The person most likely to kill the average Australian is himself. All the woe started when someone in government realised this.
The LifeGuard policy was unveiled by its legislators as “a dose of evidence-based tough love.” Although it was hard to tell where the evidence or love lay behind it, its ambition couldn’t be questioned. The Prime Minister spoke of “eradicating suicide” as if it were malaria or river blindness, a containable pest. “We can be the generation that drives suicide to suicide!” he told the press.
"With his tall philtrum, his wide nostrils, his implacable squint, his habit of spitting as he talked, he looked like a sullen anthropomorphic camel in a badly pilled footy scarf."
Such is the way of tough love, however, that it cannot be foisted on a whole nation at once. LifeGuard saw a cautious rollout. It was tried first in remote communities deep in the Northern Territory, towns so far from a major airport that not many reporters took the pains to visit them. How the policy fared there was beyond the guess of most Australians. Certain left-wing groups objected to the idea on principle; it was racist and assimilationist to enmesh Aboriginal people in such a social experiment. But those groups were too marginal to interfere with LifeGuard’s progress. When the government declared the plan a success, there was little anyone could do to dispute it. Soon, LifeGuard was being trialled on dole-seekers of all backgrounds in major cities, promising to stop their hopelessness from turning into death.
LifeGuard made one big departure from every previous attempt to reduce suicides. Its architects (doubtless public servants who never received fame for their idea) weren’t at all focused on combatting unhappiness. To them, it was a red herring. Visibly unhappy people sometimes killed themselves—but so did plenty of people with no apparent woes, no “warning signs,” no history of psychiatric complaints. It was futile trying to predict suicides. LifeGuard offered a system that bypassed psychology altogether. Instead of suppressing the motive to die, it removed the solitude. Without a moment alone, who could kill himself reliably? And so, every dole-seeker was paired with another. The two would act as “co-invigilators,” watching each other around the clock, never straying to different places—not even when nature called. If such conditions pushed people to join the workforce, it would be a gain in itself.
Jean-Alphonse Chadhurst—whose name was far from Melbourne’s most ridiculous—hardly expected himself to be at LifeGuard’s mercy. He might have tried to escape unemployment before its rollout engulfed him and other every dole-recipient, but he found it doubtful that a suicide prevention policy should apply to him. Few people clung dearer to life than Jean-Alphonse. He had none of the languor that the public mind often connects with joblessness. To his friends, he seemed driven, arrogant and a touch unpleasant—as bad, in fact, as any careerist. But neither his arrogance nor his drive went into job-searching; he attended just enough interviews to prove to the state that he was looking for work, and did little to make himself a viable candidate.
What Jean-Alphonse wanted was to be a great composer, an immortal titan of classical music. He wasn’t skilled at playing any instrument and (so he told himself) his purism would have kept him from becoming a mere piano tutor even had he been qualified. The world had opportunities for composers, but he refused to sully his abilities by monetising them. He decried “pops-orchestra schmaltz” and the “childish vulgarity” of film soundtracks. When a friend suggested that Jean-Alphonse could be the next Hans Zimmer, a sour look appeared on his face. “I only plan to write music that’s challenging and atonal,” he replied, “not toddler symphonies or brainless family-pleasers!”
Yet at the age of twenty-six, Jean-Alphonse had completed no major works. His notebooks were filled with fragments of unplayed string quartets which he was forever toying with and revising. His small circle of friends didn’t know or care whether they had a genius in their midst; they found his company amusing somehow, even if Jean-Alphonse himself was seldom amused by anything. With his tall philtrum, his wide nostrils, his implacable squint, his habit of spitting as he talked, he looked like a sullen anthropomorphic camel in a badly pilled footy scarf. And what reason he had to be sullen! He still wasn’t satisfied that he’d written the opus that would immortalise him and he ended each day with the same plea at the back of his mind: more time, Lord, more time!
His purple Fremantle Dockers scarf was a clothing choice that Jean-Alphonse preferred to leave unexplained. He didn’t show the tiniest spark of love for Aussie Rules, and condemned all footy fans as “sub-unicellular boobs.” Yet, against that verdict, the purple scarf was usually with him. He wore it outside with no concern for whether the Dockers were actually playing, and, on countless Friday nights, when the demos around him was scarf-clad in support of other teams, he suffered many strange looks and jibes from the city crowd.
