In early June, as regulations on home visitation began to relax, NUPSA monthly advice columnist and alleged French Presidential mistress, Penny Grundle, invited Hugh Milligan for ‘tea’ (wine) at her country estate in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest.
While it was ostensibly a social call, Hugh took the opportunity to ask for Penny’s advice – on dealing with isolation and chaos, and moving forward in a post-pandemic world. She was happy to counsel him, on the condition that she could record their conversation for her final monthly column for NUPSA.
They drank a lot. Things got weird.
HM: Thank you for inviting me, Penny.
PG: Well, of course, darling! [Drinks.] I do so love it when we catch up. And it’s been far too long, it really has. How was the trip?
HM: [Drinks.] Uh… not easy, to be honest. When you said ‘your country estate’, I thought you meant a cottage out in the vineyards somewhere–
PG: I do have several.
HM: –and not an overgrown castle buried in some forsaken jungle.
PG: [Laughs.] Forsaken’s a bit dramatic, don’t you think? Castle’s fair. And it’s the Daintree, darling, the oldest rainforest on Earth. Everything’s overgrown. If you want to get away from it all for a while, and reconnect with the eternal life force… there’s nowhere better.
HM: And the directions you gave me were baffling. ‘Follow your heart and you shall find me. If you get lost, ask the trees.’ [Waves his iPhone at her.] I followed my heart for three hours, Penny! Then I followed Siri. How drunk were you when you wrote this?
PG: Well, first – I don’t drink, darling, I imbibe. [Drinks.] And second, my instructions would have been perfectly accurate, if you’d only followed them correctly. Did you ask the trees?
HM: No, I didn’t ‘ask the trees’. But I had the distinct impression that they were following me, or moving every time my back was turned. Roads that went left suddenly went right. I thought I was going crazy.
PG: And that’s why you ask them! I pay them to do that, darling, whenever somebody passes by. It’s the only way to keep Matt Canavan out – he keeps wandering in with a bucket and a pickaxe, like some pustulous hobgoblin, sniffing for minerals. If he gets even a whiff, I’ll be out there for days, beating off his waddling mole-children with a stick. What a nightmare.
HM: Hang on, hang on–
PG: And he’s sticky, darling. Everything he touches is sticky.
HM: –so you pay the trees to move?!
PG: Well, of course I pay them. If they had to move all the time and weren’t duly compensated, that would be slavery, darling, and slavery is very, very bad. Haven’t you been following Twitter?
HM: What do you pay them with?
PG: Cash in hand, darling. That’s the usual arrangement. Though occasionally… [Lets her robe slip from one shoulder.] …we do make other arrangements.
HM: Penny, that’s… crazy.
PG: Is it? Out of curiosity, how many times did you press the button to lock the car doors while driving here, even though you knew they were already locked?
HM: I… didn’t press the…
PG: [Narrows her eyes at him.]
HM: …a few, I guess?
PG: [Narrows her eyes at him.]
PG: [Narrows her eyes at him.]
HM: [Drinks.] Twenty-eight. Happy?
PG: Deliriously. Ask the trees, darling. We should ask all living things what they want, before we start reaping and raping the earth. I suspect if all those loggers with their chainsaws had asked the trees whether they wanted to be hacked and shredded into toilet paper, so that frightened idiots could fight each other for it in supermarket aisles, they’d be quite resistant to the idea.
[Empties her glass and refills it. Offers him the bottle.] Another?
HM: [Smirks.] Thank you for asking.
PG: You’re very welcome. So how’ve you been? And don’t just say ‘busy’ – busy is not an emotion.
HM: Okay, tired then. Tired and a bit mad. [Drinks.] You know, when we first went into lockdown, I had this idea that – as a total introvert – I would really have my shit together through all this. Solitude wouldn’t effect me at all. Y’know? I’d do my best work, and have my best ideas, just alone in a room without the noise. This would be my time to shine.
PG: Marvellous! [Drinks.] And did you?
HM: Noooope. Now I wear my pyjamas all the time, even during Zoom meetings. I frequently forget what day of the week it is. I think this morning is the first time I’ve showered since the weekend.
