The Unburied climbs from her grave and all the little pieces of her fit like unshattering glass. The femurs groan into the sockets of the hip, the ribs crack into the sternum. She picks at the dirt gritted into the dents of her finger bones and looks down at all the holes of herself. She sighs. It hadn’t been an easy climb, prodding at the dirt from so far below. It had fallen relentlessly onto on her tongue when she’d had one. Filled up the deflated cavity of her lungs. He’d done a good job of it, she had to give him that. It had taken years to claw her way out.
As she shakes loose decayed cloth from ankle bones, the tibiae and fibula, she looks down at the disturbed ground. No headstone marks her place, nor is there any other indication of a loving and unhurried burial. Not even a name. She cracks into place the vertebrae, so troublesome in skin but now easily rearranged, and casts her hollow eyes around her. The ground is sunken, bordered by lumps of dirt and clay like ant hills. Beetles scurry over capillary veins of old roots and sodden leaves. Otherwise the garden is much the same. She’d planted the wisteria herself, and the nasturtiums that the chickens loved so much, though not the birds. They preferred the fruit trees, mulberry and persimmon. In summer she’d hear their rustling from the kitchen window and entice them with seed. The cat, as she’d tried to explain to him, was much too obvious. Stalking in the undergrowth was all very well in the wild but it wouldn’t do in the suburbs. Here you had to be alluring, entice with sweets and smiles. The Unburied grits her crumbling teeth. She knew too much about that.
She limps to the tomato vine and rests her fleshless fingers—the phalanges, she remembers—amongst the wilted green. Stakes stand in graveyard uniformity, but the produce is long gone. What a shame. Her romas won ribbons once. They were always the sweetest, the boldest, and she’d pluck them from the vine and eat them right there in the garden, or, best of all, peppered on toast with avocado and cream cheese. She’d allowed herself little pleasures now and then. Not that it had mattered in the end. Imagine, she thinks, running her fingers along the curve of a rib, all the cream cheese she’d have eaten if she’d known she’d come to look like this. Even though she lived alone, she’d creep into the kitchen to lick the Philadelphia foil at 3am. It was silly, but, as she told herself every time she caught her reflection in the wide kitchen window, life was just too short. She stopped though, when Angus started staying over.
Angus was a skinny man with a flat brow and thin, wiry glasses. He wore checked shirts buttoned to the top and taught middle-grade maths but she couldn’t begrudge him that. He approached her at the farmer’s market and offered to trade a punnet of romas for a bag of zucchinis, ripened in his own backyard three doors down. He told her she looked beautiful, as though they’d known one another for years. When she puzzled at him he blushed, told her they were neighbours. Hadn’t she seen him around? She wasn’t used to being called beautiful and she laughed awkwardly at him and stumbled. She had always been too tall with flat wide feet and felt ungainly in her skin. She would squeeze into too narrow shoes so that her little toe blistered red, perpetually disfigured. She borrowed Angus’ gumboots that afternoon when he showed her his veggie patch, and pretended her ankle was swollen from tripping on a step. Must be why they didn’t fit properly, she’d said. She used to imagine shaving the sides of her feet away as though from marble. Metatarsal, the arch is called, that joins the toes to the foot. Angus told her that. She crouches. She wonders if, in death, her hobbit feet, shed of skin and tendon, had narrowed to delicate points. She measures the distance from side to side. She sighs. It was bone all along.
And where is Angus now? The house is empty, or seems to be. The garden is overrun, and paint peels from wooden slats on the porch. Dislodged shingles collide in the gutter and on the ground by the fence. She’d wanted to do the repairs herself, and one of the benefits of such an Amazonian form was the strength it afforded her. But Angus had insisted, and she didn’t like to argue. He’d never officially moved in, but his things began appearing in the house in tiny increments: a toothbrush, differently-branded milk and spare trousers, then books, a guitar, lawnmower and car keys that hung perpetually on the spare hook. It bothered her that he’d taken for granted that she wanted the same things as he, but she never could quite tell him that. It was easier to let things take their course. It was the same when he’d started buying Philadelphia light and frowning at her when she’d add a teaspoon of sugar—raw, she’d rebut—to her coffee. But what could she say? He knew what she wanted to become and he was only being encouraging.
She grips the twin bumps of her hips. She used to run her hands along the skin because it was one of the few spots where she could feel the bone underneath. Angus liked them too. She pulls her thin legs through ankle length weeds. Pushes against the back door. She is almost surprised when, softly, it opens.
‘Hello?’ she calls, or tries to. She has no larynx or diaphragm to project the sound. She knocks her fists against the wall so it echoes. There are juvenile tags on the floral wallpaper and though she has no nostrils or any olfactory glands to speak of she is certain it stinks of rat shit. She can see the evidence in the gaps of the floorboards and digs the shaft of her toe into the crack to clear it away. She stumbles along the hallway stupefied by the stillness, the strangeness of it all.
She’d lived alone for many years because she preferred it that way: space to potter, to paint and garden and besides, she had the cat, what else did she need? Her heel bones click on the wood like the stilettos she never wore. She feels as though she’s breaking and entering. One of those abandoned semi-transportables by the railyard, graffitied, with sunken floors and piles of empty beer cans. She stoops to brush away the leaf litter by the front door. Turns into the front room. The layers of dust would choke her if she had lungs, but otherwise everything is just as she left it: a stack of unread books against packed shelves, a comb on the mantle with hair in the teeth, a photograph of Angus and her askew on the wall. As she takes in the remnants of her life like debris it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore that which niggles her. The question she can’t ask herself. She picks up an envelope from a stack on the coffee table. It is addressed to a name she is only beginning to remember, and dated a year she can’t fathom. She slumps into a chair and feels the heart that isn’t there sink into the chest that once held it.
Why has nobody come?
She tells herself she can’t have a panic attack because she no longer has a nervous system to ignite muscle spasms or adrenal glands to make her hands sweat, but her bones tremble just the same. She runs her hands down the femurs to her knee joints. She notices a thin, hairline crack at the top of the tibia. She can’t recall, at first, what the injury could have been, but the effort is enough to stop her trembling. Then it comes to her, a fury of a girl charging through her into second base. She’d fallen, one foot stuck between the girl and the plate. The bone snapped when she landed. Her mum warned her about softball. She was too clumsy, she said, too awkward. But that field was a space where she needn’t pretend to be graceful or prim, where her size was a barrier to petite things that would try to sneak runs. The softball girls exuded a strange kind of femininity, confident and earthy, so different to those at school who seemed to know something she didn’t. She wished she could take that power off the field. For there she became what she was again, tall and chubby, without any idea how to shape her appearance to express the woman she was becoming inside.
The Unburied stretches her legs and twists her ankles. Tilts her head and looks at her toes. They aren’t particularly feminine. She’s already established that. But what makes toes identifiably male or female? She knows that the male ring finger is longer than the index, with the reverse the case for women. Angus told her that. He told her lots of things he thought she should know. All the fleshy indicators of her body, the ample mounds of breasts and thigh, lips that guarded inward passages, are gone to dust. Would the investigative stumblers who finally come to find her—if they come to find her—be able to tell of her softball injuries and clumsiness in stilettos? Would her bones lie to them of the person that she was? For what is there, she suddenly wonders, to indicate she?
She looks down. There’s an absence in her pelvis where her womb used to be. She rises and walks to the mantelpiece, marvelling at the emptiness. There’s a mug with mouldy dregs of tea, a thriving succulent. Strange. She would have liked to cultivate life, she thinks, picking up the little brown pot. Once she thought she had. A little seedling failed to bloom and was washed away in a stream of red. But she was twenty-three then and he was a backpacker in the laundry room of a London hostel, and if she still had the cheeks or the blood vessels to dilate she’d blush with the memory of the relief she had felt. She had begun to want though, near the end. Not with Angus though. She realised that the second time she was late.
She hadn’t planned not to tell him, but, like everything, it was easier. To add the weight of her decision to terminate to the anxious list of reasons she couldn’t love him proved far too difficult. Was it cowardly, she wonders, looking at down at her empty pelvis, or simply self-preservation? She remembers the way her stomach churned in the weeks it took to gather her strength. How she’d cringe when he made reference to the types of toys he’d allow their children, or how he’d like to extend into the back patio to allow for more northerly light, something they’d appreciate when they were retired. In the last year she’d taken to yoga and developed a new ease with her body. The bulges at her hips and thighs became striking in their curvature. It wasn’t because she’d changed measurably, though her muscles were defined, lifted and pert. It was her eyes that were different. The girl who had tumbled on the softball field and not shed a tear was still buried in there somewhere. She couldn’t be that girl with Angus. Crouching to poke her fingers back into that dent she realises, suddenly, that he knew it too.
But her fleshy impulse to swell with child was lost when the beetles and mites devoured it away. She couldn’t feel guilt anymore for what she had done. She wouldn’t. So she turns to the mirror above the mantlepiece. Runs her fingers along the bumps and hollows, the impressions of tendons and muscle insertions. The holes are soft. So are the joints in her shoulders. She traces thin fingers along the scapula. There is a dent. It is not a impression of tendon, it is not a muscle insertion. She remembers that heavy thunk and all her yellow bones rattle.
She turns. Sees the dent in the wall. The heart that isn’t there thumps hard. Her legs quiver, then break out to escape the room where the memories are erupting like vines from the dirt. They grasp. She runs. Back down the hall past the rat shit and graffiti, into the garden with the shingles that Angus didn’t fix. She collapses into the dirt by her unmarked grave. She rakes her fingers, tilling clumps of clay and worm warrens. She pulls them into her chest. Tries to fill her empty spaces with dirt.
The sky rumbles and rain turns the earth to mud. And so she begins to mould herself from sludge. She packs it onto the neck and clavicle, the spine, fills out the breastbone with pert little mounds. She rounds her hips and ass, big and womanly, just as they’d been in life. She can’t make them whatever she wants, she thinks, so fuck it. Let them be as they always were.
As she works, black birds gather. They peck at the ground between her feet, pulling worms like spaghetti. She ploughs her fingers and gathers the slithering bugs, presses them into the mud that fills the empty cavity of her womb. She had, after all, nurtured them there under the earth, along with all the other creatures that from her flesh made life. The house flies and blow flies, and the larvae that they laid. The flesh flies—Sarcophogidae—that birthed maggots with hooked mouths that scooped her oozing fluids. Moths that foraged through her once long hair. The birds, devoid of dinner, rustle their wings and fly away.
There’s a sound from the house. Footsteps that echo above rain on the tin roof. Rustling growing closer. She finishes rounding out her tummy, alive and squirming. She rises, striking now in her height. She’s never felt so like herself.
The backdoor creaks and Angus emerges. The Unburied turns her skull and widens her brittle teeth to smile. There is a gap where an incisor would have been. If she had a tongue she’d run it along the fissure as she had in that brief moment before the final blow.
Angus is white like a ghost. Like chalk. Like bone.
The Unburied and her squirming belly of strange fruit creep toward him. He is so still with shock it couldn’t be easier. She takes him by the hand, warm and wet with nervous sweat, and pulls him toward her. His grip melts her mud-hands to claws. She leads him to the disturbed and sunken ground. He struggles, but she is stronger. She always had been. And so she pulls him under. Puts all the pieces of herself back into the earth, fills in all her gaps with mud. Angus hardly makes a sound. Softly, softly, she packs them into the ground.
Lauren Butterworth is an emerging writer with fiction and essays in Wet Ink, Libertine, Indaily and forthcoming in Crush: Stories About Love. She is co-host of the podcast, Deviant Women, and co-director of The Hearth, a creative readings event in Adelaide. She is also an academic advisor at Flinders University, where she completed her PhD in creative writing. You can find more of her writing at laurenbutterworth.com.
(edited by Laura McPhee-Browne)
We sat in a paddle boat and ate cheese sandwiches. The water swirled slowly around us.
This is nice, you said, and it was nice.
The rain had held off, just like we hoped, and the clouds were merely white smudges in the sky. When we finished eating, you took my hand and smiled at me with your eyes.
I love you, you said.
You waited for a response, clicking your fingers quickly. I watched a duck swim past our boat, making gentle movements in the water.
Please, you said, say something.
I mumbled, about baked beans and tinned sausages.
Back at the tent, your hands grappled with the tin kettle and I stretched out my legs and studied the ants in the dirt. The different reds and browns. Their bodies, tiny and large all at once.
Why don’t you love me, you asked, pushing a knife into a jar of peanut butter, breaking a piece of white bread in half.
I watched you eat, licking your lips, smacking them together, laying the knife down slowly. I shook my head. Spread my fingers out, pushed them into the dirt. Ants scattered, dancing over my knuckles.
You asked me again, your voice stretching. I wondered aloud if we’d see a wombat, snuffling round the back of our tent, near where we’d parked the car, near where our rain jackets hung off the side view mirrors.
Please. I dangled a tea bag up and down and looked back out towards the water, where swans were gliding.
Please. Your voice was croaky, swollen, stuffed full of a sunset that would never rise.
Please, you said again, the word beginning to sound like something other than language.
And then, because I’m weak, or something very close to it, I said I love you too, and you were radiant. We drove home together, through the darkness, and it started to rain a little. I leant my head against the window and you talked a lot, flapping your hands when they weren’t on the wheel. I listened and said yes at all the right moments. Because there were things at yours of mine, and it felt easier than saying goodbye.
