i. wintering

"You complete and utter son of a bitch!"

This cannot be happening, surely.

July 5, about midday. I am stuck in Sydney Domestic until I can work out precisely where my hostel is; I don't want to jump on a train and end up twenty kilometres from where I should be in a city that I'm not entirely familiar with, yet. Besides which, I need somewhere to stow my gear before the gig. And maybe take a quick nap -- I've been awake since about 4 in the morning, and I'm starting to feel it, that disgusting dragging feeling that starts in your shoulders and behind your eyes. Especially now that the two guys right in front of me have decided to start a fight.

The taller one flings his insult at the shorter one, and follows it shortly with a left hook that would probably make Jackie Chan nod in approval...or wince, either or. The shorter one yelps and take a dive, sprawling on the floor of the food court. He cradles his punched jaw in one hand, and gazes up at the tall one with the hugest, most Bambi-like eyes I've ever seen on a man, liquid dark and full of pain. He looks like he's about to cry. Must've been one hell of a punch.

The taller one, his bright blue eyes flashing absolute murder, seems to be immune to Bambi's sad bewilderment. He hauls him up by the collar and smashes him violently into the half-wall of the little Pie Face store.

"You stupid, stupid, stupid motherfucking cunt!"

I wince visibly. It's not like I've never heard that word before, nor never used it myself, but who screams it at the top of their lungs at someone in public, when there are old people and little kids around?

...or am I just a prude, or something?

Why the hell isn't anyone around them reacting? You'd have thought that the Pie Face staff would have at least gotten slightly cross about the assault to their wall. The elderly folk enjoying their coffees and the parents of the little kids stuffing their faces with pie should definitely be tutting about the language.

"How can...how are you here? You're not supposed to be here!" Bambi gabbles, and the murder in Blue Eyes' face turns to total genocide.

"Why do you think I'm here, Einstein?"

"You...you didn't..." Bambi's face suddenly turns pale.

"Of course I didn't, jackass. I was in a bad accident," Blue Eyes snarls. "But this isn't about me! This is about you, you...you heartless fucking bastard! You absolute piece of shit! Do you have any idea what you put me through?!"

Blue Eyes shakes Bambi hard, slamming him against the wall again. Again, no one around bats an eye. What the hell?

"I don't know why I'm here," Bambi says, probably more than a little disoriented after being smashed into the wall twice. He certainly doesn't look like he's on planet Earth.

"Oh, god, you...you just..."

I am fully expecting Blue Eyes to lay another one on Bambi (and still wondering why nobody is saying anything, or even at least shooting the vaguest of disapproving looks in their direction), but instead he drops his fists, and ducks his head, hiding his bright eyes behind a fringe of shaggy auburn hair. Bambi looks at him warily.

Suddenly, Blue Eyes pulls Bambi into his arms and hugs him tight, the way he would a brother he hasn't seen for a long time. Bambi's eyes widen for a moment, then flutter closed as he hugs him back. His fingers are trembling.

"I missed you so fucking much, you ridiculous little shit," Blue Eyes says, and his words are tangled with a desperation not to cry. I've heard that tone in the voice of my brothers before. Wanting to burst into tears but refusing to let yourself. Hell, I've probably heard it in my own voice. I can't remember the last time I cried.

"Are you right, love?"

I look away with a start, my heart thumping like a cage full of hyperactive rabbits. The woman behind the counter at Pie Face is looking at me in confusion.

"Uh?" Smooth wording there, Winter. Real smooth.

"Would you like to order?"

I want to say excuse me, did you just not notice the punch-up that just happened not a foot away from you, but instead come out with, "Uh. No, no. No, I'm right."

The woman smiles perfunctorily at me and moves away.

I just realised I haven't moved a muscle in about five minutes.

I stare back at Blue Eyes and Bambi, bewildered.

"I don't think anyone can see us," Bambi whispers to Blue Eyes.

They turn their heads. Their eyes lock with mine.

The rabbits break free of their cage and start a stampede, and I withhold a shriek threatening to burst out of me, and walk quickly in the opposite direction, towards the airport exit. Never mind where the hostel is. Never mind where anything is. Just get me out of here. Get me out of here and let me find somewhere I can sit and breathe until the hallucinations go away.

My hand not holding my bag is clutched tightly around the bottle of pills in my pocket.

