There I was — slouching on my couch, staring at a message that informed me that I was going to be a father. This was not a moment of great personal shock.
I’m a grown-up, after all; I already knew the inherent risks that come with reading provocative magazines in IVF clinics. (By the way, fellers: if you’re ever in that situation, don’t ask for magazines featuring nurses. It’s considered a faux pas.)
But it was not, of course, an ideal time to start a family. I’d just quit my job to write funny books full-time. On the other hand, I have never seen ideal circumstances in my entire life.
Besides, I’m a man. My biological clock was ticking. If I waited any longer, I might have turned into one of those fastidious bachelor types who panic at the sight of disorderliness. You know the sort: sensible, clean and organised people who are unable to field questions at three in the morning from a toddler needing information about the flight-dynamics of unicorns — at least, not without falling to pieces.
And meanwhile, a small civilisation of rats was progressing into the Stone Age down in my basement. I have discussed the rat issue before.
The rats were unwelcome, obviously — and especially now there was a baby on the way — but I couldn’t seem to persuade them to leave the premises. My basement had a dirt floor, you see, and the rats had more tunnels than Tijuana.
Naturally, I had done the most obvious thing, and played loud music at them night and day. Horrible music, too — the sort of stuff that the babyboomers listen in their fuel-inefficient luxury off-road vehicles, when driving from the golf course to that new tower of condominiums they’re having constructed atop a wetland habitat for endangered birds.
But the rats — both perversely and predictably, I now realise — seemed to enjoy that music, even when the lyrics lamented how hard life was for a middle-class white teenager in the late 1960s — you know, paying off a brand new muscle car with a weekend job.
So, what was I going to do? I was about to have a little girl, and those evil rats were everywhere.
I had no choice.
I went to a bank and asked very nicely if they would see their way to giving me some money. And you know what? They wouldn’t give me any, although they did offer to loan me some. I’d have to pay it back with interest, which sounded usurious, I’ll admit, but I didn’t quibble. Have I mentioned the rats?
A month or two later, a team of construction workers moved into my basement and set to work. They burned the villages of rats, rebuilt the back wall of the house, and put down a concrete floor.
Electricians fixed the wiring in the house so you could hit a light switch without risking your life.
Plumbers ran heating through the house so I could sleep on the top floor during winter without succumbing to frostbite.
Carpenters rebuilt all the stairs so a person might ascend and descend safely and without the need for prayer.
In short, they fixed my house. The rats packed up their belongings, said farewell, and moved across the road. I’m not joking — there’s a park over there, and they had to close it for a few weeks when one of the rats bit a child. Local government got involved; they brought in experts in chemical warfare, I think, and everyone waged some sort of battle for a while. I stayed out of the matter. I was too busy working on a novel called [The Harvard Skull Fiasco](The Harvard Skull Fiasco).
It was into this general state of affairs that my first daughter arrived. The timing was not ideal, as I mentioned above; I was now a stay-at-home father, up to my neck in debt, in an area that was becoming progressively more expensive for, well, everyone.
I know. Many people don’t think I’m a serious person. Ironically, I feel that way about the check-out counter in our local supermarket. Usually, when they ring up my groceries, there is a strangled silence — and then I ask them if they’re being serious. Because apparently organic milk is priced at eight dollars a gallon now, and it’s perfectly normal and everything. And believe me, you’ll try to buy organic milk when you have toddlers, but don’t ask me why. Something to do with basic evolutionary psychology, a sleep deficit, and some vague headline you recall reading somewhere that had the word ‘toxins’.
Some days milk, bread, or groceries of any variety, felt like a wild and unforgivable extravagance. But this is the unseen cost of quitting a perfectly sensible job to write books. And, of course, I couldn’t even adequately explain to myself why I had to write books. All I knew was that I’d worked for a decade, saved and saved and saved, and bought a house — just so I could stop and write books. In that decade I had worked seven days a week almost as a rule, and I was finally exhausted. The reflection in the mirror was looking a little too wild-eyed for my liking. My mental state could be be described as “go look at Wrongcards”, because that entire website is composed of phrases I was saying out loud to people at my workplace.
So … at the critical juncture, after a decade of pragmatic sacrifice, and just when I felt I had earned the right to stop, take a breath, and finally follow the odd dream or two, a tiny baby came bellowing into my life.
She was actually pretty cool, to be honest.
Two years later, still writing away — my second daughter arrived. And to think, I used to be this belligerent kid in a hoodie, striding about with a cigar hanging out of my mouth and swearing at everything. Nowadays I get incensed if someone smokes a cigarette within fifty meters of my children.
You know, one time this old lady lit up a cigarette next to the stroller, looked at my one-year-old and exhaled a lungful of smoke right into her face.
I did not clip the old bat in the ear.
I wanted to — of course I wanted to! And I very nearly did because I’m still me after all, but the thought that the authorities would not take my side in the matter restrained my hand.
Somehow, and I swear to you I have no idea how I did it, I managed to juggle two babies and write — The Harvard Skull Fiasco. But I couldn’t stop. I knew it might be years before I had a chance to keep writing, so I pretended to my friends that I wasn’t finished, and went on writing a sequel called Rise of the Blue Bandicoot
Nobody would be able to tell, reading those books today, that they were written almost entirely with babies crawling about atop of the author. I don’t even mention babies in those books. It’s all very much on point; the narrator — a pathologically honest Australian who is entirely unable to lie — has pulled off an insanely complicated heist, and now he has to get away with it. Shenanigans ensue.
I might mention that these books concern a heist which may — or may not — have been carried out in real life, by myself and a few trusted friends. My former-neighbour and involuntary over-the-back-fence lawyer suggested I be a bit vague about it all, for liability’s sake.
In other words, I’m not saying that I stole the world’s most famous skull, but I’m not saying that I didn’t, either. (Heh, figure that one out, future ‘jury-of-my-peers’ …)
Now, people always say that writing a funny novel is pretty difficult. For me, it would probably be harder to write a serious novel. I usually find it difficult to take things seriously. The list includes, well, most human beings, but my friends and acquaintances in particular. Also: the concept of predetermined societal obligations. Rituals and any idea suffixed with the phrase ‘because of tradition’. Also — institutions, organised religion, obviously, and certain kinds of hat. Credit card companies. People who work for credit card companies, ticket inspectors, ‘keep off the grass’ signs, social media, and people who talk about wine. Most days, I seem to struggle to take people named Gerald seriously as well, but I’m working on that.
And all of this is odd because — and this is my main point, by the way — I am not one of those smug, happy-go-lucky, ‘everything’s a lark’ sort of blokes who cavort through life without a care in the world — though I suppose I look a bit that way from a distance. Between you and me, nothing about my life has ever been easy; I just have an odd talent for effortlessly seeming to be luckier than I am. Sure, I’m breezy but my breeziness is not of that fragile ‘I came from money’ variety. I earned my breeziness the hard way. You know, by being stubborn.
So, concerning those two novels I mentioned — you know, about the heist that I may or may not have participated in back in December of 2009 — well, those novels did not go to plan. Putting aside the fact that I was horrifically low on funds and contending with two precocious bairns, those two books should have been easy. I knew the subject by heart, I could just close my eyes and recite everything as I imagined or remembered it. I have a solid work-ethic and no end of energy — the whole enterprise should have been a piece of cake.
But it was not to be. Instead, and in a manner that was entirely consistent with the main themes of my life, everything went pear-shaped.
To be continued…