Triage (Rebecca Jessen)

Posted on February 23, 2018 by in Clozapine Clinic — The Frater Project

Image: woman floating in deep water

the kind lady on the end of the line will say this: I have to ask. in the present you wait. yes, I was thirteen, only the one time. yes, family. no, no one. the kind lady on the end of the line will notice the catch in your breath. that’s okay she will say, I don’t need details, but you will talk about these things one day. and you will think, no, not one. she will ask about your plan. yes, I think about it every week, that unwavering expanse of ocean slipping quietly into the blue night. it’s an exit strategy, you know, if it gets too much. tread carefully here, you have to tell these details to the right strangers. do not raise alarm with your blasé attitude towards your own death. be cool. smile while you talk. no. not this week. I guess it’s been a good week then. and how to measure chronic emptiness. that’s what this is, right? the kind lady on the end of the line will say you don’t sound empty. well that’s something then. isn’t it. and what is sound anyway. but another diagnosis to unstick. the kind lady on the end of the line will ask you what day it is. every day. it is everyday. she will say save this number. call any time. but sooner. rather than later. you know something about later. and there are no numbers left to dial. someone will be here for you. those words echo into the past and future and ring untrue. there is no here. not for you.

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Image: portrait of Rebecca Jessen

Rebecca Jessen is the Brisbane-based award-winning author of verse-novel Gap (UQP, 2014). In 2017, her poem ‘(after) HER: dating app adventures’ was shortlisted for the Val Vallis Award. Rebecca’s writing has been published in Overland, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, Cordite Poetry Review, Tincture Journal and many more. She is currently working on her first poetry collection. Find her at: www.becjessen.wordpress.com

Earth Apples of Modern Love and Mushrooms (Julie Maclean)

Posted on February 17, 2018 by in Heightened Talk

after Marina Abramovic at MOMA

They are lying again
about Putin’s hacking
I return to tears rolling
face to face
hungry for the strange one
to look deep
for longer than an orgasm

At midday
in my dressing gown
he looks bemused
as if I should be scrubbing
the floor or peeling potatoes
or making a list at least
It’s been a while since we kissed
so why would
I give myself to a root vegetable
before four pm?
I’m reading about love and mortality
where potatoes don’t come
into it

or maybe they would if
I were on Death Row
choosing my last meal
which would certainly
include chips or a jacket

I wish eating mushrooms
were less like eating eyeballs
or insides
I wish she hadn’t cut a cross
in the mushroom of her belly
or held a loaded gun to her head
twice
and I wish she’d known
her death-defying mother better
before opening the box
under the bed

Doesn’t everyone have a box
of creased letters, photos,
unutterable love and loss
up in the attic
under the bed
collecting dust and webs of sorrow
and where will it go at the end?

We romanticise everything
Ulay
making her cry after
making her walk
the extra mile
along the Great Wall
before they separated
for the last time
Arsehole

I am playing the artist today
gazing into my navel
of fluff and paralysis
where there should be jewels
or blood or both
and when I most need silence
shock jocks
invade my space
heaven screeching
with unbearable sounds
potatoes sprouting tendrils
in bleak corners
like mushrooms of a dead poet

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Julie Maclean’s
books include Lips That Did, (Dancing Girl Press, US, 2016), collaboration with Terry Quinn, To Have To Follow (Indigo Dreams, 2016), Kiss of the Viking (Poetry Salzburg, 2014), e-chap You Love You Leave, (Kind of a Hurricane Press, US, 2014) and, as joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Poetry Prize, (shortlisted for The Crashaw Prize, Salt, UK), When I saw Jimi, (Indigo Dreams 2013). Find Julie at www.juliemacleanwriter.com.