I sit sprawled on a bench at the Airport train station, hands shaking like spider webs in a rainstorm, a horrible nauseous feeling rolling in my stomach like a ship on a wild sea. I probably shouldn't have had that double-shot flat white back at Brisbane Domestic. It can't have done me any good; but there again, when I purchased it, the last thing I expected was to end up having a hallucination before I'd even left Sydney Airport proper. Nerves, yes. A full-blown panic attack with hallucinations, absolutely not.

I was supposed to be proving to myself that this illness wasn't as bad as I thought it was. That's what this stupid trip is all about, when you got down to it.

I fumble in my bag and fish my phone out, pulling up Alex's number and pressing call. Alex is my ex, one of the few I'm still speaking to. We ended because...'we just did' seems like a pathetic reason, and I suppose it is, but that's how it was. We just did. We're still friends, and I know he worries about me way more than he should, really.

(I also know that if I'm being honest with myself, we ended because I got sick. But if I don't feed the illness any validity, maybe it will go away quicker. Cognitive therapy, isn't it?)

"Alex's phone."

"Alex, it's me."

"Yo, Winter!" He sounds happy. Obviously a sucker for punishment, this boy. "I thought you were in Sydney?"

"I am. I just have a question for you. A medical question."

Alex is a nurse at the Princess Alexandra Hospital, studying to become a doctor. If anyone short of my GP can help me, it's probably him.

"A medical question? As in..."

"As in, you know the drug I'm on?" I don't want to say it aloud, just in case someone overhears and decides to mug me. I read somewhere that the street price for Xanax, currently, was a dollar-fifty Australian for one milligram. I have eighty-four milligrams in my pocket.


"No, the new one."

"Klono...no, Xanax, right?"

Like I needed a list! "Yes, that one. Does it...does it cause hallucinations?"

"Jesus. Um, off the top of my head? No, I don't think so." I hear the clicks of a laptop being opened and keys being tapped. Is Googling it cheating when you're in the medical profession? "Not really. It can happen, but it's highly unlikely that it will. It's considered a very serious side-effect, though."

I feel horror welling up in my chest. "Oh. Okay." What the hell was I supposed to do now? Call an ambulance?

"Winter, why are you asking?" Alex's voice has gone all doctor on me. "What's happened? I mean, did something happen, or are you just worried?"

I want to cry, but there is no earthly way I am letting that happen in public.

"Yes, I had a hallucination. A, a proper hallucination. I just walked off the damn plane and into the damn food court to get a damn coffee and then it came out of nowhere and I can't remember what even started it and--"

"Winter, Winter, Winter, hush," Alex soothes. "It's okay, Snowbell." That being one of my more embarrassing nicknames. "You were just having an anxiety attack."

"I was having a hallucination! I never had them before, despite the, the...the..."

"Which was induced by anxiety."

"I wasn't bloody anxious!"

"When's the last time you had a Xanax?"

"I don't know. Twenty-four hours ago at the very least." I'm recalcitrant when it comes to the pills. They just seem like confirmations that the illness is as nasty as it is, to me. I'm sure it doesn't have to be, I'm sure I can survive without the benzos. I'm sure my doctor was just being overly cautious when he prescribed them to me, covering his arse just in case something went wrong--

"Xanax has an incredibly short half-life. If you honestly haven't had one for twenty-four hours--"

"At least."

"--at least, then I can say with almost total surety that you didn't have a Xanax hallucination. Or that you're starting to have 'regular' hallucinations. You haven't skipped any Abilify, right?"

"Of course I haven't. I'm not an idiot."

"Then it was your old friend anxiety bein' its usual charming self."

"How do you know?" I snap.

"Which one of us is the med student here?" Alex snaps back. He's had enough of my shit. I've had enough of my shit, too.

"Fucking hell," I rasp out. My voice is now doing the tear-strangled thing that my hallucination earlier was doing.

"Snowbell," Alex says, and his voice is much gentler than before. "This is...you know, it's a thing. All of it's a legit thing. You can't ignore it and hope it'll go away, or you'll end up getting hurt or something. Excessive cortisol's probably doing a number on you as we speak. How's your heart rate?"

"Through the roof," I mutter. There's not really much point in lying.

"Take a pill. Can you do that for me?"

"Can you not patronise me by speaking that way?" I snarl back. "It drives me up the wall! I'm anxious, not a simple child!"

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry. I just, I think if you take one then your hallucinations won't come back. And your heart rate will probably even out. And I'll be one hell of a lot less worried about you, to boot."

I sigh, and rub my forehead. "All right, all right. First vending machine I find I'll get some water and dope myself up. Just for you."

"For you, more likely," Alex replies, calmly. "Also, avoid caffeine today, if you can help it."

