I’m in Nimbin, chasing a story, and I don’t like the way the turkey is looking at me.
The second I arrived at the hostel, set on an abandoned farm at the edge of the rainforest, the turkey started stalking me with the slow malevolence of a traffic cop. All day, every time I look at it, it folds out its plumage like a switchblade and runs a feint at me.
The turkey is trying to establish dominance. The turkey does not know how badly it has underestimated me. I’m here in Nimbin covering a story for an important and influential magazine that, truly, I have no business writing for. The commission for the Very Important Magazine will pay more than I usually make in a year and establish me as a proper, grown-up writer. Being here on Magazine business means that I am fit to burst with hubris; this puffed-up, pugilistic turkey could be my spirit animal.
Nimbin is a countercultural enclave in the heart of the northern shires of New South Wales. On the drive in, I passed tiny farms nestled in patches of rainforest, where naked men taking the sun in deckchairs would surprise me, popping up sudden and unlovely as mushrooms after the rain, providing fleeting, peripheral glances of wrinkled gnarly flesh as I sped by. Less than an hour’s drive away from Byron Bay, where waves of gentrifying sea-changers are slowly turning the coastline into Northern California, things are different out here. The further you head inland, it becomes less The Hills, more The Hills Have Eyes. My destination is a backpackers’ hostel just outside of Nimbin, the lawless epicentre of the Australian hippie movement.
I wait all of twenty seconds after check-in before announcing to the other residents of my hostel that ‘oh, I’m not on holiday, no, I’m a writer,’ as though the twilight state of boredom and financial stress that distinguishes my career is at all different from being on a long, interminable vacation. I regret my announcement almost instantly, when a wave of hippies approach and ask me to look at their poetry.
Freelance writers don’t have many professional certainties, but when someone tells me, ‘Oh, I’m a writer too,’ I feel the same sinking feeling that doctors at dinner parties must feel when they hear, ‘Is this lump something to worry about?’
One of the poets, Sandy, is relentless – turkey-like – in her insistence that I read her dream journal, and that I also meet and write an article on her psychic guru.
Sandy is one of a handful of permanent residents of the hostel, people who came to visit Nimbin and never got around to leaving. Some are young, surly, gaolbird types from country towns, but most are older women with flowing silver hair and the friendly but confused demeanour of those whose inner landscapes have been eroded by acid. They, without exception, have come to Nimbin because it is ‘a place of healing’. The healing process, as far as I can tell, involves smoking cones in front of the Discovery Channel. ‘I came here because I’m a free spirit,’ Sandy tells me, thumb-screwing a mix into her cone and turning up the volume on a repeat of River Monsters.
Sandy is everywhere I go, waiting at the shower block in the morning, sitting out the front of cafes in town where I go to interview sources, next to the wood heater where I type up my notes at night. She catches me at dawn on my last morning in Nimbin, when I’m up to watch the sunrise.
I’m standing on the back lawn of the farmhouse waiting for the light. As the gloom retreats, a murky shape in the dark resolves into a Shetland pony which wanders over to me and sniffs my hand. I reach out to stroke its mane, golden-brown in the rising light. The pony whinnies and startles me out of a reverie, and I look up to see Sandy emerging from her room. I duck down behind the pony, burying my face in its mane and hoping that Sandy has missed me. The mane is soft against my cheek and my heart is full of gratitude for this noble beast of burden that is taking time out from its morning to hide me from the predatory hippie. It is for naught. After a moment’s silent commune with the pony, Sandy sees me, and rushes over to tell me the news.
‘I’ve spoken to my guru!’ she announces joyfully, extending her arms for an embrace. ‘And she has had a vision that you have come to tell the world about her!’ I look forlornly over her shoulder, trying to calculate my chances of escaping unhugged. Sandy is older than me, but has the agility and alarming upper-body strength of the yoga-fit, so I decide against trying to fight.