The Health Inspectors – Part One
(Anthony Macris)

Posted on February 12, 2018 by in Lies To Live By

(from an untitled novel in progress)

He lies on the worn lino of the living room floor, waiting for his favourite TV show to begin. The room is dark; he has turned off the light so he can feel like he’s at the movies. Stretched out on his back, propped up by a couple of battered cushions, the glow of the black and white screen washes over him. There are few moments he loves more than this, to finally have the TV to himself, to be left to enjoy his favourite show in the dark.

He looks about the room and watches the light bounce off the walls. It glances off the gilt letters printed on the spines of a full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, one of his father’s most prized possessions, its volumes heavy to lift and full of words he can’t understand. It catches on the gilt edges of the white plastic frame that sits on the sideboard, a frame that holds a fading Polaroid of his grandmother, his mother’s mother, an ancient widow in a black dress and head scarf. She lives on Kythera, a tiny island in Greece. He has never met her, and he knows he never will.

The TV show that is on seems to take forever to end. He jiggles his foot impatiently, willing the end credits to appear. When, an instant later, the list of names and job titles scroll down the screen, his body tenses with excitement. All week he has been waiting for this moment, and now it’s about to come. Finally, he’s about to enter another world.

But he has to wait a little longer. At least until the ads finish.

He props himself up on his elbows and looks out through the double doorway into the shop. It’s Saturday night, the middle of rush hour. Under the harsh fluorescent light, customers are crowded into the main serving area, four to five people deep, either waiting for their evening meals or jostling towards the counter to be served. His family are hard at work behind the barricade made up of stainless steel fridges and Formica-topped counters, taking orders, preparing food.

It’s a spectacle he knows well and, even from his position on the floor, he can easily picture what each of them is doing. His mother is prodding at the hamburgers on the hotplate, standing slightly back from the stove to spare her work dress the spatters of hot fat and juices that spurt up from the cooking meat. His sister, Helen, the eldest child, will be at the deep fryers, watching over the fish and chips, the dim sims and Chico Rolls. His father, freshly shaved for the big night and wearing his good dark trousers, will be taking orders and generally overseeing the whole operation. And his older brother Paul, the middle child, will be running about doing odd jobs, but mainly handing over the wrapped newspaper parcels to customers and sometimes, against their father’s orders, handling the money.

That’s usually how it goes when the shop is medium busy. When it gets really busy, as it does tonight, things can get hectic. But somehow it always seems to work out.

The customers, most of them regulars, wait patiently, even respectfully, for their meals. Or, as they so often call it, their ‘tea’. This has always struck him as a strange term. Tea is a drink, yet the customers use it to describe food. And, more strangely still, they use it to describe a meal of fish and chips. It’s very Australian. His family are not Australian. They are Greek, and Greeks would never call their dinner that. And they would never eat fish and chips for dinner, at least not his family, nor any Greek family he knows. Fish and chips, at least the way they eat it, is an English meal, not a Greek one.

Tea, of course, was the most important drink of the British Empire. He knows this to be true because he learned it at school. As he gets older the British Empire is mentioned more and more often in class: it seems to be behind everything. Most recently, he has learned that it was built on business and free trade. That was how, his teacher said, such small islands could come to rule the world: because of the power of free trade. The British Isles were so small, in fact, that they would fit into Australia thirty times over at least. He wonders if Australia is still part of the British Empire. He thinks so, but he isn’t quite sure. But then it must be, he reasons, if it still has the Queen on its coins. And that is why here, in the suburb of Kedron, in the city of Brisbane, in his family’s fish and chip shop on Friday and Saturday nights, Australians come in their dozens to ‘get some tea’, or, as the mothers sometimes joke as they leave the shop with the hot parcels tucked under their arms, ‘give the family a nice bit of fish for tea’.