"I had a double shot flat white for breakfast before I got on the plane."

"Christ, Winter! And you're wondering why you're hallucinating?! Did you have anything else? You really need to eat something!"

"I'm finishing this call now so I don't end up hanging up on you, Alex."

"Okay, okay, okay okay okay. Points for being honest. Just keep what I said in mind, okay? And please do 'dope yourself up', for the love of crazy pants. Call me again if you need to. And enjoy the gig tonight!"

The first vending machine I happen to see is standing at the end of the bench I'm sitting on. I get up wearily, wave my debit card at it, and punch at its buttons until it spits out a six hundred millilitre bottle of Mount Franklin spring water at me. (Three dollars thirty -- highway robbery. It's sixty cents cheaper back home.) I extract the bottle from the delivery slot and -- again -- clutch at the little bottle of Xanax, hidden deep in my coat pocket.

I don't need to. I don't. Look, my heart rate's already going back to normal. I don't need to. I really don't...

While I'm mulling this over in my head, the Sydenham service announces its arrival with a blurry tannoy message and a mechanical whirr as the double-decker train slows to a stop. I step into the carriage, glad to be moving away from the airport in general (and thankful that I remembered, at the last moment, which train I needed to take).

Down the carriage, out of the corner of my eye I think I see a tall young man and a shorter one stumble in awkwardly; the taller with a shock of auburn hair.

I shudder violently, and move onto the top deck of the carriage. My palm around the bottle is sweaty.

Just once more. Just this time, I'll take it.


Nothing further happens after I take the pill.

Either that, or I'm so doped up I don't notice anything happening. That is entirely possible. One milligram of alprazolam hitting my empty stomach makes the world blurred around the edges and friendlier than it was before. My heart resumes beating at its normal rate; I float off the train and check in to my hostel without issue.

My four-bed dorm, at the moment, at least, is empty except for me. Score. I guess touring Australia isn't as popular in the winter as it is in the summer. I thought for sure I'd have dorm-mates.

The Xanax has made me sleepy, which is hardly surprising. It's only one-thirty. The gates open at seven thirty. A nap won't hurt, surely.

I set my phone's alarm to go off at 5, so I can make my way to the gig with plenty of time to spare, in case of traffic jams or random screw-ups. You can never be too careful, and I didn't, firstly, fly down to Sydney all alone, secondly, spend ninety bucks on a ticket, and thirdly, wait for three agonising months to see a band I love, to have it all rendered worthless by unforeseen circumstances, should any be lurking in the future.

I curl up on my bunk, and close my eyes momentarily, before flickering them open again. I stare around the dimly-lit dorm and take stock of what I can see: lockers. My bag leaning against the wall. Window with drawn blackout curtains, only a smidgen of light filtering in. The set of bunks I'm not sleeping in. A small desk with a mirror, built into the wall. A chair in front of it, with my black coat thrown over the back of it. A rather old picture of the Harbour Bridge at sunset, all sun-faded purples. The door out, with fire safety and evacuation instructions Blu-Tack'd to the back of it, at about head height.

No hallucinations.

Maybe Alex had been right. Maybe it had been anxiety. Maybe it had nothing at all to do with the tiny cosmos-pink pills, in their little white bottle still deep in my coat pocket, but rather my insistence upon not taking them. The world is warm and swimmy with Xanax in my bloodstream. Or maybe it's not Xanax, but rather a lack of panic.

This is a legit thing. You can't ignore it and hope it'll go away, or you'll end up getting hurt or something.

"Maybe," I murmur to Alex, almost a thousand kilometres away and unhearing, as I close my eyes again. "Maybe. But it's not as bad as everyone thinks it is. It really isn't. I can cope. There are thousands of people worse off than I am."

No hallucinations, no panic, happily falling asleep in a strange room I've never been in before.

I'm fine, and I know it.


I'm not fine.

Getting to the Hordern Pavilion was no problem, although my cabbie did get lost twice. (In his defence, I temporarily forgot which suburb the Hordern was in; turns out it's in Moore Park, not Surrey Hills. In my defence, Surrey Hills is pretty much next door to Moore Park, anyway.) The gig is utterly fantastic; but Yuzovka Hearts have been one of my favourite bands for years -- I'm biased and I freely admit it. I wouldn't have missed this show for the world, especially as UK bands like to take long periods of time between Australian tours, and often skip over the more boring antipodean cities when they do show up, my home city included this time. I would have recommended Brisbane in July as one of the prettiest places in the world to anyone, and not at all boring, but apparently the Yuzovka lads were more than content to stay south of the border. Bastards. If they weren't such excellent musicians, I might have been annoyed with them.

