One year in my childhood, in the nebulous age of boyhood where I was young enough to spend time playing with toys, but also old enough to be affected by social slights at school, I became obsessed with cardboard. It started small – a cool looking box that became an easy proxy as a castle for my action figures, but swiftly grew beyond that into something more elaborate and troubling. I’m self-aware enough now to know that when I am troubled by something I try to deal with it by disappearing into a world of obsession and planning, that I go to work and ignore the emotional turmoil. In another life I was probably one of those workaholic businessmen, who ignore their crumbling marriage by focusing only on mergers and hostile takeovers, until they’ve scooped out all their desires and pleasures and replaced it only with business. But I’m not a businessman – I’m a writer, and in those days, I was just a weird boy that the new kid at school had gotten everyone to ostracise. I had no idea about coping mechanisms or obsessive traits – all I knew was an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the X-Men’s mutant powers. So, I began to build things from cardboard. You can learn a lot from cardboard – it’s essentially just paper that’s decided to be sturdier than it has any right to be, and I think that’s admirable. The things I built were mostly on the same kind of Saturday morning cartoon theme – giant robots, replica swords, many, many, many guns, rockets, spaceships and cars covered with guns. One day, my mum came out into the blasted Middle-Eastern wasteland that we non-ironically called our garden, to find me on my back like an upturned turtle. I was wearing a mini-fridge box that I’d ‘converted’ into an elaborate suit of medieval armour, spending literally weeks crafting gauntlets, greaves and coifs from cereal boxes and toilet rolls. It was big and blocky and surprisingly heavy, and constricted my movement just enough to make getting up off the ground impossible. I’d also vomited on it, and the thick wooden shaft of our rake lay on the ground nearby.
‘Well that was a silly idea’ said my mum, in the half-amused, half-concerned, vaguely patronising tone that the mothers of weird kids seem to pick up instinctively. She’d obviously been confused by this sequence of events, and didn’t seem mollified by my obvious answer: I’d spent a week making a suit of cardboard armour, but I needed to test its efficiency in battle, so I’d grabbed the handle of the rake, aimed it at my armour, and then ran into a wall. The rake had punched through the armour with great ease and hit me so hard in the sternum that I vomited and fell over, and then lay in the desert heat for about fifteen minutes until I was found.
‘But’ I said optimistically ‘imagine how much MORE it would have hurt if I WASN’T wearing the armour’.
Intellectually I knew that my first breakup, the end of my eleven-year relationship, would be an absolute tsunami of bad feelings and harsh new lessons and unwanted personal growth. I understood that it was a huge enough event that whatever hastily constructed barricades of sand-bags and whooping klaxons that I’d set up beforehand would be insufficient in the face of its ferocity, that whatever preconceptions I had would surely be blown away. It may sound overly dramatic, but I never promised to experience my life with equanimity. We went ahead with the breakup anyway, and sure enough it rained hard and long on my life, a bad weather season that uprooted trees and washed away the top soil and forced me to start building whoever the fuck I was all over again. What I absolutely never predicted was that my primary method of reconstruction after the breakup would come in the form of fifteen horoscope apps on my iPhone.
As a lapsed teenaged-Wiccan and someone who doesn’t quite get how science really works, I can be surprisingly superstitious for a modern-day man. However even I understand that horoscopes only work by providing a vague, purple-prosed prediction that people tend to project their own lives onto, that simply by virtue of being so mystical and hazy that it’s almost impossible not to feel some sense of recognition with what it’s saying, a sense of recognition is established. What I’m saying is that I’ll read a horoscope, perhaps take a minor lesson from it, but never ascribe that to the benevolence of Jupiter caring about my career as a celebrity milliner. I understand it’s just me desperately searching for meaning amongst nonsense, which is also how I assume people read poetry. Basically, what I’m saying is that I’m not a massive idiot, and I don’t believe in crazy stuff, and my addiction to phone horoscope apps was a surprising coping mechanism. It’s a very Virgo way of looking at things.