On the TV screen the ads seem to go on forever. He lies there impatiently in the dark and suddenly feels the full force of the noise pouring through the doorway into the living room. It’s a noise he has lived with all his life, in this shop or the others they have owned. It’s the hubbub of waiting voices, the clank and scrape of metal, the slamming of fridge doors. But above all it’s the roar of the exhaust fans, set at full blast. When it’s very busy the fans don’t seem to cope well, simply churning up the cloud of burning oil smoke that hangs over the waiting crowd rather than getting rid of it. At the height of rush hour the crowd is forced to stand there in the reeking air, full of the sickly sweet smell of deep-frying fish, of batter and potatoes, of all those white things made soft and juicy and turned into melting flesh by the vats of boiling oil.

Once he’s noticed the noise he finds it hard to ignore: suddenly he can barely hear the TV at all. He gets up, turns up the volume as loud as he dares, then lies down again on the battered cushions. His timing is perfect. Just as he settles himself his show begins.

The word ‘Disneyland’ appears on screen, accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets. Tinker Bell floats into view, her magic wand trailing pixie dust. A male voice croons ‘When You Wish upon a Star’. Fireworks explode and the famous Disney castle appears, its towers and arches radiating shafts of light. But, only a few minutes into the program, he is surprised to notice that something is wrong. He doesn’t seem to be experiencing the same intense enjoyment he is used to. Tonight, no matter how hard he resists the idea, he has to admit to himself that he is starting to find Tinkerbell childish, the crooning voice old-fashioned and boring. It’s a feeling that has been building for some time, but tonight it seems he can’t ignore it any longer. This makes him uneasy. He has enjoyed Disneyland for as long as he can remember. Why can’t he go on enjoying it forever?

He frets for a moment then pushes these considerations aside. He listens intently to the comforting voice of the American presenter calling the list of Disneylands: Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Fantasyland. He secretly hopes this week isn’t Frontierland. It can be entertaining enough, but there is something about log cabins, tall-treed forests and men in coonskin caps swinging axes that leaves him cold. Tomorrowland would be preferable: there might be a spaceship or an astronaut or something to do with Mars or Jupiter. Adventureland he can usually do without: it’s too much like school in the way it’s always about the beauty of nature, and there were only so many times you could watch salmon leaping up rivers against the stream. No, what he hopes for above all is something from Fantasyland. A tale with heroes and villains, set in some magical place where anything can happen. Then, the TV screen truly no longer exists. Then, he is taken away, completely absorbed, transported outside himself and put inside that other place where he is still himself, but somehow something more. This is what he longs for on Saturday night at six o’clock. This is what he had been waiting an entire week for. To be taken to another place where he is more than what he is.

But tonight no such transformation is to happen. Instead, he is to be told ‘The Disneyland Story’. He tries not to be disappointed. It will have to do.

He notices his brother flit past the door to where the milkshake makers are. He can feel the pressure of Paul’s stare as he passes, the flash of reproach in his dark eyes. He knows all too well what it says. Why wasn’t he helping as well? Why should he get to watch TV while everyone else was working? Although he is three years younger than Paul, he is already a few inches taller than him. In his brother’s mind, this seems to qualify him for service. Up until recently, no one has any thought of him working in the shop during rush hour. It has simply never been mentioned. He is ‘O Microteros,’ ‘micro’ meaning small, ‘Microteros’ meaning the youngest one.

Sometimes his actual name — Andoni for his family, Tony for Australians — is not used for days.

But his age no longer seems to be the defence it once was. His brother has become resentful of late, and this resentment troubles him. He likes to get along with his brother. His mother and father always encourage them to be good companions, and for the most part they are. But now there is a harshness in his brother’s attitude he has never experienced before, one that makes him unhappy. Once again he tries to ignore his unease, tries to concentrate on the program. Out of the corner of his eye he sees his brother flash past the doorway again, a milkshake container in each hand, their waxed paper straws teetering against the rims. This time Paul’s gaze is fixed straight ahead. Intent on filling out the order, he has forgotten all about his loafing younger brother.