Hailing from Melbourne, Katelin Farnsworth won the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction in 2015 and came second place in the Rhonda Jankovic Literary Awards in 2017. Her short story ‘Round’ was featured in Award Winning Writing in 2015. Katelin has also been published in various Australian journals including Feminartsy, Lip Magazine, Tincture Journal, The Victorian Writer, Offset, Voiceworks, Verandah Journal, and Writers Bloc, amongst others. She studies Professional & Creative Writing at Deakin University and is currently working on a novel (or two!).
When Janice agreed to marry me ten years ago, her one condition was that I give up active duty and take a desk job. At the time I was one of the best marksmen on the force and at thirty-five I still had good years ahead of me. ‘I love you honey, but I couldn’t handle it if you killed someone in the line of duty or if I saw you on the news beating someone with a nightstick,’ she said. ‘Even if they deserved it a million times over, you’d be a monster to me.’
We live, or used to live, on five and a half acres in the foothills, about ten minutes drive from the station. The previous owners of our property raised racehorses and when we bought it I converted the stable into a studio for Janice. I ripped out the stalls, bleached the floor, laid down hard wood, and installed insulation and double-paned sky-lights. Janice used the spectacular views of the valley and the Traverse Mountains as inspiration for most of her work.
Sometimes she painted a whole picture in just one day, in a trance, brush hand on the canvas, the other stretched out, palm up behind her like Tinkerbell. Her paintings were all over our walls. They still sell some of them as posters and postcards at the tourist centre. She said that the valley and the mountains changed every time she looked at them, brightness, colour, shadow, and eventually I came to see that too.
In 1989, after a nationwide manhunt, Jordan Depaul, hydroponics specialist, was found in the Salt Lake City house he’d barely left for years. He was convicted of the murder of five Dole Fruit truck-drivers between the years 1985 and 1987. God’s work. He had no regrets. It was the usual story, absent mother, bitter father, twisted personal religion. After he was sentenced to death he pored over the criminal statutes and discovered that a forgotten writ permitted him to choose the firing squad instead of the customary lethal injection. Depaul’s loophole was closed the next year, but it wasn’t retroactive. His wish had to be carried out and I volunteered for some of the carrying.
After ten years of shooting paper targets at the range, ten years of reading about robberies and on-duty deaths; even petty vandalism reports started to get my blood rushing. My brother was a typist in the Vietnam War and developed sympathetic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—even though he was never fired upon—transmuting his guilt at spending the war in an air-conditioned base. That guilt, fostered by typing up accounts of atrocities day after day, destroyed him. Maybe worse than if he’d actually fought himself. I understood him.
And, I wanted to know what it felt like to shoot someone. Some of my colleagues had killed perpetrators in self-defense and it changed them, lent them a certain gravitas. Any man who tells you he’s not envious, on some level, of men with combat experience is a liar. It sounds bad to say, but I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me by. And, what difference did it make if I did the shooting or not? Someone else would.
A week before the execution Warden Jeffries gave the five of us a tour of the execution chamber. He showed us the whitewashed wall with a slit cut in it for us to shoot through, and a mockup of the target that was to be pinned over his heart; a white paper square with a black circle in the middle. ‘Now, you all know this is highly unusual. Your job is not to let it turn into a spectacle,’ he said.
He then explained the procedure we were to follow on the night. An unmarked van with no windows would pick us up at the police station at eleven and drive us to the prison. Before our arrival, our five rifles would be loaded with two rounds each. According to tradition, one of the rifles would contain two wax bullets. At five to midnight we would be handed our weapons by an officer who had not seen them being loaded. We would enter the chamber and take our positions while the warden watched from the second level through one-way glass. Depaul would walk, or, if unable to move under his own power, be escorted in and given two minutes to speak. The shooters would kneel down behind their rifles and the squad captain—the role that fell to me, as the most senior volunteer—would whisper to each in turn to see if they were ready. Then the squad captain would give the ready signal to the warden, receive final confirmation from him through an earpiece, lower his rifle and count down from one to five. Then we would fire.
My four deputies were Johnson, who exasperated his partner with his inexplicable silences on duty; Young, who lost his left ring finger to the knife of a heroin pusher in Liberty Wells; Kupeofola, an imposing, black-eyed Tongan; and Selwood, the serious one, who never broached a joke, about himself or anyone else. We all had scored perfect 75s at the range at least a dozen times and averaged above 72, our identities were unknown to everyone but ourselves and the warden, and, it must be emphasised, we all volunteered for the detail. That week, the five of us practiced with blanks at the range every day during lunch break; our goal was to fire simultaneously with one loud report instead of five scattered cracks. Accuracy was a given. From twenty feet you can’t miss with a .30-30. When we started we sounded like five cork pop guns competing for attention. By the day before the execution, after about four hundred rounds, we finally started to sound like a cannon.
When I got home from work on the night before the execution, Janice was chopping onions. I could hear the sharp knock of the knife on the wood chopping board as I opened the front door. As always when she cooks, she had the radio on and of course they were jabbering in concerned tones about the big execution. She was the only person I know who prefers radio to television. She said radio allows her to imagine a scene while television imposes one on her.
After I shook the snow off my boots I came up behind her, wrapped my arms around her and kissed the back of her neck. The sting of the onion caught my eyes and I started to tear.
‘What are you making?’
‘Bolognaise. As if you care, so long as there’s plenty of it.’ She cracked a handful of spaghetti in half and dropped it in the pot. The water hissed briefly. She turned down the radio. ‘They just said the attorneys aren’t going to file any last minute appeals. It’s up to the Parole Board now.’
‘I doubt they’ll issue a stay.’
‘Do you know any of the firing squad?’
‘I’ve met them,’ I said, which wasn’t lying.
She set out the bowls and thudded the steaming pot of pasta in the center of the table. As usual, I finished her leftovers. While we were eating desert—mint chip ice cream—she asked, ‘Do you know what he asked for? For his last meal?’
‘No.’ The warden had advised me not to read the papers until it was over.
‘Just an olive?’
‘Just an olive. And he asked to be buried with the pit in his pocket.’
I didn’t know what to say so I scooped up a spoonful of ice cream. In the silence my spoon clattered on the rim of the bowl.
She began again. ‘Why do you think he asked for that olive and nothing else?’
‘Hmmm,’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t want anything but this ice cream.’
‘It seems odd, doesn’t it? Some kind of spiritual exercise, maybe? I can’t see a political point being made with an olive.’
‘Maybe he’s trying to invoke the olive branch of peace. Trying to tell us he’s found inner peace.’
‘What would you know about inner peace?’ she said with that teasing smile.
‘More than him, I bet. What would you want for a last meal?’ I asked.
‘You,’ she said, and leaned over the table and kissed me. ‘Or five blocks of Valrhona dark chocolate.’
The next morning I woke up before dawn, primed and alert. At six I did my half hour on the treadmill, had a shower, and then put my uniform and boots on—I forgot I didn’t need to be at the station until eleven that night. I walked downstairs to the kitchen with a heightened sense of reality, that transcendent awareness that used to make me turn the patrol car down an alley on impulse to find a mugging in progress. Everything looked newly congealed. I fixed myself a cup of coffee and went over to the living room window. The soft blanket of snow outside had thickened overnight.
‘What are you doing up this early?’ Janice had come down silently in her pink slippers. I always liked how she looked in the mornings. She never took her pajamas off before noon and when she walked I’d catch hints of her firm legs and smooth hips as the material brushed against her skin.
‘I don’t know, just looking at the mountains. They aren’t half as beautiful as those paintings by Janice Lee Draper. You heard of her?’
‘Aint she the wife of that handsome cop?’
‘I believe so, yes. He sure is one lucky man.’
‘I thought you weren’t working until tonight.’ She’d noticed my uniform. I’d told her I had the eight-to-two overnight dispatch shift.
‘Uh, I don’t know. I just forgot.’
She laughed and gave me a little pat on the behind. ‘Well, put something else on and I’ll get the pancakes ready.’
I came back down in civilian clothes and sat down in front of five steaming pancakes.
‘Mmm,’ I said, as I chewed, ‘these are good enough to be a last meal.’
‘Aren’t you funny,’ she said. Then she became quiet and I knew by the way she was cutting her pancakes, slowly with exaggerated precision, that she was about to say something serious.
‘You know, I had a dream about it last night. I was facing the firing squad. But no-one put a hood on me and I was trying to explain that I was the wife of a police officer. They had mistaken me for someone else. I screamed and screamed but they shot anyway. I didn’t feel any of the shots and I still had all my senses. The bright lights were on me and a doctor came and felt my wrist and I tried to tell everyone that I was still alive but no sound would come out. And I was complaining that I didn’t even get a last meal. Then I woke up.’
‘Always thinking about food, you.’ I chuckled a little but she wasn’t laughing. ‘What was your crime?’
‘Nothing. I hadn’t done anything.’
‘But they must have at least accused you of something?’
‘I suppose they did but I didn’t know what it was.’
After breakfast Janice went off to paint so I drove to the batting cages in town. You can just put all your focus on counting the rhythm of the mechanical arm and smacking the ball as hard as you can.
After warming-up in the 75 mile-an-hour cage I moved up to the 85 and was hitting nearly every ball into the back of the net. I was in a groove. Step, swing, pop. Step, swing, pop. Two eight or nine year-olds came over to watch me and after a particularly flat line drive I heard one of them say, ‘Maybe he plays for the Bees.’
The next pitch came out with no spin on the ball. The red stitches, two curves on the white, enlarged in slow motion as they rushed towards me. Before I could get out of the way, the ball hit the knuckle of my right index finger—my trigger finger—jamming it into the bat handle. For a second I felt nothing and then it felt like my knuckle had been cracked in a vise. I’d never seen a worse pitch from a machine. Six seconds later the next pitch thudded into the canvas backstop, straight down the middle.
‘If you rub it you’re a wimp,’ said one of the kids, ‘do you play for the Bees?’
‘No, but I’m flattered you asked.’
I peeled my gloves off and walked back to the girl behind the counter clutching her phone between her two thumbs—the kids trailing—and said, ‘You should check the 85 machine. It just hit me on the hand.’
She looked up. ‘Which one?’
‘We had them all serviced last week. No one else has complained.’
‘I’m not complaining. I should have been able to dodge it anyway. I just want to make sure it won’t get anyone else.’
‘Well I don’t know what you want me to do then.’
‘Think if it hit someone in the head.’
‘I’ll tell the manager when he gets back.’
The two boys, having lost interest in me, were looking at the rare baseball cards laid out in individual cases underneath the glass countertop. Generosity sneaks up on me sometimes. Their parents probably dropped them off at the batting cages for the day because it was too cold to throw them outside. It might be hours before they were picked up again.
‘Two packs of Topps, please,’ I said to the girl.
I stretched out my hurt finger, which had begun to swell like a kielbasa, and opened my wallet with my thumb and middle finger.
‘Hey,’ I said, ‘take one each.’
They ripped open the foil packaging. ‘Thanks, Mister.’
Twenty-three years of shooting have given me hands like gold dust scales and my rifle weighed not a gram under regulation.
Aside from the few eager souls at the prison gate waving blue glow sticks and holding hands and singing, the ride over had been silent. We waited in an anteroom for what seemed like a long time. I kept my gloves on so no one would see my injury. Small talk was difficult but we did it anyway. It’s funny, I still remember Selwood saying his daughter had pneumonia.
We stood behind the concrete wall as Depaul shuffled out unassisted. A lick of white hair stood up at the back of his head. It was hard to picture this wispy man as the brash murderer on TV from fifteen years before. He declined to speak. The guard asked if he had understood that he had a right to speak. He said ‘yes, sir’ and then he was strapped to his wooden chair up on the wooden platform with black sand bags stacked high around to prevent ricochets.
His black hood was fitted, then the target was pinned to his chest with two safety pins. His bonds were double-checked and the guards withdrew. Perched between the black stacks he reminded me of a statue in its tabernacle. The others were ready. I kneeled down on the right end and took my right glove off but kept my hand in front of me so the warden couldn’t see from behind. I turned the safety off my rifle and put my finger, as tight and firm as a hose on full blast, pain barreling through it, on the outside of the trigger guard. I raised my left hand, the signal to the warden. ‘All clear, buddy,’ I heard him say. The paper target slowly turned into a baseball card and I heard myself starting to count. Around two, I remember thinking that the black now looked more like purple and the lights had brightened. I could barely make out the sandbags. I fainted somewhere before four with my finger on the trigger.
I don’t remember my rifle going off or the recoil hitting my shoulder but there was a bruise there the next day. When I came to, Kupeofola was shaking me from behind and three doctors were frantically undoing Jordan’s bonds. Blood was dripping down his chair and onto the floor. My finger was in a crucible of pain. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my knees. Kupeofola, Young and Johnson were staring at me with puzzled expressions. ‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘You hit him in the stomach,’ Selwood said.
They performed emergency surgery on Depaul that night. At two a.m. the warden decided I couldn’t be charged with any crime but I would have to present at the inquest. He drove me back to the station so I could get my car. I didn’t go home straight away but drove around looking at the encircling Traverses in the three-quarter moon.