Every morning I would wake up in the spare room at my mother’s house, and after fighting through the torrent of dislocation – this is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife – I would start trawling through the horoscope apps. My theory was this: if there was a predictive ability inherent in astrology that was being obscured by the quality of the horoscope reader, then perhaps cross-referencing a large number of different horoscopes would enable me to find the grains of truth. Perhaps amongst all the chaos and nonsense of astrology, there was an internal logic, a pathway, a sign that I could use to build my life back up again. Because that’s why I was addicted to the fifteen horoscope apps on my phone – now that I’d had the foundations of my life washed away, the future was looking broad and terrifying. I was paralysed with the sheer amount of vast and awful freedom I had. At this point, having the worlds gloomiest summer holiday, I was struck by the juxtaposition in my life from only a year earlier. I’d gone from having a fiancée, a full-time job, a house, two extremely energetic rescue dogs and a close-knit group of friends. Now, I had none of those things. I felt like a sub-tropical island which had its entire infrastructure wiped away by a giant wave, and now the last remaining survivors were left with the daunting task of deciding what to do with this huge tract of stark, empty land. And instead of a planning committee, they had Mystic Meg and Pluto in retrograde to decide between some sick beach shacks or a big resort for Instagram influencers. I felt terrified by the sheer expanse of opportunities I hypothetically had for the future, spoiled by options, daunted by the pressure of doing something new and worthwhile. Something that inspired hope and excitement as it was built amongst the rubble of my former life. A sparkling monolith, an Ozymandian folly – something to dream and aspire to. I just didn’t quite know what the hell it would be, hence the astrology apps. I spent the summer indulging in blue-sky thinking, applying for prestigious MFA’s, competitive writing workshops and grants, dream jobs, mentorships and retreats, obsessively cross-referencing my horoscopes for a clue that one of them would pan out.
To nobody’s surprise at all, I can tell you now that trying to game fate with an extended horoscope scam is not an effective way to manage grief or create a sustainable or realistic life goal. Weirdly, it was the horoscopes themselves that showed me that, which perhaps meant that I was able to glean a sparkling ray of truth amongst the space-lies, the truth being that it was all nonsense. One morning, as I lay there under the taut sheets, trying to muster a reason to not feel flat and hopeless again, the first horoscope I read said this:
‘If a house is made of cardboard, the first strong wind will come and blow it away. But if it is made of brick and mortar, the children who play in that house will be lucky indeed, because if properly built, it should withstand all the wind and rain that nature can throw at it.’
Looking around at what remained of my life, I had the sinking sensation that I’d done exactly that. Had I spent my life building from cardboard, and I was no watching it all come tumbling down around me? Seemed logical and perspicacious. Damn you DailyHoroscope, you have shone a bright light of truth on me, and bought me low.
After the suit of armour, child-me became more ambitious. Half of this was due to luck and timing, as my dad’s office had just bought a bunch of new furniture, and he rescued all the packing crates for me. The other half was desperation. Not only had my social problems at school not fixed themselves, but my proposed solutions (solving a crime to win my peers respect, blackmail, academic prowess) had only worsened the issue. I decided that my next scheme had to be huge and awe-inspiring, and win me the respect of the mean girls who had ostracised me. I decided to build a cardboard castle, a box-fort so large and historically accurate to a specific time-period that people couldn’t help but be impressed. And so, I began to work.
We lived in what is best described as a compound in the desert city of Doha in the country of Qatar in the Middle East. In the early nineties, Qatar had a huge expat population, as their burgeoning oil industry began to take off. My dad worked in OH&S for the main oil and gas company in the country, putting in plans so people wouldn’t explode themselves or fall into gas caverns or set never-ending fires under the ground. Compounds were where the western expats lived, walled off and separated from the rest of the country, little boroughs of British, American and South Africans, and at least four Australians. Doha was a strange city, that went from tiny remnants of the original desert town into rapid modernisation. It spread out in uneven bursts, like a fried egg on an uneven pan, and everywhere that the city stopped was the broad expanse of the desert or the bright blue ocean. It seemed like the desert would one day reclaim the city, because even between high-rises or busy streets, you could catch a glimpse of a bare lot full of sand, and beyond it dunes stretching into the horizon. Apparently, it’s completely different now – all ultra-modern mega-malls and luxury indoor skiing arenas, but at this time the city seemed vaguely cardboard itself, all façade and dream, a child’s idea of what a city should look like.
