VLAD THE BOGAN
OR, THE STRANGE TALE OF THE PAC-MAN CHARGING STATION
BY MAT LARKIN
It was many years ago, in the late summer of the year 200—, when I first encountered the sinister gentleman upon whose peculiar actions pends the tale I am about to relate. Though the events described in these pages are both singular and uncanny;— such as must surely drive the sceptical reader to a most laudable doubt as to the veracity of that which she reads;— yet I feel duty-bound to record my story, despite the ruin it may wreak upon my standing.
How can I begin to describe the horrors which descended upon me that preternaturally autumnal season? Perhaps it is with my decision—how I now regret it!—to purchase a non-standard charging station for my iPod.
Hell consume my bones that I should have been so rash! Possessing of habit the sensibly contrary spirit that befits modern civil society, I had of late become greatly concerned that my continuing exclusive use of Apple technology was drawing me towards a dangerously mainstream fringe of acceptable company. The omnitrams and horseless trains of Melbourne were rapidly filling with Shuffles and Nanos, their currency as anti-establishment cool depreciating in the earholes of uncouth conformists to an all but intolerable ubiquity. My own brand-new 80GB video model began to seem to me at once a statement of my authentic individuality and a disturbing suggestion that I may have begun less energetically to adhere to the avoidance of popular culture. I began to palm it shamefully on the street, and at length took to secreting my white headphones beneath my retro ‘I ⁄ Monkey Porn’ t-shirt as I made my usual rounds of nameless Fitzroy vintage clothing emporia. How was I to manage the rapid transition of Apple from alternative propriety to mainstream ignominy?
I took this question, in a state of uncommon discombobulation, to my customary Friday evening social engagement in the crowded gloom of the Weekly Name-Change Bar on Smith Street. As we settled around an old table-top video game with novelty cocktails, I laid out my concerns for consideration.
‘So you see,’ I concluded, ‘how I find myself so wracked by conflict; needing my iPod to demonstrate the edgy insouciance required in polite society, yet recoiling—very properly—from the bourgeois, middle-class company in which it places me. What should I do?’
‘Do you mean to say,’ said LeFanu, a freelance urban style consultress of my acquaintance, ‘that you wish to appear cool to other people?’
‘That’s a disgusting slander—you take that back!’ I ejaculated violently across level 5 of Galaga.
‘Look here, there’s no need to become inflamed!’ hissed Poe, looking furtively around the room. ‘This is a meaningful enough conversation without people thinking we really care about it.’
LeFanu and I settled ourselves by draining our cocktail glasses.
‘Thank-you,’ said Poe. ‘Regardless of your problems, there is an appropriate level of civil disengagement—a certain dignity—required in public intercourse of which, given your manifestly indelicate circumstances, I should have expected you to be acutely observant. Now, if you may be trusted not to unburden yourself for a moment, I suggest another round of aperitifs: who wants another Cock Sucking Mutha Fukka Candy Ass Skanky Ho?’
The evening settled into its usual rhythm of novelty cocktails and carefully superficial discussion of pop music videos of the nineteen-eighties, but my gauche ruminations had unsettled my companions and I soon found myself the sole inhabitant of an island of pointed silence. Before long I made excuses that were barely acknowledged, collected my mock-vinyl overcoat and strode out into Fitzroy.
The night followed me;—to keep it out, I reached for my iPod, but upon first sight of those mocking white headphones I shoved it back into my vintage leatherette airline bag in disgust and walked on in silent melancholia. Belle and Sebastian would have to deploy their delightful whimsy in the service of someone else’s good cheer that night.
Some moral descents creep upon the one lost in barely discernible increments; mine, I am bound to confess, found me all too easily in the labyrinthine narrows of the Folio Photography section of a Borders Superstore.
It has never been my habit to frequent the more reputable quarters of Carlton, where families stroll beneath Lygon Street’s electric illuminations clutching iced-cream puddings, but that evening I felt a secret, shameful curiosity for its crepuscular enticements. Some submerged part of this desire was, no doubt, the deceitful motivator: I had discovered my music player to be common, and though—as the reader would expect—my revulsion was intense, yet I found myself haunted with self-doubt. Was my mock-vinyl coat truly mock? Could it be that I harboured some self-secret urge to destroy my own nature and embrace the lumpen middle class?