When I got home Janice was still up, painting in the sky-lit stable. ‘The moon is good tonight,’ she said. She kissed me. ‘How was work?’
‘Quiet. It’s too cold for criminals. Did you finish anything?’
‘You’re gonna laugh at me.’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘Yes you will.’
There on the canvas, in shades of ash and pale green, was an olive. The morning took a long time to arrive.
Lucas Smith is a poet and writer from California and Gippsland, currently living in Melbourne. His work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks, Australian Book Review, Gargouille, Cordite and elsewhere. One of his stories was highly commended in the 2012 Age Short Story Award.
It was just Suzy and I, in the end, who drove down to Damboon on the Friday night. I picked her up after work in the big old navy-blue bogan-mobile station wagon I’d bought cheap off my uncle’s widow a couple of months before.
Heavily laden, we staggered down the garden path – the others were all now coming on Saturday instead, in the one car, and needed us to take some of their bags for them. Her house was a narrow Victorian terrace half-sunken into the ground, with faded Tibetan prayer flags above the door. Partway down the path, I got my sleeve caught on the thorny tentacle of a leggy, ancient rosebush. I wrenched myself free and stumbled. I would have backed up into the bush on the other side, but Suzy caught me.
‘Ta!’ I said.
Then I got stuck at the rusty gate.
‘Let Daddy do that,’ Suzy grinned and said. She shuffled past me, smelling like old-fashioned men’s cologne, with her leather jacket and her buzzed hair.
‘I think you should know,’ I said, ‘I don’t get along with Daddy.’
‘Daddy loves you, baby,’ she protested, winking. ‘You just let Daddy take care of you.’ She ushered me through the gate with a bow.
‘Oh, ho, ho!’ she hooted when she saw the car. ‘Bogan-mobile to the max!’
‘I told you.’
I had got breath-tested the other day, and the cop had looked at me – a woman in a cheesecloth dress with a pen in her hair – and said, ‘You are not who I expected to be driving this car.’
We put the bags in the back and got in.
Suzy threw her motorcycle boots up on the dashboard and said, ‘Well, fuck this holiday shit, let’s go down to Commercial Road and cruise for chicks.’
‘Hell yeah,’ I said, ‘I can put the back seat down and everything.’
I fired up the ignition. ‘Oh, baby!’ Suzy said.
‘Shit,’ I said, ‘someone’s parked behind me. I can’t manoeuvre this thing for shit. If I run into that car, you can’t tell anyone, alright?’
‘What are you going to do for me?’ she asked.
‘Not tell your girlfriend that you talk to me like this.’
Suzy clutched her chest like I’d shot her in the heart.
I was fizzing inside about this trip.
I had been living with my ex-girlfriend Steph and two of our friends when Steph told me she was seeing someone else. I left, and was thrown on the skids in a serious way, with nowhere to live and no money coming in, in the middle of summer when there was no sessional work going at the university. Now perhaps that time was coming to an end. First I had become a person who had a car. Now I was once again a person who could go on holidays.
Granted, the holidays were with people whose idea of a good time was talking in a circle about the difference in their experiences of faith between Buddhism and Christianity. Before I knew them all, Suzy’s housemates and my housemates had once been one giant household, which had been all-lesbian, all community service workers, and had kept chickens, shared all the cooking, and had house meetings every Sunday night to work out their issues. Then they’d been evicted from the very large house and had to split into two smaller ones. I had taken a room in one of the smaller ones less than a year ago; I was the only one who had come via an ad in the paper and had not known any of them before. My household had inherited the chickens, and we had the Sunday house meetings too, but they were usually about something I had done wrong, such as putting a half-full mouldy sauce bottle in the bin instead of washing it out and recycling it.
By contrast, most of my friends over the years had been people I’d met at the university while studying subjects like Power, pleasure and the body in Renaissance Florence. My sort of people nominally belonged to the same side of politics as my housemates, but mine were the sort who liked to get drunk on cheap wine and crack up at double entendres about phallocentrism. If one of my friends had ever said while eating a bowl of lentils, ‘I just really think you can feel the energy of the earth,’ as my Buddhist vegetarian housemate once had, it would have been a joke.
But I didn’t seem to have any of those friends anymore, so the housemates it was.
We were in sheep country that dipped and rose like a green quilted doona, when Suzy said, ‘Roo!’
I chanced a look. But my eye had gone straight to Suzy, to the soft light on the t-shirt fabric stretched over her left breast.
Admittedly, I had looked at that breast before.
I wasn’t so confident travelling at a hundred and ten that I could chance a second look away from the road. ‘Where was it?’
‘Over that way.’
I kept a watch on the black-green stands of bush along the fence-lines of the paddock. I could just imagine a dark shape detaching itself and streaking in front of the car.
It was just before sunset when we crested the hill above Damboon. A plain, low, post-war holiday town, upstaged by a great bolt of Prussian-blue sea with a froth of white lace at the hem. Great, black cypress pines marched in an even line down the main street, which ran along the foreshore.
In town we passed a pub, the light in the disc-shaped Carlton Draught sign beginning to twinkle in the twilight, then a fish ’n’ chip shop and a servo. Then we turned right into the residential streets.
The house was salmon-pink fibro cement, single-fronted with a peaked iron roof. Its yard was runner-grass with bald patches of ochre sand.
Car unloaded, we stood in front of the open door of the elderly, chrome-trimmed fridge and looked at the groceries we’d brought with us. This would be the moment when the evening took a sudden turn for the depressing. Suzy would want to cook something like my housemates liked: a purgatorial pile of vegetables topped with two teaspoons of grated cheese, shoved in a baking dish and called a casserole, or a vegetarian meatloaf made entirely of unseasoned lentils cooked to mush, L.S.A. mix and grated carrot. Something that bore its wilful ignorance – or perhaps refusal – of culinary art, its denial of pleasure in eating, as a badge of some sort of hippy, pseudo-Puritan honour.
‘Don’t suppose you want to go to the pub?’ Suzy said.
‘You’re a genius,’ I said.
On the beach, there was still a blue glow on the horizon between the black arrows of the cypress pines.
We passed beneath the trees onto the sand. I took my shoes and socks off and rolled up my jeans, while Suzy waited, serene in her high-zipped boots.
The breakers came in low and regular. I rushed to the water’s edge.
Further down the beach, the sand ended in dark shapes of rocks. Beyond that, the land was treed and rocky right down to the shore, ending in a distant point where lights illuminated parts of a wooden structure.
‘What’s out there?’ I said.
‘Dunno,’ Suzy said. ‘Too far to check it out tonight.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ I said. And then, ‘It looks like elves live there or something.’
Suzy smiled, hands in her pockets.
‘Or pirates. Or it’s where the ships come in from Avalon.’ I began to run in a circle around her, arms out like an aeroplane.
I wanted to do something explosive, something more than running around in a circle. But I couldn’t think what it should be.
I stretched my arms above my head and pretended to look out to sea.
A couple walking beneath the cypress pines were looking at me. I let my arms drop.
The pub was like the country-town pubs from when I was a kid: wood-panelled throughout with maroon carpet stamped black along traffic ways. Along the row of dull-brass beer taps sat local men in their high-visibility gear from the power plant over the hill. They were watching the TV over the bar, so uninterested in each other they might have been a family alone together in its private lounge room. For a long moment, when Suzy and I walked into the taproom, they reacted with almost the surprise of that family, if strangers had just let themselves in the front door.
If I’d known it was this much of a small-town pub, I might have tried to deflect Suzy from coming in. I had taken my hair down and put on some dangly earrings to come down here; I didn’t look like a local but at least I was a recognisable kind of woman. Suzy, on the other hand, might have been the only female person ever seen in this town who could have passed for one of the T-birds from Grease.
‘G’day,’ Suzy said, to the first of the row of rude stares. The whole row of them startled into brief, embarrassed animation.
‘G’day,’ the first bloke in the row returned. Some others nodded. Suzy sauntered though to the Ladies Lounge with me scuttling at her heels.
We were on our second pint by the time we finished dinner, when in walked two blokes from the taproom.
‘You ladies want a game?’ one of them said, gesturing at the pool table.
‘Aw yeah,’ Suzy said. ‘I’ll give it a go.’
The table was covered in a cloth. The two blokes put things to rights with an air of familiarity.
‘You blokes live here, do ya? You just lie down under the table and have a nice sleep at the end of the night, then get up in the morning and start again?’ Suzy mimed pulling a beer from a tap.
They laughed. The leader said, ‘I wish.’
They were big fellers: broad and thick around the middle, wearing navy-and-orange high-vis shirts, navy trousers and work boots. Lightly grubby all over. The leader was the ginger: Damian. The other was thicker-set, dark-haired: Chris.
We paired off for the game. Damian broke with an almighty crash, following through till there was more cue in front of his hand than behind.
‘There’s gonna be balls on the floor, later, is there?’ I heckled.
‘Balls on the floor,’ Damian parroted.
‘That’s a bit personal,’ his mate piped.
Each time either of them said anything funny, they would look at both of us for a reaction, then look at each other and twinkle, as if to say, Did you see what I did there?
Suzy shook her head.
‘Can I’ve a crack at this?’ I said to my partner, Chris.
‘Yeah, go for your life,’ he said.
‘Can’t resist some low-hanging fruit,’ I said, and dropped the ten ball in from where it teetered on the threadbare lip of the far centre pocket.
‘Aw!’ Damian hooted. ‘We’ve got a pool shark here.’
‘Aw, no, you’re not supposed to break it out till later!’ Suzy remonstrated with me. ‘When we’ve got ’em laying bets.’
‘Ha,’ I said. ‘Well, I’m going to miss this one.’ The only thing still out in the open was the eleven, back towards the centre of the table.
‘Nah, you’ll be right,’ Chris said.
‘Nah, I can never do these ones.’
‘Think positive,’ Chris said.
‘We can all think fifty-dollar notes are about to start falling from the ceiling if we want, but that doesn’t mean they will.’ I took the shot and missed, dribbling the eleven into a hopeless position flush against the cushion. ‘Where’s my money? You obviously weren’t thinking positive hard enough.’
‘You didn’t give me enough warning,’ Chris squawked. ‘You gotta get a run-up on these things!’
‘Alright, let’s try again.’ I made a face like I was taking a shit, and he copied me. ‘Is it working yet?’
‘I dunno,’ Chris said. ‘Keep going!’
In the background, Suzy was shunting balls away like they were on rails. ‘Are you lot right?’ she said, leaning over with one knee up on the cushion to take a shot. She potted the ball with a crack, and Damian hooted like a kid in a dodgem car.
‘We’re trying,’ I said witheringly, ‘to make money fall from the ceiling.’
‘Well, then,’ Suzy said, ‘carry on, by all means.’
Finally it was Chris’s shot. He surveyed the pickings.
‘So youse are from the city, are ya?’ Damian said.
There was a pause. Chris didn’t take his shot.
They could have been fighting words.
‘Yep,’ Suzy said. ‘I grew up in Newcastle. Came down here when I dropped out of school.’
‘I’m Melbourne-born and bred,’ I said. ‘You blokes always lived here?’
Later, when we were quite a bit drunker, Chris leaned over to me and said, ‘She’s, ah, not into blokes, I take it.’
‘You’d take it right,’ I said.
‘Is she your missus?’
‘Nah. She’s not my missus.’
‘Are you into blokes, then?’
‘Love ’em,’ I said, ‘for lunch, with a bit of tomato sauce.’
I watched him bending over the table to take his shot, ponderous and careful. There were traces of black at his orange collar like pencil rubbings. You imagined a building falling on him, and him emerging with a bit of dust in his eyelashes and an expression of mild consternation. No doubt he didn’t mind how other people sorted the recycling.
I could fuck him.
All he probably wanted was someone who’d make him wash his sheets and buy some proper coffee. He’d probably quite like showing off to his friends about what a smarty-pants I was. I could take him to Christmas, to drinks at work, and absolutely no one would be weird about it at all.
He sunk his shot with a sharp tock.
‘Score!’ his mate called.
When Suzy and I shouldered in the front door, Suzy said, ‘I’m going to turn in.’ The bathroom door closed behind her.
I had half been thinking we were on a kind of date, and this was just the next phase of it.
I went and sat on my bed with the door closed.
When I heard the bathroom door open and Suzy’s door close behind her, I got up and used the bathroom myself, then got ready for bed.
The bed sagged in the middle, and the sheets had gone transparent with age.
As I got sleepier, I lost the leash on my mind.
I imagined Suzy turning me over, pressing my face into the pillow. A mother cat controlling her kitten.
I dared to roll to my hands and knees.
I imagined somebody coming in and seeing me that way and instantly, violently threw myself onto my back again. The hairs on my arms had risen in shame.
I had thought about a place like this for a holiday house for Steph and me: a cheap family place that the owners had filled with their terrible brown seventies crockery and mismatched wooden salad servers with burn marks. It would become our place, the way Rest’s Creek was my parents’ place, the way they started all their stories with, One year, down at Rest’s… Once we were sure we liked it, we would get our friends to come down too, and then it would be everyone’s place.
But those friends weren’t my friends anymore; they were Steph’s. I suppose I could have made it up with some of them. There was a period there where I would tell myself I was just going to try calling someone. I would try to plan what I was going to say. But I couldn’t get far enough through the plan before I would start to cry. So I had stopped trying to do that. Now I just didn’t think about it at all.
