Arsehole Jam (Caitlin Farrugia)

Posted on December 8, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

(edited by Michelle McLaren)

‘Sometimes raspberry jam tastes like arsehole.’ Margaret crumples her facial features into the middle of her head and places the condiment knife down on the picnic rug. It stains the eggshell white cloth with a sticky smear of burgundy.

‘Did you spend a lot of time licking arsehole when you were young, dear?’

Rosalia’s accent is still thick years after migrating to Australia. Margaret stretches her mustard-chequered legs as far as her arthritic knees will straighten and fastens her navy scarf around her thin long pigeon neck, craning to look at the peppered grey sky above. She had spent a lot of time with arseholes actually. One in particular still lived at the forefront of her mind.

1955

Lindsay was a stern man even in his twenties. One would think he was well into middle age with such a serious face. At the beach, he would don a full wool suit with a wide pleated leg and a tapered ankle. A tiny apricot triangle would jut from his breast pocket. He always deemed it asinine when their children laughed with his young bride by the shore.

Margaret was thankful to have not been that young bride, for she imagined the woman’s days to be filled with humid steam rising off pressed shirts and cut fingers from a defrosting freezer; with pork sausages and mash and canned peaches and cream; with missionary sex in the dark without coming, and lilac and pearl pillbox hats. On the occasional afternoon when the young bride would grace Foggart’s Meats with her blushing silky-faced children, Margaret would watch them with a hungry curiosity. Wearing wet white moustaches, the twins milk-giggled their way through the hanging, bloodied cow carcasses. Lindsay would offer his garish pocket square and his bride would hold it daintily over her strawberry shaped nose to keep out the fleshy perfume of death. As Lindsay talked at her with a deep echo, his wife nodded at all the correct intervals just as she had been trained, her skin white and crystal like a gleaming cut of quartz, her lips a shiny plum red.

Although the woman never spoke, Margaret had imagined her voice as soft as the batter of meringue. What a precious gem, a perfect portrait. All the time Margaret had known this tourist of the meat factory, she’d wanted to strip her bare and free her like a trapped rabbit — like the young rabbits that her grandfather used to catch and cage, age and eat. Her appearance may have been sculpted to exact perfection but the bride’s sunken eyes were a perpetual dullness, the colour of feathery grey mould or faded ash carpet in a dark room.

1949

Margaret hadn’t fallen into butchering animals and stripping their bones of tender meat in the same way an artist chases expression: quite the opposite. After the war, Foggart’s Meats had advertised for workers and Margaret was in need of finances to feed her disabled mother and younger brother.

When Lindsay first muscled open the tin door to the warehouse, Margaret had instantly felt it a tomb. It was a multisensory gallery of death at its finest. Lifeless cows and their babies were caught in a twisted tableau of mortification, their carcasses tethered to the ceiling by cold piercing chains. To Margaret it seemed there was a fine line between being a living creature and food; a human being or a dead body.

Lindsay quickly waltzed past the beef as though he believed in ghosts. He seemed to be attracted to living things and hung closely to his new employee. His hand lingered on the shoulder of the young abattoir worker to catch the rising heat from her dark olive skin. Between the skinned pigs and the murdered lamb his hand, glossy with sweat, brushed over her buttocks. Margaret gulped a tangy swab of saliva, inched away, and with trembling hands ironed out the creases in her sea-green slacks.

1961

The day Margaret was arrested she’d eaten untoasted bread for breakfast as usual and whacked on her heavy cotton coveralls. It had been a sticky February of melting lemon ice creams and sweaty upper lips. Street dogs were too hot to nip at children’s legs and older women hung over their balconies with makeshift newspaper fans. When Margaret’s mother had moved them from Malta she hadn’t prepared them for the blistering swelter that was Australia, and on the sickening boat ride over, the yellow sun seemed to have enlarged like a dilated pupil.

It had been a picturesque cycle to work that day. Teenage girls in blue denim miniskirts waved with long fingers at the ring of a bike bell. Women unaccompanied by boyfriends or husbands sat outside pub windows refreshing their tongues with ice cool drinks. The honey-coloured sky bathed the women in swells of glory. The glittery morning roused Margaret inside her lungs.

While outside hazy mirages of mist rose from the roads, inside, the warehouse was brisk and frigid. Wearing a new viridian-pigmented pocket square, Lindsay hovered over Margaret, blowing a circle of frost down her neck as she trimmed portly fragments of afterlife. Margaret pretended her boss’s body wasn’t resting against her back and maintained the thudding cuts from her knife. His thin body felt cold and bumpy like a plucked chicken. He unzipped his fly and ran his pink penis across her stout lower back. Still grasping at the bulk of meat and the knife, Margaret stepped to the side. A person who owns an abattoir surely wasn’t one to let stock slip beneath his fingers however, so Lindsay quickly strangled her middle, spinning her around. Margaret fidgeted under the miry lips of her hunter. As his mind transcended with prohibited pleasure she clenched her inflated fingers tighter around the cleaver and with a single unthinking thrust, hacked his pink clump clean off.

Margaret had become impartial to the music of torture but never before had it felt so satisfying. As Lindsay leaked crimson blood and fizzy drool, the butcher refused remorse. Rather, she thought of the bride’s stinging red abrasions from being humped by her husband’s dry skin. She pictured her legs healing to a milky white; the woman’s eyes clearing from the fog.

 

‘We just won’t buy that raspberry anymore. What about marmalade?’ Rosalia offers with a toothy smile of silver fillings. She is a beautiful portrait with her fairy floss pink lips in front of the dark green and gold ferns. Margaret nods, kissing her girlfriend delicately on her freckled puffy cheek. She smells of talcum powder and roses.

Misfortune had loomed over Margaret’s youth but these days were much sweeter. On this particular Tuesday afternoon Margaret threads her withered fingers through Rosalia’s own and together they discuss the vast varieties of flavoured jams.

 

____________________________________________________________


Caitlin Farrugia
is a writer, producer and teacher from Melbourne, Australia. Her pieces reflect ideas of human connection, feminism and child wellbeing. You can follow her at caitlinfarrugia.com or @ohuniverse.

The Art of Leaving (Miki Laval)

Posted on December 1, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

(Edited by Laura McPhee-Browne)

The man who opens the front door is naked except for the towel around his hips. He seems surprised to see her and takes a quick small step back, as if something doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it’s her hair. On a whim she’d dyed it red, and according to all this small change had the effect of a mini transformation. Killer red, the package had promised, though she feels more raw than murderous. She recognises him immediately, despite the bulge on his waistline. She’d scrolled through his photos, posted after completing a triathlon to raise funds for cancer. A series of bare torso shots had shown off a body fit enough to chase any disease to the ends of molecular sabotage.

‘Sorry, I’m early,’ she says.

‘I hope you weren’t waiting long.’

‘Where?’

‘At the door.’

‘Seven minutes,’ she stuffs her hands in her coat pockets feeling awkward, as if she has something to hide.

‘That’s alright.’ The two of them stand in the cramped space, the wall hung heavily with coats and scarfs threatening to toppled down over them, ‘Just head upstairs to the dining room, on the second floor.’

His accent is British, soft and precise. The word ‘plumey,’ pops into her head. As he turns, one fat wet drop runs down his spine. It’s always raining somewhere, isn’t it? These are the kind of thoughts that run through her head. Mental notes that could break your heart if you were made a certain way.

She feels her way up the stairs, through a house plunged in semi darkness, sensing the outlines of tasteful furniture and a lot of beige and browns. As she tosses her coat off, a wall of deep set windows flashes her reflection. Out the windows, she can see the high branches swaying slightly, and the last of daylight, as a stroke drawn across the horizon, before poof, it’s gone. Above, the ceiling disappears into the darkness of the third floor, swallowing light fixtures and exposed beams. Gothic proportions, this house has. A modern-day Vampire would be a fan. And with that thought, she crosses the word Vampire off her imaginary list. The one tacked to the bulletin board inside her head. People’s Homes You Should Not Enter, or something like. Crossed off also: ghoul, creep, goon, and loon, because he is, in all likelihood, just a guy, a Tinder guy looking for love in all the online places. She’d caught his smell when she entered: biscuit-y and salty, mixed with soap. A man’s smell, not a monster’s. Still a man is intimidating enough.

His dining table looms before her, chic and serious, the size of a small swimming pool, with an orange-ish patina the colour of General Moa chicken. The chairs look fabulous. She sits down in one, shifting around in her seat, liking the feel of it. Chairs are her favourite piece of furniture, because she believes they are architecture for the body. She feels the same way about shoes. Architecture for the feet. She stretches her legs out, kicks off her shoes, and flexes her toes. When she stares up at the ceiling she feels herself floating up towards the darkness.

He emerges from nowhere, dressed in an obvious hurry. His shirt is cubist in its misalignment, and she stifles an urge to fuss with the buttons. Shouldn’t he have looked in a mirror before rushing out to meet her? When he picks up a remote, music—wavy electronica- fills the room. A speaker, the size of an ostrich egg perched high on a pole, comes level with her head, the background singer’s laments hitting her straight in the ear and running down her spine.

‘How long has it been?’ His name is Daniel. When Daniel opens the fridge, there is a puckering sound.

‘A month. I think.’

With one hand, she fishes around her bag for the bottle of wine, hauling it up from the depths.

‘That’s a long time to chat before meeting.’

‘Is it?’

‘And I was surprised you agreed to come here.’

‘You were?’

She seems unable to form a sentence with three or more words.

She blames the whole adult dating thing. The entire exercise seems like a poor imitation of high school and who was any good at it back then? She looks at the bottle and as she hands it over, decides it is too expensive.

‘Nice,’ Daniel says, reading the label. He ransacks the fridge, tossing cheeses onto cutting boards, and prying open plastic containers to sniff at the olives. He is talking about his week. A presentation at work with lots of power points was involved. Listening to him talk for several minutes convinces her – the wine is definitely too extravagant.

‘So much money, and all for what?’

‘Sorry, what did you say?’ Her mind has drifted, wandering to random thoughts on, say, the colour of vanilla ice cream—why white when the pods are brown? He does not notice, though she feels anyone walking into the room would sense her distraction immediately. The large ceramic Hello Kitty sitting squat on the windowsill does. The toy blocks. The placemats.

‘Instead of throwing money at us to build a website to encourage innovation, why not hand the money over to someone innovative so they can just do their thing.’

‘So, you do websites?’

He stands up and sighs, a cheese platter in each hand. ‘Well, I do many things.’

‘So, you don’t do websites?’

‘I’m a musician.’

‘Really?’

Her eyes flicker over the contours of the house, with its dusted tasteful surfaces, and clutter of toys pushed into the corners. A peach pit sits in the fruit bowl, a small ballet slipper on one of the stairs. Not an instrument in sight. She’d dated a guitarist once, or rather, slept on and off with a guitarist, and she distinctly remembers the row of guitars standing along one wall of his loft. They were sexy curvaceous creatures coloured a robin’s egg blue, or cherry red, and were capable of bending sound. Even standing immobile, they strutted. When the guitarist created ambiance, he did not turn on music. He tossed a mound of cushions to the floor, projected swirling coloured shapes that morphed to pulsating beats, while serving chilled vodka with purple pills. Then they both stripped naked to dance, swaying back and forth while laughing at their shadows.

Definitely not a musician, she decides. Why was everyone she met lately a web designer or a DJ? When would he open the wine?

The cheese stares up at her. He is unwrapping salami from cling film. The tomatoes are delicious, apparently.

‘Do you cook?’ she asks.

‘With two kids, you sort of have to.’

Right. He has two daughters. A few cracker crumbs catch in her throat and she coughs to dislodge them.

He hands her a tumbler, then gives her a pat on the back that feels devoid of any sexual tension. Her mouth is dry and papery, her throat horse. There is some frantic searching for the corkscrew, and then finally, mercifully, she has a glass of red before her. She takes a sip and the warm blurry feeling relaxes her jaw and neck, spreads to her shoulders. She hadn’t realised she was tense. She wipes at where the water from coughing burns her eyes, then tops off her wine glass.

‘I know something that will make you feel better. I’ll play you one of our songs. We call ourselves Happy Apples. My girls came up with the name one day, straight out of the blue.’

‘Happy Apples. That sounds…very happy…and apple-y.’

‘The oldest just turned eight and the other one is six and a half.’

She’d seen the pictures: two pale expensive looking creatures with soft skin and shiny hair.

‘I’m not sure about this. I’m not much of a music critic.’

Did she feel any sparks that could be coaxed into something larger? These days, she is trying, through force of will, a different sort of man. Dating outside her food group, she calls it. The problem is she doesn’t know her own: Dairy? Protein? Starch? Was alcohol a group?

‘It’s easy,’ her friend Olivier had said. ‘Just avoid your type.’

‘Which is?’

‘Cocky asshole.’

‘It’s easy,’ Daniel says. His lap top is open on the table and he is connecting wires to his sound system. ‘You just decide if you like it or not.’ He scrolls his track pad. ‘No one’s heard this yet, so I’m dying for a reaction.’

‘I shouldn’t be the first to hear this. You’re at a vulnerable stage in the creative process.’

‘I’m not worried,’ he pauses. They smile at each other. ‘Give it to me straight and don’t hold back.’

She can feel her smile fading as she shakes her head, but he is busy fiddling with knobs. The expression: squirming in your seat, she did not know if it was actually, possible. As it turns out, it is.

There’s a squall of noise before the jangled notes settle into music. She pretends to concentrate by staring at the cheese again. She’s beginning to know each crease and crevasse on its camembert surface intimately. She cuts a triangle shaped piece and is quiet for a moment, chewing. The cheese on the cutting board has morphed into the shape of a Pac Man. Now if only Pac Man would spring to life, gobble up this table and house. But no. The camembert will stay content with its cheese existence, and she’ll have to come up with something to say. She can feel Daniel’s eyes on her, sense his body moving to the beat. Several of his fingers tap on the table, in time with the music.