A couple exited Borders wearing matching iPods. Peering through the enormous, pellucid windows into the sickly-bright interior, I experienced a fantastic thrill at the thought of throwing my life to the fates and stepping inside. Before I had had another sensible thought, I had done the very thing.
Most will never have to experience the environs of one of these dens, and I will not risk disturbing the gentler reader with gratuitously salacious description of the squalid circumstances of the place; for those of more unalloyed mettle, however, and in order most wholly to explicate the circumstances preceding the great and terrible meeting I am shortly to describe, it is necessary—sensitively—to describe a peculiar encounter I had deep inside the sordid sett.
Immediately upon entering I became seized by a dread all the more chilling for not being nameless, for nothing in this place was nameless. Large signs neatly printed with slogans of friendly advice as to Staff Recommendations! and Best Sellers! and, incomprehensibly, Rest Rooms! hung from the immodestly visible ceiling. Upon entering, one of the servers—his own weskit badged Trevor: ask me about our awesome range of gift vouchers!—greeted me with an effusive wave from behind a polished counter twenty yards away. I had never seen a man under a roof from that distance before. I was overcome with nausea at the indecency.
At length I stumbled, half-blinded by strip lighting, into the Folio Photography section. Gasping as a drowning man, I managed to pull down and clutch to myself a large retrospective volume of Robert Mapplethorpe and opened to a photograph sufficiently salacious, I hoped, as to draw censorious glances from the passing families. Temporarily safe in a shroud of outrage and superiority, I drew several tonic breaths and began to formulate a plan of escape.
Before my tattered senses had had a moment’s respite, however, I found myself being approached by a man of indeterminate age wearing a brown cardigan, a light beard and a pronounced stoop. At one moment I espied him loitering by the self-service catalogue; the next, he was by my side, openly appraising my talisman.
‘I find Mapplethorpe’s compositions prosaic and his sexual affectations superficial and forced,’ he said in a breathy, confidential whisper.
I considered this. The stranger was clearly testing me, but to what purpose? I spoke carefully.
‘Well, duh,’ I declaimed.
The man watched me intently for a moment. One of his eyes was held in the judging squint of a jeweller; the other bugged slightly.
‘Impressive,’ he said at length. ‘My name is deQuincy;—I overheard your conversation in the Name Change earlier. I believe I know of a means to relieve the embarrassing impasse your acquaintances found so … distasteful.’
‘I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ I said, seeking somewhat feebly to preserve some dignity.
deQuincy held my gaze until I flinched. ‘I thought as much,’ he murmured, not ungently. ‘Why don’t you show it to me?’
After a listless internal struggle, I surrendered the last of my decorum and produced for inspection the decreasingly cool iPod.
‘Oh dear,’ said the fellow archly. ‘It isn’t even an old model, is it? Not about to go retro any time soon, not a mark on it, and;—’sblood, you even persist with the original white headphones!’
Overcome with dishonour, I felt myself begin to swoon. deQuincey took my arm—the effort eliciting a repellent crack from his scoliolated spine—and prised the Mapplethorpe codex from my distrait hands as I steadied myself.
‘I believe,’ he said, ‘that I know of an agent who may possess a solution to your dilemma. A man of great skill and ingenuity. A maker of things.’
‘How can he help me with my—my problem?’
‘It is not guaranteed that he will help you,’ he said darkly. ‘Or that you will desire his assistance.’
‘Please,’ I entreated, ‘I must have succour! How can he help?’
‘He designs and builds bespoke iPod charging stations, protective covers, car kits [I quivered at the thought] and miscellaneous peripheral devices. His workmanship is as unparalleled as it is unreputed;— to this day, he has only produced items for a few family and friends far removed from your social environs. From him, if you choose, you may obtain entirely irreplicable accoutrements such as will restore—and, in all likelihood, greatly enhance—the social currency of authenticity you so ardently wish to derive from your iPod.’
My head swum with the possibility of redemption, but I retained sufficient critical faculties to apply doubt. ‘What form do these bespoke appliances take?’ I asked.