Relieved, he goes back to watching his program. But there’s a further disappointment waiting for him. Tonight’s Disneyland is shaping up to be some sort of lesson given by Walt Disney himself. He is used to seeing Walt Disney. He often makes a brief appearance to introduce a new movie or cartoon. A greying man with a cropped moustache, a man of medium build who speaks to children kindly and reasonably, he resembles his father in some ways. But appearance and manner are where the resemblance ends. Unlike his father, Walt Disney wears smart suits of heavy wool and lives in a world of massive wooden desks and equally massive movie studios. Walt Disney is a tycoon, a mogul, words he has heard but does not quite understand, apart from their obvious meaning of great wealth and power.

Tonight, Walt Disney does not simply make a brief introduction then disappear. Tonight, he wants to explain things of great importance about Disneyland, things that children like him need to know. Walt Disney explains that he is expanding his business. That soon he will be bringing his beloved cartoon characters and programs to the entire world in whole new ways.

A few minutes into this lecture he realises that the episode is a repeat, and one he has already seen at least three times. He watches anyway. And as he watches he is surprised to find that, this time around, he understands what is being said in a way he couldn’t grasp before. The way Walt Disney talks about the thousands of people he employs, the dozens of shows they make, the way in which these shows will spread all over the world, he could be talking about something like the British Empire. This comparison becomes particularly strong when Walt Disney announces his biggest news of all, the creation of an actual place called Disneyland. With the calm authority of an all-powerful sovereign he announces where it will be built: Anaheim, in southern California. He shows off elaborate maps, detailed photographs shot from helicopters, meticulous scale models of fun park attractions that the camera enters into as if they were the real thing. He explains that Disneyland the place and Disneyland the TV show are all part of the same. All the while he talks about facts and figures, of hopes and dreams. Walt Disney is building dreams. He is making dreams real.

Isn’t that what his teacher had said the British Empire was? A dream made real?

Of course he knows that Disneyland the place has already existed for a long time. But its existence is utterly remote to him. He can’t imagine ever going there. The centre of his world is the shop. It’s more important than school, than the small Greek community he and his family are a part of. And the shop is where Disneyland comes to him. He has to be content with that. And he is. At least for the time being.

For the next half hour or so he watches Walt Disney’s vision splendid, which features a large number of cartoons and scenes from favourite movies, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And as he watches can’t help but feel there is a strange similarity between his family’s shop, which he knows is called a business, and what Walt Disney is doing, which is also a business, and the British Empire, which was built on business.

Towards the end of the show his brother comes in and silently sits on the floor beside him: the evening crowd has thinned out a little, and he has snuck away unnoticed. Simply from the way his brother sits so close he knows he isn’t angry with him any more. Together, they watch the rest of the show. And, for a brief moment, he feels the all-encompassing happiness of being tucked away in the dark, his brother by his side, his family all around him, the shop chugging away in the distance like the engine room of giant ship. But he also senses that soon things will change. Soon he will have to help out in the shop during rush hour, and most probably not be able to watch Disneyland any more. But will that be such a loss? There are other shows he can watch at other times. And besides, Disneyland doesn’t look so magical any more.

As the show finally ends, the creeping awareness that nothing is as it was grows stronger. The double doorway that separates the shop and the living room is no longer a window he can simply look through as a spectator. Now, it’s the entrance to the adult world, one he doesn’t feel ready for. And the TV screen is no longer something he can allow himself to be absorbed by so easily. Its thick glass, slightly bulbous like his father’s watch, can magnify all manner of meanings, not all of them, he now realises, simple or innocent or apparent. He lies there in the dark beside his brother, both of them silent, and, for a brief moment, he is overwhelmed with confusion, unable to grasp what he is feeling at all.

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Anthony Macris is an award-winning Australian writer and author of the Capital novels. He is also the author of When Horse Became Saw: a family’s journey through autism, which was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards: Non-fiction category. His most recent book is Inexperience & other stories. He is currently Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney.