The song is unfamiliar, and she forgets each note the instant it is over. The girls sing high-pitched, words strung along the string of a melody. The voices are breathy, close, like disembodied pink mouths, living things, heavily worked over electronically. She is unable to decipher the words beyond, ‘we’ll never give up our cream,’ though maybe those are the lyrics after all.

When the music stops, the entire house sits still and expectant, an empty chamber ready for applause. What can she say? There was none of the mysterious and slightly frightening and thrilling music she associates with childhood. No wild bright notes played in a magic forest then trapped in a song web.

‘It didn’t suck,’ she says idiotically.

He manages a laugh. A loud honking laugh. He is trying to be a good sport.

‘I’m sorry. That’s the lamest reaction ever. I told you I wasn’t good at this.’

‘That’s alright. Thank you for listening.’

He waits a beat, and she understands she is expected to offer up something more.

‘The production quality is definitely there.’

He leans towards her, grinning a little awkwardly. His face is wide with expectation, ‘That’s good.’

Is that neediness she senses just under the surface? Perhaps it’s only lack of creative confidence. An unfulfilled artistic ambition could rattle anyone.

‘Solid…bridge, or is it the chorus? Like I said, I don’t know much about music, especially kid’s music, but it sounds…’ she searches for the right word, ‘well-constructed.’

He sits back in his chair, ‘I’ll take that.’

‘Phew,’ she says and lifts her wine. ‘To solid construction.’

He touches his glass to hers and she relaxes. They have passed through the initial awkwardness and she presumes it will be easier from here on in.

‘So, you’re like this Svengali character and you’re going to mold your girls into pop princesses?’

‘We’re trying to break into the Asian market, which is, needless to say, huge. We’re pretty serious.’

Knowing nothing about Asia, the music business, kiddie pop, children, or princesses there is no way to gauge whether his plans are ambitious or delusional.

‘We just finished printing this promotional piece.’

He hands her a sheet, but she isn’t sure what to call it. A graphic photo story? The page is laid out like a comic strip, but with photos instead of drawings, with the characters talking in balloon bubbles. Daniel, dressed as a policeman, is chasing the two girls who’ve been tagging alleyways with spray paint.

‘Children’s music can have some edge. We even have a sneaky joke at the end.’ He points to the second last frame were Daniel the policeman sits in his squad car, dazed and confused with cartoon stars swirling around his googly-eyed face. In the next frame, he has a contemplative finger on his chin, with a look of understanding spreading across his face. Yes, of course, his madcap adventures with the rebellious, yet adorable little scamps have all been a dream. Except for, what’s this—

Daniel points to the last photo. ‘See.’

By his shocked expression, we understand his pants are wet. Earlier the girls had set the fire hose on him to escape his clutches, and now he sits in his squad car soggy to the bone, socks and shoes drenched, his shirt also. Or at least she presumes because she’s distracted by the way Daniel the cop points down at his pants, at his belt buckle, his crotch. The whole thing wobbles with a Key Stone Cops meets a teeny smithereen of Lolita.

She reaches into her bag and pulls out her phone.

‘I’ve got to Google this kiddie pop stuff, because I know nothing about it.’

When she scrolls down her screen she discovers The Verve have just turned to kinder rock with a newly released album titled, The Family Album, which signals either restrain when it comes to all things child related, or flat out disinterest. There are a few other names she half recognises, but Google comes up surprisingly short on info. Maybe this is some new cultural space once filled by Teletubbies, where kid’s entertainment meets adults craving childhood regression.

‘It’s the project closest to my heart. I’m hoping I can do it full time, soon.’

He slips the glossy photo-comic book-promo piece back into a folder. ‘And it’s a great way to spend time with the girls since their mother and I split up.’

Right. The split. This is her signal to ask how long he’s been single. Background info was absent from their texting because they had kept things limited to banter and word play.

‘How long ago was that?’

‘Eight months. How about you?’

‘Me?’ she sits back, ‘What’s my story, you mean?’ Of course, this is a part of it also, each one serving up selected snippets of their past like hors d’oeuvres to be sampled.

She hesitates. She cannot think of her life as a whole, because she is still taking it one day at a time, like someone in recovery. Maybe she should drink more so she could join an official program. What’s the idea of a balanced diet? A drink in each hand. Lately she’s been trying humour, lame jokes that usually result in groans and rolled eyes. She is trying to change in increments, hoping to build her life some spine. Otherwise it’s all a tear, a dizzy spin of air, a distraction from the fact her once fiercely forged self now hangs back in retreat, stranded and confused, only to lurch out occasionally at inappropriate moments.

‘I was married once. It didn’t end well.’

Daniel smiles, pats her hand quietly, sadly maybe. Then retrieves it.

She skips the details like her husband’s circuitous mumbling about a mid-life crisis. One come early, he being only thirty-two.

‘So, you’re planning on dying at sixty-four, then?’ she’d said. Ah, the mouth on her. Flippant even in the wake of disaster.

Although maybe it had been more like a slow-moving car crash with her trapped inside the car, unable to move or speak. The final impact had come after she’d spent two days away, and returned to a house half empty, their possessions divided so precisely she was surprised the chairs weren’t sawed in half. In the bedroom closets, space, so much space, only a few metal hangers bent and spindly, hanging on his side. The house seemed brighter, taller, awful. So much had run away. She pictured his shoes and pants careening down the streets chasing books and dishes, and him wrangling them all like distracted cats. Of course, it had been nothing like that. He’d acted with military like stealth and speed. For a long time, she stood in her empty half house feeling gutted, then baffled, and finally betrayed, before starting the cycle all over again. A few weeks later, over a beer, Olivier let the truth slip. Husband was living with another woman. Did she know this woman? Olivier took a long sip of his beer, while he eyed her closely. The sip was followed by a long sigh. Yes, the woman was a friend. He said her name slowly. Her best friend’s name.

Her heart had flown up into her throat, dropped down to her bowels, got snagged on her rib cage.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes, I’m sure. You mean…don’t tell me you didn’t?’

‘What? Didn’t what?’ her voice was screeching only it came more like a sobby cracked sound.

‘Oh, honey, everybody knows.’

Everybody. Knows. Number of words: two. Effect: twin bombs dropped, leaving behind scorched earth, vaporizing people, replacing friends by zeros. Friends. From that moment on she no longer had any. Zip. Zilch. She had nada, and scratch. Zefiro in Italian. Duck in cricket. Nil, in football.

Daniel’s hand is back on hers, the weight of it warm. She cannot react to his affection, however, as she’s just been wishing complicated and fatal accidents on over a dozen people.

‘How about you?’ she says, changing the topic, ‘Any adventures since you’ve split up?’

He takes a sip of wine. Winces. Sighs. ‘I don’t know if I should tell you.’

‘I think you have to once you start like that. It may even be a rule.’

‘Yes,’ he gets up and heads to the kitchen. ‘I’ve heard that.’ He opens the fridge door, stares inside, then closes it. ‘But I don’t know if I should.’

‘Come on. You can’t stop after such a build-up.’

He takes a deep breath, and she prepares herself for a long story on how he and his wife gradually grew apart, punctuated with the agony of tennis elbow and alimony payments. ‘Okay. I was taking the girls to church one day.’

‘Really?’ This silences her for a moment, ‘You’re religious?’

‘I’m giving it a try.’

‘You believe in God?’

‘Yes, don’t you?’

‘God no. I mean, sorry…no, just no.’

‘Not agnostic.’

‘No. I believe when we’re done, we’re done.’

He smiles, ‘You and my brother.’ For a moment, he stands looking at her Godlessness. Amazed that she can exist while all of her hurtles towards oblivion.

‘But I have no problem with religious beliefs. Whatever gets you through the day, right? I just don’t understand why believers always want to convert non-believers? What’s the urgency?’

‘Well, now, see…’ Daniel is back at the table, ‘…it’s funny you should mention that because—.’

Because when he first moved into the neighbourhood after the split, in his confused and lost state and in the hopes of finding an activity for the girls where he could just sit and think, he started taking them to the church around the corner and on his way, each Sunday he would pass a massage parlour.

A massage parlour. She decides to stare at the cheese again. The middle has melted like wax and spilled on to the cutting board collapsing the surface. A massage parlour. She must have missed that section of street on the drive over.

Of course, he was feeling especially broken and distraught the day he decided to use their services.

‘Right,’ she says, rubbing her palms along her thighs. In what direction is the story going? It has veered sharply off road and is now bouncing across a craggy field strew with rocks, possibly land mines. ‘You went to a brothel.’

‘A massage parlour.’

‘Right, but the brothel kind of massage parlour?’

He nods his head.

She pictures padded bras and thongs, press on fingernails. Walls painted the colour of hard candy. A sticky carpet.

‘Okay. What did it look like inside?’

‘There was a desk and some chairs.’

‘A desk and some chairs? Like at the dentist? A waiting room filled with women reading out of date magazines in their underwear?’

He ignores her sarcasm or hasn’t picked up on it, ‘You choose who you’d like from a book before.’

‘Ah.’

‘Then you go and lie down on the massage table and wait for her to arrive.’

‘And when she does, what is she wearing?’

‘The usual.’

‘Sexy bra, thong, and garters, that sort of stuff?’

‘Pretty much.’

‘Oh, that’s disappointing. So, expected. What did she look like?’

At this point, she’s actually hoping some automatic wasp-ish reserve will kick in and he’ll feel too embarrassed to go on. But Daniel gets up and retreats back to the spot between the kitchen and dining room which seems to be his safety zone. One hand is on the wall for support and his whole body is stooped, curved like the letter C, a broken zero, or melted camembert. She imagines flashes of love sessions with his masseuse speeding through his mind. Him thrusting and thrashing his injuries up inside her. Then her getting up and walking around with all his pain contained in her afterwards. To a man this would seem like a miracle. How could he not be grateful? Daniel looks at her deep.

‘I get chills just thinking about her.’

She takes a slurp of wine. She does not have the energy to take on his pain. She is still meandering around her own dull ache unable to offer any support to those walking around with their wounds exposed and gleaming, like bones poking out their sides. Oh, the Tinder assaults made against the fragile heart. She wants to go home, plunge into bed with a book and slather hand cream on her feet.

‘That first time on her massage table I just started bawling like a baby. I couldn’t stop.’ Now Daniel’s whole face is a distraught, twisted into a lopsided look of sadness. ‘And she laid on top of me, and took my face in her hands and said, ‘But you’re so beautiful, how can you be unhappy?’’

‘So beautiful,’ she says. Her tone is edged with polite dismay.

He grows embarrassed, ‘Of course, things didn’t work out.’

‘But you fell in love with her?’

‘Yes, but, as I said, it didn’t work out.’

‘Hmmm,’ she says.

‘Look at this,’ he is laughing uncomfortably. ‘I’m spilling my guts to a total stranger.’

She watches him pace back and forth across the kitchen floor. He begins to rub his temples. ‘Sorry, I’m beginning to feel a bit off.’

She picks up her bag and hugs it to her chest. She shifts her gaze from his full glass to her own empty one.

‘It’s just she had such a caring expressive side to her. And every time I pass the place on my way to church, I can’t help thinking.’

‘Thinking what?’

He looks at her as if she should be able to read his thoughts.

‘You think religion—God—can save her?’

‘Yes.’

‘From what exactly?’

‘From the way her life has turned out.’

‘Because she’s a sex worker?’

‘Yes, obviously.’

‘But you go to church and that didn’t stop you from paying for a sex worker.’

She definitely wants to leave this ridiculous house belonging to this hypocritical man who claims to love a sex worker while pitying her life.

Just then the door downstairs opens and there’s a commotion. Children’s soft voices, the thudding of boots and hats being pulled off. A clumping up the stairs, and then two blonde-headed little girls rush into the living room.

‘Mummy!’ the youngest is running towards her, then slowing down uncertain, her smile fading.

‘That’s not mummy. Mummy’s down stairs.’ The oldest trails behind the youngest, looks straight at her, ‘Right?’

More steps, this time slower, heavier. It seems to take an unnaturally long time.

‘That would be… Claire,’ Daniel stops mid stride as if he’s made a private joke.

And then ‘Claire’ is standing where the hallway opens out into the dining room.

The resemblance is uncanny. Her eyes scan over this woman: same height; hair blonde as hers normally is; same eyes, nose, mouth. A slightly fuller face gives the woman a middle-aged quality. But still, it’s incredible. They look practically identical. Standing facing her, for a moment, it is easy to believe all women look the same, if not for the look of horror spreading across Claire’s face and the fact the room seems distorted and the walls wobbly.

‘What the hell, Daniel?’

‘Don’t be so dramatic, Claire. I told you I started dating.’

Daniel turns towards her. His eyes have a shining-eyed seriousness. ‘We met once before at the Goethe Centre but you might not remember.’ He turns back towards Claire, ‘It’s an amazing coincidence, isn’t it? Either of you have a long-lost sister?’

‘No,’ they both say at the same time.

‘I mean it’s actually sort of funny.’

‘No, it isn’t,’ again they speak in unison.

‘It’s just a coincidence.’

‘Coincidence?’ Claire stares straight at Daniel. Her eyes aim directly at him, dead on as if willing them not to stray to the side and catch sight of her.

‘Ask her yourself if it isn’t.’

‘What would I ask her?’ Claire turns towards her, ‘Sorry, I realise this may not be your fault.’ Her hands fly to her mouth as if she has to hold back a loud sound or nauseous cry, ‘Oh my god, you’ve got my birthmark.’

‘I was actually wondering about that.’

‘You were wondering.’

‘Would you stop repeating everything I say, and throwing it back at me.’

‘How is this possible?’

‘Actually, it’s not a birthmark. I had some vaccinations. I’m going on vacation in a few weeks. Got a bit of a reaction.’

Claire and Daniel turn towards each other.

‘I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think I understand myself. At first I thought it was you having a joke.’