‘He has of recent fabricated an entire audio system secreted within VB cans and slab boxes, and an iPod cover in the shape of a model V8 Supercar.’
I made to leave.
‘He has also,’ deQuincey called after me, ‘embedded an iPod charging station in a perfectly functional 1983 hand-held Pac-man video game.’
I stayed my egress by a stack of remaindered Anne Geddes coffee-table books. A pumpkin-clad wain grimaced up at me from the interior of a flower-pot.
‘You will find him at this address,’ said deQuincey, slipping a scrap of paper into my pocket. ‘The Pac-man station may still be available. I advise you to seriously consider his services, but take care. You are responsible for your actions, and whatever consequences they precipitate.’
By now he had disappeared into the Self Help! department, trailing his voice behind.
‘His name,’ it said, ‘is Vlad. Good evening.’
I dashed around the aisle but he was gone, folded undetectably into the surrounding grotesquerie.
Even as I unwove myself from the repulsively fragrant brightness of the Borders, my mind was falling into the infatuative thrall of this Vlad and his prototype Pac-man peripheral. The prospect aroused me. I determined that it should be mine that very night.
With shaking hand I drew out the paper deQuincey had thrust into my pocket, which was a square calling card listing an address in an unfamiliar location: Craigieburn. A scant half-hour’s research on Google Earth at the nearest internet café revealed the place to be an isolated hamlet marooned on a windswept moor at the northernmost extremity of the city. I quailed at the thought of travelling to such a remote and doubtless backward village;—discouraged, I ordered an obscure, off-menu style in an Italian accent of my own creation and retired to an alcove to peregrinate.
Surely, I reasoned, the modern appraisal of one’s societal worth draws on deeper stuff than the brand of his accoutrements? What of the mind? What of the soul? What of the mock-vinyl overcoat?
I drew out my iPod and grinned ruefully at my folly. How foolish I had been to worry about my status in society!
Of a sudden, an urchin approached me, pointed at my iPod and called over its shoulder to distant, polar-fleeced parents.
‘Oi, Mum!’ it cried in a guttural suburban accent. ‘Lookit this bloke’s iPod! It’s the same model that Uncle Troy dropped in the lake at Bonnie Doon when he was loading the trail bikes onto the house boat!’
My cab arrived at Spencer St Station just in time to board the 21:22 for Craigieburn.
At the platform I quickly composed a text message which I sent ahead to Vlad to announce my intention to call later in the evening; the reply came moments later, heralded by my authentic Felix The Cat ringtone:
u r most welcom
come 2 me 2nite
An oddly expressed sentiment, but mercifully free of punctuation and grammar.
Craigieburn is a village bearing a promisingly pastoral Hebridean moniker, but the town appeared nothing more than a haven for those blighted wretches who find comfort shared values and interests. The main thoroughfare virtually screamed its shameful homogeneity: the clothes emporia, tobacconists and Seven Elevenses advertised their wares like fatal sirens of the Middling Class.
All but one. At the far end of one street, tucked away in a barely-noticeable niche of a shopfront, a warm glow emitted from narrow windows. An unlit sign announced the place as Ye Lettuce’s Head, Veganne Foode Collective and Inne. I engaged a stooped tatterdemalion clearing benches outside.
‘Ho there! I say, fellow, good even to you!’
The fellow doffed the hemp cap obscuring his filthy features, but eyed me suspiciously. ‘By your leave, sir.’
‘Tell me, is this tavern organic, local and ethically sourced?’
‘That it be.’
The atmosphere inside was a pleasantly warm, damp fug. I endeavoured to engage the locals, who were enjoying their own raucous, post-prandial intercourse. There was something odd about them, but I could not for the moment put a name to it.
‘Can anyone here tell me,’ I called above the furore, ‘how I can find a gentleman by the name of Vlad?’
Silence swooped across the tavern like a ravenous bid of prey. Expressions across the room turned to horror; some of the villagers touched their finger tips to their ear-holes in some superstitious gesture. The innkeeper glared over the bar.
‘There ain’t nobody by that name here, sir,’ he said.
