mocked and jeered or apathetically ignored.

One day he calls out to three schoolboys walking past. They slow down.

‘School is part of the system,’ he says, ‘it takes away your individuality and forces you to conform!’

One of the boys, thin-faced with bad acne, says, ‘Get a life!’ and hawks up phlegm. Leo tenses, holds his hand up to his face; there is nowhere to escape as the boy spits on him.

The boys run, laughing. Leo cleans himself with a tissue. He keeps calling out to the people going past, pressuring them, challenging them, but now his hands are shaking.

He targets people who look lonely, people who look different – the ones who might be malcontents, ready to hear his message. Another day, a pale old woman in a wheelchair is coming toward him from the train station, pushed by her sad middle-aged daughter.

‘The answers to the world’s problems are in this paper!’ he calls out to them as they come toward him. They are moving slowly and neither says anything to him, but the old woman stares. He feels uncomfortable and he lowers the Green Left he’s been holding up.

They finally reach Leo and stop again. The old woman smells like sweat and Weet-Bix. She’s still staring at him. Her daughter has tears in her eyes and says in a quietly angry voice, ‘Why can’t you leave us alone? Isn’t the world bad enough without your guilt?’

The old woman reaches out and snatches the paper from his hand. The daughter doesn’t wait for him to respond, but begins pushing her mother away.

Leo sits down on the pavement. He feels terrible. Maybe people have good reasons to want to be left alone. It isn’t necessarily that they’re apathetic or selfish; maybe they’re in pain. Or maybe they care too much. Or maybe they’re depressed and incapable of talking to anyone, especially revolutionaries.

He doesn’t call out to anyone else that day. Instead, he sits glumly, the stack of papers next to him. He thinks of Phoebe, and how she will never love him. He thinks of the world and how it will go on being so messed up.

But the next week, the woman’s words have faded, and his zeal has returned. The situation is black and white again. He harasses men in suits and women in business skirts. He takes their insults without flinching, letting their contempt reinforce his conviction.

Feeding his zeal is a book he is reading on the Weather Underground. In it, he learns of the increasing radicalisation of a group of white middle-class students, as they split from the activist mainstream and set up revolutionary household cells.

‘We’re not going far enough,’ he says to Zac when the two of them are driving back from a Resistance meeting.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Going all the way, in every part of our lives. Leaving no part of ourselves unconverted, but every part focused on our goal. So that our daily lives testify to the revolution.’

‘And what does that mean?’ asks Zac. ‘Don’t give me slogans. What do you mean, practically?’

‘Okay - I’ve got one idea. I think we should put up posters in the windows of your car. I already made some when I couldn’t sleep last night. And we should paint messages on your car!’

‘Get bent!’ Zac says. ‘You want to paint my car? It’s not even mine - I still owe my dad.’

‘But that’s just it! You’re getting caught up by the system!’

Silence, just the noise of the radio.

‘You’re a martyr, Leo.’

Zac turns up the radio. The news comes on. In the USA, the Supreme Court has dismissed the final appeal for the Okalahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh is set to be executed by lethal injection in two weeks.

Leo shivers. Sometimes he feels like he’s on death row too. Over the next couple of days, Zac’s resentment towards Leo’s idea fades to the point where, finding some posters abandoned next to the printer, he decides to blu-tack them to the car windows himself. Now, if anyone from Resistance sees his car, they will know how committed to the revolution he is.

Thursdays become open-nights with revolutionaries crowding into the house to share dinner and ideas. They don’t have enough chairs and Leo and Zac decide to buy more from an op-shop.

As they drive along the highway, Leo winds his window all the way down and the quick air buffets him, smelling of car fumes. He feels bad that Zac has put up the posters.

Zac is driving ten k’s over the limit and yet a metallic orange ute, oversized and oversexed, squeezes in behind them and tailgates.

‘Dickhead,’ Zac says, evenly, not changing his speed.