‘Okay,’ I acquiesce. ‘This guru of yours, what does she do exactly?’
‘Oh, everything,’ Sandy assures me, in a tone of breathless joy I last heard from a pimp in a morally unsound part of the world. ‘Astrology, tarot, psychometry, and she’s a clairvoyant! What’s the matter? You look like you need a squeeze!’ Sandy tightens her dictatorial embrace and drags me, more or less willingly, to see her Psychic.
The Psychic starts our spiritual connection by handing me a pamphlet. It’s printed on pink paper and lists the psychic and spiritual services she offers and notes that she is ‘available for parties and private readings’. Her skin is sun-damaged, her jewellery gaudy, but her smile is unexpectedly warm and her manner sharp. I was expecting some kind of new-age dipshit, and I was braced for a tone-deaf lecture on permaculture and soul-attunement, but The Psychic seems extremely switched on.
We talk for a little while about her powers and how they work, then she offers to ‘do a reading’ on me. Before she begins drawing the tarot cards, she lays down some fundamentals: ‘The cards show only what the possibilities are. They show you a path you can take to achieve the best from life.’
The first card is Death. It tumbles out from the deck as I cut it and falls across the table between us. The angle it falls on means that the cowled figure of Death, as he rides into frame on horseback, has a rakish tilt. The Psychic doesn’t miss a beat. ‘Death represents the end of a cycle, and the transition into a new state of regeneration and growth.’
‘So Death doesn’t mean, you know, death?’
‘No, no,’ she says. ‘It means that you’ve been hanging on to trauma.’ she takes my hand and squeezes it. ‘And it’s time to let that go.’ Despite itself, my calcified little heart warms to her.
I don’t want to like The Psychic. I mistrust spiritualists. Not because I don’t believe in earth visitors and soul retrieval and all the rest, but because they have fostered an industry of hucksters and frauds who prey on the feeble-minded, the gullible and the mad. As a child of the counterculture, I was often surrounded by the kind of grimy, dishwater Buddhists who twice a year attend ConFest (a bush party billed as ‘Australia’s largest outdoor alternative lifestyle festival’ and possibly the southern hemisphere’s greatest convergence of naked white skin, dreadlocks and giardia) in order to meet new generations of naive teen hippies who will pay them$120 to clean their aura and later relieve them of their virginity in a tent. Like knowledge, like power, a little mysticism can be a dangerous thing.
When The Psychic asks me if I believe in reincarnation I tell her no, which she bulldozes right over without acknowledging that she’s heard me. She tells me I’m holding a karmic debt from a past life in which I had great power and used it selfishly; I was a great intellectual or a priest, and, also, ‘probably a paedophile’.
Because of this, I have several dark spirits that follow me through life, although she tells me not to worry, because I have light spirits too. The trick, apparently, is to manage this pantheon through ‘kind and positive action’. ‘Have you fathered a child recently?’ she asks. ‘That’s the fastest way to heal your karmic imbalance and banish the dark spirits.’
Several times she mentions that once I’ve banished my dark spirits, my ‘powers will become unlimited’ and a new ‘carefree gypsy life will begin’. I ask her if I should father the child before or after my new gypsy life begins. ‘Immediately,’ she insists. ‘Father the child immediately.’
‘Should this be with my current partner? Because I won’t see her for a few days.’
‘What’s her star sign?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What’s her birthday?’
‘I’m not sure.’
The Psychic pauses, looks up and breaks character. ‘Oh, god,’ she cackles. ‘How long have you been with her? Three years? That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard! Learn her fucking birthday!’
After the reading, The Psychic gives me a final affirmation and assures me that my time is coming, ‘in a very big way.’ When I ask her if I should worry about my dark spirits she shrugs. ‘We all have travelling companions in life, good and bad. The important thing is to do good in the world,’ she says. ‘And find out when your girlfriend’s birthday is.’