‘You know I can hear both of you talking, right?’ she says. She can feel her face heating up.

‘Sorry, Claire,’ says Daniel, somewhat relieved to be chastised and able to apologize without losing face.

‘Claire. Her name is Claire?’

‘Yes, obviously.’

The other Claire shakes her head, ‘No. No. No. Not ‘obviously.’ In fact, given the situation ‘obviously’ is the one word that has no place in this conversation.’

The other Claire is breathing deeply through her nostrils, like an animal ready to charge.

Leaving. She should definitely be leaving. But it’s hard to move from her chair. Any kind of ending provokes a shakiness inside her these days. She burst into tears when her regular bank teller was transferred last week. The drugstore keeps moving the shampoo, toilet paper and Advil which leaves her wandering the aisles aimlessly, feeling stupid and crazy, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her sister is about to travel to Mexico for six months and she feels a sense of abandonment so acute it is physical.

‘Mommy, maybe when you’re busy we can go do things with this other mommy?’

This bright idea is offered up by the youngest while playing with the beads on her plastic bracelet. As for the oldest, her hair is hanging in her face and she is chewing on the ends of it.

‘You’ve got to accept we’re over, Daniel.’

The other Claire slumps into one of the fabulous chairs in front of the pool sized table. She looks hollowed out by something that has rushed in unexpectedly and shovelled out chunks of her insides.

‘I know.’

‘For your own good,’ she is saying.

‘It’s just I don’t know what to do,’ Daniel’s voice shifts and his face looks blasted apart with sadness.

She stands up and hitches her bag’s strap over her shoulder, ‘I should be going,’ she says.

‘No,’ Daniel, slumped into a chair, is now on his feet. ‘I mean it’s just too amazing, right? Don’t you two, I don’t know, want to compare childhoods or something? There must be a connection.’

Daniel and the other Claire stare at her, as if she were a curiosity, caged. The street light glows dully through the linen blinds. Her eyes shift to the large porcelain Hello Kitty on the deep window ledge. Some kind of candy dispenser, maybe? A bubble shaped face topped by a pink bow the colour of children’s Aspirin. Why no mouth? It makes her want to scream. But what words would come out? Fire! Help! Life sucks! Cursing seems better. Fuck. Fuck. Fucky. Fuckitty-fuck-fuck.

She has begun to dislike everyone in the room which means she really should be leaving.

‘But I want to see you again,’ Daniel says.

Well, yes, she thinks. Of course, he would say that.

The other Claire makes some sort of snorting sound and Daniel turns and accuses her of not respecting his boundaries, and then she accuses Daniel of acting just like his father.

The girls have begun taking turns jumping on and off one of the wooden dining room chairs. Daniel retreats to the kitchen again, to open and slam cupboard doors. The fridge door puckers open and whooshes shut. Now there is yelling.

Claire makes her way towards a dark wood liquor cabinet spotted earlier. With the wine gone, she definitely needs a stronger drink. A small key sits in the lock and when she turns it to the right with a click, the door falls open to reveal a dozen different coloured bottles.

‘Would anyone like some scotch?’ she calls over to the two of them. She looks up, but neither says anything in her direction. She pours generously into her wine glass.

Between Daniel and the other Claire, brittle words are now flung like barbed spikes. Claire leans against the wall taking up a position on the sidelines to watch. She had been denied the furious argument that comes at the end of love. The blubbering tears and gasps, the angry gestures.

Someone should threaten to leave.

Someone should say, fine go.

Someone should yell, I can’t take this anymore.

Oh, the mournful horror.

There had been none of that.

Perhaps because she was denied the final scene, she has been unable to move on with her life. Her broken heart is stuck in pieces, numb, scotch-taped to her insides.

She swirls her scotch, watches the other Claire as frustration fills her face. So, this is what she would look like in this state: bleak and pale. She suspects she lacks the courage for anger and grief, can’t take feeling bitter in an unbearable way. She sips her drink, the sharp taste warming her mouth, and shifts her gaze to the girls. In stocking feet, they dash towards the chair, leap onto it, then barely regaining their balance, fling themselves into the air, skidding across the floor, sometimes falling sideways. Any minute now there will be a terrific accident. One of them will lose a tooth, break a nose, or crack open a skull. She tastes the sharp bitter scotch on her tongue and cheeks, feels the blood flushing her face. From a cardiovascular point of view, the drink has done her good. As for Daniel and Claire, all their bitterness, pain and anger has brought them near to tears. Once again, another world is blowing up. Home. She thinks of the word. Home sweet home is burning. The wicked anger and freedom of it, a life in flames, this house burning to the ground instead of standing still and safe. There’s a lesson in that urge somewhere, and perhaps just a bit more scotch would reveal it.

Instead she goes to the bathroom, a bit woozy. She flicks on the light and after using the toilet, opens the cabinet. She takes out Daniel’s cologne and dabs some on her wrists, then behind her ears, like a debutant preparing for a cotillion. She smells the towels, the damp navy one wrapped around him earlier. She picks up the shampoo bottles and reads the labels as if they contain a secret message. Head and Shoulders takes on life with a manly Old Spice Scent. American Crew Anti Dandruff is 100% flake free.

When she spots the porcelain claw-footed bathtub her brain is flooded with homesickness. Her house, she misses it more than the man, or the marriage. He had not offered to sell her his half. Not that she could have bought it, except maybe, if she had pulled her act together, only she hadn’t. Instead, her home had been sold, just before Christmas, to pay off his back taxes. Now she bounces from friend to friend, sleeping in spare rooms, extra spaces that are dark and cold, where if you open the door you bump the bed. She is always banging into stacks of boxes. Alarm clocks blare at 5:00 am, loud as trumpets. Still, she cannot bring herself to stop moving, to close herself inside four permanent walls. Not just yet.

She turns the brass plated knobs and slips her hand under the stream of warm running water. Then she peels her clothes off and steps into the tub. As the water rises she feels her muscles unfurl. She squeezes the shampoo into her palm and through her hair. For a long time, she lathers herself up with Daniel’s soap, a slippery dark bar that smells of bergamot. She runs the soap over her arms and stomach, in between her toes and legs. It feels sexual, rapacious. When she lies back, dunking her head under water, the red dye from her hair sends watery pink tendrils swirling around her. Submerged, she’s off to another space, the only sounds of this life reaching her are distant and muffled. The light fixture is wobbly through the water, her heart beats in her ears. Eventually she pulls the plug with her toe and the water recedes, retreating from her body, leaving her in the warm tub, walled in a porcelain egg.

When she pulls the shower curtain back she finds the other Claire sitting on the toilet, her skirt pulled up over her thighs, and a pair of underpants stretched between her knees. Whatever terrors or heartaches life throws at you there is still nothing as unexpected as another human being.

‘Sorry, I really had to pee.’ Without missing a beat the other Claire looks at her, ‘You have a nice body. How much do you weigh?’

A grey towel is hanging on the opposite wall, ‘I don’t know. I just judge by how tight my clothes fit.’

When the other Claire flushes, she stands up and makes a jerky grab for it.

‘I’m sorry. I’ve interrupted something between you and Daniel. I shouldn’t be here. I got the dates mixed up.’

As she wraps the towel under her arm pits, the other Claire wipes a layer of moist perfumed heat off the mirror and an image flashes of the two of them, like a before and after picture.

‘Hold on. Did I just walked in on you taking a bath?’

‘Sort of. I was pretty much done, though.’

‘You just took a bath?’

‘It was an impulse.’

‘That’s hilarious.’

She does not say Daniel is still desperately in love with other Claire, and that the only reason he swiped right on her own photo was because of the resemblance. She does not say he has barely noticed her presence in his house this evening. Instead she says, ‘Welcome to my life—one big wacky ball of hilarious unpredictable activity.’

The other Claire takes a deep breath, ‘I write brochures for an insurance company so I wouldn’t know much about that.’

‘Insurance, you say?’ She feels an urge to break through the taunt surface of this ridiculous evening with something, ‘Well ma’am may all your policies mature.’

The other Claire laughs, a slow lazy chuckle, ‘And may you always have full coverage.’

‘From cradle to grave and womb to tomb.’

‘From erection to resurrection.’

‘From…oh no, I think I’m out of insurance puns.’

‘Right,’ says the other Claire in a brisk concentrated way. She opens the door, but before leaving, stops, turns, ‘I like the red hair colour, by the way. It really suits you.’ Then she stands up straight as if making a toast, her smile broad, ‘May you always burn as you do now, like a brilliant flame.’

And then she is gone.

Maybe this is how the heart begins its slow triumph over hurt—in an unlikely place, in a moment of unexpected kindness. Maybe if your heart can turn towards small kind acts, eventually it can take on greater ones, until your heart is braver, more evolved. Claire is thinking not only of herself here and her empty bed, but how for years she’d sneered at words such as ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ as if they were a sign of weakness. She’d gone through life searching out the tough and dazzling, picking her friends like brilliant stones. Somehow, she’d skipped a simple truth, the understanding that kindness is what we have to offer each other. It is the heart reaching outwards, a gift we send out into the world, like a gorgeous song when it hits all the right notes.

____________________________________________________________


Miki Laval
completed an MA in Creative Writing and now lives and works as a freelance writer in Montreal, Quebec. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Zounds, The Towner, The Bard Brawl and Soliloquies. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories.

Night Drive (Nike Sulway)

Posted on November 24, 2017 by in Heightened Talk

1
In early autumn
we are driving home together
midnight fog steaming
up from some unseen fault
in the world
the headlights catch
at a dead wallaby
humped over the unbroken centre line—
you step out on the road
bend close and touch the death
in her maternal body
you put down your hand
and feel
the small, enduring life of her child

2
You take a towel out of the back seat
lift the dead mother
wrap her
nurse her on your lap while we drive.

I set out
speeding down the range
the smell of blood and death and life
smearing across us as we urge
the phone to ring
urge a stranger to
tell us where to take her
this dead mother–this dying child

3
As the road straightens I steal a look
at your white face
at your strong hands
bare-knuckling on her ankle
rage and hope wrestle through you
Look, you say, holding out her warm foot,
So beautiful
Your hand cups her pouch
I can feel it moving, you say

4
When the call comes we
are almost down the range
illuminated with relief
at the news that someone
will meet us by the side of the road
a silver Rav near the RSL—a man
who knows what to do

5
drug dealers meet by the side of the road
in the dark of midnight
but this
is a wholly different exchange
you lift her body—a roadside pietà—
and he leans towards you
pulls back the flesh of her pouch
and squints at the squirm of pink life
she is carrying—
the life you have carried down the mountain—
You did good, he says. Alive, he says.

6
We drive up the range—streetlights
reappear, an owl
goes trailing through the dark
beside me, you unravel with relief—you touch
my hand—in that moment
everything is silent

7
Years from now
I will remember this moment
the blood on my shirt and my belly
the dirt and death and life on your hands
the rank flavour of an animal’s blood
pooling in the warm car—
each time we passed beneath a streetlight
I saw you again, and each time, it was
as though you had come back from death
or from some other dark and distant place
I remember thinking—
as each new part of you came into the light—Oh
there she is
(burning, always burning)
my love
(burning, always burning)
my life.

 

____________________________________________________________


Nike Sulway
is the author of a handful of novels, short stories, and a few poems. She has received a number of literary awards, including the James Tiptree, Jr Award, which is for a work of speculative fiction that explores and expands our understanding of gender. She lives and works in Queensland.

VERITY LA POETRY PODCAST
Episode 8: Tricia Dearborn

Posted on November 17, 2017 by in Verity La Poetry Podcast

podcast2 (1)

In this edition of the Verity La Poetry Podcast Michele Seminara chats with Tricia Dearborn about the many poems of hers we’ve published over the past few years including ‘I text you a photo of my knitting‘, The Change: Some notes from the field and The running doll.

We also hear how Tricia’s new book Autobiochemistry is coming along, what her writing practice is like, what it is to be a poet who also happens to be a woman and the politics involved in writing from one’s own life.


Missed our earlier episodes? Listen here!

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Tricia Dearborn’s work has been widely published in Australian literary journals including Meanjin, Southerly, Island Magazine and Westerly, as well as in the UK, the US, New Zealand and Ireland. Her work is represented in anthologies including Contemporary Australian Poetry, Australian Poetry since 1788 and The Best Australian Poems. She is on the editorial board of Plumwood Mountain, an online journal of ecopoetry, and was Guest Poetry Editor for the February 2016 issue. Her most recent collection of poetry is The Ringing World (Puncher & Wattmann, 2012). She is currently completing her third collection, Autobiochemistry, with the support of an Australia Council grant.

An Absence of Noise: Stephanie Buckle’s Habits of Silence and Félix Calvino’s So Much Smoke

Posted on October 27, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Kathryn Hummel
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

A land as vast as Australia is well-suited to capturing through snapshots, for viewing separately or stitched together in a panorama. In many ways the snapshots’ literary equivalent, works of Australian short fiction, are created regularly and convincingly: idiosyncratic of frame but requiring no great effort to locate them in the landscape from which they derive. Recent collections, Habits of Silence by Stephanie Buckle and So Much Smoke by Félix Calvino, have been put together with a similar assuredness and piercing eye for capture, particularly concerning narratives marginal to the mainstream.

An overwhelming weight could lie upon the whole mechanism of speech,
from the thoughts of what you would say, which one by one are
relentlessly rejected; to the courage to speak them, which is consumed by
the bile swilling in your stomach; to the cringing, self-defeating apathy of
the tongue that would have to form the words. Silence is safe. Silence
commits to nothing.
Far easier to be silent than to speak.

(‘The Silence’ p64)

Throughout Habits of Silence, Stephanie Buckle shows skill in examining the absence of noise from various angles, as if it were a clear rather than cloudy proposition. In ‘Material Remains’, silence becomes a Millennial tragedy, observed as texting and social media browsing and distilled as isolation, a lack of intimacy and trust between a grieving teenager and his mother: ‘I’m sorry I’m upsetting her but she’ll get over it, like she’s got over Scott. I can’t deal with her. I can’t help her. I just want to be left alone’ (p33).