As the LifeGuard policy took effect, Jean-Alphonse was partnered with a man named Drayton whom he had to watch constantly. An electronic neckband would monitor whether his head was turned in Drayton’s direction. It made shrill little beeps if he looked away for more than five minutes. He soon formed the habit of glancing at Drayton often enough not to need prompting from the device. His other duty was very similar to the operation of certain iron ore trains in the Pilbara whose drivers are expected to hit a dead man’s switch, over and over, to prove they haven’t lost consciousness or deserted their post. Every ten minutes, Jean-Alphonse and Drayton had to open a smartwatch app and press a button reading, “MY MATE IS OKAY FOR NOW.”
Failure to follow these instructions would see their benefits frozen until Human Services investigated their case.
Living in this way put a strain on Jean-Alphonse. He couldn’t focus on his string quartets. Having to watch Drayton kept spoiling his concentration. It was what he imagined parenting must be, and this explained why he’d never wanted to be a father. (Why fuss over nappy-changes and screaming babies when music offered a much more elegant legacy? A child could only carry on his genes, but a string quartet could hold part of his soul. He had so many canopic jars yet to fill!) After a week of endlessly glancing at Drayton, he feared that the habit would stay with him for life, that even in the peace of an empty room, he’d find himself looking up from his music notebook every five minutes to check on a phantom figure. Jean-Alphonse almost forgot the feeling of having a room to himself. Not even the bathroom could be fully his anymore. Drayton had to be present for his bodily functions and he had to oversee Drayton’s in turn. (This was presumably why LifeGuard only paired people of the same sex.)
He got used to the embarrassment, and the same went for other private needs. It helped that Drayton didn’t show any unhealthy titillation when Jean-Alphonse did what he had to do. Still, there was something jarring about having another person in the room, no matter how unobtrusive they were. It changed the temperature of the air somehow. It made it awkward to murmur or hum or mumble to oneself, and therefore awkward to think. Why couldn’t he have some privacy? Jean-Alphonse wasn’t suicidal and resented this system that kept the healthy watching the healthy.
It emerged that Drayton wasn’t entirely “healthy.” He’d had a history of slitting his wrists, though always in a deliberately survivable way—at times, even using a clothes peg to pinch out a flap of skin that was clear of blood vessels and tendons—and he’d only done it when he was in reach of some would-be caregiver. His ex-girlfriend’s doorstep was a favourite location. He’d never felt more loved, he admitted, than when she was driving him to hospital. But if he found she wasn’t home, he became too angry to carry out his plan. “I’d come all the way across town with my paring knife and she stood me up! Thanks, Audrey!” His candidness about the matter surprised Jean-Alphonse. Even so, it was obvious that Drayton had never really wanted to die.
“You were after attention, and now you’ve got it nonstop,” Jean-Alphonse told him. They were both a little drunk, which may have been why Drayton was so open about his past. About a dozen bottles of vanilla essence lay empty on the kitchen counter near them. It was the only alcohol they could buy with the latest cashless welfare cards from the government. Some dole-seekers mixed it with dealcoholized wine to produce a kind of punch, but Drayton and Jean-Alphonse preferred to drink it neat.
Drayton didn’t slit his wrists in the months he lived with Jean-Alphonse. His major vice was owning a gramophone. He had a collection of old stimulus progression albums from the 1960s, behaviourist medleys recorded for lending atmosphere to elevators, workplaces and supermarkets. (“Vinyls like those are hard to get,” Drayton would boast. “They were never sold to the general public!”) To Jean-Alphonse, they sounded like the on-hold music for a customer service hotline; he thought a dial tone might interrupt it at any moment, bringing the voice of an operator—or, more likely, a pre-recorded message to stay patient. Hearing it made him tense.
They worked out a schedule so that Drayton could have his music time and Jean-Alphonse could have his quiet time, though not even quiet time brought him leisure to compose. Drayton would get restless at the task of having to be silent. He wanted to start conversations, but Jean-Alphonse was too busy to talk and leaving the house to meet other people wasn’t an option; he could only stay and disturb Jean-Alphonse with his fidgeting.
The app allowed an eight-hour rest period when one wasn’t compelled to press its dead man’s switch (“nonresponsive person’s switch” was the government’s preferred term) but co-invigilators were not allowed to rest concurrently. One always had to watch the other. And so, the two men’s sleep cycles uncoupled. Jean-Alphonse went to bed before dawn and woke at midday. Drayton slept from dusk to 2am. His vigil over a snoring Drayton was the closest thing Jean-Alphonse enjoyed to true privacy, the only break from mutual scrutiny that LifeGuard allowed, yet he still had to be careful not to wake his so-called “mate.”