I was awake again. The air was dark blue, too dim to make much out.
I shambled out of bed and pissed explosively in the rust-streaked toilet. On my way back, I saw Suzy’s door was standing open.
I went to the kitchen. The back door was open onto the dark.
Outside, she was leaning on the railing of the back porch, smoking in a singlet.
She carried her shoulders so square and still, in that masculine way – beautiful.
I went out to her. When she noticed me, she moved a smidgeon. I leant on the rail beside her.
She offered me her cigarette, whole hand curled around it. It was almost exactly how I remembered a high school boy trying to style himself as he hit on me. She sold it utterly.
When I did not take it, she turned her body towards me in question.
I was seeing it: her bra-less breast beneath the white singlet, lovely as a tear-drop.
Heat was crawling on my scalp.
‘Who’s going to know?’ she said, smoky-voiced.
She was looming over me, within a hand’s breath. Her face was a collection of shadows.
‘You would,’ I said. It was not a suave voice.
The shadows of her face emitted a huff of breath. I realised her hand was on my back.
‘Also, your girlfriend’s here in the morning,’ I said.
She recoiled. ‘So what? It’s just a ciggie.’ She strode off to the end of the railing. Only then did her silhouette say, ‘Settle down.’
‘You settle down,’ I said, and heard her gather breath for a retort.
I said, ‘I’m going back to bed,’ and left.
I was woken in the morning by Suzy’s two housemates barging in to leave their bags – now that more people had arrived, they would be taking this room while I, a single person, got booted to the bunk room. People were crashing around and calling to each other in the house.
The bathroom was occupied, so I went to the kitchen. All the seats were taken by either people or bags. My housemates were all there, unpacking things.
‘Hello, you,’ one said. ‘We’ve invaded!’
‘You sure have!’ I said, and ducked out the back door.
In the backyard, Suzy’s girlfriend, Tracy, was doing lunges in white leggings with a pink handprint design on the bum. Suzy lay on the grass, theatrically ogling her. Tracy looked down at her, shaking her head.
I took a swift detour and made for the gate at the side of the house.
The latch was rusted shut.
‘What are you doing, mate?’ Suzy called.
‘Uh,’ I said cheerily, ‘there’s people everywhere and I can’t even get in to pee. I don’t even know, really.’
‘You can pee here,’ Suzy leered. ‘We don’t mind.’
Tracy laughed and booted her in the side with her runner. Suzy made a show of coughing.
The latch came unstuck. I dashed through the gate and shoved it closed behind me.
The side fence only came halfway up the property line. I was essentially out on the street.
‘G’day, love,’ said an elderly man in shorts and thongs who was checking the next door’s mailbox.
‘G’day,’ I said, conscious of my boobs in my pyjama top, and let myself back in the front door.
I had walked a cigarette butt in on my bare feet. I picked it off.
I peered down the hall – the bathroom door was open at last. I dashed for it.
Showered and dressed, I made my escape quietly out the front door and scarpered to the beach.
I climbed onto the rocks at the end of the sand. As soon as there was no one in sight, I began to cry. I lurched from rock to rock, sobbing – one good sob to each rock. The light off the water clattered like a sack of new nails.
Eventually I dried my face in the wind and came back up to the street.
The squinty morning made things offensively present: a rubbish bin with its palings falling off; a jumble of Jim Beam cans on a picnic table, gathering ants. I sat down and watched the water froth and bash, shunting the seaweed back and forth.
A man’s voice, very ocker, was shouting for a woman with the same name as me. My neck prickled.
Provoked, I chanced a look. A figure stepped out from the fenced yard at the side of the pub, waving. It was Chris from last night.
I got up and crossed the sandy street. ‘Allo-allo! I was like, who’s this hoon shouting at?’
‘Ha. Come and have a drink?’
‘Geez, you blokes start early.’ I followed him into a runner-grass and sand beer garden.
Two men and a woman sat before a row of Bacardi Breezers at a picnic table. Chris pulled me up a plastic lawn chair to sit on the end, beside him.
The men were Chris’s brother, his mate, and his mate’s sister. ‘G’day,’ they all said.
‘G’day,’ I said.
I had expended my You blokes start early line prematurely. If I’d saved it till I’d sat down, it could have been an opener. Now I had nothing.
They all leaned forward, waiting for me to perform. When it became clear I had missed my cue, they waited a few, polite seconds longer to see if I would recover. I did not. As one, with the complete ease and indifference of siblings in each other’s company, they turned away and went back to talking among themselves.
‘Get the lady a drink, mate!’ Chris shouted at someone inside.
‘Nah, nah!’ I said.
‘Come on!’ he cried, rather too loudly, making a rousing gesture to the rest of the table. The chorus of support he must have hoped for did not arise.
‘I could go a lemon squash,’ I conceded. He waddled inside in the crabwalk of a bulky tradesman.
I smiled up the table at the mate’s sister. She looked me over mildly and sucked her fag.
‘Here y’are,’ Chris said, putting down my lemon squash.
‘Ta,’ I said.
He sat down. ‘You alright? You look a bit…’
‘It’s just the wind on the beach.’
He was dressed as if from a rag bag, in a mis-buttoned chambray shirt and some ancient board-shorts with torn hems – a lot like my dad on the weekends.
‘It’s depressing, actually,’ I said. ‘I’m staying in this holiday house with all these couples, and my girlfriend broke up with me a while ago, and… yeah.’ My voice had gone reedy.
‘Oh. That’s no good,’ he replied with an echoing, embarrassed quaver.
‘And, like. We were friends with the same people and so now I don’t even have any fucking friends, you know. So I’ve taken up with these people I don’t even get along with. And it’s just… fucked.’ I could hear myself: an unkind parody of a sooking woman.
‘Yeah, nah. That’s no good,’ Chris said again.
‘What about your mate from last night? She seemed alright,’ he said, rallying.
‘Don’t even fucking ask, mate. Just don’t even fucking ask.’ My voice was steadying.
‘Is that right? Sounds like a story.’
‘You do not want to know.’
‘How do you know what I want to know?’
‘Just imagine…’ I said. ‘Just imagine the most sordid possible situation you can imagine, and that’s about the size of it.’
‘Aw!’ he squawked. ‘I wish you’d tell me, but.’
‘Just think,’ I said, ‘how much you didn’t want to hear it when I dumped all that shit on you a minute ago. And look at us now!’
‘It’s not that I didn’t want to hear it, precisely.’
Later, on the beach, I balanced on a concrete bollard and jiggled from foot to foot. I had been talked into a Malibu-and-pineapple at the pub, and it was warm in the sun, and I had cried so much earlier, I was sure there was nothing left in the tank. It seemed quite safe to call Steph.
I had rung her a lot in the early days and hung up just as she answered, or hung up in the middle of the voicemail message. I would start out feeling that I was finally going to tell her – finally going to stick it to her. Then the second I realised it was really happening and now was the time to speak, it was like I had woken up from sleep-walking with one foot over a cliff. My scalp would try to leap off my head. Once when the phone screen wouldn’t wake up fast enough to let me press end call, I tore the battery off the back and threw it across the room.
Now I felt I was just an observer. I was just calling to see what would happen.
Four rings passed. I braced myself to get the voicemail.
‘Hello,’ Steph said, picking up. Then, cautiously, she said my name.
‘Hi. I’m just ringing to say hi.’
‘Oh, hi. How have you been?’
‘Yeah, pretty good. I’m actually down at Damboon – on the east coast? – with my housemates. And some bogans in a pub just talked me into a Malibu-and-coconut at, like, eleven thirty in the morning. So I’m like, whee!’
‘That sounds cool. Not too much is different with me. Still the same job. Still living in the old house.’
‘Well, nothing wrong with that,’ I said.
‘You should come and see us all at the pub one Friday. People have been saying they haven’t seen you for ages.’
They had not said this to me. Not a one of them had called me since the breakup.
‘Yeah, um, maybe,’ I said. ‘I’ll think about it.’
‘You totally should!’ she said.
‘I’ll think about it.’
It struck me that they were all a pack of dicks. Just a complete pack of dicks. Luckily, it didn’t seem to have much to do with me.
Back at the house, someone was hiding under the one tea tree in the front yard. It was the no-carb housemate, with the baggy-thighed jeans and the mumsy, short-back-and-sides hair. She was wiping under her eyes with the pad of her middle finger.
‘Hey,’ I said.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Just… too many people.’
‘You don’t even like it when people sit on the couch cushions wrong at home, and now there’s this whole house full of lunatics running around.’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I feel like an idiot, because I organised the whole bloody thing.’
‘Never mind. They’re all having a good time.’
‘You did alright, anyway,’ she laughed. ‘You did a runner hours ago.’
‘Yeah. I’ve been having a cry myself, down the beach. Can’t cope either.’
‘Would have been a good idea.’ She sniffed.
‘Listen,’ I said, ‘I’m going to go for a drive to the point. There’s a building out there and I want to see what it is. Do you want to come?’
I held my finger to my lips and made for the car in a cartoon-cat-burglar stalk. She shook her head in her school-teacherly way and followed.
A couple of bends of the highway out of town and we were in the national park. The trees closed in overhead: tiger-barked eucalypts draped in their own debris.
I started to talk. ‘There was this bloke in the pub last night, when Suzy and I were there. Just some country bloke. But he liked me. And I suddenly thought, I could have sex with him, and then I would be normal again and everything would be easy.’
A car whooshed past in the other direction.
‘Sometimes I think that, too,’ she said.
I looked at her. She looked almost exactly like a member of a nineties boy-band on a casual day. ‘That wasn’t what I was expecting you to say.’
‘What?’ she laughed. ‘You think I came out of the womb in a flannie?’
We were out of the national park, and there was a tin-shed servo coming up. ‘Do you want to get a Chiko Roll?’ I said.
‘I’ll have a peanut,’ she said.
‘What, one peanut?’
‘I’d take a packet in a pinch,’ she said, patient.
Out towards the point was a turn-off to a dirt road, which we followed to a clearing. Here was the boatshed I’d seen from the beach, attached to a long jetty leading out onto a reedy mud flat. There was a wretched stink of fish guts and tidal swamp cooking in the sun.
The smell improved out on the jetty. A wide, shallow river mouth stretched away behind the point. Beyond it on the coast was opaque greenery right down to the shore, except for one tiny beach, a pale toenail of sand.
A man in a khaki hat was fishing on the end of the jetty. We stopped near him and nodded.
‘Wonder how you get out there,’ the housemate said to me, looking at the beach.
‘Yeah,’ I said.
The man spoke up. ‘Gotta take a dingy out at high tide.’
‘Christ,’ the housemate said, broad and low, ‘it’s alright for some.’
I’d forgotten she was from Queensland. I’d heard that broad version of her voice when I’d first rung up about the room for rent – when she’d said, tactfully but emphatically, like a person accustomed to breaking unwelcome news, ‘So, we’re all gay.’ It had been clear she was a good egg.
‘You get out there and there’s not a single footprint in the sand but yours,’ the man said.
‘I don’t think I’m ever going to be a person who has a dingy,’ I said. ‘But that’s alright. The idea’s probably better than the practice.’
‘Don’t be so sure,’ the man said.
‘I’ve got an uncle with a dingy,’ the housemate said. ‘He goes out with his mates and a slab of beer, and they’re all old fellers, and they fall asleep and the dingy drifts onto a sandbar. Has to get towed off.’
‘Good on him,’ the man said.
We looked out at the beach, desiring the place we could not go.
Belinda Rule is a Melbourne writer of poetry and fiction. Residencies and fellowships include Varuna, Bundanon Trust and Squaw Valley Community of Writers, USA. Her work has appeared extensively in journals and anthologies including Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Westerly, Island, Cordite Poetry Review, The London Magazine and Best Australian Poems.
(edited by Laura McPhee-Browne)
Most people think that Werzy is my twin sister. I did too, until Mum told us both the truth when we needed our birth certificates for a History project in Year 8. It was bit of a shock to find out that Werzy was my Aunty and one month younger than me.
See, my mother is the eldest of thirteen, and when her Mum, Nanna Cornelia, had Werzy — her thirteenth — it was all too much. We took her in as one of our own and moved, quick-smart apparently, from Adelaide up to Brisbane.
Werzy took the news a lot better than I expected; my surname, date of birth, star sign, and parentage hadn’t changed, but Werzy’s whole world was turned upside down. So her nonchalant attitude seemed odd to me at the time. What I didn’t know then was that she had a much bigger secret hidden away in her fubsy body.
Werzy got her nickname in primary school. Her first name, Wilhelmina, drew the attention of Brad Cunningham, a bully who was prone to a bit of rodomontade which I thought was to cover up his bad case of haplography. I found out later though that his dad was a blue-singleted wife basher who drank every day until he became catawampus. Poor Brad, no wonder he couldn’t spell. Anyway, Willy, as we called her at the time, always carried a dictionary around with her. She was a logophile, and if you think I’m a bit verbose it’s actually all her fault.
‘Wilhelmina, Wilhelmina, she grows on a rock and couldn’t be meaner,’ sang Brad one little lunch, when we were made to sit under the camphor laurel trees to drink the free, warm milk.
