I've got a plan. It’s one that aims to provide me with a whole-of-life roadmap, if that doesn’t sound too grandiose. It's not complete, not fully worked out to the last detail, although the central thrust of it feels very solid. Anyone who knows me is probably surprised by this. I tended in the past to take each day as it comes. Not anymore. I feel much happier, more centered, my mind more fertile, since I got serious about having a plan.
What I want to express with my plan, and my surrounding commentary upon it, is the need for the modern alienated individual to replace “God's Plan” with something human yet capable of touching the ineffable. Art certainly has its place in my plan. And some poetry, although not a lot. William Blake, for instance, is not included.
Does this all sound a bit pretentious? I hope not. There’s a hell of a lot of very hum-drum practical detail in the plan. Early on, for instance, I plan to open a bank account. Hardly the stuff of a pompous, head-in-the-clouds “intellectual”. There is a rumor going round—and I think I know who started it—that I called my plan “The Plan To End All Plans”. Let me state for the record: that is absolutely not true.
Before I lay it out, it’s probably worth mentioning how the big change came about. How did I, of all people, get caught up in the all-absorbing project of making a plan? Well, I guess I have my best friend Douglas Dunaway to thank—couldn’t have done it without him, as they say on the red carpet. Now, for anyone who knows Doug, that might sound preposterous, but he undoubtedly provided the initiating prick.
It was a couple of years ago, at a picnic by the lake. Doug had recently dropped out of university. Geology oppressed him and meteorology left him dazed. What the hell, he wondered, was he doing? His life began inching deeper into sloth and squalor. Even at the best of times, Doug was a heavy, ruminative sort of bloke. I once joked that his problem was geological—the eras just rushed by him in a blur. Ha! By the lake, after an egg, he shook his head slowly and said, “Maybe I need a plan.”
At first I scoffed. I suggested that what he really needed was a job. Not to be harsh, but he was letting himself go—or, letting himself stop might be more apposite. On the drive back it was hard to tell if he was awake or asleep. I found myself asking very basic questions like, “What does he do?”
Back home at my desk, working on my blog, I found myself a bit blocked. Blogging has always come easily to me, and I guess if I couldn’t do it I’d kill myself. Today, dammit, Doug’s phrase “Maybe I need a plan” wouldn’t stop repeating. So I thought to myself, alright, I’ll play along, does the idea of a plan appeal to me? I laughed out loud at that—then suddenly jotted down on a scrap of paper:
Douglas Dunaway’s Plan for Life:
11am: Sit down
I’ve always used humour to cope with stress. But even leaving that to one side, this was bloody hilarious! I posted it on the blog and sent Doug a link, explaining it was just a bit of fun, hoping he took it in the spirit intended.
When we next met for coffee and a bun, I pressed him on it. “So?”
“The plan? We’re all agog, Doug. Onward and upward?”
He shifted slowly in his seat and murmured something about preferring to keep mum.
Dear God! Then he passed me a ragged, dog-eared piece of foolscap.
Doug, it seemed, in the harsh light of day, had written a poem.
Little Jack who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vale rejoice!
Little Jack I’ll—
I didn’t read the whole thing. In fact, I upset the table and left. It was with a heavy heart that my next blog entry outlined the reasons I could no longer be Douglas Dunaway’s friend. I would, sadly, never speak to him again.
The stress of all this did knock me a bit. Fortunately Auntie Joy moved back in and for a dry old stick she talks a lot of sense. Of course, she knows me better than just about anyone. You see, she raised me. Something I’ve never said publicly before: my mother died giving birth to me. A gynodontic complication science was powerless to stem. It gutted my father, reduced him to a ghost. If Auntie Joy hadn’t moved in, I might not be here.
That night was rugged, and it was Auntie Joy who made the hot chocolate, pulled the dressing gown tight about her, sat across from me at the kitchen table, and quietly said, “Sweetheart, maybe you do need a plan.”
I stared at her like I’d seen another ghost. Doug was one thing, Auntie Joy another. Had I been missing the bleeding obvious? Well, I’m open-minded about a lot of things so, I thought, maybe I should play along? See how it went?
And from there it just took off. Boy, did I ever throw myself into the initial planning! I accessed a vital surge of energy. Blog, shmog—this, my friend, was going to be the plan to end all plans! (Not that I ever called it that, not even to Auntie Joy.) My desk was soon groaning with it. You should have seen the exercise books pile up! Ha!
I bounced a lot of ideas off Auntie Joy—what to put in, who to leave out—and one morning she said, “And poetry...?”
“Well...” I was evasive but Joy’s gaze was steady. “Well, I’m not having any William Blake,” I said hotly. “Period.”
“How about Coleridge?”
I shrugged. “I guess there’s a few things in The Ancient Mariner, might work.”
“So that’s a yes?”
“Yes, yes, Jesus!”
