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  • Writer's picturesamuel butchart


I have always had a problem with specificity. But you can’t be sure what I mean by that, can you? I haven’t been very specific. You’re thinking, ‘No, you haven’t.’ You’re thinking you’d like a bit of specificity right now. Well, I can hardly blame you for that.

I was at the pub the other night with my pal Charles. Don’t ask me what time it was, but it must have been near closing — the beer garden was empty, the music was switched off, the glassie was strutting around with his leaning tower of schooners (his one party trick), and for some reason I was telling Charles about a report I had just read on the abolition of the death tax in Australia.

‘In 1979

‘Hey, specificity. I like that,’ Charles interrupted.

This derailed me. What was Charles saying? Was he saying that I’m not usually specific? If so, was he saying that that was a bad thing? Or was he just saying, matter of fact, that he likes specificity? I couldn’t tell. He didn’t specify. I should have asked him to, but instead I lowered my eyes and smiled — the coy smile of a child who knows he has done something wrong but doesn’t know what.

I continued with my summary of the report, trying my best to remember the specifics. The whole time I could feel Charles’s eyes on me, as well as the five or six schooners in me.

‘Well, Queensland — I think it was Queensland — abolished the death tax first in, I want to say, 1975

As I talked, I was watching Charles watching me, and wondering if he thought I was being specific enough.

‘And then the federal government followed suit three, no, four years later, and abolished the tax everywhere in 1979.’

Nice recovery. Charles said nothing. He just kept watching me with that unyielding, inscrutable eye of his.

‘So,’ I went on confidently, ‘the interesting thing is that the week leading up to the 1st of July of that year — the day the tax was abolished everywhere — the death rate dropped suddenly

Shit. What was that figure? I couldn’t remember. Was it fifty fewer deaths than usual, or five hundred? I caught Charles’s eye — it was blinking at me slowly and deliberately. I could fill the blood, heavy with carbons, and probably some other stuff that shouldn’t have been there, swilling around my head.

‘There were five thousand fewer deaths that week than usual.’

Five thousand? That sounds like a lot,’ Charles said incredulously.

‘Fifty, I mean fifty.’

Damn it. It was fifty, I remembered suddenly. Why? Why do I do this? Why do I only get specific when it’s already too late? That’s it, I thought. I need to bring out the big guns.

‘But the really interesting thing is,’ I continued, ‘the week following the 1st of July, the death rate spiked by — guess how much?’


‘Fifty. Exactly.’

‘So, what does that mean, that people just tried not to die for another week?’


‘Yeah … that’s right,’ I said, irritated that he had guessed the reason. Come to think of it, was that the reason? Were there other reasons? Oh no. I suddenly had a horrible feeling there were other reasons.

‘Among other reasons,’ I added cryptically.

I couldn’t remember those other reasons right now, but Charles didn’t have to know that.

‘Yeah? Like what?’ said Charles.

Alright. I walked right into that. Like what indeed. I had no idea. I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember now.

‘I can’t remember now.’

Charles closed his eyes and nodded slowly, as if disappointed, as if vindicated. He knew I couldn’t keep it up, knew I couldn’t pull it off, this specificity stunt. No, as per usual I had rushed into it. I had been reckless. In 1979 … Oh yeah. Listen to that. In 1979. Man, what an opening. Who opens like that? Only people who know what they’re talking about. Only people who really know how to get specific.

Charles turned to Darren and asked him something. Did I mention Darren was there? Oh, well, Darren was there as well. As Darren talked, I sat in silence feeling completely abased. Or was that debased? At any rate, I had no more base, whatever that was. For a second there I really thought it was going to happen. I really thought …. wait a minute—

‘Reported deaths!’ I spluttered.

The two men stopped talking and looked at me.

‘What?’ Charles said.

‘Reported deaths. The number of reported deaths — fifty — were surreptitiously moved from before the day the tax was abolished to after, so that the beneficiaries wouldn’t lose out,’ I said, grinning and wagging my finger triumphantly.

‘What percentage?’


‘What percentage would the beneficiaries have lost to the tax?’

Fuck off. What was this, an interrogation?

‘I’m not sure … I think it was like twenty-something-percent.’

There it was. I had nearly done it. I had come so close. But then I had dropped the ball again. How predictable. What was I doing taking an elective course in economics anyway? Economics is all about specificity. I’m an English major. Literature is all about ambiguity. That’s why I’m good at it. Ambiguity. Oh yeah. I have never had a problem with ambiguity.

Charles had turned back to Darren and was telling him all about a new gizmo he had just purchased.

‘What are the specs?’ I interrupted.


‘What are the specifications?’ I repeated, trying to wrongfoot him.

Charles told me the specifications. He told me in one, long, clean breath. He told me without a flicker of hesitation. He told me as if he had already told me before. For all I know he had. Meanwhile, I wasn’t really listening. I was just sitting there still thinking to myself — you know, I have always had a problem with specificity. Do you see what I mean now? It’s a real problem of mine, and I don’t know what to do about it.

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