‘He’s suggesting I’m rupestrine,’ said Willy, unperturbed. She showed me the word in her dictionary and I laughed. Brad didn’t take too kindly to my cachinnation, so he stood up, walked across the cracked asphalt and punched me in the nose. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I cried. Wilhelmina stepped in and kicked him in the groin.
Brad dropped to the ground like a sack of starchy tubers and the whole of Year 5 sat stunned with opened mouths. After all the kerfuffle, the principal called a school assembly. He gave a ten minute lecture on bullying, and appropriate and inappropriate responses. Then in front of us all, he gave Willy, yes Willy, two cuts of his cane and then Brad got six. The assembly was dismissed and I spent the rest of the day trying to be as apatetic as possible because by now the whole school knew my sister had stepped in to defend me. If I knew then what I know now maybe I would have cried out, ‘She’s my Aunty, not my sister,’ but I’m sure it wouldn’t have made a difference.
For some reason Brad spent the rest of Year 5 trying his darnedest to get on side with me and Willy. I didn’t mind since I figured that if I could be seen joking around and even rough-housing a bit with the boy who got six cuts of the cane without even a wince, maybe the humiliation of being the boy who needed his twin sister to step in for him might wane? Brad even tried to use big words to gain our favour. He consulted with the librarian and together they found the word lexicomane. He started calling Willy ‘Lexi Comane’, but my twin sister, once again, stopped him in his tracks. She said, ‘Brad, lexicomane is not a real word. If you desired to attribute a word to me to characterise my propensity to use big words, you could have scrutinised the thesaurus a bit more thoroughly and found sesquipedalian. Now that is a real word.’
Brad was without word. For a moment anyway. He picked up a stick off the ground and threw it at a noisy crow in the tree. ‘Did you know I can throw a rock from the top of Mt Gravatt all the way into the Brisbane River?’
‘Your mendacity metagrobolises me,’ said Willy.
‘I give up,’ groaned Brad. ‘You win, Willy Wordsworth!’
And that was that. Out of sheer frustration, Brad the bully, trying to ingratiate himself with the master of the lexicon and the swift kicker to the testicles, had popped out a nickname that stuck like the proverbial mud. Like wildfire the name Willy Wordsworth swept through Sunnybank State Primary School.
In the weeks ahead it got trimmed and morphed. Willy Wordsworth was truncated to Wordsworth, then that was transmogrified into Wordsy. And then finally, in true to form Australianisation, it ended up rolling off our tongues as Werzy.
After Mum told us that we weren’t twins, Werzy and I grew apart a bit. It wasn’t really because she was now my Aunty, which we decided to keep as a family secret for the moment, nor that she was still a word freak quick to violence; it was more that in High School the boys hung out with the boys and the girls looked down on us as immature and despicable. Werzy was fine with me one on one, but at school, even though she was quite a tomboy, she hung out with all the pretty girls in our year; the very same girls that us immature and pimply boys used to fantasise over.
Brad Cunningham and I would watch them from the other side of the quadrangle.
‘Why doesn’t Werzy invite us over to hang out with her mates?’ Brad would ask from time to time.
They would laugh and hug each other, even hold hands as they walked to period five after lunch. It was then that I first thought Werzy might be a lesbian.
‘Did you know Tina Westbourne is intimately allied with that young and hirsute PE teacher, Mr King? It’s ridiculously clandestine and she has unmitigatedly succumbed to limerence. It’s quite disconcerting,’ said Werzy one afternoon after school as we divided up the rest of the milk left in the fridge. ‘He’s a certified philanderer. An interloper of the worst kind,’ she continued, with spittle forming a line of ebullition along the lower labium of her mouth. She was optically verdant and beastly, and clearly jealous of Mr King’s success.
By the time we reached Year 12 Werzy got over Tina Westbourne by having several sexual dalliances with other girls — and I was still a virgin! On the night of the graduation formal she called Mum and Dad and me into the loungeroom to announce that she was a man trapped inside a female body. I was discombobulated, and didn’t know whether to say, ‘Sure bro!’ or ask, ‘So now you’re my Uncle?’
Inside my busy mind I was reconstructing the world. I realised that Werzy wasn’t gay after all — she was a he, and therefore as heterosexual as moi. I took it all in my stride and in the car as Dad drove us to the formal it dawned on me that Werzy was now uniquely and perfectly placed to help me crack onto Tina Westbourne. Howzat that for serendipity?
Sean Crawley writes short stories, songs, non-fiction and the odd angry letter which he occasionally sends. He won the Hervey Bay Arts Council Short Story Award in 2015 and has been published online and in anthologies, the most recent being The 2016 Newcastle Short Story Award. Sean has worked in education, mental health and once owned a video shop in a dying town. He writes early in the morning at his desk currently located on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland.
Turpentine is a type of tree. How could Martin not have known? He’d lived in Bamberg for eleven years – he should have known.
‘It’s true,’ Anne said, expansively, her eyes widening as she spoke. ‘Turpentine forests surrounded Sydney, before European settlement. That’s how it was.’
Martin was a retired accountant, but even so. He knew the smell well enough, knew it from the half-used bottle in his shed, from numerous times cleaning paint brushes, forearms, fingers and palms. He could have summoned the smell to his nose, to his throat, but in so doing he would have looked quite odd, foolish even, and so he resisted the temptation. Pride, that’s what it was – gets its teeth into you at an early age, or doesn’t.
They were chatting over breakfast at Bethany’s, Anne’s favourite café. This was the third occasion in four weeks, after being introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Initially, neither had taken kindly to the idea.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ had been Martin’s first response.
The acquaintance was Peter Taylor. Peter, from the golf club, perhaps the greatest of the non-playing members – he could have a drink with anyone.
‘A retired academic?’ Martin said. ‘No, nothing in common. Thankyou, but no, and I doubt she’d have an interest in the likes of me.’
‘Don’t be so sure,’ said Peter. ‘There are all sorts of perverts in the world – age shall not weary them.’
That was Peter for you. He owned the TyreMart in town, though by now the place was managed by his twin sons, George and Michael – that had gone down well at school, especially during roll call. Bright boys, inherited their father’s entrepreneurial spirit, but not his graft. Big plans for a carwash, apparently.
‘In which discipline?’ Martin asked, thinking it couldn’t do any harm.
‘Discipline?’ Peter replied. ‘No one said anything about discipline. You kinky old bastard.’
‘Department,’ Martin said. ‘Subject. What was her area?’
‘French,’ replied Peter. ‘So you never know.’
Martin and Jean, his dearly departed, had several times holidayed in France. On their final visit, some fifteen years ago, they rented a farmhouse in Provence. The children joined them for the first ten days, his son with his then fiancé, followed for the remainder by Jean’s younger sister and her family. By then, he and Jean had grown hopeless at being alone.
‘I rather like the smell of turpentine,’ Martin ventured. ‘It makes your cheeks blush.’
‘And your brain,’ Anne responded, tilting her head for some unknown reason.
Anne wasn’t one for mind-altering substances. Even as a student – she’d graduated in 1971, for goodness sake – she’d stayed away from serious drugs, and certainly during her career at the university. Marijuana but never chemicals, not even after she’d met Serge in Marseille and married him in Lyon. Serge – how apt a name: into her life and out the other side.
Anne smiled at Martin as she finished her cup of coffee. God knows she might have used something stronger, what with the trouble she was having with her daughter. Her daughter’s partner, more precisely, the way she spoke to Sabine and the children. The woman was a bully.
‘One of these days we should go on a bushwalk,’ Martin said.
Anne did not respond.
‘I said, one of these days we should go on a bushwalk. To Narrow Neck, for example. See if we can’t find those trees.’
‘Sorry,’ replied Anne. ‘I was miles away.’
She hoped she hadn’t offended Martin, hoped he’d sympathise with the way one gets carried away by one’s own thoughts, one’s preoccupations – one’s life. They were still new to each other, after all, had gone down only a layer or two, and so remained blessedly unrevealed.
‘A bushwalk?’ Anne said. ‘Goodness, I haven’t been on a bushwalk in years.’
‘Beautiful out there in winter,’ Martin assured her. ‘On a sunny day.’
Just the previous week Martin had taken his grandson on a bushwalk. They’d made it all the way to Mt Solitary. Stood together on the hump, looking back towards Bamberg, over the tops of trees, Martin doing his best with the local history. The boy had been patient and curious, for a twelve year old.
‘I’d not thought of bushwalking,’ Anne said. ‘Wouldn’t want to get caught out there alone.’
‘No chance of that,’ said Martin. ‘Fresh air, and good for the balance.’
Things were going well – Martin could feel it – so why not press on, take another step? They were enjoying each other, like adolescents with age-spots and pre-crimped skin, but infinitely more interesting. They had so much to avoid talking about.
‘It’s my turn to pay,’ Anne said.
Already? Martin thought. He had no further plans, and now the day would re-commence too quickly. Perhaps the club in the afternoon, though that would mean fielding Peter’s questions. He put himself together – keys, phone, coat, scarf – and went to wait outside, his collar turned against the wind. He paid attention to the door, opening it twice for an indecisive young woman and her tremendous stroller.
‘Thankyou,’ Anne said, joining Martin on the footpath.
‘No,’ said Martin. ‘Thankyou. For breakfast. For everything.’
‘You’re welcome,’ Anne said.
‘Same time next week?’ Martin asked.
‘Next week’s difficult,’ Anne replied.
It wasn’t that she wanted to drive to Sydney to look after her daughter’s children, but Sabine’s partner had arranged three nights in Melbourne, and their father couldn’t – or wouldn’t – have them during the week. A show, dinner, and God knows what else. Frankly, Anne hoped the rapprochement wouldn’t work. The woman was a bully.
‘The week after next?’ Anne said.
She leant forward to kiss Martin on the cheek, held his elbow for a second longer than she’d done the time before, and then she walked off in the direction of her car.
Martin didn’t leave, not immediately. He watched Anne disappear around the corner, and then he watched for a little while longer. What was going on? Even now, green shoots? Such capacity for renewal, such localised forgetting – how much more of this would they be granted? It’s ridiculous, and it keeps on being so. The way life might spring and lunge, in spite of itself, like a bull for the heart.
Craig Billingham’s poems, stories and reviews have appeared widely, including in Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Southerly, and Review of Australian Fiction. A collection of poems, Storytelling, was published in 2007. He is a Doctor of Arts candidate at the University of Sydney.
(edited by Michelle McLaren)
I exit Amir’s car at the hospital.
My eyes are drawn to a glowing baby in a pram as I enter the toilets. Her mother is applying foundation in light, bouncing motions. The baby starts crying loudly. The mother slicks some red lipstick on her lips. The baby’s cry is peppered with staccato hiccups. Black eyeliner is smeared under the mother’s eyes. She fixes it, and then outlines her lips with a dark red lip liner. The baby looks as if it’s choking. It is choking. The mother brushes her eyelashes with mascara, making them as long as possible. There seems to be something wrong with your baby, she’s choking. She is choking.
‘Calm down,’ the mother says in a cold, sarcastic voice, brushing her hair to one side.
The baby stops crying instantly.
See? She just wants you to notice her. Notice your baby. Don’t be like me.
Her phone rings. Looking satisfied, a proud smile spreads across the woman’s lips. ‘Hi love,’ she coos, pushing the pram towards the exit.
My first date with Amir flashes before my eyes. ‘I’d like to have four children, two girls and two boys,’ he had said, pointing to a cute toddler at the next table. The kid rocked back and forth, pressing his lips together whenever the mother put the spoon near his mouth. ‘I’ll never force my kid to eat something he doesn’t enjoy. It makes things easier,’ I had said.
‘You just give birth to the baby and I’ll take care of his food, I promise,’ he had laughed.
Amir has only recently regained full use of his injured leg. His right leg used to drag. Truth be told, he suffered all for me.
I leave the toilets to find the right sub-department: Oral Health.
I walk down the floral-wallpapered hallway towards the reception desk.
‘Hi, I am the interpreter for Rahim Karami.’
‘Good morning, let me check,’ she says mechanically. ‘Yes, he’s sitting over there.’
I approach a short, bald man in his fifties, who is squeezing his nose with his thumb and middle finger. Fumbling in my bag, I introduce myself: ‘سلام من دینا هستم. مترجمتون’.
His mouth opens with a laugh, displaying the four missing upper front teeth. He sniffles and wipes his nose with a handkerchief.
‘I’m Jane, his social worker,’ an Australian woman says from behind me. Her curly blond hair looks quite messy. I take my glasses from my bag.
Rahim slides a photo out of his pocket. He talks about his brother, Karim, who has been hospitalised for a while but is feeling well now. The laugh is gone.
‘من یه برادر دارم. بیمارستان بود اما الان خونست. حالش الان خوبه’
He puts his face close to the photo and stares at it for a moment, repeating Karim’s story.
‘من یه برادر دارم. بیمارستان بود اما الان خونست. حالش الان خوبه ‘
Why does he repeat himself? Is it the effect of desolation?
‘Rahim has this problem that makes him repeat everything several times,’ the social worker says. ‘Has he talked about Karim yet?’
‘Yeah, he did.’
‘Karim’s hospitalised and is unlikely to recover from his heart problems.’
Yes, his habit is the effect of desolation.
Rahim plays with the ID card hanging around his neck, turning it face up. ‘این منم’, he says, ‘It’s me’. He tries to make sure I understand that Jane has taken the photo.
