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.

____________________________________________________________

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.

 

______________________________________________________________

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

 

____________________________________________________________

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.

To and From Hadamar
(Ben Hession)

Posted on August 31, 2017 by in Heightened Talk


It was nothing special, really, an overcast bus
making a non-descript journey: a sort of euphemistic ride —
the white-coated driver, the passengers chattering
about simple things, but in a way that caused examiners

to give cold stares or shake their heads, and recommend
this humane transfer to where there had been a party,
the night before, celebrating the 10,000th successful treatment:
in a sizeable heap lie empty bottles, piled against the bewilderingly

high walls. Soon, this new lot alights, meet more people in white
coats (who, to each other): “Are you still drunk?” “May I remind
you that this is important work.” “Come here, take a look at this one.”
“I don’t believe it, gold fillings! A family treasure! What a waste!”

Loosened bunting chases dead leaves across the gravel yard
as each traveller enters a large, sun-lit room. Then the door
closes, tightly. Their final destination piped in on thunder
from a truck engine, thickening clouds on weakening breaths.

Every passenger returns home — a name stuffed with random ashes,
an identical crematory urn filled from darkened skies.

 

____________________________________________________________

Ben Hession is a Wollongong based writer. His poetry has been published by Eureka Street, International Chinese Language Forum, Cordite Poetry ReviewVerity La, Mascara Literary Review and Bluepepper, as well as the Live Poets anthology Can I Tell You A Secret? Ben’s poem, ‘A Song of Numbers’,  was shortlisted for the 2013 Australian Poetry Science Poetry award. Ben is also a music journalist and is involved with community broadcasting.

 

Don’t Talk About the ’Dont Walk’ Sign (Alexandra O’Sullivan)

Posted on August 25, 2017 by in Discoursing Diaspora

Imagine you live in a world where female is the default gender. Where women own 95% of big business, media companies, and government positions. You study herstory at school, written by women, with female central figures. Herstory has very few male achievements. When you read bedtime stories to your children about non-gender specific animals you say ‘she’ automatically. Female sport is said to be the only sport worth watching, and therefore gets nearly all the media coverage. You agree that it’s ‘just more exciting’.

Your role as a man is encouraged to be passive, nurturing, secondary to the female role. You must be sexy to please women, but not so sexy that your woman feels like she can’t keep you all for herself. It’s a difficult balancing act but you try your best. You start to view yourself through the ‘female gaze’ and agonise over your thighs and the size of your pecs. You starve yourself skinny and use painful methods to keep all the hair off your body, because you know that’s what women like. You apologise all the time. You apologise for apologising all the time.

When you got married it was assumed you would take your wife’s name. You happily surrendered that piece of your identity, because you know it’s the matriarchal line that matters. Everyone else in your family has done the same, after all. Every romantic movie you watch reminds you that you are obsessed with getting married and that it benefits you way more than your wife, who must continue her career to support you, while you get to stay home and raise the children and scrub the toilet.

You love your children, but you feel a nagging dissatisfaction. Sometimes you feel like you are merely an extension of your family. That you aren’t seen. So, you start reading and researching meninism. You find other men who feel the same way. You join groups. You organise protests about things that affect you like the wage gap and rape culture. You start writing articles about these things and about your loss of identity, your sense that the balance is off somehow. Many men react to these articles positively, some men don’t. And many, many women don’t. But nevertheless, you persist.

You learn about gendered violence and rape. You become enraged that it continues at the rate that it does, and that perpetrators are seldom held to account. You are shocked that victims are often blamed, and you wonder how the world you live in could twist reality to such an extent. When you question this, you get abused online and in your home, but nevertheless, you persist.

Because you know that slowly things are improving. The group you have joined once fought and died for male suffrage rights, and you feel connected to something bigger than yourself, yet at the same time, more yourself than ever before. You no longer starve yourself, or spread hot wax on your pubic hair and rip it out every month. Your wife calls you disgusting but you no longer care. You wonder why you put yourself through that pain for so long. It causes a rift in your marriage and you realise that she never let you be yourself. You realise many things about your relationship. You divorce her, but she won’t accept it and her stalking and violence makes you so scared you take out an intervention order. It does not stop her. No one recognises your fear because you never said anything about it before and she never hit you. So, you stop mentioning it.