‘But I have come from afar to visit him,’ I explained. ‘I am bound for his house this night to collect a charging station for my iP—’
A gasp reverberated around the room. Many made the curious gesture again, as if warding off evil. I realised then what I had been unable to identify just moments ago;—not one of the diners wore an iPod, or any other kind of portable music player.
‘You should leave here,’ the innkeeper hissed through his beard. ‘There is great perdition in passing under the shadow of’ —another of the diners grasped his arm, and his voice dropped to a hiss— ‘of the Great Bogan.’
‘Oh come now,’ I said firmly, with the intention of dispersing this hocus-pocus, ‘Are you so gullible? How can you succumb to children’s folk tales of vampires and werewolves, spirits and bogans?’
I had made a mistake; the tenor of the crowd turned from fear and awe to belligerence—soon to be directed, I feared, at my person. I like my person. I made to leave.
‘Flee, sir!’ called the innkeeper as I made for the door. ‘Keep the moon at your back and flee while you still can!’
Outside, the vagabond was sweeping the footpath with an old kerchief. ‘God bye you, sir.’
I began to walk away.
‘Unless you be looking for a certain house, sir…’ murmured the tramp, almost under his breath.
I approached the fellow cautiously. ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ I asked.
‘’Twouldn’t be me who’s going,’ he said simply. ‘Yonder bike path will take you out by Vlad’s abode and no mistake,’ he continued, nodding at a dark alley forking off the street. I thanked him and made once more to depart.
‘But remember,’ he called after me, ‘you will need more than a Mapplethorpe volume to guide you safely.’
I spun around; the street was empty but for the echo of a cracking spine. Where I had moments before exited the Inne, a neon sign now indicated the entrance to something called an RSL Club.
Would that I could have roused my dilettante courage at that moment and flown from that weird utterance! The speaking of it, and its orator’s uncanny vanishment, cast me into an ague of tumultuous swoons, tearing reason from its roots and casting it into a vortex in which the world and all its virtues suffered inversion: the mainstream was proper, skepticism scorned, meaning trumped ritual; postmodernism rolled in on itself, taking every Simpsons quote with it, and for one terrible instant I was vouchsafed a vision of a world without modish, cosmetic authenticity. The void loomed; I lunged for it hungrily.
The universe was a molecule, dancing through eternity to a cosmic symphony which, as the ur-particle negotiated some especially rugose quantum foam, gradually resolved itself into the theme tune to Felix The Cat.
I reached for my jacket pocket, but found it blocked by something rough and unyielding; opening my eyes, I discovered this to be the surface of the Earth. I had fainted at the tenebrous mouth of the bike path to Vlad’s home.
Regaining my feet, I took out my phone and made to call a cab, but in my ruminations I had forgotten the text message. The screen radiated calm, blue light across my face, out and into the darkness, obliterating the shadows and with them the bogeys haunting my determination.
u r close
do not fear
There could be no doubt now: I had been chosen, and was now being driven, as a lamb before the shepherd’s crook, to some design, for the sender of the message was of course the presence waiting patiently, somewhere beyond this morass;— Vlad. Had deQuincey twice sold me into perfidy? The trap was springing, and I could not find the agility to avoid its jaws.
I held high the only tiny lantern in my possession and strode onto the bike path. The phone served as an opalescent orb of protection, and I increased my pace, fatalism feeding me with a new, frantic energy. I staggered ahead on random courses, crashing through undergrowth and feeling the shocking grasp of unsensed tree branches across my cheeks. In ever-worsening panic and despair I plunged down an unseen embankment, tearing my mock-vinyl overcoat, before rolling across a hard surface and fetching painfully against some stone impediment. In mortal fear I peered up, just as the moon emerged from behind a cloud to reveal that I had unmistakably reached my final destination.
Should the Almighty ever seek to design a more perfect vessel than the Inferno to house Satan, She would do wisely to save money on specialist architects and instead buy off the plan at Craigieburn.
Before me, an endless row of near-identical fully-detached bungalows stretched in both directions. Their veneers of brick and pilasters of polished plaster were the very acme of inauthenticity. How could I have bethought myself apt to replenish my social authenticity here, where all is perverse anonymity and nothing is unique?