‘.جین این عکس رو گرفت’
He settles himself comfortably back in the chair and repeats, ‘.جین این عکس رو گرفت’
I smile. The receptionist hands Jane some forms to complete. Jane asks me if Rahim is allergic to any drugs.
‘Rahim jan به چیزی آلرژی داری؟’, I ask him.
‘Allergy?’ he asks. ‘HAAA allergy,’ he points to the bouquet of flowers on the receptionist’s desk.
‘.من گلهای زرد و قرمز دوست دارم’
I tell him that I like red and yellow flowers too, and then ask the question again.
‘He doesn’t seem to know if he’s allergic to any medicine,’ I say to Jane. ‘I mean he doesn’t quite understand my question.’
‘That’s okay. Let me see what I can do.’
Jane calls another member of the organisation that looks after Rahim’s medical conditions.
A Chinese girl in the front row turns the pages of a magazine. She looks to be about my age, possibly thirty-eight. Rahim asks for a magazine. She sneezes. ‘Bless you,’ Rahim says. Her long straight hair falls around her face as she turns around and gives him a gentle smile. ‘Thank you.’
A stocky dentist with glasses comes out of room 28 to call Rahim. ‘Ha,’ Rahim says.
‘Come in Rahim,’ the dentist smiles, casting a rapid glance at me as I rise from the chair.
‘Hi, I’m Jane, his support help, and this is Dina, the interpreter.’
‘Nice to see you.’
Rahim touches the black mark on the door as he enters.
‘What seems to be the problem?’ the dentist asks.
‘He’s been complaining about severe pain in his upper front tooth since Sunday.’
The dentist adjusts his glasses on the bridge of his nose with his right hand, and writes something on a questionnaire-like form with the other. I hear the slow scribbling of the pen.
I hope Amir has arrived home safely. He is driving for the second time since the accident.
‘OK, what I’ll do now is to see if there’s any need for an X-ray. Then, before any special work is done on his teeth, I’ll contact the adult guardian to get permission. Ah, will you ask him to recline his head on to the headrest?’
I make a conscious effort not to laugh my lungs out. Rahim’s head is in the air, next to the headrest, with his mouth as wide open as possible. His eyes are clamped shut. I wish the dentist could shove a toothbrush in his mouth and brush his yellow teeth.
‘Ha,’ he says, his eyes still shut.
I ask him to open his eyes; ‘Rahim jan, چشماتو باز نگه دار’.
Rahim does, then puts his hands behind his head and leans back. I move two steps nearer to touch his head and move it slightly. He blinks at Jane, with his index finger up, and then brings his hands towards me to show his badly damaged nails. He used to construct and repair walls, partitions, arches, and concrete blocks for fifteen years, he says.
He breathes in deeply, then pulls his shirt up to expose a huge, round belly.
‘Is he hungry?’ Jane asks.
‘Yes,’ he says.
‘He’s always hungry,’ Jane whispers in my ear.
‘Does he eat a lot?’
‘Yes, well, if he gets the chance.’
‘Please explain to him that I’ll take a thorough look in his mouth to see which tooth is causing the pain.’
I do as I’m asked.
The dentist wears surgical gloves and a mask. Rahim changes his position from prone to sitting upright, touching my wrist when he sees the mirror in the dentist’s hand.
‘What’s wrong?’ the dentist asks. Rahim points to one of his teeth in the upper right hand side of his mouth and says, ‘.دیگه درد ندارم’
‘He’s scared,’ I say, extremely impressed. ‘He says that he no longer has any pain.’
‘It won’t take more than one minute.’
‘Okay,’ Rahim says, reclining his head on the headrest once again.
Does he understand English?
‘All right,’ the dentist says, removing his left hand from Rahim’s mouth. ‘He needs to have a dental X-ray; I believe his tooth has to come out.’
Rahim’s big, round eyes are staring at me. He turns red in the face, and jumps to his feet.
He knows English.
‘Please ask him to bite this cardboard X-ray film and not move. We’ll go out of the room while the X-ray is done. Also tell him that I’ll give him some medicine just in case he has some pain after the numbness abates.’
Rahim seems to understand the whole procedure. ‘Okay,’ he says, rolling his eyes.
‘Open wide, good, now bite down hard and don’t move.’
Hesitant to bite down on the piece in his mouth, he points to Jane. ‘Let’s go.’
‘It’ll be all over very soon. You’ll be fine, you’re a brave man,’ Jane says.
He runs his fingers lightly over Jane’s arm, delighted.
‘Come on,’ Jane says, looking frustrated.
We step out of the room, leaving him alone. Rahim brings his thumb up as the X-ray machine buzzes.
‘Well, the X-ray proves that we’ll need to extract this tooth. There’s almost nothing left of it. It’s mostly broken. Please let him know that I’ll give him an injection before removing his tooth. He might feel a short, sharp pain but it won’t take more than a second.’
I convey the message. Rahim takes the position of a runner, but he halts and sits back.
‘Okay,’ Rahim says. He then repeats a story over and over about his brother hitting himself in the head when the doctor wanted to remove his tooth last week.
The tooth is now numb enough to be removed forever, to stop existing. No longer being there to help Rahim chew or bite. No longer going through the pain and difficulties Rahim will experience in life. The poet Rumi once wrote: ‘Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.’ In what form will a lost tooth or a lost hope come around? Oh, my baby. Where are you?
‘Here it comes,’ the dentist says. ‘There’s a bigger piece still remaining.’
Rahim’s placid expression changes to one of extreme anger.
The dentist places the piece of the broken tooth on the tray. The napkin goes red. I can feel the pressure on his tooth every time Rahim stares at me, tears leaking from his eyes. The dentist begins levering the tooth with his elevators. The tooth is really stubborn. It refuses to come out, very insistent on being there, as a witness to its life. ‘This piece is really uncooperative,’ the dentist says, replacing the elevators with extraction forceps.
Rahim moans, stretching his arms farther towards Jane. I pat him on his shoulder.
‘It’s already loosened somewhat and will be teased out in a second,’ the dentist says.
Is his tooth really hard to extract or is he an inexperienced dentist? Rahim is no longer shouting, as he is more obsessed with grabbing the dental assistant’s hand. She has grown anxious, no longer smiling or saying any comforting words.
Rahim screws up his eyes against the light.
‘It’s finished,’ the dentist exclaims with delight. ‘It was deep inside his gum. Well done Rahim, such a brave man. Rinse your mouth with water.’
Saliva drips from Rahim’s mouth into the dental sink, mixing with his blood. Then his mouth opens with a sweet smile to display the big space left by the missing tooth.
‘He’d better not have anything to eat for two hours and then have something soft.’
Rahim touches his belly and says ‘گرسنمه’.
Jane stares at him and frown lines appear on her forehead when I tell her that he is hungry. ‘He had a big breakfast just before coming here. How come he’s hungry?’ Jane asks, and then quickly turns her head towards me. ‘Please make sure he understands that he should only eat soft food.’
Rahim looks deep into my eyes and tells me that he loves Jane, that she is very beautiful. Then he rubs his tummy with one hand and his thigh with the other.
‘Is he still talking about eating?’ Jane asks.
I look back at him and exhale in disbelief.
‘Well, no. I don’t think so.’
He wants Jane to take his hand, now that he’s behaved so well. I tell her. A surprised expression crosses the dentist and the dental assistant’s faces. ‘What?’ Jane asks, sarcastic. ‘Ask the receptionist to book him another appointment in two weeks’ time,’ the dentist says.
‘Sure, I will.’
‘دوسش دارم’, Rahim says again; I love her.
‘Is there anything wrong?’ the dental assistant asks looking at him still seated on the reclining chair.
‘He’s talking about his brother,’ I lie, not knowing what else to say.
We thank the dentist and the assistant.
‘بهش نگو’ Rahim says, his fingers drifting slowly and rhythmically over his stomach, and into his lap. He doesn’t want her to know yet.
Rahim’s eyes drift towards Jane’s breasts as he talks about how enticing, round, and firm they are. I feel a shiver running down my spine. ‘Anything wrong?’ Jane asks, giving me a curious look. ‘No, everything’s fine. I’ll just have the assignment sheet signed, if there isn’t anything else I can do for you.’
‘No, thank you Dina. All done. The next appointment is on Tuesday the thirteenth. Let’s go Rahim.’
I walk down the footpath towards the shops, thinking about something soft to eat before remembering my noticeable weight gain over the last two weeks. I turn left and walk to the bus stop.
I board the bus.
A mother in the front seat fumbles for something in her bag. There is a baby crying in a crimson red stroller next to her. Its sound echoes weirdly in my ears. The mother seems uncomfortable. She screws up her nose as she stands, pushing the stroller back and forth. Her eyes squint and her neck muscles tense when she notices the looks from other passengers. No matter what the mother does, the baby does not stop wailing. The bus driver looks into the mirror above him to see what is going on. The crying sounds like an adult impersonating a child’s voice. Next stop. The bus pulls over to the side of the road. I make a stealthy effort to see the child. My stomach tightens as the baby’s face is revealed. Cleft lips. Large face. Receding forehead. Big head. Too big for his age. The mother’s eyes sweep over me quickly as she pushes the stroller towards the exit.
‘Not beautiful?’ she asks in an agitated voice as she exits the bus, a faint smile quivering at the corner of her lips. I feel tears prick the back of my eyes. ‘I―’ my heart tightens.
She looks across the street before pushing the stroller and waddling away. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I mumble, looking through the window.
Hasti Abbasi holds a BA and an MA in English Literature. She is a sessional academic and a PhD. scholar of literary studies and creative writing at Griffith University.
(Edited by Michelle McLaren)
Her skin crawled with sweat. She gathered her shirt and let the hot air seethe up her spine, to her bra, to her lymph nodes, where the doctor had prodded and she had winced at the cold hands, the prick of a manicure.
She leaned over the doormat, hands on the brick, looking at what was left of the word ‘Welcome.’ Sweat dripped off her forehead. She sweated more these days. It was something chemical.
When most of the sweat had dried on her skin she unlocked the door. She didn’t want dirt in the house.
She thought of all the patterns of sweat she had left on the road, on lawns, in driveways. Crystalline patterns now covered over with engine oil, leaves, dirt, taken away by the wind or tyres or bird feet. It was a good thing that her body could produce such substance. It was good to know.
She shut the door. In the hall she felt her body slowing, her heart settling. Her skin still stung with motion, a pleasant kind of flesh memory. Her stomach curdled a little. She had sprinted at the end until she felt her body reach such a pitch of protest it split off from the world, the dark a screen, the ground a shell.
Some days were full of a nausea that was even worse than what she had felt before the drugs, when her mind was at its most shattered, when she had first learned that the mind was far more than a mere acquaintance of the body. After snatches of sleep she woke with a horrible pain, stumbling to the toilet and hauling up everything, left exhausted and white, her mouth full of hot things that should stay far lower in the body.
Then there were days when she could run kilometres and feel every piece of strength she had ever possessed, sweating as she had been told only men sweat, pushing it off her eyebrows and chin, splattering the road.
She went into the living room and looked at the book under the lamp that was dark now but would later make a hard spotlight. It was a thin book but thick in beauty and wisdom. Things she had once looked for in the strangest, unholiest places before. But she had found you had to strain the mind as much as the body, there was no use running the streets if you left your mind to sag, to pale and bloat as if immersed in water.
Tonight she would sit in the light and she would go further than she had gone just now, thrilled to the point of exhaustion, her chest drumming and her palms dampening so she knew the mind and body were made of the same nerve and sinew.
But there was a knocking behind her. She was so surprised to realise it was a person at the door that she opened it before she had time for another thought. Half of her was still out on the streets, in the newly dark evening.
The air left her, as if a payment for the extra oxygen she had taken in those ten kilometres. Tiff stood so close it seemed she was halfway inside already, wearing a purple hubcap of a necklace as if she was on holiday.
‘Hello.’ She heard her own voice lapsing to politeness, her body settling the mania and reverting to the old passivity. All the air was gone. She hardened her chest, her spine, but her throat was burning and softening.
‘Hey!’ Tiff’s voice flashed through the dark hall. She was going to hug her. There was the old fragrance that brought in all the pain, the chaos, the neglect. The hubcap pressed against her throat. She was going to choke. The boundaries of her skin were gone, irredeemable. Then, as she pulled away, she felt the hot air come over her, like sandpaper, and she was solid, and separate, and the anger came in to rescue her.
‘So, you going to ask me in?’ It was the old cheerful voice, with a hint of threat. She had decided the mode of communication and the interlocutor had better not try to shift it.
She knew this voice as she knew every one of Tiff’s voices, every one of her gestures and postures and half-smiles, though she had not seen her or heard from her in months. It was like a dead relative returning, it was as startling, as infuriating. Because you know they have come back for something, there can be no other reason, they want something from you, and you have spent all this time grieving, and trying to recover, and grieving again, and half dying, and slowly recovering.
Tiff must have chosen her moment deliberately. It was the moment they all chose, when you are almost recovered, but not quite, so all the air is knocked from your body, so when they make their threat it gets you – you listen.
‘You can come in off the porch,’ she said. She left the door open behind the girl. She flicked on the light.