Leo feels sick in his stomach. All these drivers around them are reading the signs he made and many of them are probably angry. He can feel their anger radiating out in palpable rays. He wants to yell out to the whole world that he is sorry and he will never again disturb the universe.

But next to him Zac is staring straight ahead at the road, calm as ever, his certainty pulsing through his muscly body and Leo gulps down the sickness, tries to look normal even though an irrational panic has spread through his body.

They get to the op-shop and find a stack of plastic outdoor chairs for ten dollars. The second-hand smells comfort Leo. It’s wonderful the way scraps of people’s lives are gathered, sorted, priced, displayed. His panic subsides. He looks through a rack of jumpers. Zac stands impatiently behind him.

‘Come on, Leo, you don’t want to buy clothes from here. You’ll get lice or something.’

Leo scowls at him. Eventually, he selects a v-neck woollen jumper.

Zac laughs. ‘You’ll look like a bank clerk.’

Leo shrugs. ‘That’s fine with me.’

His anxiety has turned to angry distaste for Zac’s plastic barbed-wire bracelet and three-quarter shorts, the little socklets he wears with fashionable skate shoes.

They go to the counter to pay. The shop assistant is fat and speaks haltingly, with the wrong emphases.

‘How, are you, to day?’

When they are loading the car, Zac says, ‘Let’s, put, the chairs, in,’ and he snickers.

Leo glares at him again. ‘Don’t be a fascist!’

‘I was just joking around.’

The day before his first exam Leo cannot get out of bed.

He still has his watch on. It reads 5:57AM - in June, a cold, dark hour. Cold air comes through the window which won’t shut and through the hole in the wall behind the poster. Sweat has collected and dried beneath his plastic watchband and it stinks. His guts are queasy and he feels so guilty he wishes he could cease to exist.

He remembers the news from the night before and realises that far away in America Timothy McVeigh must now be dead. The Oklahoma Bomber is no more. Nurses or guards strapped his arms to the chair. A doctor administered three lethal injections, precisely and clinically. The poison coursed through his veins and arteries. What did McVeigh think as his insides heaved, his blood boiled and his muscles paralysed?

And when he was dead they carried his body out. Maybe they’re cremating him at this very moment. No, they’d run tests on him. An autopsy, probably, which is ironic, given they were the ones who killed him. They will autopsy him and then proclaim that, in full accordance with the law, a man has been justly and properly killed.

It begins to rain and the wind blows it through the window. Weak light. He wants company. The radio - if he hears the six o’clock news he might feel better. He reaches down to turn the radio on, but it’s too far away. He should know this; he’s tried it so many times before. He’d have to get out of bed, but he can’t.

What was McVeigh doing just before he was executed? Sitting in the lonely holding cell? Was there a television?

Leo lies in the silence. At first it is a silent silence but then as he listens closely it becomes a buzzing silence as if a million angry wasps are swarming through the air. He feels guilty, so guilty. If he stays still he feels he will die, but he cannot move, not even to save his life. Oh how they hate Sergeant McVeigh!

He looks up at the ceiling.

He thinks about his grandmother’s body breaking up in a wooden coffin beneath tons and tons of dirt.

He thinks of Phoebe living, breathing in her room a few metres away.

He asks himself, what am I about? Why do I always feel compelled to do the most difficult thing? What has been driving me so hard? Because whatever it was, it’s gone.

The ceiling has an ornate trim to it and he wonders barrenly how it was done, the process of creating the flourishes. Decades ago there were workmen, builders banging away in the space he now occupies. They did not consider, he thinks, that someone would think of them in the far-flung future, in June 2001.

Dogs are yapping next door. They will be fed and then they will be quiet for a while, until they get hungry again, and then the horrible noise will start once more, only ever held off for a time. He stares at a spider web in the corner of the ceiling. Wispy, the work of a daddy-longlegs. Oh, his heart aches. He feels so guilty. The ceiling is so unrelentingly familiar, barren, off-white.