The houses in the compound were all the same – flat roofed, sprayed on concrete, full of mismatched brown tiles. There was a problem with quality of workmanship in Qatar at that time, as evidenced both by the baffling disparity of tiles in our kitchen and the short-lived theme park ‘Aladdin’s Kingdom’ which featured roller-coasters with car seatbelts in them and a horrifying death-rate. Each house had large stretches of concrete and dirt which took the place of gardens, but were usually just upsetting stretches of baking hot pavement which literally fried eggs in the fifty degree heat, and once melted my bikes tyres while I was riding it. It was out in this yard, behind the ‘maid’s quarters’ (we didn’t have a maid, we kept several kittens my mum found under her classroom in there instead) under a slab of cooling concrete that was meant to be the second carport that I built my castle.
The castle was a thing of great presence – it truly was larger than it had any right to be. It was blocky and utilitarian – the kind of castle a stout boy with a crayon clenched in his red fist would draw. It had crenellations on the battlements, and a cardboard draw-bridge, and the heads of some of my lesser-loved toys mounted above it. From the outside, it looked like a passable impression of a castle. But it was on the inside that it became something special – stymied by the spatial limitations of not having enough cardboard to actually make a textbook castle even in miniature, the ballrooms, barracks, throne rooms and dungeons were replaced with a terrifying labyrinth instead. Once through the drawbridge, you had to get on your hands and knees and wiggle through a dark maze of hot cardboard, created from fridge box meeting office chair box, bisected by a fancy hat box. If you managed to overcome the claustrophobia, you could get to the middle of the castle, climb some terrifyingly rickety stairs and poke your head out of the top of the castle, and survey your domain. It took me weeks of blunting my mum’s sewing scissors and using all my dad’s masking tape before it got to an acceptable level of architectural integrity. I still had plans of hanging tapestries and creating secret treasure rooms before I was done, but in essence, the castle was ready. The next step of the plan was nebulous, but it somehow involved my classmates discovering that it existed, coming to my house, being blown away by how huge and weird it was, and then bringing me back to my rightful place as a mildly popular kid at school.
One weekend, we watched in wonder as the sky filled itself with thick masses of black, seething clouds. Rain is not common at all in the Middle Eastern desert, and is usually a sporadic, light affair that disappears into the sand without making much of a change to anything. However, when this rain started falling it was thick and heavy, a deluge similar to a good winter pour in Australia. And even more surprisingly – it didn’t stop. By the time Monday rolled around, it was still raining, and it was time to go to school. My mum loaded my sister and I into the car, cranked the dusty windscreen wipers and off we went.
It swiftly became clear that the world outside our compound had been sent haywire by the arrival of rain. Qatar was already known for its terrible driving, a mixture of extremely rich oil-natives feeling fine flaunting the rules, terribly signposted road rules and a complete lack of traffic lights. Instead of lights, there were only roundabouts, an entire city defined and guided by huge, novelty-topped roundabouts. In the middle of each roundabout was a piece of statuary, a confection of palm trees, an actual wooden boat, or even my favourite, a concrete recreation of a famous Qatarian fort. You navigated the city by referencing these roundabouts – ‘I’m out at Sheikh Abdul roundabout (dominated by an enormous statue of Sheikh Abdul), turn left at Dhow roundabout (a Dhow is an Arabic wooden boat) and go all the way through castle roundabout’.