Tiff was wearing a dress they had picked out together months and months ago. She remembered standing in the dressing room, wanting to leave, the countless mirrors throwing their bodies back, as if they weren’t only two people but manifold, not rooted in space but fugitive as holograms. She remembered the dizziness and the emptiness and the nausea beginning. No, she wouldn’t think of that now.
‘I’ve just been running.’
‘I thought you felt sticky.’
She nodded. She wanted to fold her arms across her chest. The anger was here, but it was not raging, maybe later it would rage, and the thought petrified her, and for a moment everything flared up in her throat so she thought she would fall, this woman coming back here cheerful and threatening as if all was forgotten… No. She let it cool a little.
‘Well, should we have some tea?’ Tiff laughed. It was not a question. She was already moving towards the kitchen.
‘No.’ She didn’t laugh. ‘No. It was nice of you to drive over here. But you should have called. If you’d like to meet somewhere else, that’d be fine. But I don’t want to drink tea here, now.’
Tiff looked as if all the air had left her. She glared about the hall as if there might be somebody else who would take her cheerfulness and her threats as they were.
‘It’s been a long time,’ she said as Tiff looked about. ‘Maybe too long.’ She stepped to the door and held it.
She thought she saw a piece of something crease the girl’s face that she hadn’t seen there before. She was half waiting for Tiff to speak, half wanting. A moment of the old fragrance, the pain, the entanglement, her boundaries collapsed. Then Tiff was outside.
When she shut the door she felt the rage under her skin and she pushed all her energy to the surface to stop herself punching the pane of glass. She knew she could do it, she had done worse.
After a time that was very long or very short she locked the door and went to the kitchen. It was a shame she had to flood her body with chemicals to overcome such moments. But she had nothing else, she knew. Nothing but her own house where she chose to keep out what had caused her so much damage for so long.
She made a cup of tea and sat under the lamp. She felt her body picked out of the darkness, opened the book and felt its density in her palms. Her skin and her muscles remembered the strength, speed, sweat, bound together now, with the pain and anger and all her sickness, knowing what had hurt her and what was going to cure her.
Elisabeth Murray is a writer from Sydney who is interested in all things feminist, queer, and mental health-related. Her work has been published in Fields Magazine, Tincture Journal, Contrapasso, Voiceworks, dotdotdash magazine, and several University of Sydney anthologies. Her novella, The Loud Earth, was published by Hologram in 2014. You can find out more about Elisabeth on her blog.
Was there any normal anymore? The others in the waiting room were at either end of a spectrum, tottering on an unfair seesaw between the obese and anorexic. The woman opposite Belinda had shoulders like a wire coat hanger and cheekbones like hooks. The man to her right looked like he had a large pet curled on his lap, but it was his belly. Belinda could feel the waistband of her navy work skirt riding up over itself and resolved something about TimTams. She had enough lap to rest a Women’s Weekly on; she turned the pages at arbitrary intervals. The whispering of the paper was to help her feel calm, composed like a good poem. Her mother said calm was infectious. Her mother said, try it. Belinda figured if yawning was, why not serenity?
Then the Venetian blinds crashed onto a low bookshelf in a waterfall of loud, unstoppable noise.
‘Darcy,’ Belinda hissed. Her son – the reason she was here, the reason for all this, the appointment, the wait, the false composure, the noise, the shrieking headache – jumped down from on top of the shelf, skittling out-of-date Reader’s’ Digests, and grabbed the head-rail of the blinds. A protruding screw dusted with plaster ripped his skin. Belinda put her magazine on the chair to her left and reluctantly got up, just as the door to the office opened.
Darcy forgot the blood and responded to the new stimulus by doing a circling, whirling 1950s Red Indian dance in the middle of the waiting room. The last patient pushed past with a tissue firmly to her nose – a sop to emotions or allergies, it was impossible to tell which.
The Homeopath called a name. ‘Beatrice?’ She spoke so softly Belinda heard her own name and started forward. But the ballerina bag-of-bones was moving with surprising vigour.
It was already past the time Belinda had been told on the phone. She looked at her watch in a pointed, does-no-one-know-the-cost-of-parking-around-here way. When she looked back up the door to the office was closed again and Darcy was dragging the broken bones of the blinds toward her.
She didn’t look at Darcy while she was taking the blinds off him. She propped them against the wall, like some shambolic, shredded set of skis and sat down. Darcy still had the end of the stripped-out chord in his hand. He wrapped it round and round his mother’s ankles, tethering himself to her. She flicked the magazine. She had no emotions left to muster. She’d gone through anger and embarrassment and pity and heartache. Ten years in a revolving door.
‘I’m at the end of my tether, end of my tether,’ he chanted. No-one in the waiting room had to wonder where he’d learnt that phrase.
Belinda didn’t want sympathy. She didn’t like the evil looks she got in the supermarket from perfect women and men in suits – as if children never played up – but at least she was used to that. The Homeopath had eyes brimming with compassion; so full in fact that they didn’t appear able to blink let alone close.
‘How much do you know about the restorative effects of homeopathy?’ the woman asked.
Belinda turned slightly in her chair so she couldn’t see Darcy over by the shelving which ran down one side of the office. He had a stem of some dried herb in his mouth.
Of course she knew what homeopathy was. She’d made the appointment hadn’t she? ‘It’s where you take a little bit of what causes the problem. Like immunization…’
The Homeopath shook her head very slightly. She had long hair. It must take her hours to wash and dry each morning, Belinda thought. She wondered if the controlled movements were because the woman was sitting on the ends of her hair and couldn’t actually move her head any further.
‘Did you have your son immunized?’
‘Yes.’ Belinda had done all the right things as a mother. All the pages in his Blue Birth Book were signed off.
The woman she’d come to for help sighed. ‘I see…’ It was not a long-suffering sigh. It was a sad-for-all-the-world sigh. ‘We have a lot to rectify.’
The Homeopath got up from her desk – and from sitting on the end of her hair – and walked over to Darcy who’d touched everything on every shelf and now seemed intent on de-winging a barley-husk angel. She took his hand without interrupting the flow of her talk, something about vital forces and miasmas and the disturbance caused by the Triple Antigen shot. Her slow, considered movements were mesmerising, like the dance of the stouts Belinda had tried to get Darcy to watch on a weekend David Attenborough documentary. Belinda had trouble concentrating on the words because Darcy was letting the stranger lead him back to a chair by the desk without protest. Without protest, she thought, an observation worth repeating. Darcy sat quietly. Just like the stout’s prey: like the stunned rabbit.
‘I’ll look up the Repertory but one thing is clear…’
Darcy was up again. The Homeopath turned those brimming eyes on him and he instantly sat, now with one leg tucked up under himself so he was higher than Belinda and could bounce like he was on a spring. He took out his mobile and started playing Worms.
‘Your son is around technology a lot isn’t he?’
‘It’s hard not to be, this day and age. He’ll be at high school soon. You know high schools. The Ritalin is not… It’s so hard doing it alone…’ All the considered sentences Belinda had lined up to tell the Homeopath splattered out over the top of each other, tripping each other up, falling against the unremitting gaze of the other woman. She wanted to convey the full depth of her fear: a child ostracized by his peers, a child unloved. It came out as clichés, about bullies and bullying. But when she looked directly at the Homeopath, Belinda could see her words being sponged up, with a now, now, and those little controlled, empathy-filled head movements. The Homeopath interrupted Belinda at the second ‘end of my tether.’
‘Our homeopathic armory was prepared in the mid-nineteenth century so we’ve had to come up with some new preparations for today’s ailments. Ritalin only attempts to address the symptoms, and as you’ve discovered, is worse than useless for you son. We have to go further and look at the deeper disturbances of the vital force. How long has he had a mobile phone?’
Belinda remembered the first one. She’d bought it for Darcy’s first day at school. He was to text her when he got on the bus each afternoon and then ring her when he was safely through the front door. From her office, Belinda would talk him through locking the door, finding fruit and muffins, not touching the sharp knife. The kitchen was always a mess when she got home around six. She’d lost count of how many phones were lost over the primary school years. She murmured a simple, ambiguous, ‘he’s had one a while.’
‘Technology is a dangerous thing. Our society is jittery. Allergic. So throw out the Ritalin,’ the woman commanded, ‘and we’ll try…’
‘I have to go to the toilet,’ Darcy whined. He pocketed his latest mobile and left the room.
‘To the right,’ the Homeopath told his back. The weight of the air on the room suddenly felt lighter. Belinda leaned forward to listen.
‘I have just the remedy. We’ve taken a small part of the circuit board of a mobile phone, diluted, highly diluted, one in a trillion parts should be the right potency.’
It sounded reassuringly scientific with all the details and precise proportions but Belinda felt a twinge of doubt. Something about protons and neutrons surfaced from science class. ‘But if it’s diluted that much…?’
The Homeopath didn’t miss a beat of her patter. ‘Diluted yes, and at each step, potentized. Water has memory. The succussion, the forceful striking of the remedy, ensures efficacy.’
They were all good, strong words, Belinda had to admit, as Darcy came back in. There was a 50 cent sized patch of wetness on his shorts. He sat down as he was told but started to drum his hands on the desk. ‘Succussion,’ he sang. He tossed his head back and drummed wildly in imitation of Animal in The Muppets.
‘Not percussion,’ Belinda hissed. She gave the Homeopath one of her perfected looks. The one that said, ‘see, this is what I have to put up with.’ It was a detachment that helped her survive, but the doctors hadn’t recognised her look for years. They’d treated her like a child abuser each time she took Darcy in for stitches or plaster. They noticed the fading bruises and the thick scabs. Then one morning in the GP’s surgery Darcy did a Tarzan swing off the lamp used to shine a light up her vagina every second year and broke his collarbone. It was the day she walked out with a prescription for Ritalin.
Anything had to better than it. It was a dangerous drug for goodness sake. And Darcy hadn’t calmed down. She remembered her own miserable years at high school – the other kids were not going to be kind to her child. It was a jungle out there and she needed him to join the herd.
The landline was ringing when they got through the door.
‘It’s me. Can I speak to Darcy?’
‘Darcy, it’s your father.’
Darcy disappeared up the hall and into his bedroom. His television blared out a greeting as he turned it on.
‘He won’t talk.’ Belinda Lego-blocked the phone into the groove between her head and shoulder to listen while she put her bag and keys and sunglasses in their places. ‘No I am not being obstructive. I am not stopping him talking to you. Ring back in five minutes.’
When the phone rang again Belinda out-waited Darcy in the kitchen. She sipped her wine and listened to him humphing down the hall.
Silence, except for the tap, tap, tap of Darcy’s heel on the skirting board.
Tapping became banging.
‘You’re a wanker.’ A final bang. Then the phone was ringing again.
Belinda spilled the wine as she slammed her glass on the kitchen bench.
‘What did you call your father?’ she shouted at Darcy. Before he could answer from his retreat to the television, she said, louder, ‘it’s rude to say that.’
She stood at his bedroom door, tired but angry. She’d be blamed for this.
‘It’s what you call him,’ Darcy said, as if this had ever been an excuse in the whole history of childhood.
‘To Aunty Dee on the phone.’
‘You shouldn’t be eavesdropping. I’ve told you.’ The phone was still ringing down the hall. Belinda did her yoga breathing. Let her diaphragm calm her.
‘Well,’ she looked at him, almost her height, cheeks still chubby and smooth, ‘well, it’s not a young boy’s word,’ she continued in her reasonable voice. ‘It’s an adult word.’
‘Like shit and fuck and cunt?’ asked Darcy. He wasn’t looking at her. He was scraping more wallpaper off his wall with the sharp edge of the Warner Bros figure he’d got at the drive-through on the way home. Burgers for the belly, The Joker to keep him quiet on the drive (once he got over the vocal disappointment that he hadn’t got Batman or his Batmobile).
The phone went quiet. Her mobile shrieked in her handbag – classical ringtones could not disguise the insistent tone.
‘Where does he learn that sort of thing?’ her ex asked as opener when she go to it.
‘He’s eleven. He’s not a baby anymore. He’s grown a little since you ran off.’ The sarcasm was heavy. It was the tone of habit – because it was all his fault for leaving. That’s when Darcy got so uncontrollable. At least that’s the way it went in her memory.
She could hear the scraping of The Joker’s cape against wallpaper from down the wall.
It was all her fault for not coping.
Indiscriminate fury flooded her inner ear, drowning out Darcy’s father. She’d heard it all before anyway.
‘If I’m such a crap mother, you take him,’ she spat. Then swung around to make sure Darcy wasn’t in the hall listening. The scraping was for once a reassurance.
‘Call him on his mobile in future. I don’t want to hear your voice,’ she hissed into her own mobile.
‘Do you know how expensive it is to call a mobile? I’ll use the landline whenever…’
‘Cheapfuck. As ever.’ Mobiles don’t make a satisfying bang when you hang up angrily, she lamented. She had that foul taste in her mouth, the one she worried was a symptom of a cancer growing inside. It made the wine, when she finally got back to it, taste less like the label promised and more like vinegar.
‘Go to bed Darcy. I’ve got work to catch up on.’
He looked like a limp stalk of celery propped against the doorjamb of her study. Stick him in a bit of water and he’d perk up though.