Canjeera (Deb Wain)

Posted on February 9, 2018 by in Lies To Live By

Image: a young African woman standing in darknessThe house is early-morning quiet when Khadro wakes. Light leaks into the room; the moon glows through the poorly curtained window. Nightmares of her past have followed her across borders, along dirt roads, into tented settlements. They have found her in this house—notable only for being one of a string that look alike. There are whole streets of brown, brick veneer abodes in this neighbourhood, built as a housing development by a builder with passable skills but no imagination. Here trauma is hidden in plain sight.

She lies still under the covers, the edge of the sheet balled into her closed hand, her heart’s drumming is loud and it keeps her from getting back to sleep. The red glow of the clock on the floor beside her mattress tells her there are hours to go before dawn. She used to need to wake at about this time to start preparing breakfast. Now, only the dreams rouse her at this time. There is no more canjeera, no lion roaring in her house.

She walks carefully on the outside edges of her feet, quiet. She learned to walk in this manner years ago, gently rolling her foot onto the floor to avoid the slapping of sole onto floorboard. Don’t wake the lion.

It was early in the long, hot afternoon, and she was calling to her neighbour again, asking for some canjeera mixture to use as a starter. She had cooked up all of her batter that morning. The lion had been roaring—demanding extra canjeera because there was no beer iyo basal to eat with it.

‘We are not a poor family but this is all you serve me. Where is the liver and onion?’

She did not answer the question. There was no acceptable answer for, where is the meat? They could not afford meat this week. The money the lion gave her bought little in the market, but she knew not to say any of this, especially while he was eating his breakfast. She brought him hot tea and poured it over the broken canjeera for him. He grumbled about going to work, into the world, about working to provide for his family all while he was hungry.

‘A man should not go hungry.’ He added more canjeera to his bowl from the plate on the table.

The boy, sitting quietly, watched it all. He watched his mother’s hands pouring the teapot to fill his father’s bowl with the hot, spicy tea. He watched his father’s hands take the last of the canjeera on the plate while his own bowl remained empty. He looked at his mother, opened his mouth to speak, but the almost imperceptible shake of her head stopped him. His eyes followed her shoulders as she returned to the kitchen to cook the saved batter.

That evening she needed to borrow a cup of canjeera batter from her neighbour, Mala. It did not come without a price. Mala thought her lecture would help the young mother to become a better housekeeper, a better cook, to be better at managing her time and the canjeera batter. Next time Khadro would ask elsewhere.

She gets out of bed and the predawn moon lights her way to the kitchen. She boils the kettle on the gas ring of the stovetop and waits for the hissing to change to the rolling bubbles of boiling water. Her feet are cold on the linoleum; her slippers are still beside the mattress in her bedroom. She pours the hot water over a teabag in a mug once printed with a floral pattern but faded now with repeated washing. She keeps the spoon from touching the edges of the cup as she stirs, so as not to wake her son. He does not sleep well either. From the kitchen she listens to his youthful snoring, quiet, rhythmic. She carries her tea and her study notes to the back porch, leaving the back door slightly ajar. There is no breeze to slam it closed so early in the day. She cups her hands around the sides of the mug and sits in the cane chair positioned under the porch light.

Studying takes up more time than she imagines it should. She hears the lion’s voice tell her that this is because she’s too stupid to study. Her frail brain couldn’t possibly be up to the job of bettering itself. Best that she just concentrate on getting what she is already trying to do, done right. Only a bad mother would leave her child in the care of another so she could selfishly pursue something as ridiculous as study. She places the cup down on the glass top of the outdoor table and the clunk of porcelain against glass silences the lion’s voice in her head.

It was early evening. The lion was roaring. She was trying to mix the batter for the next morning’s canjeera. It needed to sit overnight so that it had the sour taste that the lion prefers. Her hand slapped into the wet mixture, smoothing the batter, adding the water—an evening sound. As a child, the canjeera music of her mother’s hand working the batter had soothed her to sleep. There was comfort in the sound of her breakfast being prepared. She had fallen to sleep to the sound of mixing and woken to the sound of the street vendors calling.