The minutes creep by on his smelly plastic watch. God has him strung up for judgement like a carcass on a meat-hook.

He cannot change the world. He feels the burden of all the causes he believes in. He can’t get ahead of them; they always multiply. Attending one meeting means attending another two to follow up. And if he were to miss any of them, then all his commitment in the past would be worthless, because he would no longer be committed enough.

Who has heard of the Weather Underground? No-one! They did more than he could ever do but thirty years on no-one has heard of them! They didn’t change the world; they didn’t even dent it. Time and events flowed around and over them, cancelling them out, silencing them.

Black children, bony and puffed-up, wail in the dust and their last thoughts of the world are its hunger and hopelessness. Somewhere the whales beach themselves. In France a hundred activists are probably smashing up a McDonald’s, led by that crazy farmer with his tractor. They think they’ve achieved something, but at the same moment builders bang and saw and weld and mould and paint one hundred new McDonald’s stores. The golden arches will roll crushingly on with the power of a colonial empire, until they too decline and are overtaken by something not yet imaginable. From the Greeks to the Romans to the Turks to the Spaniards to the British to the Americans to the multinationals to what? And before the Greeks? No-one cares any longer.

He hears his housemates talking in the kitchen, laughing.

He imagines that he’ll lie here for years, staring at the blank ceiling until the ceiling is shaken and torn apart by a wrecking ball and the plaster rains down to let the sky in again. Perhaps he will be invisible by then and the wrecker will not know he is here. Even after the house is demolished, he’ll remain, a ghost.

At midday there is a knock on the door and Phoebe comes in with a cup of coffee.

‘You okay?’ she asks.

Taking the coffee from her, he sits up at last.

‘I’m not feeling too great,’ he says.

‘Are you sick?’

‘No. Not exactly.’

‘Depressed?’

‘I guess.’

‘Do you... want to talk?’

He wants to more than anything, but there is something so rotten inside him, something so contrary and self-hating that he tells her that he doesn’t, that he just needs to be alone.

‘I hope you feel better soon,’ she says, and she leaves.

Come back, he thinks, and ask me again.

In the wake of her kindness, his world shifts a fraction. Just enough energy to get up trickles into his arms and legs. He moves around slowly, dressing, as if each movement is his first. He doesn’t want to button up his shirt; it seems so pointless. But he forces himself to, because he knows that if he begins the day in his pyjamas he will feel steeped in sloth and sink deeper into misery.

He drinks some of the coffee. It tastes better than he could have imagined coffee tasting. Small things, he decides. Just for today he’s going to confine himself to small things. Another cup of coffee. A beer in the afternoon. Perhaps a chocolate bar, fair trade or not.

His bag is so heavy. He takes the Weather Underground book out, resolving not to look at it, not today. The heaviness in his guts lifts a little, enough to make him decide to also ditch the bundle of Green Lefts he’s meant to sell. The world can wait for the answers to its problems. Just for today, just for one day.

I should make my bed, he thinks. But he can’t; maybe tomorrow. One day. One day he’ll even make his bed. But not today.

Hoisting his bag over his shoulder, he opens the door and steps into the musty hallway to face the day.

As published in The Diamond & the Thief – September 10 edition

Squatting
By Nathan Hobby

Before the protest and after he finds out Phoebe doesn’t love him, Leo starts walking. He walks all the way to Robbie’s squat. It takes an hour, and the muscles in his legs stretch, his heart beats harder and he feels healthier. He likes the sense of moving himself across the Earth.

Robbie and Tiffany are still there and reluctantly they let him stay with them. They eat sporadically, either junk food or bread, muesli bars, bananas from the supermarket. Rubbish piles up through the house. What a difference rubbish bins make, Leo thinks.

