‘A Boot Full of Burst Errors’ by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams

'A Boot Full of Burst Errors' by student Rowan Williams was developed in Building A Strong Narrative in 2021. 


The powerlines hang slack like strands of abandoned spider web, catching the late afternoon sun along their edges. Dandelions drift through the glare. Maskless kids chase their own shadows down the lane on BMXs. The skatepark is closed again.

A police helicopter trawls the sky like a teacher ruling a line across the blackboard. It solidifies the air as it moves through it, leaving behind a trail of imaginary geometry.

I’m on the balcony at home, overlooking High St in Northcote, sanding down layers of acrylic paint on a wooden panel. I’m trying to create an image that looks like a CD that you might find in the gutter or in a building marked for demolition. An obsolete object, worn down by the physical world to the point of being unplayable. The sandpaper turns the paint into a fine dust that tastes like plastic.

Music on a CD is stored in a spiral of microscopic bumps. When a CD is scratched, the bumps can’t be read by the laser in a CD player and burst errors occur. Burst errors cause a skipping sound, transforming a familiar song into an alien environment of digital clicks and fragments. Scratch it enough and the disc won’t play at all.

The powerlines sway in the dead breeze from the helicopter’s blades. My eyes are blurred from the pollen and the paint dust, and I can smell burnt meat from the kebab shop down the street.

A few hours ago I was rollerblading in a chained-off church carpark with my partner K. Trying to rollerblade. It’s a place we can skate within our 5km limit. We found the blades in an op shop between lockdowns. I haven’t really skated since I was a kid. It’s dangerous—I might fall over and hurt myself—but that makes it exciting. Something that I can control to clear away some of the lockdown murk.

The church is a blank, airless building. It looks like a brick shed with a spire. The wall that faces the carpark has a huge slab of ridged concrete blocking off where you would expect stained-glass windows to be. There are no crosses and no ornamentation, except for two tiny stained-glass windows beneath the brutalist wall feature. The spire is a disconnected telegraph pole encased in concrete at the top. A man in hi-vis is on the roof cleaning gumnuts out of the gutters with a leaf blower.

While circling around the carpark, I get the odd sensation of soft panic from leaving home without my phone, without feeling its weight in my pocket. I skip over gumnuts sprinkled across the concrete, holding my breath. Each time we come to skate here we agree to bring a broom next time to sweep them up. The black wrist guards strapped to my wrists feel like they would shatter faster than bone would. K glides through the carpark in wide loops, her iridescent rollerskates communicating in morse code with the stained-glass windows, dazzling masked passers-by. She glides like she is breathing the clear, pre-pandemic air.

There’s an elderly lady across the road who has been mowing the same patch of grass on the nature strip since we got here, with one of those old push mowers.

My eyeballs vibrate the world into oblivion. My hands grasp at the blur. As I stumble over the cracked concrete, I am also twelve years old again, skating endless loops of the path that Dad built around the water tanks (he also built the water tanks—two grey monolithic structures the colour of the moon that caught rainwater from the roof of the shed) on our farm in Jindera, NSW. The path was the only place for us to skate—the farm was all hills and rocks, and was connected to town by a red-dirt road that cars struggled to drive on.

I don’t have a specific memory of skating around the path—it’s more like images that skip around, time blurred, chunks of experience that are repeated and superimposed. The path is burnt into the structure of my brain. Around the first water tank, around the rock garden, around the second water tank, step up onto the slab leading into the covered part of the shed (don’t trip), swirl around past the cement mixer and back again, repeated forever. I could do it with my eyes closed. Skating the path at night was like swimming through the stars. More stars than I’d ever seen before, shimmering in the dark like the sky had burst. The milky Way is a spiral galaxy——

‘She walked past before,’ K says, pulling me down from orbit. ‘She might dob on us for being out longer than two hours.’

‘If we have, then so has she.’

How long have we been skating? Without our phones it’s hard to say.

The lady walking through the carpark glances at us. It’s impossible to read her expression through her mask. She has definitely seen us though.

The carpark suddenly feels too open; I feel conspicuous, an identifiable character—that sweaty guy on rollerblades. The elderly woman has given up on the lawnmower and peers at us from the gutter while doing the edging with what appears to be a kitchen knife.

The leaf blower hums from the roof. How long does a battery last on one of those things? Two hours? Has he been up there the whole time?

I notice the CCTV camera sitting like a gargoyle above the door of the church. Somewhere inside the church’s hard-drive there is timestamped video footage of a sweaty man in tracksuit pants on rollerblades stumbling across the gumnuts. Hopefully it is one of those dummy cameras—but considering the lack of ornamentation on the building, I doubt it.

Reality has intruded into my little pocket of joy. On the drive home I nearly crash the car because a small black spider skips across my fingers. Even though I’m pretty sure I squashed it, I can’t shake the feeling that it is still there—every nerve ending hums with hypersensitivity, seeking out what the mind says is there, or could be there. The leaf blower man could have seen our numberplate. I don’t even know if we broke the rules and stayed out longer than two hours. I don’t think we did. That doesn’t seem to matter.

We shovel boxed spanakopita into our faces, huddled in the parked car as if we were lonely truck drivers on the side of a highway between distant towns.

The helicopter has gone. The sun has dropped behind the mountains, but the streetlights aren’t on yet. There’s a crane where the sun was—sitting in silhouette on the horizon as if it were constructing the sunset.

I wipe the dust from the painting and put it aside. Where am I? This doesn’t feel like Melbourne anymore. The 9 pm curfew will kick-in in a couple of hours. A scratched CD is a piece of plastic that makes no sound. Another siren bleats into the silence.

As the streetlights come on, the jaundice light burns away the few stars visible from our balcony. But I know that they are still there.