Getting him into the shower was a dread each evening, and then the last hurdle: bed. She tried to lose herself in a briefing paper as she waited for the noises in the bathroom to subside. Then she went in, picked up the wet towel, hung it square, put the dirty clothes in the basket, weeded the toothbrushes out of the peace lily, dragged herself to his bedroom. Darcy was not there. She went to the kitchen. Not there. Back to his bedroom.
‘Get out of the wardrobe. You have to take this remedy.’
The door to the wardrobe cracked open. ‘Why not my pills?’
‘This is better.’
‘Will you read to me?’
Belinda felt the unbearable weight of being a mother. She shouldn’t have said that to his father: it was only when she was most desperate that she wanted Darcy out of her life. She probably shouldn’t have told him to ring Darcy’s mobile either, if his addiction to technology was the problem. The cumulative guilt made her say yes. ‘Just a quick chapter.’
So after Darcy had dutifully swallowed the drops she lay on the bed beside him with his birthday book from mad Aunty Dee who gave him one every year though she’d been told often enough that he had problems concentrating enough to read chapter books. The cover was ripped across a dragon’s snout and the pages were fat and pulpy from their own contact with water.
Darcy stood up on the mattress and traced the zoo animals on the curtains as Belinda read about training your own dragon. Darcy roared at the curtain lions and bellowed at the elephants. Belinda read through until he lay back down then she kept reading until they were breathing in time. And then they were both asleep.
As if her own mother knew there was calm in the house, Belinda’s mobile beeped the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. ‘Skype?’ was the succinct text message.
Belinda got to her computer in the study as it burred in the most old-fashioned telephone ring possible. She clicked on the green icon and her mother’s face filled the screen.
‘You look good,’ her mother said. ‘What drug are you on?’
Her mother laughed and her dentures clicked over two thousand kilometers away and Belinda heard them.
‘Actually, I went to a Homeopath…’
‘Did you say sociopath?’ There was a slight disconnect between aural and visual.
‘Homeo-, not socio-, not psycho-’
Maybe it did sound psycho to her. Her mother was of a generation who believed implicitly what the doctor told them. No Googling to check symptoms, no second opinions required. Belinda persevered through a recount of all her new knowledge.
‘If it’s that diluted… surely there’d be nothing left in your bottle,’ her mother interrupted. ‘It sounds a bit like hocus pocus.’ But she used a kind voice, the one she’d used throughout Belinda’s divorce. ‘What did your GP say?’
‘Science and medicine haven’t a clue,’ Belinda protested. ‘This will work.’ There was no response. Her mother’s eyes were cast to the left. ‘Mum, what are you doing?’
‘Just having a little SMS chat to your sister.’
‘Where is she now?’
Belinda looked through the dusty louvers of the alcove she called her study, out at the overgrown back yard that had been hers for ten years and sighed. ‘Will she ever settle down?’
Her mother ‘mmmed.’ Belinda could hear the keys of her computer clickety-clacking.
‘Besides,’ she said, competing to get her mother’s attention back, ‘this remedy is all about succussion and water memory, and particles, so it’s physics really. The woman quoted a scientist…’ Belinda concentrated so she could get all the polysyllabic words out in the remembered order. ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’
‘I think you’ll find that’s a quote from a science fiction writer.’ Her mother always brought her back to earth. And buried her under it.
Her mother’s eyes locked on hers through the world wide web and relented. ‘Yes dear. Bringing up children. It’s easily the hardest thing you’ll ever do.’
Belinda didn’t say the unspoken – that it’d be a whole lot easier if Darcy’s grandmother hadn’t retired to the coast.
The front door was wide, presenting a rectangle of golden light to the street.
The season was changing and it was dusk when Belinda got home from work these days, and cooler, but not yet cool enough to have the heating blasting, which was the second thing Belinda noticed.
Darcy’s left shoe was near the door, his right shoe on top of his school pack halfway down the hall. Each sat in a pulsing miasma of vomited cheese-boy foot stench let loose by the heating. At the kitchen door the sweeter cheese smell hit her.
Darcy came out of his room. ‘I made us pudding,’ he said, one word for each bounce toward her. Pudding was muffled in her jacket as he threw himself into her.
The frozen Sara Lee cheesecake was sitting on top of the heating vent in the family room. It was no longer frozen. And it was not so much on top as in the vent. Darcy had followed the instructions and released it completely from its packaging. The base crumbled as Belinda tried to lift it up.
Belinda felt she had two options: screaming, or the silent treatment. She carefully put the cheesecake on the bench that divided the family room from the kitchen.
‘It’s going to be yum,’ Darcy said doggedly.
Darcy did a superman swoop around the lounge chairs, leaping one to the other. Belinda ignored him. He took the cushions off the chairs and piled them in a tottering tower. Belinda didn’t say anything as he started to climb. She was biting it back, the only thing she wanted to shout. ‘Go on, fall.’ Instead: silence.
Even with the heating now off, the room was heavy and close as she chopped vegetables and put two fatty chops on the grill. Belinda wondered if this was what hot flushes felt like. When her life would be all over.
She kept her silence through dinner. Darcy stood beside his chair to eat. She was sure he was taunting her to say ‘sit down.’ Silence. She didn’t even look at him.
They didn’t have pudding, She placed the sculptured Sara Lee in the bin, where it looked like the icing on top of the day’s usual rubbish.
After packing the dishwasher she went to Darcy’s room. She shook the Homeopathic remedy bottle vigorously to get his attention, imagining she was a succussionist – with a mariachi band perhaps.
Darcy stared at his television. Some cops apprehending an offender with requisite levels of violence. He didn’t turn. ‘Dad says it’s only water.’
‘When did you speak to your father?’ Belinda stopped the shaking, realising only after the words were out that she’d relinquished her higher ground in the silent treatment.
Darcy didn’t acknowledge he’d broken her. Still didn’t turn. ‘He rang me on my mobile.’
‘Well you should have told me.’
Belinda came fully into the room which was almost bare over years of whittling down danger points. ‘Take your drops.’
‘But it’s just water.’
‘Expensive water I have to work to pay for.’
Darcy took the tiny glass bottle off her, snatched out the dropper and glugged back the entire contents before his mother could snatch it back. She could only watch in horror.
‘Fuck, Darcy.’ She grabbed him and frog-marched him to the bathroom and tried to stick her finger down his throat over the sink.
‘Mummy!’ He made a stuck-pig squeal and bit her finger.
Belinda collapsed on the toilet and sobbed. Darcy was gone. Pain and anger and overwhelming fear competed and paralyzed her for a moment. She had no idea what to do about an overdose. But she had to do something. Phoning Emergency sounded like an over-reaction, so she ran to the computer, clicked up the whitepages, tapped in Poison’s Hotline. It was a 24 hour number.
She ran down the hall with her mobile to her ear, searching for Darcy in each room as she went.
The woman on the other end of the invisible line was calm. ‘Slowly,’ she said kindly. ‘What has your son taken?’
Belinda couldn’t believe the woman’s reaction. The Hotline operator was still laughing when Belinda found Darcy. He was in the kitchen, hidden behind the bench. He’d sat down next to the bin and was smearing gobs of cheesecake into his mouth.
‘It is yum, mum,’ he told her. ‘I rhymed mum, because it’s yum in my tum.’
Belinda hung up on the Poison woman. She remembered being laughed at for years at high school. Her cheeks flushed and she wanted to cry. Darcy grinned up at her. His tongue shot out like a lizard’s. ‘Yum, yum, yum.’ Scorned, ostracized, she’d thought she’d die. Yet here she was – high school hadn’t killed her after all.
Darcy smiled around the sweetness of his forbidden pudding.
‘If I let you play with the screwdriver, will you undo every screw in the heating vent?’ she asked her errant child. Darcy was up and at the laundry cupboard rummaging in the tools before she could finish. ‘So I can clean it,’ she said.
Belinda took Darcy’s place on the floor beside the bin. She wondered, not for the first time, at Darcy’s huge capacity to forgive and forget and move on. She reached in and picked a tiny square of cheesecake out of the bin between her thumb and index finger.
What had she been thinking? A little bit of a circuit board shaken and not stirred…
The screwdriver scrapped. A sound to take the paint off if the metal edge hadn’t already. So she sang out loudly, from down on the floor. ‘Thanks for the pudding.’
Darcy’s voice was distracted by his work with the vent. ‘Not a problem mum.’
Jane Downing is a writer of poetry and prose with over a hundred and thirty works of prose published in journals including The Big Issue, Southerly, The Griffith Review, Westerly, Island, Overland, Seizure, Hecate, UTS Anthology and Antipodes, and a similar number of poems in journals including Rabbit, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Eureka Street and Best Australian Poems (2004 and 2015). Her two novels were published by Pandanus Books at the Australian National University (The Trickster, 2003 and The Lost Tribe, 2005). One of her works was the lead story in the Grapple Annual which won the Most Underrated Book of the Year Award in 2015. In 2016 she was one of two Australians shortlisted, out of nearly 4000 entries from 47 countries, for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
You were nine years old you when you woke to find the dentist kissing your penis.
Only he would know the extent of the activities that went on while you were under, as you never asked.
Primarily now you looked back on your years at school as being defined by a strong appreciation of history, both ancient and modern, plenty of cross country running, scoring goals for fun, and crooked teeth.
University was uniformly awful.
You studied dentistry.
No, just kidding.
It was history, of course.
Alone at night you would closely look at the portraits of prominent leaders throughout the ages from around the world and surmised that no smiles were ever present due to the condition of their teeth.
That’s what this age can do to you.
Graduation was never reached.
Some subsequent jobs for the boy: forklift operator in a book distribution warehouse, dishwasher in nine different restaurants, cook in three cafes, digger of holes and ditches, planter of trees, dealer of drunks on a nightly basis, seller of secondhand furniture, delivery driver of pristine furniture, house-painter, within and without.
You tended to move around.
Neighbourhoods undoubtedly would go stale, some quicker than others.
But you never went into debt once, you’d always rather have gone without.
One time, no kidding, while planting the last tree of the day at dusk, you simultaneously saw the sun, the moon, and a rainbow.
Never told anyone that before.
It was during a stint as an express courier delivering urgent papers between boring building blocks that you saw him again, amid the lunch hour office parade.
You chained your bike to a pole, dropped the papers into a nearby bin, and looked up at all the windows and wondered which floor held his surgery.
A week went by before you returned to the area, a slow week, a lot of lying back and staring at the ceiling, no kidding.
But then lots of lobbies were scanned at once, lots of listings of professional services provided, many of which you could still picture yourself one day performing.
Hello, I’m in advertising, you’d picture yourself saying.
Hello, I can help you better manage your money.
Hello, here’s my card, because I’m in the business you need the most at this given time.
Hello, allow me to take you to lunch.
Once you located the dentist’s practice, you started tracking his receptionist.
She drank in the same wine bar most Thursday and Friday afternoons, being particularly partial to the pinot noir of Central Otago, New Zealand.
When you managed to drink a drop from the same Lake Wanaka winery, you loosened, only slightly, your recently purchased red silk tie, and intoned To the weekend! And to all the wonder it might have in store for us, and you raised your glass.
You thought maybe you should consider taking up acting one day.
But for now the role of personal assistant to a renowned London architect was chosen as an occupation, pulled right out of the air.
Another glass was ordered, as you listened to her meander over her daily drill, taking care to avert your eyes from your own reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
The hygienist, she said, is a hoot.
Leaving you to wonder whether you could smell a man’s soul down that hole.
The dentist often travelled overseas to numerous locations, she told you, appointments often having to be rearranged, or passed on to respected colleagues, so he could go and bathe in the benefits of some other part of the world.
Prague, Fraser Island.
Paris, London, London, Paris.
New York, New Haven, Newfoundland.
Lisbon, Lisbon, Lisbon.
She had a slight, cute lisp when she said Lisbon, which suited her slight, cute figure.
The pristine white shirt you wore for the occasion you wished you could have washed first, as it gave off an itching sensation on the inside of your left wrist and all along your shoulder blades.
Maybe the cotton wasn’t as pure as it said on the packet.
The silver necklace she wore resembled a length of dental floss.
More weeks went away and died someplace, but a pattern to the doctor’s movements was finally detected.
Soon enough, on any given day, you knew his approximate arrival time at the entrance to his apartment block.
Everyone had a routine, one way or another.
The silver hammer, the one with the blue rubber handle, was left behind by the maintenance man in the lobby between errands.
It was better suited now, you believed, to the smashing of the dentist’s teeth down his throat.
But he never arrived on the chosen evening.
So you adjusted your plan, at first slightly, then significantly, suddenly abandoning all thoughts of self preservation, and spent every subsequent evening crouched in the corner of the overgrown rosemary bushes by the building’s entrance.
But still he did not come.
A simple explanation was waiting for you when you went to see the receptionist again.
Screw the wine at this point, you were on the browns by now.
Easy, he’d won the lottery.
Ended up abandoning his practice and flying off first class to some unknown destination.
On the brief note he left behind, the receptionist said, first class was underlined, followed by three exclamation points.
She offered you the final glass from her bottle, then ordered another.
Never mix your drinks, that was something you would soon come to know deep in your bones more surely than anything else.
A few days later, you met up again, you and the ex-receptionist, on the same stools.
Her necklace of floss immediately caught your eye in the mirror behind the bar, even before you ordered the first round.
J Kane currently resides in the Blue Mountains of Australia (and at the moment is reading Francis Picabia).