Buckle’s tone, bending through various characters and their narratives, is sharply contemporary and as bleakly recognisable as any suburban backyard. ‘Lillian and Meredith’ charts the romantic fascination Lillian, in residence at an aged care community, develops for newcomer Meredith. Their separation isn’t as surprising as sadly inevitable, initiated by carers and their institutional discourse: ‘Anyway, this is just the icing on the cake. She’s very inappropriate and disinhibited around Meredith, it’s a really unhealthy relationship and it’s upsetting the other residents’.(p15) Under the cover of silence, Buckle articulates the act of feeling as primary and the consequences of reality as secondary, although the stories she tells are far from fantasy. Frequently addressing the politics, economics and ethics of aged and mental health care facilities and the truncated emotional and erotic experiences of their residents, Buckle erects a black mirror to reflect the socio-political climate of their composition. Her writing evokes elements of Sonya Hartnett’s work, without the gothic tones: even with occasional lapses into self-consciousness, Buckle’s exploration is very real and just as frightening. In ‘Us and Them’, a mental health facility doesn’t have the resources for intensive counselling required by a resident; in ‘Frederick’, the need for psychiatric attention does not come from patient to carer but from one carer to another.

With such adherence to reality beyond the page, Buckle’s careful language often drops below pared-down. In some stories, as in ‘The Silence’, which dwells on the relationship between two elderly brothers, the understatement becomes almost abstract, lessening the emotional draw. The final image of George looking ‘down at his beer, turning the can slowly in his hand’ as silence ‘settle[s] around them’ (p79) could perhaps indicate the futility of trying to break longstanding silences, but doesn’t break through the surface of the characters’ suspension. At other times, Buckle supplies some excellent visual sketches: ‘…another glance, almost too quick to spot, slides off me’ (‘A Lovely Afternoon’ p83). The dialogue between Buckle’s characters is at times uneven — unexciting between Steve and Emma in ‘Choices’ and the hikers in ‘The Man on the Path’, but well-observed and paced between allies Jeannie and Zoe in ‘A Lovely Afternoon’:

‘Shelley’s always getting me into trouble,’ Zoe says. ‘It’s not fair.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ I say.
‘My friend Lauren gave me a book, and Shelley can’t even read yet but she said we had to share it.’
‘Perhaps she’s jealous because she didn’t get anything,’ I offer.
‘Even if she had, she still would’ve wanted my book.’
When some people think you’ve got something you shouldn’t have, I want to say, they’ve just got to try and spoil it for you. (p84)

The effect created by the stories in Habits of Silence is cumulative, its richness coming across in the details of dogged attempts to find value in desolation and loneliness (‘Sex and Money’); the longing for intimacy in any form (‘Us and Them’), and the silent tragedy of human beings going about their rigidly patterned lives (‘Fifty Years’).

Félix Calvino’s So Much Smoke is crisply blurbed, setting up readers to expect semi-autobiographical stories from the Galicia region of Spain and migration to Australia around the 1970–80s. While the influence of journeys pulses evenly through the collection, Calvino is expressively concerned with ritual, some of which bind his characters to their origins, others signifying their physical and mental advancement in the world. In ‘They Are Only Dreams’ and ‘The Hen’, the rites are of passage, with children coming into, or attempting to come into, their identities as mature beings; while ‘Valley of the Butterflies’ charts Julián’s entry into a darker adulthood suggestive of manipulation and conscious harm. The unexpected confidence between Pascual and the narrator in ‘What Do You Know About Your Friends?’ is prompted by a ritual formed in a new setting:

Half a dozen of us, all in our mid-twenties and all with no more than three years in Australia, were in the habit of dropping into the pub late on Saturday afternoon for a few beers and a chat on the way to our girlfriends, dinner, or just a night on the town. (p11)

The preparation and sharing of meals is described as an integral part of domestic life regardless of the degree of happiness within the home: ‘The Smile’ depicts a lunch gathering where guests are lulled into silence by Consuelo’s nostalgia-inducing home cooking, as well as a comfort meal of chicken and potatoes following her death. Within Calvino’s wide exploration of ritual, silence occasionally features: in stories of migration, where present dwelling on past lives is regarded as a dangerous pastime, silence is a rite of survival. Silence is also politicised through Gabriel in ‘The Dream Girl’, who reflects on the choice of language as an expression of cultural freedom:

What right has a government to subordinate—in the long run to murder—one language that is the property of all to replace it with another language in the quest for personal and nationalistic glory?  (p120)

With So Much Smoke, as with Habits of Silence, it is worthwhile to ask whose voice is, in general, quietened — similarly to Buckle, Calvino articulates the narratives of the lesser-heard. The characters he identifies as migrants are shown dealing with implications of difference and the tension between their origins and present locations. Pascual’s sharing of a family tragedy with a fellow migrant is seen as ‘a flaw in the armour of his carefree mask’ behind which, in the narrator’s opinion, painful secrets should remain (p15); elsewhere, a group of friends reflects on ‘the life they had left behind and what they missed most as migrants’ (p52), thereby reducing their feelings of isolation. Told in implicit retrospect and with a sincere lack of ironic reference to contemporary immigration policy, Calvino’s stories of migration to Australia depict a Golden Age of this iconically hospitable and tolerant land: Fidel remarks that ‘in Sydney, we had discovered peace and joy and self-reliance. We were living our lives. The living like wounded animals searching for a place to hide was over’ (p104). With the same lack of irony, Calvino emphasises the fabled virtues of family, education, hard work and fidelity when, for example, the uncomplaining José is rewarded with riches at the conclusion of ‘The Road’. Given a non-laying chicken to slaughter, the boy in ‘The Hen’ is told by his mother, ‘Make it quickly so she does not suffer…’ (p5); while the remembered recognition of his parents’ ‘rituals of love across the kitchen table’ partially redeem the seedy John Benson of the eponymous story (p33). These details, sanguine and unsentimental, have the effect of illuminating a world beyond this variegated, rarely meritorious reality: within So Much Smoke, as it should be outside the text, migrants retain their humanity, education is a dignified goal, and culture and memories are treasured and preserved.

Keeping the reader engaged can be challenging for short fiction collections with multiple narrative trajectories and emotional pitches. Calvino’s collection could benefit from greater tautness, particularly in the lengthy central narrative ‘The Smile’, which includes an extended, dreamlike account of Fidel and Consuelo’s backstory. At other times, the dialogue is blurred by a similarly surreal tone that’s often formal, rather like a stilted translation:

‘Where does that broadcast come from?’ José asked.
‘The radio is Fidel’s baby,’ Consuelo replied. ‘Hasn’t he shown it to you yet?’

(‘The Smile’ p83)

In the dialogue-driven ‘They Are Only Dreams’, the same technique sets a portentous tone, highlighting the threat that the anonymous girl’s augury poses to peaceful village life. ‘So Much Smoke’ is murky in emotion and writing — ‘an incestuous relationship between lantana and passionfruit vines’ (p29) — and strewn with language (‘porch’, ‘mailbox’ and ‘apartments’) that seems too modern to be a deliberate contrast against the story’s implied retro setting. Quite possibly it is the nostalgic tint in Calvino’s writing that provokes a comparison to bygone writers like Ernest Hemingway. Calvino is similarly lean, and frequently elegant, in his powers of description: ‘After the leaves turned gold, they tended to the corn and the potatoes and the wood for winter’ (p17). So Much Smoke is noticeably male-focused, with attention given to inter-generational relationships and friendships between men; female characters are present but lacking somewhat in dimension.

While Buckle engages with and minutely examines reality to the edgy benefit of her work, Calvino is more mellow and reserved without being detached from reality: both occupy places of instantaneous belonging in the current literary landscape, fulfilling a need to have short fiction emit starker and softer lights by turns. Habits of Silence and So Much Smoke attest to the valiance of short fiction of and in contemporary Australia, and to the intrigue of the images captured by their authors. 

 

Habits of Silence
Stephanie Buckle

Finlay Lloyd, 2017
202 pages, $22

So Much Smoke
Félix Calvino

Arcadia, 2016
144 pages, $29.95

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photo credit: Kshitij Garg

photo credit: Kshitij Garg

Kathryn Hummel is a writer, researcher and poet: the author of Poems from Here, The Bangalore Set and The Body That Holds. Her new media/poetry, non-fiction, fiction, photography and scholarly research has been published and presented worldwide (Meanjin, Cordite, Rabbit, The Letters Page, Prelude, PopMatters, Gulf Times, Himal Southasian), and recognised with a Pushcart Prize nomination and the Dorothy Porter Prize at the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards. Kathryn holds a PhD for studies in narrative ethnography and lives intermittently in South Asia. Her activities can be tracked @ kathrynhummel.com.

Breathing Machine: a memoir stopped here (Carol Major)

Posted on October 20, 2017 by in Being Sure

In December 1999 the earth spun toward a great shadow marking the end of a millennium and those who relied on mechanical timekeeping began to stack tinned goods into cupboards, terrified the world as we knew it might end. But I have never been concerned about storing food. Instead I helped my disabled daughter move into her own flat. I painted the floor with Grip Guard, organised a handyman to attach a steel bar to the door. My daughter would be able to hit the bar with her electric wheelchair and get in all by herself. A wet Christmas followed, a wet Boxing Day and then we watched the old millennium clap shut on TV. The world didn’t end as the clock struck twelve. Chaos waited, moved at its own speed.

January 5th

Beside a respirator, steel blue, my daughter fights to breathe. There are iodine smears on her skin. She is unconscious. Time has stopped.

I should have taken better care of her but I was tired. Tired from Christmas, tired from the university course I’d started, tired of caring for her two younger brothers, and looking forward to an adult party where someone else could do the work. Yet I had felt this coming all through the windy day, cool enough to wear a jacket in the Australian summer, the ocean breeze too strong.

Earlier, when I took my youngest son to the rock pool, there had been so many crabs, some as big as my hand. They scuttled, waving crab eyes on thin crab stalks. And then when I was gathering laundry I saw a huge spider clinging to a sheet, a spider as big as a frog. It dropped to the ground and waddled away as the phone began to ring. My daughter was on the end of the line. She’d spilled a cup of tea in her bed. And then suddenly she was crying—about life closing in, about not having children, about wanting to dance just one night until her feet hurt. My mermaid. Knives through her soles.

I wanted to know if her flatmate and part time carer was there. ‘Can I come?’

Yes, the flatmate was in the next room. But no, don’t come.

‘But perhaps this living independently is too much. Perhaps you are ill. I’ll call a doctor.’

No. She wasn’t ill. She hated doctors, said all they did was point a bone at you, tell you which muscles were going to get weaker. She believed if she didn’t look at this disease, didn’t pay it attention, that nothing would change, nothing would get worse.

I rang the wheelchair company to complain about the new footrests for her wheel chair. Hadn’t they arrived yet? This was something that could be fixed. I snapped at the receptionist to find the order and ring me back with a date.

Ten minutes later the phone rang but it wasn’t the wheelchair company; it was my daughter’s flatmate. My daughter had pushed her emergency Vitacall button. An ambulance was on its way.

January 7th

My daughter is a minnow caught on the end of a line, her mouth bleached and gasping. Nurses are monitoring the oxygen in her blood. There is a tube wedged in her throat. The nurses pat her ribcage until green mucous coughs out. Algae, seaweed. You’d expect that in a fish out of water.

I sing into my daughter’s ear: You’re not sick; you’re just in love and Fly Me to the Moon. Her hands are beautiful. Slim pencil lines. Bars of music, harp strings. She curves them into an angelfish tail.

January 8th

There are boy’s running shoes scattered in the hall. There are dirty dishes on the table, underwear in the bathroom. I had mowed the lawn before this happened—trimmed the edges around the footpath in a neat straight line. I had unloaded the dishwasher, and in the half hour before my daughter’s flatmate rang, I had been ironing shirts. My husband at the time was starting a new job. I wanted to clear the decks and give him a clear run—fair weather for the ship setting sail. But there is no clear weather. There is only weather rumbling and rolling over the horizon. Clouds and sun, rain and wind. The weather doesn’t know about day or night. Sometimes the sunny day in the forecast falls after daylight is gone.

It always feels as if it is night in ICU. I glance at the boy in the next bed. He leaned too far out on a railway platform and the train breathed him in. Now he can’t breathe any more. But my daughter is still breathing. She rises with the wind as delicately as a leaf. In her dreams she is travelling east to Persia, to China, rising with the sun.

January 9th

They have brought in a machine to monitor her heart—a gulping noise inside an ocean. I am going down in a submarine, down, down down, surrounded by the strange wind noise of deep waves. Plunging. The bells sound at each depth.

I might need to put on a frogman’s suit. We are so deep. The water is so heavy. It could crush my bones. Sometimes I think even air might crush my daughter’s bones, bird bones, lighter than toothpicks, lighter, lighter, lighter. She is floating above me, nearer the surface. I have been looking in the wrong place, plodding down here on the ocean floor in my frogman’s suit, breathing through a tube. I have been breathing through her tube and listening to submarine gongs.

January 10th

I am closing up, reserving my energy, turning into a solid rock, holding against the wind, gathering strength for my daughter. I do not want to leave the hospital but I must go home.

I cry when I see the backyard, the grass, the clothesline—the sheets still in the washing machine. The screen door blinks in the afternoon sun. During my absence, rose petals have opened and rusted at their edges and a spider has matted a web into the bougainvillea. I am like the landscape holding still, watching. I am watching my daughter get well. I am willing my daughter to get well.

January 11th

There is a man in another bed from the Pacific Islands. His family tell a story of how they took him to casualty at Liverpool Hospital. The staff sent him back home. He got sicker so they returned. Within minutes of his second arrival he stopped breathing and would have died if his family had not brought him back.