Back in Melbourne, writing the story for the Very Important Magazine, I feel as though I’ve absorbed some of The Psychic’s optimism. As I work on the piece, one affirmation that my time is coming in a big way, keeps returning to me. As I write, I start to feel better and better about the piece, better than I have writing other stories, more sure of my abilities than I’ve ever been, as though some kind of ethereal travelling companion is along for the ride.
A light-headed giddiness that’s been with me since Nimbin grows stronger as my fingers fly over the keys. My anxieties about living up to the Magazine’s standards fade, and I grow more and more at ease with the hours spent writing, sloughing off evil spirits with an almighty loofah of self-belief. I spend days straight at the computer, as my commissioned 5000-word article becomes 8000, then 10 000, then 15 000 words long. I spend so long typing that my left eye starts twitching, and several times when I get up from the desk, my knees give out and I stumble. At one point, I trip and fall down the back stairs. No matter; I dust myself off and return to work. The only distraction is an itching ache just above the nape of my neck that grows more pronounced as the days pass.
Then, after about a week, I file the story for the Magazine, scratch the back of my head and my hand comes away covered in blood.
At the doctor, the GP checks my vitals and asks if I’ve been feeling funny lately. I tell him about the confusion, weakness and disorientation. An X-ray reveals that I’ve fractured my ankle falling down the stairs – I’ve been walking on it, oblivious, for days. He asks if anyone noticed that my speech was slurred, and if not, why not. I’m not sure how to answer that. Didn’t my increasingly erratic behaviour over the past week raise alarm bells? Do my loved ones just expect me to slur and babble and pratfall occasionally? If so, it’s hardly fair that they get mad when I forget their birthdays.
The doctor does a few more routine checks – reflexes, heartbeat, eyes, nose and throat – then looks at the back of my head and screams, not something you want your doctor to do, necessarily. There’s a moment of silence and he says, ‘I think we’re going to need a second opinion.’ I wait patiently in the room for a minute, listening to hushed voices in the hallway, before two other doctors enter the room. The second looks at the back of my head and, after a moment’s thought, says, ‘I’m going to have to google that.’
After a few minutes, during which several doctors enter the room and huddle around a computer monitor gasping and giggling, and I manage, even through my tranquillised state, to become embarrassed in a panicked kind of way, one of them approaches me with a scalpel and a cup of dry ice. As he works, he makes conversation.
‘Have you been out bush lately?’
‘I was in Nimbin,’ I admit. The tip of a pair of forceps grazes my scalp.
‘Have you been near any livestock?’
‘No. Yes,’ I admit. ‘I hugged a pony.’
‘Yes, that would do it.’
There’s a wrenching pull to the back of my head, and then the doctor brings the forceps around to show me the tick that’s been burrowing into my brainstem for the past week.
For the next hour, the doctor uses dry ice and a pair of magnifying goggles to clean and disinfect the back of my head, and removes the family of ticks that have colonised it. The Psychic would be proud. I have not only fostered a child but raised an entire brood.
In the following weeks, I will require surgery to remove a cyst, an immune reaction to where the tick’s bite – in addition to releasing paralysing neurotoxin straight into my nervous system – has created a near-fatal bacterial infection, which has, unbeknown to me, distracted by the deadline for the Very Important Magazine, knocked out the lymph nodes on one side of my body and strayed dangerously close to my entering my brain.
While the doctor works on me, across the city, the editor of the Very Important Magazine is reading my piece of tick-addled gibberish, and deciding to spike it. When I get home there will be an email letting me know they aren’t running the piece I’d pinned my dreams, financial and otherwise, on, and offering me a kill fee.
But I don’t die, so The Psychic’s sunny optimism was not all misplaced. And I can’t feel anything – literally, I’m partially paralysed – but relieved, as the doctor shows me my new travelling companion, my little spirit animal, and crushes it between his fingers.
This is an extract from the book Mistakes Were Made by Liam Pieper, published by Penguin, rrp $9.99. Also available as an ebook.