Then, as a small act of acknowledgment at your gender’s historical place as the ‘other,’ your council decides to change some of the street crossing signs from a female figure to a male one. You have always said to your children, ‘Wait for the green woman Billy,’ or ‘Stop Sarah, it’s the red woman,’ without even thinking about the pronoun you were using or how it was imprinting in their developing minds. You know this is a small gesture, but you also know from previous battles won that small changes add up to big ones. You feel momentarily happy. You feel seen. You celebrate.

And the world goes ape-shit.

It shouts at you. HOW RIDICULOUS! YOUR’E LUCKY IF THIS IS ALL YOU HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT! SOME MEN IN OTHER COUNTRIES HAVE REAL PROBLEMS! YOU ARE DEMEANING REAL SUFFERING! SHUT UP! And the shouting doesn’t stop.

And you think, Yeah, maybe I was being a bit whiney. After all, how can unconscious bias be a thing when everyone is saying it doesn’t affect them? You feel confused and sad. You are told not to feel confused and sad, but to feel lucky. You try to feel lucky. You think, I should care more about men in other countries who really have it tough. I’m lucky to live in Australia where I can walk along freely down the street (as long as it’s daylight and I walk fast and don’t make eye contact and if it is night time I hold my keys between my fist and if I do get raped it’s my fault for walking alone at night and my rapist will probably not get sentenced anyway). I’m lucky to live in a country where I have all the same legal rights as women (except that I live in constant fear that my ex will make me a statistic and the courts and police are doing nothing to protect me, but if she does kill me no doubt she’ll be described in the paper as a really top chick who cared about her family).

You feel ashamed for ever caring at all about street crossings. You think, I just need to keep reminding myself how lucky I am. And you remind yourself again so that you won’t forget. I’m really lucky, you think, so I should just shut up.

 

____________________________________________________________

Alexandra O’Sullivan writes articles for The Radical Notion, along with writing fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in several literary journals, including Tincture and Meanjin. She recently received a Highly Commended in the inaugural Horne Prize for creative nonfiction.

Tom’s Lagoon (Louis Armand)

Posted on August 18, 2017 by in Heightened Talk


1.
Teeth in a jar, corks screwed to
arthritic fists. A ten-mile stretch
of frozen sky reflected in it.
They stoop there, anchored,
boy & old man pocketing scrap
from the condemned lot.
It’s not what was promised, but there’s a pattern in it:
an interior surface
gazetting the solemn
high reverence
of the late lamented.
Putting on the glad rags,
the wowsers fluff their wings on the power lines,
eyes out for a chance at a dog’s dinner.
The beseeched world
extends a charitable view –
things construed as y’d construe a missing link,
a tribe of unhinged dressing table mirrors.
They’re standing now
at the lopsided front door.
One breath
& the whole
thing’ll collapse.

2.
Well they set up shop there ’cause all around was swamp-
infested, making a campfire of their one lifeboat
& kept watch from under the charred gunwale. Y’d’ve
mistook ’em all for Rabbis. And this was the grand
beacon-on-the-hill that squirt Austrayan with the turd
in his buttonhole was busy praising to the portside of Blighty.
(They knew a good thing when they could sell it cheap.)
It was time, all hands agreed, to found a new master race,
so one of them gold-panning yanks stuck a Wiradjuri girl
up a stag tree & they sat around downing turps while the march
of the black cockatoos dressed them in feathers & buckshot
& gold raiment & made right royal bastards of the lot.

3.
Who knows, how long it lasts –
bringing in the salt harvest,
the dying species under a wire-frame moon,
life after the fact?

You lie there, a withered bathtub demagogue
dreaming a swansong’s bought encore.
Television. The cosmic dark horse
hanged with a two-dollar belt.

One last unbearable meal –
the man in the Houdini mindtrap,
the matchstick tower, the smear on the
sidewalk. Let these be warnings

to children weaving fairyfloss from your dead hair.
Spectral teeth grind-out 4 a.m. soliloquies.
The Indian Summer that year
stalked them more abjectly than ever.

4.
In the dead of night – creeping up to the bar
at the Australia Hotel

like a Burma Railroad demolition crew.
Another April fool

on a three-week binge, hoisting
the Southern Cross

& digging-in for a saga of recaps long as the Mekong,
taxing to a nation

with a five-minute attention span.
The night they burnt

the place down, tabloid photo-fit intaglios
of Australopithecus

with a lip stiffened by a piece of four-by-two:
Such is life, they said,

sensing the moment was historical. The closing-time
referendum declared

an anti-republic six generations antique
bred from Bex powders

& fluked sheep. The fire brigade rang the anthem
through the streets,

the Unknown Soldier wept. Hearing a parade
was in the offing,

the whole town lined up for miles around,
just for the chance to piss on it.