From a news article, he learned a curious fact. Since LifeGuard’s arrival, the number of bed bug infestations in Sydney and Melbourne had declined. The parasites had no chance to feed on unguarded sleepers. As soon as they emerged from their hidey-holes, someone was waiting to kill them. Jean-Alphonse suspected they were slain more out of boredom than altruism.
Such an existence made job-seeking nearly impossible. Employers frowned on candidates who brought odd-looking friends into the interview room. Romance was also out. Jean-Alphonse and Drayton doubted any woman would feel comfortable dating a man while a stranger watched them from a corner.
Then news came of double deaths within the programme. Those stories were rarely picked up by outlets that aspired to be “papers of record.” For the best coverage, Jean-Alphonse would check the websites of Daily Mail Australia and the Herald-Sun. In St Kilda, two women jumped off a seventh-storey balcony together. Another pair was found dead from blood loss; in the whole time it took them to tap their femoral arteries, they had never stopped staring at each other, keeping LifeGuard oblivious to any problem. And certain “double suicides” may have been something worse. A man in Northcote smothered his co-invigilator with a pillow, then hanged himself. Had both men agreed to die, Jean-Alphonse wondered, or had one decided for two?
Drayton, too, had an eye on the news. One afternoon, brewing peppermint tea in the kitchen, he asked, “Do you really want to go on like this?”
A moment passed before Jean-Alphonse understood the question. “I hope you’re not going to start that business here.”
“Not on my own…”
“…because I know they’d cut your payments if anything happened to me, and I just can’t do that to a mate.”
“Then don’t do that to a mate.”
“But I’m curious if you—if you yourself—might want to… Y’know… Because it might be easier if both of us felt… we weren’t getting our needs met in this situation.”
“The answer is no. I have music to finish, can you understand that?”
Drayton’s hands were tugging childishly on Jean-Alphonse’s purple scarf. “You keep saying that, but I’ve never heard you play anything.”
“I have outlines for seventeen string quartets. That’s two more than Shostakovich ever managed.”
“You’ll never write them. You’re not a composer, mate, you’re just a wanker. Why don’t you stop fooling yourself? My life isn’t happy and neither is yours. We’re in the same dinghy.”
“Why are you so miserable all of a sudden? I thought I was giving you enough attention.”
“Yeah, attention. It’s not the same thing as interest. You never really listen to me, you never really care about my problems…”
“Can’t you pester someone else? Your Audrey?”
“Not like this, I can’t. Imagine if I showed up at her place and started cutting myself. You’d have to tag along, and that would spoil everything. She’d take one look at us and go, ‘What do you need me for, Drayton? You’ve got a mate right next to you!’ And she’d technically be correct.”
Drayton fell silent. His face seemed infected by genuine despair. LifeGuard had robbed him of the power to demand sympathy on his own terms.
Jean-Alphonse saw him open the dishwasher and gaze down at a kitchen knife. He suddenly feared that Drayton had snapped. His companion would try to kill him and then himself. What could he do? He thought of tiptoeing to a wooden rack that held other knives so he could arm himself quickly if Drayton reached for the knife in the dishwasher—but surely Drayton wasn’t afraid of being stabbed, and might stab back regardless of the injuries he took. Jean-Alphonse scanned the room for some heavier object that could floor his attacker, but saw only a wooden spoon, a compact umbrella and an omelette pan, none of which he put trust in.
Then both of their smartwatches buzzed, and the tension was broken. Dutifully, they each pressed the button to confirm, “MY MATE IS OKAY FOR NOW.”
“Let’s cool off and take a walk,” Jean-Alphonse suggested.
Drayton could only give a weary nod.
As more double suicides became known, the government made an update to its LifeGuard policy. Instead of living in pairs, “LifeGuard consumers” would be arranged into trios. It solved the problem of sleep. Each co-invigilator now had two people to watch them while they dozed for eight hours. Of course, the watchers had chores of their own to do, so the sleeper was obliged to lie in open sight. That spelled the demise of bedrooms in LifeGuard households. Dole-seekers were soon sleeping only on living room couches or on futon-trolleys that could be rolled from kitchen to bathroom according to the watchers’ needs. Jean-Alphonse and Drayton were joined by a brawny, short-haired man named Niall. “Don’t worry about me,” he told them. “I’m used to being bored shitless.”