The life of Normal People – work, study, dishes, gardening, washing – seems impossible, and he wonders how he ever managed any part of it. Days pass in bets, bongs, beer when there’s money, hunger, television at friends’ houses, petty crime when there’s none, the stuff of Robbie and Tiffany’s life. Too much caffeine, too much alcohol, too much marijuana. Leo hears voices. He keeps on thinking about tunnels. He starts staring down drainage grilles in the streets, thinking he can see people living down there. Whole colonies of underground warriors, preparing to tear the city apart, stockpiling an arsenal of bombs, drums of poison. They call out to him. They’re waiting for him to join.

He finds himself abandoned at Robbie’s mate’s place at three in the morning and he’s trying to remember the guy’s name. He feels like he’s got to at least remember the guy’s name to justify being here. It isn’t even Robbie’s mate’s house; it is Robbie’s mate’s grandmother’s house - Robbie’s mate is minding it while she’s in hospital. The lounge is crammed with photographs and knick-knacks - a ceramic golden retriever, a china Dutch windmill, a brass cannon, a small doll dressed in a kilt with plastic bagpipes, a steel miniature of the Eiffel Tower. The carpet is a plush brown and he’s lying awake on an orange lounge-suite from the sixties, a thin crocheted rug wrapped around him for warmth. When he stands up to find the toilet, the two white dogs he thought were asleep rush at him, yapping. Aw, shit, he thinks, and lies back down on the couch, even though he’s shivering and busting for a piss.

Another night he’s sitting by the river in the aftermath of dope, mosquitoes hovering around him. Eyes are watching him in the dark; he’s under surveillance. A few metres off, Robbie and Tiffany are having sex underneath dirty blankets at the edge of the mud and stinky river-slime. He’s half revolted and half turned on and he hates himself for it.

Sex smells like mud and river-slime. Sex ruins everything. He pictures in vivid precision Phobe’s boyfriend – who, in his imagination, looks like Ben Affleck – screwing her. How conceited to ever think he deserved a girl like her!

He’s at the squat on a cold afternoon and Robbie and Tiffany are arguing again. Tiffany goes off in a car Robbie stole. Robbie swears at Leo, and then storms off on foot. Robbie comes back later with an old Falcon, its driver’s window smashed. Leo falls asleep on the old couch. Later, Robbie wakes him saying, ‘Take me to the chemist Leo.’

‘No. Why don’t you drive yourself?’

‘I’m too pissed. Just take me, will you?’

Leo takes him there and waits in the car. Robbie comes out with a knife and a bottle of methadone. He feints around a security guard, wrenches the car-door open and yells at Leo to drive.

Leo drives; they got onto Leach Highway. Robbie keeps urging him to go quicker. Leo feels dreamy. No adrenaline is kicking in, even at 120 kph. A car comes up besides them and Robbie, thinking it’s the cops, stabs the knife into the cushion of his seat.

‘Faster! Faster!’ Robbie yells at him.

Leo loses control, brakes hard, begins to skid. He hits a tree and one of the headlights goes out. His head whips forward into the steering wheel. He feels like he’s been punched; he didn’t know the steering wheel could be so hard and vicious. He’s bleeding. Robbie’s groaning. Or maybe he himself is the one groaning; he can’t tell.

Maybe the car will still work? He tries turning the key; the starter engine clicks and does nothing more. He feels dizzy. He wants to lie down.

‘Cops!’ Robbie suddenly yells, though there are none in sight. They get out of the car. Miraculously, both of them are able to hobble away. Robbie wants to find Tiffany; Leo just wants to sleep. They separate.

Leo spends the night in a pedestrian underpass at a park in Willeton near the crash. When he wakes, two kids and a frowning mother are looking at him. Shepherding her children, she tells them to walk quicker.

The dreaminess is still in his head, and he realises he doesn’t feel scared of anything any more. Things will keep on happening to him and he’ll just absorb them. Somehow he’s become indestructible. He’s pretty sure it’s the day of the protest, and he decides he must get into the city.

Published in The Diamond & the Thief – January 10