I pulled myself up from the gutter, straightened the insulted bodice of my overcoat and made to flee, but as I made it there came from the nearest hovel a grinding, mechanical rattle and the garage door began slowly to rise, like a remote-controlled portcullis. From the widening crack I perceived a cold, blue-white light and the suggestion of some unwholesome movement.
The suggestion became a statement, the statement an insistence and the insistence insisted that before me, at the apex of the driveway, stood a dark, eldritch silhouette.
‘Yeah, g’day,’ it intoned sepulchrally. ‘You whatsitsname? From town?’
The guttural accent wounded my ears even as I shaded my eyes from the glare. This could only be Vlad himself. ‘I was sent by your friend, deQuincey. I believe we have corresponded?’
‘Yeah, nah, it’s all sweet. Come into me mancave. I’m outta durries, but d’you wanna greenie?’
I followed, gripped by a cold dread for whatever foulness that bore the name ‘durries’. I determined to complete my business and depart with all haste. ‘I believe your associate has advised you of my needs. I heard you were in possession of a unique Pac … Man …’
My voice failed as I entered the garage. The hanging worklight revealed a nest of perversities:— a football poster;— various angular metal tools;— a table for playing at Ping-Pong;— a circular cork board painted with coloured segments, on the doubtless depraved purpose of which I dared not speculate.
Presently the master of this dungeon stepped into the light and my heart froze. He was tall, broad-shouldered and smiled earnestly. He wore his beard thick and long over a plaid shirt and tight black denim pantaloons.
The accent;— the plaid;— the Ping-Pong;— the earnest friendliness;— the (oh ye gods!) little model V8 Supercar;— I could deny it no longer. I had indeed fallen into the thrall of a powerful Bogan.
I weakly waved aside his offer of a small green bottle of beer. ‘Sir,’ I stammered, ‘I fear I cannot dwell. If we could, perhaps, to business—’
‘No wukkas!’ the beast exclaimed, moving to a work bench. ‘Quince-O said you were after this little feller.’
He drew from a chest the prize I sought, and it was indeed of the greatest sort — a rounded, bright yellow 1983 handheld Pac-Man game with an iPod charging station seamlessly integrated into the top. He flicked a switch and the game came to life, little 8-bit cherries and all. I gazed at it hungrily, my fear momentarily forgotten. Such an object, unique and perfect, would surely cement my reputation in society for ever.
‘By all the Saints, it is wonderful,’ I breathed.
‘Nah, yeah, this little beauty’ll make you popular as.’
‘Sir, such sentiments are indecent!’
‘Yeah righto, get your hand off it, mate.’
‘What is your price, sir?’
As the word ‘price’ fell from my mouth, my dread returned. The creature turned its attention on me. Its eyes fell upon my couture.
‘Tell you what, mate, swap us for ya coat. Me missus’ll sew it up and it’ll get a few bob down the footy club jumble sale.’
I had never heard so many words I did not understand, but his meaning was clear. To gain, I must sacrifice. As I placed my mock-vinyl overcoat in his hands, feeling it to be my very soul, a volley of great sonorous thuds rang out, as of the slamming of a thousand heavy tomb doors. The blood surged through my ears.
‘Grouse!’ cried the Bogan in triumph. ‘That’ll be the girls home, too! Hang on a tick, I’ll stick on some Nickelback and crack open the Bundy!’
Dimly I saw the final door slam on the four-wheel-drive car that had appeared outside, and as a phalanx of track-suited succubi overwhelmed me I swooned once more and, this time, surrendered to the black.
What little remains to tell is brief but shameful. I awoke on a train to the city, clutching the Pac-Man charging station to my chest. The terrors of that night faded as rapidly as my reputation flourished. Many asked what could be the provenance of my wondrous Pac-Man iPod charging station, but I would tell them only that it was unique, irreplicable and you know, no big deal.
I rarely think of my mock-vinyl overcoat now. I no longer need it to feel I am authentically myself. I have, of late, in the fullness of my new confidence, begun exploring new avenues of authenticity. I wear plaid shirts and tight denim trousers now. I have begun to grow out my beard, long and thick. I drink artisanal beer and investigate real estate prices brazenly in public.
I wonder if it will catch on?
Next: Transitioning, by Rod Gray
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