Niall had spent two years in a medium security prison, where his job had been to untangle, clean and repackage airline headphones. Before that, he’d served in the army. “Mostly standing around and doing nothing,” he claimed. His service had never taken him beyond Australia. A friend had persuaded him to help steal $20,000 worth of terrazzo from his employer and sell it through a fence. Niall asked his accomplice to bruise him around the ribs with a piece of piping and told police that a Somalian gang had held up the warehouse and attacked him. But a neighbour who ran a portable toilet hire business (and was apparently in the habit of sleeping on his lot) had been woken by the beeping of a forklift in the early hours and saw Niall and his friend loading the goods into a truck. Prison quashed his chances of finding any more security jobs. Nor was there much work for a man who had amassed three thousand hours of headphone-untangling experience.
For eight months, Niall’s presence was a relief to Jean-Alphonse. He no longer feared that Drayton would try to kill him. That worm could stand no chance against an ogre like Niall. The task of watching Drayton during his naps became easier too. It wasn’t as lonely or tedious now that he had a partner. He and Niall would pass the time playing rummy and chess. Jean-Alphonse hoped to teach the ex-convict how to play go as well, but the Chinese game of encirclement didn’t interest him.
The tranquillity vanished when Jean-Alphonse had a nightmare. Seized by sleep paralysis, he thought he heard Drayton and Niall exchanging ominous words. Niall had come over to Drayton’s perspective. He agreed that death would be an improvement over everlasting vigilance. The two voices discussed killing Jean-Alphonse “since he’ll never agree with us anyway.” Jean-Alphonse felt them rolling his futon-trolley to some unknown place of slaughter. He woke with a start, only to find the pair nowhere near his trolley. They were sitting and playing cards in the dining room as usual.
From that moment, Jean-Alphonse dreaded the possibility that Niall might side with Drayton. If that happened, the balance of power would be tilted towards death. He tried to tease the subject out of Niall while Drayton was asleep. Once the bruiser had skulled a dozen bottles of vanilla essence, Jean-Alphonse asked him whether he had many plans for his life.
“I dunno,” said Niall. “I’ll take whatever comes, really.” Since leaving prison, he’d tried to find work as a bouncer, a personal trainer and various other things.
“But you’ve got something that keeps you going?”
“I reckon yeah, maybe.”
That answer frustrated Jean-Alphonse. It left him no closer to trusting Niall. If only his companions could be ambitious types like him! What their ambitions were didn’t matter. He would’ve been glad to live beside slam poets or furniture designers as long as they were driven to excel at something. Then, at least, he’d feel secure that they weren’t prepared to die, no matter how miserable their lives became. The misery of his own life was worth enduring if it resulted in just one string quartet whose glory would never fade. He was ready to live through any amount of loneliness, penury, humiliation and heartbreak for that goal. It was better, he thought, than having love, dignity and money but remaining a mediocrity. Didn’t anyone share that view?
As a federal election loomed, it became clear that trios were as prone to suicide pacts as duos. The Herald-Sun reported that three men dispatched themselves by sharing a hot tub with an electric heater. In Melbourne’s outer suburbs, three women captured an eastern brown snake and had a passionate foursome with the reptile, allowing it to bite their breasts, inner thighs and other erogenous zones. Half a dozen trios copied them and tabloids warned of a rising trend in “Cleopatra parties.”
The election brought a new party into government, and Jean-Alphonse prayed for LifeGuard’s repeal. But the policy was fated to become bipartisan. The new Prime Minister promised that her cabinet would take “a more responsible approach” and increase the minimum roster of co-invigilators from three to six. Senior public servants announced that LifeGuard had already seen “a measure of success” and it was currently “just a matter of fine-tuning.”
If the wretches condemned to LifeGuard duty had once been ashamed of romance, that shame was long gone. It became common for groups of six men to invite their female counterparts over for “twelvesomes.” The gay members of certain sextets grumbled at the deal. Too often, a male group would have one gay to five straights who only wanted twelvesomes with women—and there was no overruling the majority. One evening, Jean-Alphonse experienced his first orgy. Pooling resources, his group amassed a redoubtable hoard of vanilla essence bottles, nicotine gum, cream-whipper chargers, and black-market hydroponic tobacco. Six women arrived and mingled with the men. Everyone chatted and flirted over glasses of vanilla essence on the rocks before pairing off to copulate on the living room floor. Jean-Alphonse never got as far as copulation. He approached a woman and spent nearly two hours talking to her about Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano and Frederic Rzewski’s chamber pieces. His date grew annoyed and, finding it too late to change partners, withdrew to the edge of the room, waiting for the orgy to wind down.