Now all of this will become a story told at gatherings. Do you remember? And he almost died. They flew him by helicopter to the RPA. We slept in the waiting room.

We sit in the area outside the wards, wishing we could flip to the later pages in the story where the crisis is over—that quieter time when we can laugh again and drink proper coffee and have something amazing to say to each other. Do you remember last year? When you almost died? We were just in time.

We expect that resolution to the story. It’s just our turn to be on this page. But sometimes the turn never ends.

January 14th

They have taken my daughter off the ventilator and put her on an oxygen mask. Now her face is squashed like a little girl pressed against a shop window. The oxygen machine whistles like a tiny hurricane. She coughs and coughs and they vacuum her lungs.

She is angry with the nurses. She is angry with me. She is not happy getting better. It hurts to surface.

January 18th

My daughter is scuba diving among fluorescent fish. She comes up for air and coughs once more. The doctors say she will aspirate one day if they don’t put a hole in her throat and seal off the opening to her mouth. If they do this she will be mute and unable to eat. If they do this they can’t guarantee she will be able to survive the operation.

I refuse to float in an imagined nightmare. Today is today is today. I want to gather my daughter into my arms but I’ve never been able to do it properly. Too many bony bits, not enough muscle. There are too many sharp angles with this disease.

She is coming up for air again. They take off the mask, place a thin tube in each nostril. Her mouth is free.

A doctor wants to know if I have told her everything. Have I asked her if anything went wrong would she want to be revived again?

‘You do realise this is a degenerative condition.’

I reply, ‘Life is a degenerative condition. But we’re not dead yet.’

January 19th

My sister has arrived. My daughter is out of ICU and in a hospital room of her own. We try to lift her to the shower. My sister holds her head. My husband carries her body. I hold the plastic fluid bags and tubes. We joke about being the three stooges nursing her. Still, I long for a normal day. One normal day.

January 25th

My daughter has an Australian flag tooth-picked into her toast. She is dozing. Simon and Garfunkel are playing on the CD. There are plastic fluid bags that look like jellyfish, a thermometer in a dish, a postcard of the Virgin Mary, a Mount Franklin bottle of holy water with pink plastic tied around the top so we won’t drink it by mistake. Yesterday my sister and I walked from the hospital towards the university grounds. I showed her where I took classes. At the beginning of that course, I had been setting up my daughter’s flat, painting her floor with Grip Guard, sharing tea with her flatmate. Those days when I didn’t know I was happy.

January 31st

The early morning is not as bright anymore. We have missed the peak of summer. My sister has gone home. The boys are starting school. People have to get back to work.

I am dressed in yellow plastic and white gloves. I crackle when I move. My daughter has golden staph. It came through one of the intravenous lines in her neck. She aches all over and cannot sleep. Neither can I. I find it easiest when I am doing something, settling her feet, knees, hips, arms, shoulders. The hard part is when I relax, drop into a doze, wait for the moan that will drag me back to my feet. Not being able to rest at all would be better.

When she was a baby she never slept. Night after night dipping the dummy into honey. My parents bought her a special rocking cradle and still she would not close her eyes. During the day I would sweep the walk while she screamed and screamed and screamed, her little head foaming. Nothing would make her stop, except me awake, picking her up.

Twenty-four years on and I still wait for the tiny hiccup, every muscle screwed into a knot. Thin fingers claw out for me like tiny crabs.

Don’t touch me any more

Touch me forever

Leave me alone.

January 21st

My youngest son and his classmate are wearing the same yellow hospital gowns and plastic gloves. They have begun Year Seven at a performing arts school. They dance a corny version of the hula. The nurses have given my daughter an alphabet board because she is unable to speak. She points to letters. She tells her brother he is very funny. Now she wants to hear a song.

My son’s classmate has a high, high sweet voice. He sings with no accompaniment, the notes sailing over the bleeps of medical machines. Young boys. Beautiful young boys.

February 9th

My eldest son has streaked his hair blonde. He says he wants to feel good again. It is too long being sad and scared. His younger brother is supposed to produce a piece of art that says something about himself. He has drawn a Warhammer figurine. He says it is the best lighting he’s ever done.

My daughter wants to get better. She has refused the surgeon’s recommendation. She will eat despite the risk. Today she pulls herself into a half-sitting position using the toilet chair and counts to thirty. ‘I will get better.’

We listen to Carole King as I wrap her hair around rollers. She asks me to buy red and yellow cellophane, and a sparkle pen. She is going to make Valentine cards.

I return home. The nurses tell me I need to sleep in my own bed. I hang out the wash, take it back down again. Fold sunlight into sheets, press T-shirts to my nose.

February 10th

The nurse rings in the dead of night. My first proper night in my bed and I am lost in brambles, pricked with thorns. ‘What? What?’ The nurse hands the receiver to my daughter. She is shrieking, squeaking into the phone.

I shout, ‘I know you are sicker than me. But there are millions sicker than me and I must sleep. I must eat. And the truth is you may need to be uncomfortable for a moment because other people are human.’

I yell. Then I soothe. I draw a fine line between both of us.

And then rub it out again.

February 20th

This has always been on the horizon. The drooping mouth when she was a toddler, the winged scapula when she was six years old. I saw the bones stick out when she was in the bathtub and then didn’t look again.

My friend Cathy says, ‘Whenever I screamed in pain my mother hit me.’ Don’t scream like that. You frighten me.

I remember falling off my bike when I was ten and my mother’s angry face. What did you do to yourself? She scrubbed the grit out of my arm with a hard face washer, her eyes filled with terror.

February 22nd

There is a sign above the cashier in the medical centre parking lot. It says, ‘Your mission today is to dazzle every customer.’

We have bought my daughter so many things to keep her grounded in this world…necklaces, teddy bears, soaps, scents, lamps, clothes…and yet she still eludes us. She is so slender, a piece of quicksilver; everything is too heavy for her to wear or carry. Yet we collect these things—as evidence that she is here.

I take a bath. My knees sink into the water like two small white islands slipping below the surface tension. That thin skin of molecules that holds a spider skating on a pond.

February 26th

I stay at the hospital for four-hour shifts. My battery will only last that long. My daughter holds hard to that last fifteen minutes, stretching them out until I become a broken toy monkey playing a drum—rat-a-tat-tat. And then she’ll want something else and I’ll try too hard to do this ONE LAST THING. And no matter how I do it—it won’t be right. I will have hurt her and she will be sore—her neck, her shoulders. I go home feeling bad.

February 28th

See, I will not forget you…

I have carved you on the palm of my hand.

Isaiah 49:15

Today I find this little card on the dressing table beside her bed. Someone has left it. There is a drawing of a hand cradling a child.

A cloud of rosellas fly by the window and then an ibis sailing. It is late summer. A young man has delivered breakfast. The trolley rolls away. Hospital sounds. Cleaners. A mop and a pail.

My daughter breathes quietly into her mask. I love to slip beside her, curl my hands through her long fingers. I love it when she squeezes back. Happy to see me. I am happy to see her.

March 12th

Some wish to frame their lives in inevitable death. My daughter was diagnosed with Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy when she was five. That spiralling story towards her demise. This is where she is headed—why fool anyone with the in-between stage? Yet in doing so they would fool the very nature of life.

Genetic specialists want to take my blood. They want me to ring my parents in Canada and request they have their blood tested as well.

I stare at a picture of my daughter’s senior high school class. A special school. There is the clumsy giant boy and the student with no bones flopped in a chair. Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

I am a wingless, soundless moth holding my breath, my heart barely shivering. I am shaking forever without moving a muscle—a blurry hush in the dark.

April 7th

Autumn. My daughter is going home. There is no more to be done. She can talk again but still she cannot sit up, even with a body brace. She has come up with an idea to modify her wheelchair. The backrest is lowered. The arm rests reversed. She lies over the seat prone, her arms stretched to reach the remote control. She says she will pretend that she is an actress who has had a skiing accident. She asks me to paint her fingernails. She wants to go shopping again.

April 15th

Big brown leaves scatter over the road. My daughter has found a shop in the city that sells dark chocolate and ginger. She takes me there, wearing her dark blue scarf and black gloves. We manoeuvre the wheelchair through crowded streets and come to a crossing that is gridlocked with traffic. When the light turns green people squeeze between cars but there is no room for a wheelchair.

A young man comes to our rescue, almost challenging drivers to a duel. ‘See what you’ve done!’ he screams, as if they have put my daughter in the wheelchair, given her this disease. Cars inch out of our way.

Another boy saves her when the lock is jammed on a disabled toilet. He bangs on the centre management’s door and comes back with a man carrying a drill.

My daughter’s life is full of heroes. Men bring her yellow roses in the street. They can’t bear her being so beautiful.

April 20th

The cooler ocean water is the colour of opal. The crabs now huddle in cracks, some green—some almost black. I float like a flat frog skimming the surface. I used to be scared of cold water. My breath would come too fast. I might die.

I am not scared of dying. Sometimes I walk out in to the road without looking.

The results of my blood tests have come back conclusive. I have deletions in my genes, a mutation that occurred at my conception. My mother is silent on the telephone. My sister reads up on the science. In a white office the researchers show me sheets of paper, the rows like bar codes on the side of a jar of jam. They point at the missing dots. I imagine rows of teeth falling out, a pearl necklace with missing beads, a chewed string at the bottom of a jewellery box.

My daughter is none of these things. She draws wonderful designs lying on her stomach, and I continue with my university course. I am learning about post-modernism, the end of grand narratives. Was ours a grand narrative? I only know that I have muscular dystrophy too—ever so slightly—and that this is my beloved daughter. We go to cafes and the Art Gallery, visit designer shops. We are truly adaptable, mutating, deconstructing, falling apart into something else. The deletions widen. We laugh at people who stare.

There will be more to come. My husband will find this all too relentless and leave. The muscular dystrophy will progress. But my daughter would agree that this is the best place to end this particular story. Time stopped here. This sweet memory that is at the truth of things.

 

____________________________________________________________


Carol Major
was born in Scotland, immigrated to Canada as a schoolgirl and now lives in the Blue Mountains, Australia, a place that captures three landscapes in one. The heart in geography is one of her passions and in addition to writing short stories and novels, she consults on the importance of retaining a sense of place within urban design. Carol holds a master and doctorate degree in creative writing from the University of Technology, Sydney and her work has been published in a variety of formats in Canadian and Australian literary magazines, performance pieces and anthologies.

The Black War Thesis
(David Thomas Henry Wright)

Posted on October 13, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

‘This is clearly an important subject, but – and I don’t mean to be rude – why does your particular project matter?’ asked Professor McCombe, the Associate Dean of the School of Humanities. Her fluorescent-purple glasses, skunk-like streaks, and ludicrous dotted dress did nothing to compromise her authority; her stare made Verity sweat.

‘That’s a good question,’ simpered Verity. Professor McCombe did not reflect Verity’s smile. Instead, she squinted at her concluding PowerPoint slide as though it were an autostereogram that might divulge a three-dimensional answer. Verity combed her frizzy hair with her fingers, as if to the give the impression of order, before continuing. ‘The Black War has been heavily researched, as my lit review shows. No one, however, has looked seriously at the social histories. The ethical and legal questions were not in the minds of those involved. I want to find out what was by examining the experiences of the colonists and the Indigenous Tasmanians in parallel. I intend to challenge both the colonial-centered vision that excuses, as well as the guilt-driven approach that victimises and blames. In other words, I will perform an objective reevaluation to correct previous imbalances.’ With an ember of ferocity in her voice, Verity added, ‘I believe that matters’.

Professor McCombe thanked Verity for her answer and said nothing further. When there were no other questions, the small crowd of academics and fellow postgrads applauded, interrupting the chair’s concluding words. Verity Gaffy’s doctoral candidature was, officially, confirmed; her three-year scholarship was justified.

Throughout August, Verity combed the Launceston newspaper archives for references to the Black War. Any hobbies or interests she had prior to her candidature withered; any invitations from friends to go out to cocktail bars or pop-up restaurants were rejected; what little male interest that existed was ignored.

In October she presented her work-in-progress findings at the Indigenous Studies Conference in Geelong, and even had a paper – ‘Ethical Dilemmas in Representing Indigenous Social History through Colonial Accounts’ – accepted for publication in the Journal of Australian Indigenous Studies (no. 382, 2016, pp. 43-56). She was so autonomous and productive that her academic supervisor, Professor Jørgensen, was content to leave her to her own devices while he undertook a six-month research fellowship at the Universität Zürich. ‘You clearly know what you’re doing, and don’t need me getting in the way.’

***

In April of her second year of candidature, Verity’s father, Dr Victor Gaffy, was killed in a two-car crash. A 4WD had, according to the police officer that filled out the report, swerved into Victor’s lane, causing a head-on collision that instantly killed both drivers.

The funeral was held at a private boys’ school chapel. It was a sandstone building that retained heat, causing Verity’s hair to frizz and make-up to smear. She declined to speak, leaving eulogy duty to her Aunt Heidi. Heidi’s words were summative and sweet. She recalled six-year old Victor stealing and sharing cake; Victor’s exhaustive medical study funded by late-night taxi shifts; Victor’s loving and inspirational role as a husband, father, and brother; Victor’s quiet yet heroic endurance in the face of his wife’s early death to leukemia; and Victor’s professional accomplishments, specifically his research into breast cancer screening. ‘Despite the irrationality of his death, Victor’s life contributed so much to so many.’ Heidi paused for impact before leaving the brass, eagle-shaped lectern.

Verity held up her order of service to hide her tearless face. Printed on the cover was a youthful photograph of Victor. He had been a handsome man with a slender neck and dainty nose, neither of which had been passed on. Verity struggled to recall her father’s face when they last spoke. Her dry eyes and the murkiness of her memories made her feel heartless.

