From Sikander 14. Copyright © 1987 by Irwin Hirsh. Reprinted by permission of the author.
As I stepped off the plane I was greeted by a hail of fanzine confetti, old issues of The Mentor, ASFR and The New Forerunner cut up and dropped out of plastic garbage bags. These Australians are so nice! I thought then, before, of course, understanding the true nature and extent of their depravity.
Melbourne was such an attractive city in 1973, with its trams and trees and whitewashed buildings, and after the cold grey skies of winter in Detroit, the clear warm air seemed miraculous. I was met by the infamous Leigh Edmonds, who was kind enough to put me up in his house before the convention. Leigh was very nice, even if he kept me up all night playing operas and acting them out in a pair of old tap-shoes. I asked for a typical American meal of turkey, corn on the cob and pumpkin pie, and instead ate what you Australians call a "meat pie," and what we Detroiters eat when we go to Hudson's restaurant at Northland Shopping Center (a Diane Drutowski favorite). It's also available for 25¢ in the frozen food department at most supermarkets.
In the morning we went to Mervin Binn's Space Age Books, where Lee Harding signed an issue of Vision of Tomorrow for me (it contained his disaster novelette set in Australia, one of my favorites). Many famous Australian fans were there: the urbane John Bangsund, the crusty old George Turner, the witty David Grigg, the red-bearded Eric Lindsay, the chauvinistic John Alderson, the brilliant critic John Foyster. But no Bruce Gillespie. I had wanted to meet Bruce Gillespie since I subscribed to SF Commentary and even wrote him a few letters, and he even wrote a few back, greatly increasing the size of my Australian stamp collection. I asked George Turner, one of SFC's contributors, where Bruce might be. He mumbled back, as if by rote, "Well, he's indisposed at the moment..he doesn't really care to come to conventions."
I thought this was odd (as this was a bookstore), but then I was known for my invisibility as well, so I could sympathize with what I thought were Bruce's feelings of shyness. Little did I know that he was Australia's answer to Lucy Huntzinger.
The next day I went grocery shopping with Eric Lindsay, and when we were in the pet food section watched him load up on Tender Chicken and Tuna Kidney Delight. This wouldn't be unusual except that Eric (in a moment of rare personal revelation) confessed that he had no cats. "Eric, what's all this cat food for?" I asked.
"Oh, the tins are for Bruce," he said absent-mindedly. This is terrible, I thought, Bruce is so poor that he has to eat canned cat food, the way some elderly were reported to do by newspapers in order to supplement their meager meat budgets.
"Gosh," I said to Eric, "I suppose I ought to renew my subscription to SFC. He really needs the money." I felt guilty.
"Oh, no," said Eric, "this is for Bruce's cats." He laughed when I told him my reasoning about Bruce's poverty, and pulled on his beard. "You know he twisted his arm climbing up after a cat that was on his neighbor's roof at midnight, that's why he can't buy the food himself. That's why the latest issue of SFC is delayed."
"What a foolish thing to do," I said; what a great excuse for not publishing on time, I thought. Everyone in fandom will forgive you because everyone in fandom loves cats. THE WORLDCON HAS BEEN DELAYED THIS YEAR, the headline in Locus read, BECAUSE THE CHAIRMAN STRAINED HIS DECISION-MAKING ABILITY HELPING HIS CAT DECIDE WHETHER SHE WANTED TO GO OUTSIDE THE HOUSE OR STAY IN. "*Sigh*," fandom was quoted as saying, "We understand. We love kitties." Now I understand why Bruce gave all those favorite reviews to Cordwainer Smith's books. What a cat-lover. What a wimp. (If anyone ever found out about the cat stuffed and mounted in my basement like a trophy, I'd be through.)
Later that day, on our way to a party, we drove by an ancient brick house, all covered with soot and ivy. Eric took out the bag of cat food, and shoved it through a milk shoot into the house. All the windows were tightly closed and covered with heavy curtains, so not a ray of light pierced the heavy gloom gathered around the house. Who shared the flats in that house with Bruce, I wondered. Seedy derelicts, elderly women, perhaps dabblers in the occult; people trapped by poverty and loneliness. "This place looks so gloomy," I said to Eric. "Why don't we go in and cheer Bruce up?"
"Oh, no, we couldn't," Eric wheedled, sounding rather like I imagine Frodo would when telling someone not to use the ring. "He'd be busy feeding the cats and we'd be late for the party. Everyone's there to see you." Well, egoboo wins every time.