Diverting as they were, the twelvesomes failed to fill the need for monogamous love. No one had much hope of finding a soulmate when human contact was a package deal. Any two people who might have made an ideal couple had to contend with the needs of five co-invigilators on each side. It was virtually unheard of for a twelvesome to result in six brides for six brothers and vanilla essence was a poor balm for the loneliness of the mismatched. In no time at all, another spate of deaths saw the government increase the size of LifeGuard groups from six to twelve.
A new kind of accommodation appeared in Melbourne. Studio apartments built for international students had their walls torn down; multiple units were merged into larger, open-plan living spaces where the kitchen, bathroom and sleeping area all lay in full view of each other. Jean-Alphonse now resided on the tenth floor of a tower block in North Melbourne. His apartment had once been three apartments; the landlord had closed off two of the original entrances with bricks but the arches of the doorways could still be seen. The renovations had killed off all the old ideas of dignity. Jean-Alphonse and his eleven mates lived like a troupe of baboons and had roughly the same regard for sanitation. For most of the day, they sat on the floor in their underwear. Each man saw his companions sleeping, rising, cooking, eating, showering, using the toilet, brushing their teeth and masturbating. His companions saw him defecate in turn while they ate instant noodles two metres away, immune to any spasms of disgust. Nothing hid the bathrooms from the living room. It was all for one and one for all.
As bed bugs declined, a new parasite was multiplying throughout the city: ivermectin-resistant scabies. This was enough for orgies to fall out of fashion. The risk of contracting the mites at a twenty-foursome was too great for most people’s liking.
It happened that even groups of twelve were capable of unanimous suicide. One group made an excursion to a neglected railway station which limited express trains often zoomed past without slowing. As a train approached at full speed, they joined hands and belly-flopped onto the tracks in unison. An equally enterprising twelvesome settled on the method of suicide-by-cop. Armed with hatchets and tire irons, they marched single-rank towards a group of Victoria Police until they were shot down, one by one, like redcoats in an eighteenth-century skirmish. Daily Mail Australia reported that they’d gotten the idea after watching Barry Lyndon. The Herald-Sun, however, claimed the fatal influence had come from Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.
At last, Jean-Alphonse found himself joined to a twenty-man group. He now had two dozen unfinished string quartets in a bundle, which he guarded jealously and kept forever close to his person, wrapped in his purple scarf. His apartment was the same one, though the added bodies made it humid and left it smelling much like a public urinal.
After lunch one day, a voice rose from the baboon troupe.
“Let’s have a vote.”
“About what?” asked Jean-Alphonse.
No one answered his question. It didn’t need elaboration.
“All in favour, say aye.”
“Aye.” “Aye.” “Aye.” “Aye.” “Aye.” “Aye.” “Aye.” “Aye.” “Aye.” “Aye.” “Aye.” “Aye.”
“…and aye,” concluded the speaker who’d made the motion.
“All against, say nay.”
There were five nays, including Jean-Alphonse.
“Abstention,” said Drayton.
“Abstention,” said Niall.
“The motion is passed.”
With those words, four of the strongest ayes went to the door and stood in front of it to block any exit from the apartment. The other ayes took kitchen knives and herded the nays and abstentions towards the balcony. Jean-Alphonse stood fourth in line to jump off. He hugged his bundle of music in its purple acrylic-wool swaddling. Someone will find you and complete what I couldn’t, he thought, while an aye stabbed at the air to goad him along.
The nay at the front clambered atop the balcony wall, bent his knees in a gentle hop and vanished. Another nay followed, and another. Now Jean-Alphonse was at the head of the line. He checked that the scarf was knotted tightly and hoped the papers wouldn’t come loose and scatter to the winds—or become waterlogged with blood, beyond legibility.
“Don’t take all day! There are other people in line!” someone called.
“Sorry, I won’t,” he replied, and stepped onto the balcony wall in a hurry.
Then, wordlessly, the ayes behind him touched their watches to send the old signal, “MY MATE IS OKAY FOR NOW.”