At the lunch that followed, Verity kept to herself. As she gnawed at the corner of a crustless sandwich, Heidi approached and insisted on making conversation. ‘You must come back next week to watch your cousin march with the Air Force cadets in the ANZAC Day parade. It would mean so much to him if you were there.’ Verity doubted her thirteen year-old cousin would care if she was present or not, but as her aunt was an aggressively considerate woman it was difficult to say no.

***

Well before nine o’clock, foreheads were shining. Heavy, salty droplets rolled down the cheeks and arms of those unfortunate enough not to be seated in shade. The ceremonial words were typical (…a day for all Australians to commemorate the self-sacrifice of past and present generations….), lifted directly from the Australian Army Website’s easy-to-follow script for secondary schools. None of the deceased were named, merely referred to in the collective as all those men and women who paid the supreme price. The marching was uncomplicated and repetitive. The school orchestra’s string section was off-key; instruments struggled to stay tuned in the expansive heat. Halfway through a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, a tiny naval cadet fainted from exhaustion. His knees buckled, his torso planted into the grass, and his round white hat rolled away a considerable distance. As the boy was retrieved and carried off on a stretcher, a seismic chuckle spread among the observing non-cadet schoolboys.

When the service concluded and the cadets marched off, a chubby boy in a faded Akubra turned to his mother and asked if they could get McDonald’s for lunch. She nodded and, upon catching Verity’s gaze, told him to ‘shush’. The boy clutched his fist and whispered, ‘yes’, extending the ‘slike a snake’s hiss.

Following the ceremony, Verity declined Heidi’s request to join her for ANZAC Day lunch. Instead, she drove home and, after a shower to wash off the sweat, returned to her research. Doubt, however, disrupted. Elusive grief for her father felt petty in contrast to her study of raped Aboriginal girls, burnt children, and servants forced to be soldiers whose throats were eventually slit. Verity tried to remain objective and persist, but the kaleidoscope of unknown horror shattered the stability of her plan and state. She worked well past her usual bedtime, fueled by coffee and anxiety, reading and rereading the opening sentence of the second chapter of her draft thesis: The legality of killing Aborigines was unclear to colonists. Her voice felt imprecise, her language and aspect deficient. She was drawing vague conclusions, illustrating only the borders of an enigmatic history. She took a chewed biro and fresh notebook, and with a strained wrist filled page after page with unbroken, imagined thoughts of a shot member of the Leetermairremener band whose death at Oyster Bay was alluded to in Hugh Hull’s memoirs:

…my slit ear waggles, the buzz of bees, barks and howls, pale-faced snarls, absorbent ground swelling beneath…

Verity believed this imaginative attempt, as fickle as it was, better grasped the slipperiness of this particular social history. She continued to write well into the night.

***

At the university’s end-of-year colloquium, Verity delivered a presentation on The Inadequacy of Collective Representation in Historical Studies. ‘The notion that we are simply in a time of redundant entities, of collective groups, of administrative numbers must be rejected. The individual experience must be treated not simply as worthy, but requisite.’

When Verity concluded her presentation, there was tepid applause. Professor McCombe’s hand shot up before the chair had even asked for questions. Today Professor McCombe wore a fuzzy jumper that matched her fluorescent-purple spectacles. ‘There are, presumably, hundreds who died in this genocide, or war as you have called it.’

‘It is estimated that there were over a thousand killed. Approximately two hundred colonists and well over eight hundred Tasmanians,’ said Verity. She faltered for a moment, feeling uneasy discussing such a sombre topic wearing only a T-shirt and jeans. ‘Some argue that the numbers were higher, others lower.’

‘In any case, even if you could hope to represent each individual narrative, why would you want to?’ asked Professor McCombe.

‘My initial intention was to take a two-sided approach, but that still felt like an oversimplification. This is a fundamental problem in representing Australian history: there is too much silence.’

Professor McCombe nodded. ‘And how does this theory impact on your research?’

‘This is my research,’ said Verity.

‘I assumed what you presented today was simply a theoretical possibility. This project – this impossible project – is not the one you proposed.’ Professor McCombe folded her arms.

Among the audience, Verity sensed multiple buttocks shuffle. ‘My project has changed.’

‘And your supervisor has agreed to this?’

***

When Professor Jørgensen returned from Universität Zürich, he addressed Professor McCombe’s concerns. ‘This is a creative project, not a historical one.’ This was not criticism. Professor Jørgensen was not opposed to novel methodological approaches provided they utilised appropriate theoretical frameworks. ‘It is an ambitious, interdisciplinary project.’ He scratched his blonde beard, causing a tiny flake of dead skin to fall to the ground. ‘I fear, however, that I am not equipped to supervise such a thesis. I can stay on as a co-supervisor only.’

Verity’s revised proposal required a departmental change and the sacrifice of her remaining scholarship. She was transferred to the supervisory hands of Dr Gabriella Righi, the university’s Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing. An author of four novels and a collection of essays, Dr Righi was best known for Caricatures, an experimental multi-voiced text that depicted the creation and resulting controversy of William Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith. Verity read it in preparation for their first meeting. She found Caricatures to be an imprecise novel. Its historical accuracy was convincing, yet it seemed to encourage the uncertainty of the characters’ motivations, which left Verity feeling cold and confused. She was not certain if this was a good thing or not.

When Verity entered her office, Dr Righi was wiping grime from her windows. ‘You have an extremely claustrophobic sense of perspective,’ said Dr Righi. She did not cease her cleaning or bother to say hello. Verity suspected she was contemptuous of small talk and made a note not to bring up personal matters. ‘You are too deep in your characters’ heads,’ continued Dr Righi. ‘Even if you are attempting a sort of Faulknerian “unbroken surfaced-confusion,” it should still add up to something.’ Dr Righi threw out the grimy tissue she had used to clean the window before picking up a printout of Verity’s work; her fingers left smudges on the paper. ‘It should also not be so repetitive. For example, four of these dying colonists’ voices are almost identical. Here you write …blood dripped, his voice croaked, eyelids squeezed… and then,’ Dr Righi flicked through Verity’s pages, ‘here you write …lids clutched, guttural utterances escaped, blood poured like cream’. She handed Verity back her reams, freshly chicken-pocked with red-pen corrections. ‘Your characters need to justify their existence and assert themselves as individuals. But before you come to that, you’re going to have to think about wider structure. You cannot, in this thesis or anywhere else, hope to represent every single person for the simple reason that you cannot know every single person. You’re lucky if you understand half a dozen. You’re lucky if you understand yourself. And this has been a constant problem throughout the history of fiction. In An Unwritten Novel, for example, Virginia Woolf sees passengers on the train and imagines what their life is like.’

Verity opened a notebook and jotted down ‘Unwritten Novel’.

‘When the narrator’s imagination is revealed to be completely wrong,’ Dr Righi continued, ‘she acknowledges the failure of the whole enterprise, yet finds consolation in her perseverance’. Dr Righi ran her fingers through her mould-grey curls. ‘I guess what I’m trying to say is, you’ve got your work cut out for you.’

Verity thanked Dr Righi and left, feeling as confused as she did when she had completed Caricatures.

She decided to read as much fiction as possible in order to find a structural alternative. Verity read the encyclopedic novels of the Oulipo group, the hypothetical fictions of Borges that depicted models of the infinite, and the network fictions of hypertext writers that offered webs of possibilities. She even watched the films of Eisenstein that depicted collective protagonists through carefully chosen images. All of these, however, practiced avoidance or disparity or both, and it was this avoidance and disparity that was the problem she was trying to resolve in the first place. Verity maintained it was not absurd to know a thousand people. A President, or Prime Minister, or even low-level celebrity easily met that many people in a year. A Facebook friend of hers had, supposedly, 2,307 ‘friends’.

The Launceston newspaper archives, however, were an insufficient resource. Research into the particularities of the various tribal, band, and human histories took her only so far. Much of Tasmania’s Indigenous culture and oral history left no trace, at least no trace Verity could hope to comprehend. There were just so many dead languages, dead histories, dead.

Her solution came from a collective of Dutch poets, Poule des doods, who wrote poems for those citizens who pass away without friends or family, which they then performed at empty funerals. Verity wrote three poems in this fashion, quickly, without self-censoring:

#1

No record is worthy of respect.
No age, gender, birth. Nationality?
What did you call it?
Did you call it? Did you identify with that beneath your feet?
You had feet. Of that I am certain.
I can picture only a single hair upon a single knuckle,
yet could fill whole continents with that which I do not know:
your eternal secret.

#2

DNA is traceable, you are not.
Your voice is not.
Your language is not.
So what?
Speak anyway.
Your last exhale, huff, sigh
floats on these winds.
I feel it on my neck.

#3

Red.
Egg.
White of eye.
Cryptic fossil.
A digit in an approximate number,
long-since dissolved by waters long-since evaporated.
Let me imagine your bygone palate.
Let me taste the juice of extinct fruits
on your opaque tongue.

***

‘Her work shows no improvement, and I fear she is not capable of producing a final product,’ said Dr Righi, incapable of sugarcoating. ‘We’re now over four and a half years into her candidature and what she’s produced is largely indecipherable. It’s attempting to be high modernist, but it’s simply disjointed and repetitive and, quite frankly, dull.’

‘I think a theoretical position on this wider potential project and the beginnings of the project itself would suffice,’ said Professor Jørgensen, smiling in an attempt to inject the meeting with reassurance.

‘We simply don’t have time,’ said Professor McCombe, who had been asked to chair the meeting to ensure a conclusion was reached. She perched at the head of the rectangular table, peering over her purple glasses. ‘All of us admire your ambitions, Verity. And we hope that you will go on and become successful. But, as an institution, we have put a lot of resources into you and we expect something out of it. I know it sounds crass, but that’s the reality.’

As Verity absorbed these criticisms, she steadied her breathing so as to prevent her face appearing too pink.

‘What we need, by the end of the week, is a clear schedule and plan for completion,’ said Professor McCombe. ‘Your project at the moment is simply too large. You need to set stricter borders.’

‘But setting borders is the problem I wish to resolve. That is the project,’ said Verity, trying to remove any sense of complaint or upset from her tone.

‘Then you need to amend your project,’ said Professor McCombe.

Verity wished to debate further, but Professor McCombe, Dr Righi, and Professor Jørgensen all had other commitments. Given recent cutbacks, they were all juggling far too many teaching, research, and administrative duties; their worlds were incapable of standing still for too long. This incapacity to devote time and consideration, Verity wished to point out, was a large part of the problem.

***

When she provided no alternative, Verity’s candidacy was, as warned, withdrawn.

She took up a position with Write Now!, a state-funded literacy program that helped unemployed adults and recent immigrants. This job was the complete opposite of the isolation of doctoral research. Every day, from nine to three, in room 1.07 of Community building C, she taught a class of ten: Haya, an elderly Syrian refugee who had lived in Australia for only a month; Faisal and Mohammad, two Pakistani brothers whose mother did not wish to send them to public school; Jean, a Frenchman who Verity suspected had recently divorced his Australian wife; Khadija, an elderly Afghan woman who could not identify Australia on a map; Laarni and Tala, two Filipino women who always stuck to themselves and chatted with ferocity; Jacob and Kai, two Australian dropouts who Verity wished had stuck out high school; and Tuan, a Vietnamese man who had lost his job as a bus driver due to poor pronunciation. Verity devoted multiple unpaid hours to tailoring materials that took into consideration the cultural differences of each individual student. The students, who were required to attend in order to receive Centrelink payments, however, showed little improvement or gratitude. Vocabulary and grammatical patterns were rarely retained for more than a day. Never once did Verity receive a thank you for her efforts.

Her class plans quickly became generic. Neither teacher nor student wished to spend longer than required in room 1.07. When class ended at 3 o’clock, books were slammed, seats were scraped, and sighs of exasperation were so harsh they raised the temperature of the room several degrees. Verity regarded her students with equal apathy, as simply a class of ten, as an administrative number.

Yet on the weekends she persisted with her incomplete thesis. She did not work with a view to publication, but simply pursued the personal satisfaction of finishing what she had started. There was no hurry. History was going nowhere.

***

Seven years since beginning her thesis, Verity had completed 183 dying thoughts and 896 poems. She printed all 6,418 pages. Printing services charged $419. The pile was nearly half as tall as she: twice as long as Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, though shorter than the alleged length of Artamène.

After learning that Verity had finally completed her thesis, Aunt Heidi invited her to the dinner party of a friend who worked with Au.Ink, an independent publishing house. Margaret, an editor who claimed to have predilections for experimental fiction, appeared curious. ‘From what Heidi has told me, this sounds like a very important work.’ Margaret had short red hair and reminded Verity of a matchstick. As soon as Verity revealed that her thesis was over six thousand pages, however, Margaret’s enthusiasm shriveled. She maintained a smile, but her glances moved elsewhere, seeking out alternate conversational possibilities. When she told Verity, ‘Well, good luck with everything,’ there was a shimmer of sarcastic pity in her voice.

***

Verity bought the domain name www.theblackwar.com.au and uploaded her entire work. She tried to advertise it on link-sharing websites and social media, but as months went by the number of visitors never exceeded one hundred. To what extent those visitors engaged with her work, Verity did not know, but she was quite certain no one had come close to reading it in its entirety.

One Friday evening, after declining yet another of Aunt Heidi’s dinner invitations where she would no doubt insist Verity try the latest on-line dating service, Verity opted to reread the whole thing in one go. She absorbed it quickly, fueled by mugs of instant coffee. When focus fluttered, she took a powernap, and then as soon as she woke resumed reading. Its size was overwhelming. It had no temporal sense and much of her poetry, Verity conceded, was quite poor. Yet there were moments when, in a dreary state, the dying voices seemed to meld together. Amongst this paralytic, throbbing discord, hints of a vague harmony produced a fleeting, ancient ache.

As sunlight spilled through her window, she finished the final page, which she placed atop the pile. It teetered over; thousands of pages scattered across the floor. Verity did not pick them up. Instead, she showered, ate muesli, drank a triple-scooped cup of instant coffee, stepped over the manuscript, and left for work.