The party that night was marvelous. I couldn't understand how everyone could get along so well. There were no feuds, not even loud arguments. No big Melbourne/Sydney rivalry. George Turner would write long elaborate essays and John Foyster would write the exact opposite, but everyone was a good fellow about it. No one thought the Perth fans were weird with their kangaroo caps and hand-held propellers. No one was even mildly irritated with Leigh and his tap-shoes, tap-tap-tapping away, or even with Paul J. Stevens, who tended to wait in the dark corners of the room, his dark cape softly rustling, his eyes glowing. Even I didn't mind it. Was it the alcohol? Does your blood really rush to your head in Australia, because the world is upside-down? I was no longer sure.
But what had really happened to Bruce Gillespie, the fan Ted White had called "the bon-vivante" of Australian fandom, the one able to publish 1500 pages in a year while wrapped in a cast, the man everyone said wrote his best while depressed and reviewed all those depressed novels (in both senses of the term), and whose critics said he hated sf? I decided to track down this Mystery Man of Australian Fandom.
The first problem was to get out of the hotel room I had checked into for the big con that weekend before someone noticed. (Thinking back, I realized that I had never been left alone--other than to sleep, *sigh*--the whole time I had been in Australia. Indeed, these Aussies were very sly, beneath their bush hats.) I decided I needed a disguise. So I lured the maid in with the classic Diane Drutowski line, "Hi. Want to see come in and see my, *ahem* tacky postcard collection?" After she fainted--she was a Portuguese Catholic, and I showed her the Ultimate Tacky Postcard, a 3-D "Winking Jesus" discovered by Teresa Nielsen Hayden--I took off her clothes, changed into them, and locked her in the bathroom. Outside, I hailed a cab and took it to the main post office.
While Eric had driven me past the dirty old flat Gillespie lived in, I couldn't remember the address or how to get there. So I decided to go to GPO Box 5195AA and wait for its owner to come and claim his daily mail. If David Gerrold could use the same ploy to track down James Tiptree Jr., so could I. (This thought gave me a shiver. Tiptree was really Alice Sheldon. Perhaps it wasn't Bruce Gillespie but Bernie Gillespie or Judith Hanna or...?)
I hid in the janitor's closet, the door to which was just next to the GPO Box 5195AA. I heard two people approach the box. "Yes, that Chauvin character has been asking a lot of questions. We should never have agreed to DUFF! The strain is too great!"
"But we need the prestige and fan contact," said the other. "What's the point of Gillespie otherwise? He could just as well be dead."
Realizing that things were getting rough, I burst through the door and pulled out my light saber! "Tell me what you've done with Gillespie!" Since the pair hadn't seen Star Wars yet (it hadn't been released in Australia) they just laughed at me in my maid's outfit. "Great for the Masquerade and Fancy Dress, Cy. The woman in the James White Hospital Ship stories, eh?"
It was hopeless so I got really drunk at the convention instead. After several bouts with red Australian wine and learning that fine Australian art of chundering, I found myself outside the hotel talking to a cat. It was wet and dreary. "Pretty kitty, fandom needs you," I said, in the tone of voice one only uses when talking to babies and cats. Then it occurred to me that 90% of the cats in central Melbourne must have been owned by BRG at one time or another. Sure enough, SFC was stamped on the cat's collar. This cat had already been converted, and was already as much a fan as a cat could ever hope to be, i.e. a fan bought her food.
So I tracked the fannish feline to the old brick house that Eric had dumped the cat food cans off at, and watched as it climbed through the open milk shoot and up some stairs. The front door was unlocked, and still drunk, I carefully walked up the stairs on the frayed and worn carpeting, nearly slipping several times on the empty cat food cans that led like a gingerbread trail to a door on the second floor. I quietly opened the door.
The dark and musty room was illuminated by a single naked bulb hanging over a typewriter and a desk. Cats were circling the room, looking desperately for a lap to sit on, even mine. In the corner was a swirling mass of cats, rather like our universe was supposed to be in the beginning, only cats rather than mere matter, and meowing quite loudly. Something stirred on its bottom (big bang, not steady-state?). A propeller prop thrust through the squirming cats, then the striped beanie to which it was attached, then a head strapped to this head-gear--child-like. I suddenly felt humiliated and embarrassed by fandom, for the first time, and as yet I had no inkling of what had happened here.