Hot canjeera! Hot canjeera!

Fortunate is he who gets it.

Lucky is the one who eats it.

Good wife, buy it.

Give it to your knight,

So he would roar like a lion!

After they married, he had raged over the first breakfast she had cooked him. The canjeera were not right; they tasted nothing like they should. She should go and ask his mother the right way to prepare them. He had thrown the plate onto the dining room floor. Later he said he had not meant it. The table had been too cluttered—if only she would keep the house tidier—and he had accidentally knocked the plate that she had set carefully by his elbow.

The first of the quiet morning sun finds her still sitting on the cane chair on the back porch. The dregs of her tea are cold in the bottom of the mug—a pattern of faded flowers. Here there are no canjeera vendors calling—no morning sound. The good wife who buys it for her husband does not exist, so there is no one here to be interested in the vendors’ wares. She thinks of the thin pancake that she used to cook in the pan, spreading the batter in a spiral with the back of a spoon, the bubbles making the eyes that form on the surface. She remembers waiting for the top of the pancake to cook through, the careful timing needed to avoid overcooking the base, the practice needed to get the heat right on the new stove of her married life.

She carefully removed the pancake from the pan without tearing it. One hand had the spatula; the other eased the cooked bread out of the frying pan. The lion would not tolerate torn canjeera on the serving plate even though he was going to tear them into a bowl anyway, then sprinkle them with sugar and sesame oil, before allowing her to pour tea over the top. Torn wouldn’t do for the presentation on the table. Very many things were not good enough for the lion. On the plate, she rolled each individual canjeera into a tube, and placed it alongside its companions. The bubbles that make eyes on the top of the bread were cooked closed on the bottoms. The spiral swirl in the mixture allowed the top to colour as well. The pattern is a circle that never comes back to itself but continues to get smaller: a life in the top of a breakfast pancake.

She repositions herself on the cane chair, hoping that the creaking of the woven fabric is not loud enough to wake her son. She wraps an old blanket around her knees and tucks her feet underneath herself. Opening her notes again, she reads the information under the heading ‘Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA)’. Others in the class seem to know much of this topic already. She is behind and wants to make up for her ignorance. Some already have experiences to share—violent, alcohol-fuelled outbursts of hotel patrons to which they had been witness. She thinks of the lion, who had no need for alcohol.

‘Hot canjeera! Hot canjeera!’ The vendors call in her dream. She has no batter prepared and cannot find the money to buy the breakfast she must provide for her husband. Her purse is empty. She thought there was money, coins carefully saved for this eventuality.

‘Hot canjeera! Hot canjeera!’ The vendors call. Every minute that passes in her search is another minute closer to the lion waking.

‘Hot canjeera!’

The lion roars.

‘Fortunate is he who gets it. Lucky is the one who eats it.’

There is no canjeera for his breakfast. No stew. No liver and onions.

‘Good wife, buy it. Give it to your knight.’

He eats the boy instead and she is relieved he did not choose to eat her.

‘So he would roar like a lion!’

Her waking self shakes in fear at the heartlessness of her own dream—she allowed him to eat the child. Her child.

Even in her dream she is not brave enough to protect the boy. And she was glad that he had spared her.

 

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Deb Wain is a poet and short story writer who is passionate about food, culture, and the Australian environment. When she’s not writing or talking you can find Deb playing with her dogs, drinking coffee, or digging in the garden. Her work, which has appeared in Verandah, Tincture, Verity La and Meniscus, is often inspired by the Australian communities in which she has lived. In 2017, Deb won the CAL Fiction Prize in Meniscus Literary Journal and was shortlisted for the KSP Short Fiction Awards at the Katharine Sussanah Pritchard Writers Centre.

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

____________________________________________________________

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.

 

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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.