The gig itself is fine. More than fine, it is in fact spectacular and sets my heart on fire. It's after it finishes that everything starts to go to shit.

I walk -- float -- out of the Pavilion with a grin on my face and music buzzing in my veins. The queue at the taxi rank is about three million miles long, but I'm far too intoxicated with melody and a little bit of beer to really mind. The pubs along Errol Flynn Boulevard have started to empty, as well, which adds to the length of the line. Three or four metres down the queue, some gentlemen late of PJ Gallagher's and probably far more booze'd out than I am have gotten bored with waiting quietly, and have started up an impromptu choir. First on the playlist is Tom Jones' "Delilah", which is oddly tuneful, given their state of mild to serious intoxication, and entirely hilarious (and makes me wonder if any of them have just been to the gig -- Yuzovka Hearts being a Welsh band, and "Delilah" being the most famous 'Welsh' song of all time...). Next up is "Nessun Dorma!", to my delight. Who says Australian men aren't cultured?

By the final vincerò, the taxis have begun to arrive, and the entire line cheers -- whether for the arrival of transportation or the impromptu choir, I'm not sure. In singles and in groups, people disappear into the cabs, and rather quickly, as well. I slide in to the first free cab I see, and give the cabbie the address of my hostel. I feel a tiny bit sad that this officially means the night is over, now. Back to the hostel to catch a few hours' sleep before catching a 6AM flight back to Brisvegas. Not even a full twenty-four hours in Sydney! But I let myself smile as I lean my head back against the rest; I wouldn't have not gone, not for all the tea in China (nor all the dragons in Wales).

I'm too high on music to even worry about what the cabbie might think of me as I relax entirely. What a brilliant fucking night it's been. Honestly, I can't remember ever being this happy in my life.

"Shut the fuck up, she can probably hear us!"

My eyes fly open and I feel the blood drain from my face. That voice is not altogether unfamiliar. It sounds rather like a voice I heard earlier while hallucinating.

As casually as I can muster, I let my gaze wander rightwards, over my shoulder without turning my head. In my peripheral vision, I can see someone -- lanky and auburn-haired -- sitting in the back seat. I drive my incisors into my lip, hard, and look forward, feeling my palms sweat.

Not now. Why now? I'm not anxious! At least, I don't think I am. I've just had the best night I've ever had in my life! Why am I hallucinating again?! Is it the Xanax, after all? It couldn't possibly be. I took the stupid pill at one in the afternoon, it should have been out of my system by now. That's what Alex said, right?

"Miss, are you all right?" my cabbie looks at me askance for a moment before looking back to the road. His voice with its melodic accent is tinged with concern, probably for the interior of his taxi more than anything else. I can hardly blame him. "In the glove box, there is a sick bag if you feel poorly--"

"I'm all right," I rasp out. My throat feels like a raw wound. "I...I'm just not from Sydney, so there's so much to look at. Even at night! Ha ha!"

He seems to swallow my excuse, and doesn't notice my hand clenched into a fist by my left thigh. I'm digging my nails into my palm, out of panic or because I'm trying to distract myself from seeing things, I don't know.

"She can see us," one of my hallucinations whispers. Bambi.

"No, she can't. Nobody can see us. She didn't see us at the gig."

"She only had eyes for the lead singer at the gig."

Well, that's slightly offensive. I was ogling the bass player, as well. In fact, I shrieked out "I love you, Alan!" when he took to the stage, almost completely shamelessly.

"And there were three million people there."

Hardly five thousand at a very generous best. Yuzovka Hearts was a brilliant band, but they hadn't caught on down here the way they did in the UK.

"She hasn't given us the slightest inclination she can see us," Blue Eyes says, in a surprisingly sulky voice. "Nor hear us. Told you, it was chance at the airport."

"She looked at us and then turned white and ran away, moron!"

"Moron yourself. How did that have anything to do with us? I keep telling you, she's like everyone else. Hear-no-see-no."

"So why are we stuck to her?"

My panic-o-metre breaks. I can't handle this any longer. I swallow a scream building in my throat and turn to my cabbie.

"Hey," I say, desperately. "Do you know any good music?"

go to chapter: i. wintering | ii. cast away your troubles | iii. hallucinoghosts | iv. planespotting | v. a short guide to the afterlife | vi. rules of engagement | vii. thin ice
side-stories: let's get high

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