Bruce looked somewhat like his photographs, but all the intelligence seemed drained from his face. He lurched and fought his way free from the cats, and then sat hunched over at his typewriter. He sat there obviously suffering, working up the depression in order to start doing a fanzine or editorial. He picked up a really awful-looking sf novel, and recited the back cover quote: "This book deserves to be as famous as the Bible.'--Harlan Ellison." The wood particles in the pulp paper the novel was printed on were large enough to give one splinters, and Bruce's palms were already bleeding profusely. Well, maybe it was better than the Bible. Would Bruce's beanie have thorns or velcro on the inside?
"Hello," I said from a dark corner. "Aren't you Bruce Gillespie, editor of that excellent fanzine SF Commentary?" One would think I was making an inquiry at a fannish cocktail party.
"Who are you?" asked Bruce suspiciously. "Another agent of my distress? What further agonies must I undergo to relieve the angst of Australian fandom?" And he swept his hand toward the far wall, on which hung strange and sinister devices, whether instruments of torture or ancient mimeograph attachments I could not tell, although surely items of this nature were no longer used in American fandom except by Ted White. A pinkish ichor dropped from a dark metal tube at the end.
"I'm no agent of distress, I'm an American," I said, then suddenly realized that this confession might have been a mistake. "I'm the DUFF winner this year," I added, hoping to mollify it.
"I'm not sure I believe you," he replied. "This might be a test of my devotion by Foyster and the others. And then if I fail," he shuddered visibly, "it's the shading plate for me!"
Still dense, I said, "I don't understand how I could be some sort of test for Foyster or anyone else, or why you should think me an agent of despair. I know you write and publish some of your best when you say you are depressed, but perhaps then I am an Agent of Inspiration." For an instant I felt like Jophan, preaching to those who fell by the wayside on the quest for the enchanted duplicator.
"I'm a martyr, a miserable martyr meant to keep the peace in Australian fandom. A balancing of yin and yang." It all became as clear as ditto fluid now. I could understand its appeal, since the whole history of American fandom could properly be written as a series of feuds, TAFF wars, boondoggles, schisms and the like. Not "numbered" fandoms; numbered feuds! It was sad to reflect and realize what topics had so often dominated the pages of American fanzines, and here Aussie fandom had found a solution (although beastly). Yes, a tip of the hat, and a twirl of the propeller to them.
Bruce appeared to be still aggravated, so I asked him how it had all been arranged.
"Well, it wouldn't have been possible at all without the magic cap," said Bruce, touching the beanie of many hues on his head.
"The cap?" I asked, puzzled.
"Yes, it was given to me by the Australian equivalent of St. Fantony, when I still thought fandom was only about science fiction. No one told me anything about magic mimeographs, mushrooms or Herbangelism! So I accepted what I thought was an honor; only now the neos know its doom, and the cap has to be freely taken for me to be freed from the charm of Post-Fanzine Depression."
All the blood does really rush to your head down here in Australia, I thought. At first the idea seems to have some socio-psychological sense, but a magic cap? St. Fantony? Charms? Let's get scientific, like building a space elevator from old bheer cans! Still, I held my tongue and said instead, "But you don't need to give it to someone in Australia, you can mail it to a neofan in the United States. They'll gafiate, and then we'll be rid of it forever." And then I gave Bruce the address of a neofan who had just mailed me a copy of his first fanzine before I left home. Of course, the idea of a magic cap conferring fannish martyrdom on its wearer was pure bosh (Sorry, Bob), but for Bruce's psychological health, it was important for him to get rid of it in a way consistent with his beliefs. (I've studied anthropology, y'know?) Any plausible remedy would have worked. I might have suggested boiling it in corflu, but we would have died from the fumes.
We packed the magic beanie up (which was very well made; hand embroidered, not glued) and sent it off via airmail, at Bruce's insistence. A load seemed to lift from his shoulders as the package slid into the mail chute, and he smiled for the first time. Bruce Gillespie has dimples!
Far away in America, a neofan was opening his mailbox on a farm in Indiana. "Gosh, an airmail package from Australia. I wonder what it can be?" He tore it open, and found the magic propeller beanie inside. "Hey, Mom, look what I got in the mail," and then thought, no mothers ever understand important stuff like this. I guess it means I'm not a neo anymore. He carefully pushed his beard and hair aside and tried it on. He smiled for the first time in a long time, and sat down at his typewriter. He was ready to have some desperate fun.