I’m glad Joy prodded me. I did need the leaven poetry provides. Without it, a plan risks becoming nothing more than a sterile to-do list.
It was after about eighteen months of solid work that Joy addressed the elephant in the room. No prizes for guessing. An elephant so dense in the hindquarters, nearby oxygen lost its buoyancy. Wouldn’t a plan that was to include everything—wouldn’t it have to include... Douglas Dunaway? I said I’d prefer it not.
Joy said, “Perhaps I should go see him.”
“But he’s a joke.”
“Just to see where he fits into the scheme of things.”
I wasn’t happy, but didn’t yet feel sure enough of my plan to argue.
Joy spent a long time getting ready, but it was worth it. Wow. She’d really dolled herself up. Reminded me of when she’d first moved in to save me. Except...
“What do you think?” she asked, twirling gaily.
“Yes, wow...but your hair—is that a wig?” I barely recognized her.
“Ask me no naughties and I’ll tell you no nasties,” she quipped cheekily. It was hard not to laugh, hers being so infectious.
Depositing a glove in a severe, stylish, bright-red triangular handbag, she said toodle-loo and left.
Joy walked alone down the dark deserted street, stiletto heels ticking on the cold cement. It was so quiet I checked my watch. Good Lord! Ten minutes to midnight. No wonder! Where had the time gone? Already I felt a little worried about the plan’s need for an update.
It was only a ten minute walk to Doug’s place, but it seemed an eternity. Joy didn’t miss a beat. So stylish and assured. If she was surprised to see Doug out in his front garden, she didn’t show it. Under a waxing gibbous, she was immaculate.
Doug was surprised, having been engrossed with a rosebush. An old one, it was, with big blousy orangey-brown blossoms. Joy couldn’t help a small smile. Trust Doug to find the only rosebush with blooms that looked like something the cat dragged in.
“Oh, hey,” Doug said with a grin that looked a little oafish in the moonlight. “I think I’ve lost her.”
“Oh dear. Who? Do you mean a cat?” Joy stepped her way carefully to Doug’s side of the rosebush. “Can I help?”
Ha! Poor Doug. He had no idea who Joy was. The look on his face! Who was this stunner walking into his rose-garden? Well, you can’t really blame him—Joy was very dolled up and he hadn’t seen her since eighth-grade summer camp.
Joy was actually a little agitated. “Where did you last see her? What’s her name? Here, kitty...” Was she play-acting here? One thing you can take to the bank: don’t bother asking Doug, haha!
“No, no, I was referring to the rosebush,” Doug said. “I saw it just now from the kitchen window. It fell over.”
Joy gave him a funny look. Unsure? Doug perhaps felt challenged. He let the rosebush go and stepped back. The big blocky shrub fell down. See?
But Joy’s gaze had locked onto the base. A complicated clump of whitish roots was now rudely upthrust, and the sudden hole in the ground seemed to be alive with trickling soil and little ticks and grubs.
“Oh dear,” Joy whispered, taking a step back, putting a hand to her breast, going weak at the knees. She clutched at her handbag but it was too late—she fainted dead away.
In all my years of knowing Doug—and, oh, where is the geological time scale that could do it justice!—I have never seen him move with the speed he employed to catch Joy in his arms. Then, gently, with his more familiar stolid step, he carried her inside, where she recovered quickly. Tea? Thank you kindly. You’re sure you’re okay? Fine. Oh, I don’t even know your name! Chrissy.
Yes, she introduced herself as Chrissy. A bit much, really, but he seemed to buy it. Honestly, he had no idea. It was everything I could do not to start blogging right then and there. Ha! Seriously, who would last five minutes in this world without a sense of humor?
They talked of many things and soon began to click. Joy was coy but masterful. “So, um, where do you see yourself, Doug, in, say, ten years time?”
Doug, for his part, ho, ho, tended to let the future take care of itself. Besides, who knew: war, disease, volcanoes. Yawn. Kudos to Joy for suppressing an eye-roll. But, seriously, time to go, babe. Dumdum needs his dummy sleep.
“Doug?” she said tentatively. “Would it be okay if I stayed here tonight?”
Jesu Maria! You could almost see Doug’s soul turn over in his leaden humor. Shield her well!
They walked down the hall to Doug’s bedroom. Closing the door, Joy suggested Doug get into his purple pajamas with the white trim while she saw to a few things at the dresser.
Once Doug was in bed, Joy turned and walked to his side, handbag held before her in both hands. “Doug,” she said, a little sharply, trying to focus his rather wild and wandering attention. “Where do you see yourself in one week’s time?”
Doug, under the blankets, just his head showing, not his best angle, gave a weak laugh. “At the Ritz, maybe?”
“Do you think perhaps you need a plan?”
“Oh, ah, well...”
“Is that a yes?”
“Yes or no, goddammit!”
With a snap of her clasp, Joy loosed her garment and slipped quick as a feather between Doug’s crisp white sheets.