That morning the train station, despite crowds, felt uncongested. Verity caught glimpses of so many strange individuals. She buzzed from her binge reading. It was as though her empathetic muscles had been toned. As she boarded the train, she felt breath on her neck. Without turning, Verity imagined this unseen person. She had no idea who or what she or he was. They were probably so unlike the hundreds she had attempted to represent in her manuscript. Verity closed her eyes and listened to the pulsing multitude of ambiguities.

‘Why on earth are you crying?’ asked the woman behind her.

 

____________________________________________________________

David Thomas Henry Wright has been published in Southerly and Seizure. He was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards’ inaugural Digital Literature Award, the T.A.G. Hungerford Award, the Viva La Novella Award, and the Overland VU Short Story Prize. He has a Masters from The University of Edinburgh and has lectured at China’s top university, Tsinghua, where he developed courses in Creative Writing and Australian Literature. He co-edited Westerly: New Creative, and is currently a PhD candidate at Murdoch. On occasion, he writes reviews for ABR and Verity La. For more visit David’s website.

One Who Stays at Home
(Rijn Collins)

Posted on October 6, 2017 by in TWT (Travel Write Translation)

The Spanish photographer only lasted three days.

His hands shook as he loaded up the rental car. We all came out to watch him leave, not quite believing he was serious. I pulled my red riding hood tight around my face, snowflakes clinging to my eyelashes.

His breath clouded in front of his face when he spoke.

‘It’s just so cold here. And so isolated! How can you stand it?’

I looked at the other artists. Cilla was stamping her feet to keep warm, heavy army boots crushing the snow. Oranje raised an eyebrow under her knitted cap. There was really only one way to answer his question.

‘It’s Iceland, honey,’ I told him. ‘What did you expect?’

We watched his tiny hatchback skitter off, ridiculously inappropriate for the seven hour drive along the coast back to Reykjavik. The weather, unpredictable at best, had welcomed November with snowdrifts so huge I’d stepped into one, and immediately sunk straight up to my waist. As I wrote in my studio I often found myself gazing out the window at the avalanche barriers high up on the mountain peak, holding back blankets of pure white.

The cold made it difficult to inhale properly. The snow flung itself horizontally into my face, my frozen fingers too numb to work a camera. On my daily walks the wind whipped along the fjord with such ferocity I almost felt my ribcage rattle.

It was everything I’d hoped for.

I’d researched several artists’ residencies in Iceland, but knew immediately this was the one for me. With the theme of isolation constant in my writing, I wanted the most remote place I could find. Ólafsfjörður was a tiny fishing village in the far north, up near the Arctic Circle.

From the minute the bus dropped me off near the one shop in town, I knew I’d made the right choice.

I didn’t want to be tempted by gigs, or friends, or the call of drinks down the pub. I wanted to write. This worked out perfectly, for in Ólafsfjörður what few distractions there would have been – the café, the restaurant – were already closed for winter. I had a post office where I’d practise my few words of Icelandic as I sent postcards home, and a tiny supermarket where the fruit and vegies, always imported, came sporadically and often with the bruises that heralded a long journey. Few things grew in Iceland, and what little that did was not near our village. After a month of frozen cod and potato whip from a packet, I still remember my glee when I spotted a shrivelled avocado. It cost thirteen dollars and tasted like sawdust, but my need for something green was intense. I ate it all, then gnawed the skin clean.

The residency house had four bedrooms and four studios. I shared it with artists from Sweden, Singapore and Indonesia. We came together when the coffee was bubbling or the mail arrived, but mostly we kept to ourselves. An unspoken agreement hovered between us not to intrude, but to allow each other the anonymity and isolation that had beckoned us here in the first place.

Occasionally I heard Etza’s guitar notes through our adjoining walls as I wrote. Once I bumped into Cilla leaving her studio. She was holding her hands out in front of her, smeared with a pale paste. ‘Papier maché’, she murmured, her gaze not quite meeting mine. I nodded shyly, feeling as though I’d caught her in some intimate act not meant for my eyes. I closed my studio door and listened. Not until I heard her footsteps fade away did I sit at my desk, and pick up a pen.

Isolation found its way into my stories frequently. Separation from others, both geographically and psychologically, had been a fascination for me ever since the two years in my early twenties when I became agoraphobic, locked within the walls of my inner Melbourne share house. I managed to step back into the world, but the characters in my stories still struggled for intimacy, and more often, against it.

This tiny village in the far north of such an inhospitable country, where volcanoes rent the earth and ice kept your door bound shut, was exactly what I needed.

The smell of the fish factory, nauseating to me when I first arrived, stopped bothering me after three weeks. I would stroll each day past fish bones being plucked clean by seagulls, to the ship wreck in the shallow waters of the fjord. I never quite learned the art of walking on ice. My boots always slid. I had a favourite horse among the herd on the hill; he had one odd blue eye below a snow dusted mane, and would churn up the wet earth with his hooves as he cantered towards me. No matter where I went, the cold was my constant companion, my breath ragged and toes numb.

I wrote every day. I worked on commissioned pieces, story submissions, diary entries and letters that tried to describe the sheer impact of the landscape, and the myriad shades of white outside my window. The novel I’d intended to focus on while up there kept getting taken out, read over, and tucked away again. It just wouldn’t come, though I couldn’t pinpoint why. When I needed to cough up the story bones I would wrap my coat around me and walk, little red riding hood hunting through the snow.

The village was on the mouth of the fjord Eyjafjörður, accessed by a one lane tunnel cut through the rock. It was surrounded by mountains that were caked in snow for my entire residency. Each one of my visits to Iceland had been carefully chosen so as to avoid the lush greenery of its summer: I wanted the cold, and the darkness. I felt strong and sure as I walked each afternoon, waiting for the sun to peek its head above the mountain tops for the few hours a day it succeeded. There was a regenerative power in the Arctic light reflecting off the snow, and I breathed it in. The first night the aurora borealis flickered above my rooftop I knew I wouldn’t be able to find the words to describe it, no matter how many months I tried.

But then, I didn’t speak much. I didn’t feel the need. Takk takk meant thanks, and the beautiful bless meant goodbye, thrown over my red woollen shoulder as I took home another armful of mottled mandarins and the curdled yoghurt they called skyr. I grew addicted to the latter, reciting the names of berries in Icelandic as I dropped them, frozen, into the bowl. Bláber, brómber, hindberjum. Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries. Although I’d studied the language at university as part of my linguistic degree, it remained just out of reach in my month up north. My accent marked me out as Other, just as much as my wild red hair and the leopard print earmuffs that were clamped over my head every time I opened the front door.

So I walked, wrote and ate berries. I slept deeply; I spoke little. I thrived. All that white was soothing and sacred, until finally I realised that the reason I couldn’t work on my novel was that its centre was in the wrong place. It wasn’t in Iceland.

This knowledge was packed into my suitcase at the end of my month up north. It accompanied me back to Reykjavik, where the clash and clang of the city, tiny though it is, jarred me at first. I wandered the streets, taking photos of the beautiful primary coloured buildings, the comical puffin souvenirs and the sky that almost always shone blue, even when the sub-zero cold made my breath cloud in front of my face. I took notes in my rented attic apartment, drinking the toxic Icelandic spirit Brennivín, ‘burning wine’, and watching through the skylights for the aurora borealis.

On my return home to Australia, I knew what I needed to do. I started to rewrite the first draft of my novel to set it squarely up north, back in the land I love most.

When I work on it now, my cheeks remember the cold sting of the wind, and the creaking of ropes mooring boats to the harbour wall. I write of the prices so insanely high a single lunch could blow a day’s budget, and the stench of the hot tap water, bursting from sulphuric underground springs as though from hell itself. And it makes me so homesick for the north I cannot stand it.

I have a pack of fortune telling cards I bought at the Kolaportið flea market in Reykjavik. They are thick ivory cards embellished with bold black illustrations and font, spouting guidance in the language I love diving into. They sit on my antique station master’s desk, alongside dolphin bones and Viking sagas; all mementoes of my time in the Land of Ice and Fire.

I cradle the cards in my hands. I’m headed back to Iceland next month, ready to research the ending of my novel and even more ready to taste skyr and call out ‘bless’ to strangers. I think of the Icelandic word heimsku, ‘foolish,’ with its literal meaning of ‘one who stays at home’. And I draw a card, wondering if I’m ready to return, and whether Iceland’s hooks will dig a little deeper into me, and be even more painful to pull out.

Though I never have before, I ask the cards a question. I rest my hand on the back of one, and murmur ‘Am I ready to go back to Iceland?’ I turn it over.

Ja, núna strax, it says.

I run a finger down the font.

Yes, it tells me. Yes, right now.

 

‘Tunnel’ is a collaboration between South Korean visual artist Eom Yu Jeong and Australian sound artist Kate Carr. It offers another creative perspective inspired by the same artist residency Rijn attended in Ólafsfjörður, Iceland.

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Image credit: Michael Alesich


Rijn Collins
is an award winning Australian writer with over 100 short stories published in anthologies and journals, performed at literary festivals, and broadcast on Australian and American radio. She is a freelance writer for ABC Radio National, and won the inaugural Sarah Awards for Audio Fiction in New York in 2016. More of her work can be found on her website.

 

 

 

 

From the Corner of My Eye
(Jillian Butler)

Posted on September 15, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

If singles’ bars are hell, then lesbian bars are the deepest fucking circle. I was a newbie, a baby Dyke, fresh meat and everyone in the place knew it. In this bar, the other lesbians knew your stats: how long you had been out, your age, and your ‘label’ (Butch, Baby Dyke, Dyke, Femme, Soft-Butch, Grrl, etc.) and that is scary. The ‘community’ is small, so everyone knows everyone, but I’ve only been in Boston for three years.

I’ve got a small advantage: nobody knows me.

Women were hovering by the bar. A girl with leather pants and a see-through shirt seemed to be holding court amongst the chattering ladies. It was loud, so I wasn’t quite sure how anybody heard anything. I stood near the door praying Lauren would show up soon. I’ve been to a few lesbian bars, but never by myself.

A cute, pixie-like girl smiled at me as she came through the door. I stared, pushed my hair behind my ears, and totally forgot to smile back. God. I had no idea how to flirt or respond to someone flirting with me. Was she flirting or just being nice? No idea.

I could hear Ani DiFranco blasting from the speaker behind my head. The women were singing along, laughing. I still stood there, staring.

‘Charlie! Charlie!’

Thank God.

‘Lauren! Hey!’

‘Sorry, my meeting with Professor Lyons took forever. Did you order yet?’

‘Not yet. I just got here. Let’s go sit.’

I took off my coat and smoothed out my striped boy’s polo. Baby Dyke. I’ve accepted the moniker. In fact, I embrace it, now.

Lauren was my first ‘gay’ friend. We tried dating, but dating someone you see for (roughly) 10 hours a day becomes a bit tedious. We both played for the women’s soccer team at Boston College and were history majors. So, we decided that ‘best friends’ and, eventually, roommates were better-suited labels for what we were.

‘What was your meeting about?’

The bartender walked over to where we sat nestled in the corner, hovering over the brass and mahogany bar. She looked us up and down.

‘Can I get you ladies something to drink?’

Lauren put her coat on the back of her stool, revealing a tight, white tank top under her ‘BC Soccer’ pullover. I think I heard the bartender’s jaw hit the floor. In fact, I am pretty sure everyone was now staring at us. Well, at Lauren. She had straightened her hair and mindfully applied a layer of shimmery lip-gloss, so she welcomed the attention.

I spoke up, ‘Um yeah, I’ll have a Bud Light. Lau?’

‘I’ll have a tequila shot and a Corona with lime.’

The bartender smiled and walked away.

‘Jesus, shots already? Bad day?’

‘Not bad, fucking long. Professor Lyons would not stop talking. He wants me to consider going on at BC for my masters in English. Blah. Blah. Blah. I told him I have a year and a half left. Let me get through that first.’

Awkwardly, I turned on my stool to find a woman standing behind me, somewhat staring. Lauren turned her head, trying not to laugh in the girl’s face.

‘Oh, do you need to order something? I’m sorry.’

‘Yes I do, but do you go to BC?’

It always scares the shit out of me when somebody I don’t know knows me.

‘Yeah. Why? Do you?’

‘Charlotte? Right?’

I grabbed the bottle of beer in front of me and started drinking.

‘Yeah. Do I know you?’ I yelled as I squirmed on the stool.

‘Oh sorry! I don’t mean to be creepy or freak you out,’ she laughed. ‘I.T.A., your American lit class. I’m Cara.’

From the corner of my eye, I could see Lauren making faces. It was our unwritten rule to not leave a bar or club with anyone we did not arrive with. Since neither of us has family close by, we became each other’s family.

‘Hi, Cara. I’m Charlie, but you already knew that.’

‘Ha ha, yeah. Can I buy you a drink?’

Cara seemed nice enough, but I wasn’t into it, and she completely ignored Lauren who was sitting right beside me.

‘Thank you. That’s really sweet, but my friend, Lauren, sitting beside you, just bought me a drink. Thanks though.’

Cara turned to look at Lauren and smiled, ‘OK maybe another time? See you on Thursday… you know, in class.’

‘Sure, Bye.’

Cara headed back into the lesbian abyss.

‘Jesus. She stood right in front of me. Haha! Do you draw rainbows on your papers or something?’

‘No, but that creeps me out. How did she know I was gay?’

‘Are you seriously asking me that question right now? I’m pretty sure you wear men’s sweatpants, sweatshirts and sneakers all day every day. You look gay.’

‘Really? I guess I never thought about it. But, you wear the same thing!’

‘No shit. Have you talked to your parents yet?’

‘No.’

I motioned to the bartender.

‘What are you waiting for?’

The bartender made her way down to our end.

‘Two beers?’

‘Yeah and two more tequila and lime shots, please.’

She brought the drinks over. I took both shots.