The roads today, though veiled by the still pouring rain, were a vision of a Mad Max style apocalypse, with cars crumpled together in long trains of wrecks to the sides, people trudging through the cascading water and huddling together on higher ground. It soon became apparent that while only a fairly modest rainstorm by normal standards, it was in fact the highest dump of rainfall in the region for over sixty-five years, with other precipitations not even reaching half the amount of water falling out of the sky. What that meant was that Doha, as a modern city, was experiencing its first proper rainfall, and it was a city without gutters or stormwater drains, or any other kind of method for dealing with water. Where it hit desert sand, it was soaked up with no real issue, the dryness of the desert more parched than even this squall could sate – but on the concrete and asphalt stretches of the city, it pooled and ran, turning the roads into roaring rivers.
I don’t know exactly how nervous my mother was, but before the Middle East, we used to live in a national park in Australia, in which you would regularly have to drive your car across a flooding weir, so perhaps she took it all in her stride. But I know exactly the moment where she realised that we were not safe in this gritty pre-boot of the film Waterworld – and that was when we plunged into the first roundabout. If the roads were rivers, then the roundabouts, typical shaped like a concaved dish, were lakes. And this one was full of floating cars. We hit the water with a splash, and slowly bobbed around it, my mother doing a very careful kind of shriek which is probably best described as ‘terrified, but not wanting to startle my infant children too much.’ Some time during that terrifying improvised boat ride, water streaming through the doors and puddling around our feet, we hit the side of a BMW with an audible crunch. After floating to a shallow enough point to drive out of there, we then spent the next several hours at the police station, going through a baffling series of bureaucracies and outright bribes in order for my mum to avoid being thrown into jail for denting a nationals fancy car. By this point, my mum had already been involved in four separate traffic accidents, one of which involved a ten-gallon drum blowing across the road into her car, and she was an old-hand at working the police station. She knew how to handle the absurdities, how to come prepared. She knew that it cost five Riyyals for a 1 Riyyal stamp which was integral to the police documentation, and that the only person she could buy it from was the boy who provided cigarettes to the police and sometimes disappeared from the station, due to the fact he was literally a child. She knew how to deal with the encoded incredulity about the fact that western women were allowed to drive, and the not-so-subtle sexual aggressions and taunts from the police. Other expat women would call my mum for advice on how to navigate their own, many traffic accidents.
When we arrived home, much later that night, the water had risen and pooled into a kind of shallow moat around our house, and the cardboard castle, much like my hopes and dreams of ever having friends again, had dissolved into a pile of wet mush, a formless mountain of soggy paper and disappointment.
So, when my horoscopes warned me about the danger of building my hopes on the back of cardboard houses, I understood exactly what it meant. Life had a way of providing the unique circumstances to knock everything down, to provide the once-in-a-generation squall at precisely the wrong moment. It seemed that everything I’d once deemed the most important things in my life – my relationship, my weird little dog family, my career, were all collapsing into mush. And it looked like everything that I hoped to plug into that gap, the rare opportunities, the dream jobs, the blue-sky grants were about as flimsy as cardboard. I also realised that my entire life had been devoted to pinning all my hopes and dreams on paper castles – I was a writer for fucks sake, a person who gambled their prosperity on whether or not a confection of imagination and words would sell in a bloated market. It seemed like I’d been a cardboard castle merchant my entire life.
Cardboard mightn’t make a particularly practical set of armour, but the fact is that I never set out to be a practical man. Perhaps I had my sliding door moment sometime long ago in the past, where instead of picking up a hammer or a lathe, I grabbed an old toaster box and some blue tack and tape. It definitely kept happening later in my life, the moment where I chose a creative writing degree over a more practical education degree, or the moment I quit my full-time job to write a book. What is a book if not a bunch of paper with delusions of grandeur? I don’t want to over-praise creative people, and act like we’re all some sort of wondrous fairy-people that others should be in awe of. It’s not true – we’ve chosen a profoundly selfish and useless path in life, that often benefits nobody, sometimes not even ourselves. But it is the choice I made. I think there is a brazenness that is reflected in other ways, a heedlessness to the grim foretellings of the future. Love might end, but I’d rather throw myself headlong into it than never experience it at all. Storms might wash away my cardboard houses, but at least I’m building.
Patrick Lenton is a writer and the author of ‘A Man Made Entirely of Bats’. He tweets @patricklenton