* * *
Me, on the other hand, got no sleep that night. I had no idea Joy had intended to stay at Doug’s. Where, in the bold blue blazes, did this fit into the plan? But even the impulse to question turned on me like a cur. Sitting in the cold kitchen, alone, rocking on a chair, pushing a knuckle into my stupid temple—is that any sort of life? Oh, but the plan, the plan! Now, to begin with, children, take one fresh egg, pop it in warm waters... Sure, I managed a few laughs, but it didn’t take.
Toward dawn, I tried to rouse myself, this was ridiculous, god I was stiff, trying to edge into the plan, but had to put it away, cold, dead.
And Joy didn’t return for a full week. I won’t describe the hell of it. Open a bank account? Why bother when there’s plenty of room in the eternal abyss for all one’s pennies. Hell it turns out is fairly straight-forward. Hell is sterility. Hell has no plan.
Then the door rattled and Joy walked in. She looked amazing! The bright morning sun really suited her. And with her came... Douglas Dunaway? As I lived and breathed! Doug?
I stood up from the table, almost bumping my knee. Doug? Sheesh, he’d lost a lot of weight. He walked with a pronounced limp and his right arm hung uselessly in his sleeve, withered and spindly. His grin was much the same, not done any favors by the bright morning light. I nodded, and he nodded back, and, well, here we were.
“Coffee?” I said.
Joy insisted on making it, and busied herself at the sink, happily humming, making quirky observations about any little thought or thing that popped into her head. Keeping the atmosphere bright. Not sure I ever loved her quite as much as I did right then.
Sitting across from Doug, I watched him lift (with his left hand) Joy’s stylish, bright-red triangular handbag, and place it on the table.
“I think you’ll like this,” he said, and used his left hand to work the clasp. Well, to fumble at it. Oh dear. “Haven’t got the hang of being a leftie yet,” he said. Tentatively, I offered to help, but was gruffly rebuffed. It was painful, so bumbling.
I think it was when I noticed Doug’s right shoulder twitch once or twice, a vestigial autonomic attempt to rouse his useless limb, his poor arm that hung like a smote bratwurst in a deli closed for business—I think it was then that I had something of a revelation.
I think you know me well enough by now to know I am not sentimental. I eschew it. Too many good people have been lost to that tar pit. Rigor, work, that’s me. But at that moment of seemingly endless bumbling and fumbling, I felt... I felt my heart go out to Doug. Spontaneously. Unreservedly. There’s no other way to put it. So take your best shot.
Seriously, aren’t we all fellow-travelers on this blasted, headless, clueless juggernaut?
Joy brought hot coffees, fussed with coasters, laughing at something the grocer had told her, and I think she must have discreetly opened the handbag.
“I think you’ll like this,” Doug said.
With his left hand he took from the handbag a large, thick, rectangular wad of neatly folded wax-paper.
And let the stars above shine on forever—they’ll never be a patch on Douglas Dunaway’s plan!
Even clearing the table to unfold it wasn’t enough. This plan was wall-to-wall, baby. And it was an absolute wonder. In the top-left corner was my name, address, birth registration number—everything required to open a bank account—and in the bottom-right was a selection of the latest cutting-edge mathematical equations outlining string theory.
And in between was everything else... everything.
Heart bursting, I cried, “Doug! This is the plan to end all plans!”
He grinned affably, modestly, goddamn-near sweetly.
We pored over that plan for—oh, hell, I dunno how long—like, forever! Until I suddenly had a brainwave. “This is so cool,” I said to Doug. “Why don’t we start following it right now?”
Doug shrugged and smiled as if to say, sure, I guess.
“Do you know where the bank is?” I asked him.
“Um, yeah, in Johnson Street, beside the servo.”
“Bewdy! Let’s go.”
We looked to happily beaming Joy. She said to me, “I think I have a better idea.”
“How about you clean your room up first. Not much point having a bank account if you can’t even find a clean pair of socks.”
Doug stifled a laugh with his left arm. Grudgingly, I had to admit she had a point. Technically, it wasn’t in the plan, but it could probably be taken as implicit. My desk lately was not so much groaning as stinking.
“Do you wanna see my room?” I asked Doug.
I got Doug to put his left arm around my shoulder—his left leg was next to useless—and we headed up the hall to my room.
Joy called after, “Doug, sing out if you need to go to the toilet.”
“I can help him!”
“Okay, but call me if you need anything.”
After we closed the door, Joy folded up the plan and placed it in the top drawer by the sink, under the tea-towels. She washed the dishes, wiped the table down, humming a happy tune all the while. After drying her hands on her apron, she walked down the hall to my bedroom door. Raising a knuckle to knock, she paused and moved an ear closer to listen. She smiled at the sound of the boys inside. She flexed her knuckle but continued to wait. She was in no rush. She wanted to get the timing just right. She had a plan.