‘Jesus, Charlie. Are you trying to spend your night on the bathroom floor?’

‘I can’t think when I talk about this. It scares the shit out of me. They’re going to stop talking to me. So, I’m trying to drag it out until graduation. At least school will be done.’

I swallowed back the panic lodged in my throat and took a sip of the piss warm Bud Light.

‘You don’t know that. You’re their kid.’

‘My parents…There is a reason they visit once year. I don’t even know how to describe it. They just don’t care. I’m an only child on purpose.’

Lauren put her hand on mine. I could tell she was trying, but just couldn’t understand. Her parents were supportive. I often pretended that my parents knew: that they did not care that I was gay. It was easier than thinking about what their true reactions were going to be. How could I wrap my mind around something so scary? I had to tell them. I knew that. They’re my parents: the only family I have, but I knew that wouldn’t be the case after the conversation.

The bartender came over with two more shots. ‘You ladies look like you need these.’

We pushed them down.

‘Gross. What was that?’ Lauren yelled, lowering her mouth in disgust.

The bartender laughed, ‘Something that will help you forget, well, at least for tonight.’ She smiled at me and walked away.

I liked her.

A few shots and beers later: life was light and the room was a little hazy. I remember dancing on a barstool to a Joan Jett song. I was drunk. It was getting close to last call. So naturally, we ordered two more shots.

‘Hey. Hey! We gotta go soon or we’ll never get a cab,’ Lauren yelled over at me.

I found myself wrapped up in a conversation with an older woman. Rachel? No. Ann? Anyway, she did something important. Lauren maneuvered through a sea of women, over to where the woman and I were standing.

‘Charlie! We have to go now.’

‘Hi, Lauren.’

‘Yeah, sorry to spoil the fun, but we have to go now.’

The older woman grabbed Lauren’s arm. ‘Charlie’s coming home with me. She’ll be fine. I live over on Boylston.’

‘I’m sure you’re great and all, but she’s shattered, so she’s just going to go home.’

The woman got a little possessive and stood in front of me. I saw Lauren’s face go sour. She was a little tipsy, tired and annoyed. I walked away.

‘Charlie, hey Charlie,’ the woman called after me.

My brain was trying to tell my mouth to say something, but neither wanted to cooperate, so I just kept walking. Lauren must have gone over to the bar to grab our stuff, because I could no longer see her in my line of vision.

Shit.

Somewhere between the exit and the sidewalk my balance collapsed, hurling me onto the cold, sticky sidewalk. My jeans were now covered in someone’s spilled beer. My knuckles were bleeding from a sad attempt at breaking my fall.

‘Hey, are you OK?’

I felt someone lifting me up. She kept talking, as she brought me over to the curb and sat me down.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘What? No you’re fine. We’ve all had nights like this.’

‘No. You’re pretty, and I’m drunk. My parents are going to disown me, sorry.’

Words just kept spewing from my mouth, and she sat there and listened. Spools of dark chocolate waves pooled around her face, giving way to iridescent blue eyes. I did not want to look away. In fact, I’m sure I didn’t. When she broke into a smile, even though it was one of pity, I felt like somebody had electrocuted my body. She could see right through me.

‘Jesus. What happened to you?’ Lauren ran over yelling.

‘I fell, so I’m sitting. Oh, this is…’

‘Hi. I’m Audrey. Your friend fell. I just moved her from the foot traffic.’

‘Thanks. I’m Lauren and this mess here is Charlie,’ Lauren said as she attempted to put my coat on me.

I tried to stand, but failed. Audrey grabbed my arm. I wanted to touch her tiny, pale hand.

‘Audrey, do you want to hang out?’

She giggled, ‘Well, it’s late. So, I’m gonna head home, but I’ll write down my number. Maybe another time?’

She took a pen out of her messenger bag, ripped the first page from some book and wrote down her number. As she placed the folded piece of paper in my jeans pocket, I (sloppily) fell on her and kissed her right on the mouth.

‘I’m pretty sure I love you.’

Lauren rushed over and grabbed me, apologising for my drunkenness. I could see Audrey blushing and smiling. I tried to push my hair from my face, so I could see her, but I just kept making it worse. I couldn’t let her leave, but Lauren’s strong hold prohibited any further movement. I waved bye.

She put her hands in her pockets and walked away

Lauren smacked me on the head. ‘I love you? God, you’re drunk.’

***

Fuck. My mouth was dry, and my head was throbbing. I still had the shirt from last night on, with only my underwear and one sock. My face was stuck to the leather sofa and bathed in drool that had pooled at my chin.

‘Good morning, Sunshine. You want coffee?’ Lauren sang at an octave I was currently unable to handle.

‘Oh my god. No. I need a bucket, though. I feel like I’m gonna puke.’

The more I moved my head, the more the room kept spinning. I had to put one leg off of the couch to keep balance.

Lauren laughed at me. ‘I’m not surprised. You were taking down shots like they were water. It was gross.’

‘Please tell me that I wasn’t an asshole or did anything stupid.’

She didn’t answer.

‘That bad? ‘

‘I’m just gonna tell that you that, at the very least, you owe me dinner. I did save you from some woman that looked like she was ready to take you home and put you in a cage, and you were all for it.’

‘Jesus. Thank you.’

‘Oh. You kissed some girl and told her that you loved her.’

I jerked my head from the couch so fast that I gagged. ‘What? Who?’

‘I don’t know. Audrey, I think? She gave you her number. She seemed nice enough.’

I tried sitting up, but forgot my leg was hanging off of the couch. Instead, I fell and whacked my face on the table, spilling the full glass of water everywhere. I laid back down. Lauren grabbed paper towels from the counter and threw them at me.

‘Relax. You were too drunk to be an asshole. You fell or something. She helped you. I found you with her sitting on the curb.’

‘I was that messy, and she still gave me her number. And you didn’t recognize her?’

‘No. I’ve never seen her. You should at least call to apologise.’

I grabbed my jeans (that were now covered in water) from the floor and searched through the pockets. I was giddy. I didn’t remember a lot from last night, but I did remember her. There it was, on the page of some book: 617-222-1003, and below there was a little note: Hi. I’m Audrey. Call me sometime. She must be either crazy or a glutton for punishment: either way I resolved to call her.

‘What time is it?’

‘It’s 11:14. Are you going to call her?’

‘Yeah. Now I’m curious. Is she crazy? Why would she give me her number?’

‘I don’t know.’

The cordless phone was dead, so I had to sit in the living room and call from that phone. Lauren sat and stared at me as I dialled.

‘Hello? Is Audrey there? It’s…’

‘Charlie. Hi. I recognised the voice,’ she laughed.

‘Oh, yeah sorry. I, I just wanted to apologise for, well, being so drunk. Lauren said I may have kissed you? I’m sorry. God… that’s not really like me.’

‘It’s ok, really. We’ve all had those kind of nights’

‘Thanks. I just wanted to call to apologise…’

‘That’s it?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, do you want to try it again?’

‘Try what again?’

‘You’re killing me,’ she laughed. ‘Meeting. Would you like to try meeting again? I mean…you do love me. So, I think we should re-meet.’

‘If I remembered that, I’d probably be a lot more embarrassed and politely decline. But, clearly, I was a mess, so yes. Yes, I’ll re-meet you.’

‘Good. How about Lucy Café? It’s on—’

‘I know that place! It’s about five minutes away from me.’

We arranged to meet later and I offered to buy dinner to make up for my debauchery the night before. She didn’t say no. When I hung up, Lauren grilled me for details.

‘You heard the whole conversation.’

‘But you’re smiling. What do you think?’

‘I don’t know. It’s weird. It’s like I know her. It feels like it isn’t new…it’s so weird.’

I told Lauren I needed to eat and sleep, since I was meeting Audrey at seven. I didn’t want to be sick or hungover.

My bed welcomed me, but my brain was going a hundred miles an hour. I was twenty two years old and had not had any type of substantial, adult relationship. With Lauren it was less of a relationship and more of two young girls figuring out if they were truly not-straight, and it didn’t end badly because it never had a beginning; it just happened and then changed. I was happy things had unfolded the way they did: Lauren was my rock, my family.

I had never even met this girl, and I was already thinking about our relationship? Maybe this is what a soul mate was? Or love at first sight? I don’t know.

Calm the fuck down, Charlie.

I needed to just slow down, so I ate half of a bag of Doritos while I watched some ridiculous infomercial on TV.

At 5:30 my alarm went off, so I opened my eyes. Fifteen minutes later Lauren came in and threw a pillow at me.

‘Shut it off. Get up!’

‘I’m up…What are you doing? Did you even leave the house today?’

‘I may not have drank half of the tequila in Boston last night, but I had enough to make me feel like shit today. And no, asshole, I didn’t go out of the house, but I did watch, like, three movies. I feel like a zombie.’

‘What should I wear? Do I need to dress up?’

‘I mean it’s not a five-star place, so probably not anything too dressy.’ She started fanning through my closet. ‘What about this? You can’t go wrong with a little black dress.’

‘A dress? Yuck. I hate eating with a dress on. I smell. I need to shower.’

‘Yeah, you do. Wear black converse with it. You’ll look cute. God. Open a window or something. It smells like a brewery in here. Gross.’

I crawled out of the bed, opened the window and shuffled into the shower. I mustered up the energy to get dressed while Lauren made me coffee.

‘You look nice. Don’t be too awkward.’

I grabbed my bag and left.

The street was bright and moving fast. People were swirling past me.

Get your shit together.

The cold air was breathing life back in my body. When I saw the sign for the restaurant, I stopped, pushed my hair behind my ears and fixed my dress. My legs looked like long, white sticks. I doubted my choice in dinner attire, but it was too late to change.

She was already sitting when I got there, but stood when she saw me. Her smile drew me in. The waiter took me to the table.

She smiled, again. ‘Hi, I’m Audrey. Nice to meet you.’

‘Hi, Audrey. I’m Charlie.’

She was beautiful. Her hair was perfectly messy, and her olive skin radiated under the form-fitting white v-neck shirt. The waiter made his way over to the table, breaking me from my obvious staring problem. He approached Audrey.

‘Good evening, ma’am. Welcome to Lucy Café. Is this your first time dining with us?’

‘Oh, no. I’ve been here before.’

‘Great, can I start you with a beverage?’

I stared at the menu. I was unsure of the country the food we would be eating was from. Nothing was recognisable, so I just sat there.

‘Is there anything you recommend?’ Audrey inquired.

‘Well, if you like a sweet wine, I recommend the tej. It’s an Ethiopian honey wine. Or, if you like beer, there’s tella. It’s a beer made from cereal grains. We also have domestic bottled beer, house red and white wine, and soda.’

‘Charlie? What would you like?’

The waiter kept his back to me.

‘I’m just going to have water, for now.’

Audrey giggled, ‘I’ll try the tej, along with a water. Thank you.’

I wanted to ask her about everything: her family, her life, but words were not forming in my mind fast enough. I watched her move the plate and napkin to the side, so she could rest on her elbow.

‘Hi.’ That was all I had.

‘Hi. How are you feeling?’

‘I’m good. I mean, I feel ok. This morning was rough, but I’m good now.’

‘Good.’

The waiter came back with a tray full of beverages. He served me, then Audrey.

‘Did you decide on your meal, yet?’ He nestled close and leaned into her with a menu. It was weird. He pointed out the food he liked and stared at her, waiting for a response. She looked over at me.

‘Oh, hi. I’m ordering too. There are two of us here, eating.’

He stood up. ‘Right. Do you know what you’d like?’

‘Yes, I’ll have the bayon-ee-too?’

Bayenetu, and you ma’am? Have you decided?’

‘I’ll have the same.’

The waiter took my menu and stood near Audrey. ‘I have to tell you, your eyes are beautiful.’

Audrey squirmed in her chair, ‘Um, thanks.’

I wasn’t sure if I should tell the guy to leave her alone or let it go. Either way, Audrey looked uncomfortable.

‘Should I go knock him around? Let him know you’re here with me. I’m not sure he’ll care, but hey, I made an ass of myself last night. I could be on a roll. But wait, this is a serious question: what did I order and why are people eating with their hands?’

Audrey laughed so hard that whatever she was drinking spilled out from the side of her mouth. She stood up and leaned over the table, motioning for me to come closer.

‘My turn,’ she whispered as she kissed me.

I kissed her back.

I didn’t care, for once, about people watching.

We both sat back down. I looked over to the waiter’s station. The waiter looked pissed off or disgusted, and I saw him mouth the word, Dykes, to the guy next to him.

Audrey saw too. She grabbed my hand from under the table, ‘You wanna get out of here?’

I nodded and threw $40 on the table.

We put our coats on, grabbed our bags and each other’s hands, and walked out.

 

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Jillian (Jill) Butler recently graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Boston with a Master’s degree in English (Creative Writing and Education). She currently teaches high school English. In her ‘spare’ time Jill is a freelance editor and is also the founding editor of Provocateur, an LGBTQ+ literary magazine. As of this summer, three of her short stories will have been published in various anthologies and literary magazines/journals. When she is not editing, writing or teaching, Jill can be found hanging out with her wife and almost three-year-old daughter in Burlington, MA.

Tide (Jo Langdon)

Posted on September 8, 2017 by in Heightened Talk

‘I just want to remember / in full, ugly color’ — Emily O’Neill

How it felt held under
the pier then released
like trash;

the words that came
after — ‘at least
he’s getting some.’

Joked away
on the long, quiet street —

Here’s a cork of anger
rising up — flotsam

to go no further than pebbles
glinting; the night
stretching out, out.

The waves came barely, barely:
there & gone & gone

 

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Jo Langdon is the author of a chapbook of poetry, Snowline (2012), which was co-winner of the 2011 Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize. Her second collection, Glass Life, is forthcoming with Five Islands Press. Jo teaches literary studies and creative writing as a casual academic, and is the creative non-fiction editor for Mascara Literary Review. She currently lives in Geelong, Victoria.