 

____________________________________________________________

Louis Armand is the author of eight novels, including The Combinations (2016), Cairo (2014), and Breakfast at Midnight (2012). In addition, he has published ten collections of poetry – most recently, East Broadway Rundown (2015) & The Rube Goldberg Variations (2015) – & is the author of Videology (2015) & The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avantgarde (2013). He lives in Prague.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal (Gayelene Carbis)

Posted on August 11, 2017 by in Heightened Talk

Lessons On Life From My Sister In First Year

I just want to enjoy things I don’t want to think about them. don’t you do anything for fun you can’t help yourself you have to deconstruct everything. you have to talk about the ultimate meaning of everything you can’t just watch something and enjoy it. ok yes there’s The Sound of Music I’ll grant you that yes you love it and you enjoy it but I’ll bet. see there you go you don’t love it just for the music and the story here you are. you have to analyse it and deconstruct it through some particular perspective and now it’s feminism of course. I just want to enjoy the fucking movie I don’t care if Maria’s some feminist heroine (or hero) refusing and resisting oppression and how she has her own autonomy that won’t be squashed by man or nun or even God Herself. why do you do that. can’t you just take anything on face value? what do you do sit there in the theatre tearing it apart ripping it to shreds every little bit every tiny part till there’s nothing left. can’t you just. shit. it’s not that. I’m not against thinking. I just don’t want to do it all the time. I don’t want to think or talk about the meaning of everything. I don’t see why you have to deconstruct everything and not just take it more lightly or something. you take it all so seriously. if you think about what it all means you’re going to end up being critical. you’re going to end up liking nothing. you’re not going to enjoy anything. that’s what happens if you try to work out things and the meaning in everything. and it will get in the way of having a good time. you’ll drive yourself crazy thinking about what it all means and everyone else. otherwise you’re just going to make yourself unhappy. all of us. love you. hey, you know helping me with my essays I couldn’t have done it without you. yeah well meaning really mattered then. but that’s what you have to do at uni. it doesn’t mean you have to do it all the time and everywhere with everything. dad says you think too much. mum thinks you’re full of shit. sometimes. I just think people who don’t think too much are happier. that’s what life’s about, right? I mean thinking like that. you’d be happier if you didn’t think so much, don’t you think? does it make you happy? yeah well, what was that thing you told me about? some title or book or something? oh yeah – why be happy when you could be normal? exactly. I mean like – really. you’d just be happier if you could be more normal. don’t you think?

 

____________________________________________________________

Gayelene Carbis is an award-winning writer of poetry, prose and plays. She was shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize, Fish Poetry Prize (Ireland), work & tumble Chapbook Prize and recently, the Adrien Abbott, Martha Richardson and MPU Prizes. Gayelene was awarded a poetry scholarship to Banff in Canada and read poetry in Canada and New York. Her new one-woman show won Best Premiere Production in the US this year and will premiere in Melbourne in 2018. Gayelene has taught creative writing, Australian Indigenous studies and script writing at Melbourne University, Deakin University and RMIT. Gayelene’s first book of poetry, Anecdotal Evidence, was published by Five Islands Press in June 2017.

I text you a photo of my knitting
(Tricia Dearborn)

Posted on August 4, 2017 by in Heightened Talk


the knitting lies curved
along its cable
it rests on the pattern

which covers my journal
in which is secreted
my dream of two nights ago

the one where I called our father
a cunt, a complete cunt
then walked out of the house

past the bedroom we shared
from the day they brought you home
in a bassinette

will you feel it
can my dream, through layers
of paper and card, through wool

and plastic and steel
through the ether, via satellite
find you, transmit to you

what you’ve forbidden me to speak of

 

____________________________________________________________

Tricia Dearborn’s poetry has been widely published in literary journals including Meanjin, Southerly, Island Magazine and Westerly, and in anthologies including Contemporary Australian Poetry, Australian Poetry since 1788, Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets and The Best Australian Poems 2012 and 2010. She is on the editorial board of Plumwood Mountain, an online journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics, and was guest poetry editor for the February 2016 issue. She has been awarded several grants by the Australia Council, and a 2017 Residential Fellowship at Varuna, the Writers’ House, to work on her manuscript in progress. Her latest collection is The Ringing World (Puncher & Wattmann, 2012).