HM: I mean… That’s bad, right?
PG: Well, that depends on how you gauge it, darling. These are strange times – one can only expect strange behaviour. And if you ask me, we place far too much importance on the idea of ‘normality’ these days, without any real understanding of what it entails.
[Drinks.] I mean, think of a tie. What is a tie, exactly? What purpose does it serve, worn about the neck all day? If it is not fashionable – and it is not, despite what that cretin Donatella might say – then it should at least be functional, yes? And yet it is neither. How absurd.
HM: I don’t know. I guess it’s… formal?
PG: I mean, you can tighten it while astride a man to constrict his breathing, or soft-secure him to a bed frame, which is always useful… [Ponders, staring into space.]
But my point is, so much of our behaviour in society, so many of our so-called rules of decorum, are built upon nothing more than boorish old habits and traditions. (Largely patriarchal, of course.) They don’t serve us in any meaningful way, and yet we are chastised so severely – and taught to punish ourselves as well – whenever we ‘break’ them in any way.
Is a man who wears pyjamas to a business meeting less capable than a man in a suit and tie? Or is he simply a man who sees the artifice, the bars of the cage, and yearns to be free of them? Why are we so fearful of a life beyond conformity? Beyond subjugation? Beyond rampant self-criticism and relentless control?
[Waves her glass about, splashing wine. The jackals on the rug stir a little, and go back to sleep.]
Don’t get me wrong, darling – this pandemic is awful, it really is. But in a world so rigidly defined by its social contract (which none of us ever signed, by the way), it’s just a little bit thrilling to see these walls start to crumble, these barriers to ourselves, allowing us to see who we really are and what’s really important to us.
HM: Sure, but… [Drinks.] …aren’t you a fashion icon? In your last vlog, you specifically told people not to give up all their rituals of personal grooming.
PG: Well, I’m glad you showered today, certainly. And I’d strongly advise you to continue.
HM: And isn’t fashion all about appearance?
PG: Not at all! Fashion is all about substance, darling, and the internal attitudes a look conveys. Yes, I have often encouraged people to look their best in public, but I have also often encouraged people to appear in public wearing nothing at all, so my thoughts on sleepwear-as-fashion are a little more complex than that.
HM: Okay, so… I’m not really sure what your advice is, then.
PG: Keep drinking, darling. You’ll get there.
HM: [Drinks.] So… what you’re saying is… ‘do whatever works for you’?
PG: [Empties her glass. Leans in.] What I’m saying is, make peace with the chaos. Lean into it, embrace it. Because this is the world precisely as we have fucked it, dear heart. The only certainty now is uncertainty.
HM: That’s terrifying.
PG: But it needn’t be in the slightest. It can be exhilarating, for those of us who accept that we are never truly in control of our destiny. The Fates, the Goddess… Everything equalises. Everything moves in cycle. React as you can to each day as it comes.
HM: Uh huh. [Frowns.] How many glasses have you had, incidentally?
PG: I feel very attacked by that, darling. In vino veritas. This is how wisdom is born.
[Refills her glass.] I mean it. Reality cares nothing for our opinion, so let’s each of us make our own ‘normal’ that we can be happy with. As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.
[Reaches over to clink her glass against his own.] That is my advice to you. And if you thought it would be otherwise… that I would needle you with criticism for doing whatever you had to, to cope through a difficult time… well, then you’ve thoroughly misread me, young man.
HM: You’re right. Thanks, Penny. Really. [Standing.] Sorry – where’s the bathroom?
PG: Oh! [Points vaguely.] Go down the corridor, through the atrium, up the staircase, across the ballroom, across the second ballroom, past the peyote plantation, and then it’s just on your right. Mark can show you–
[Calls out.] Mark?
[A large, immaculately pruned macadamia tree sidles into the room and bows.]
M: Yes, Penny?
PG: Yes. Could you show Hugh where the bathroom is, darling?
M: Of course! Right this way.
HM: I… What?
PG: [Leans over and whispers.] Don’t forget to tip him. [Lets her robe slip from the other shoulder.] However you like.