The Tea Ceremony (Indigo Perry)

Posted on May 15, 2018 by in Clozapine Clinic — The Frater Project, Heightened Talk, Lies To Live By

Once, after he’d confessed to another indiscretion, she got up and ran from the riverbank. When she reached the highway, she slowed down and walked, heartbeat steady by the time she entered the hardware shop, and, in a voice she made clearly rung, asked the man at the counter where to find replacement blades for utility knives. He led her up an aisle and advised her on the best quality blades. Few blades kicking around in drawers at home were sharp enough. Freshly broken glass and shards of fine crockery

could work. But these new, tensile blades were good. Propping herself against a pillow on the red-brick floor in the tiny house with the tall, steepled roof, she scored the first lines along each arm, wrist to elbow, on the turned-in tenderness of the undersides. Where the flesh was younger and purer. She started on her legs, just above the knees, up to the groin, again finding the softer flesh, in the little pools above the very tops of the thighs. It was quick work, so quick that she thought she was making scratches. Only scratches,

similar to a cat’s. But all at once the scratches opened like narrow vulvas and bled. She was all openings. All weeping eyes. Spilling mouths. Her limbs red. All red. He came, late at night. He brought a teapot and a canister of chamomile tea, and a folded length of soft muslin. A heavy pair of sharp scissors. Even through the pain of the cuts, she marvelled that he possessed this particular set of accoutrements and that he knew just what to do. The sound of the kettle boiling comforted. He’d made a fire. Always capable with

fire. She was wrapped in one of his old wool blankets. Warm, next to his percussively snapping and cracking fire. He started with her left arm, unwrapping it from across her heart. Moving her sleeve away, gently, slowly, unsticking the fabric from the dried blood, meeting her gaze, then looking at the lines crossing over her. She could smell the florals in the tea he was steeping in the pot, and she watched him make a crisp snip in the muslin and then tear it into a long, straight strip. He took the lid from the pot, put

the strip inside and soaked it. And he drew it out and squeezed out the excess and then he cleaned the blood from her arm, not dabbing, not wiping, just putting the hot fabric over the wounds and laying his hands over the top. Then he moved it away. He kept going, making new, clean strips, soaking them, cleaning her and soothing the hurt. Her skin shone dark orange in the firelight. He did the other arm. Moved on to her thighs, where the bleeding had been thicker and the pain deeper. The sight of these long, wide lips and all

the blood painted between made him pause a moment and blink. He continued. The tea. The muslin. Steeping. Soaking. Cleaning. Soothing. The old blanket fell from her shoulders and she was naked and still warm. When the wounds were clean, he rubbed a cool, antiseptic ointment all over them. He wrapped the blanket back around her and then wrapped his arms around her. After a while, he packed up all the accoutrements and put them away. He brewed new tea. English Breakfast. Brought it to her to sip from a cup missing its saucer.

____________________________________________________________

photograph ©Kate Baker www.lumennaturae.com.au


Indigo Perry
lives in the Yarra Valley, outside Melbourne. She teaches creative writing in the School of Communication & Creative Arts at Deakin University. Her book, Midnight Water: A Memoir, was shortlisted for the National Biography Award. www.indigoperry.com

These Things I Know
(K W George)

Posted on April 17, 2018 by in Lies To Live By

I know things about this man. I first met him seventeen years ago when he removed a BCC from the right side of my forehead. That time I had staples in my head, a row of them under my hair glinting in the light. Then I met him again five years later when he excised a skin cancer spot from under one of my eyes. Two years ago, he cut another from the bottom of my cheek. Today these scars are hardly noticeable. My plastic surgeon is very good at what he does, which is why I keep going back to him.

I ask him how he’s been and he tells me he’s just returned from two weeks’ holiday on Stradbroke Island. I know he has school-going children, and starts work at 6:30AM so that he can leave early and see them at the end of the day. Tick, right there.

Did you put moisturiser on this morning? he asks.

I nod.

Got to take that off, he says. I can’t draw on you otherwise. I like going to Straddie, he tells me as he wipes my forehead with a cold swab. It is overseas, you know. Look in the mirror, he instructs, passing me one.

It’s oval with a powder blue handle, like something from my mother’s dressing table. Now he holds a marker pen above my forehead. and I watch him sketch a circle around the small red area near my hairline.

Hmm, he says. This is bigger than I thought.

I think about escaping. Overseas. Straddie’s not far enough. Rising from the bed and declaring I’m not doing this. It is my forehead. My face. And it’s been with me for a number of years and I am rather fond of it. It is the only one I have. Clichés, all of them. But I can’t think creatively right now. I am preoccupied.

He pinches the skin on my forehead together with two fingers. Then he squeezes it vertically, while I squint. And all the time he holds the pen delicately like an artist’s brush. He has beautiful hands. Is slightly-built. Has a kind and gentle voice. I can’t imagine him ever getting angry.

This isn’t going to work, he says. I’m going to have to make a different cut. A different cut to the one I suggested the other day. Raise your eyebrows, he instructs.

I do and my wide-eyed face stares back at me. This isn’t happening floats above my head in a cartoon bubble. He draws. A horizontal line on the left side of my forehead, touching the circle at its top, another line on the right, meeting the circle at its bottom.

I’m going to do this—he squeezes and pushes my skin around—and this. See?  Because you don’t have enough skin.

I don’t have enough skin. Why didn’t my mother make sure I had enough skin? She always made sure I had a handkerchief. And she always made me wear sun screen and a hat, and kept me off the beach at midday. All to no avail, it seems.

I text my daughter while I am waiting for the local anaesthetic to kick in. What’s a BCC? she messaged before I left for the surgery. A Benign something something? A Basal Cell Carcinoma, I write. Skin cancer. I’m going to have a scar like Harry Potter, I joke. It seems important to appear brave.

On the trolley under the bright white lights, my forehead is sleeping to avoid the trauma. I am covered with a warm blanket, neck to toe. Over my face is a blue sheet. It’s light and airy, letting me breathe. And talk. What would happen, I ask, if we didn’t…? You’d die eventually, he says. It would grow bigger and start to eat away your face, burrow down into your brain. Nibble on your nerves. It isn’t called a rodent ulcer for nothing.

Too much information, I think, but it does dispel any doubts I have left. The skin on my forehead feels weird. I know something’s happening up there. Is it being pummelled into submission, or is a troupe of ants wearing gumboots tap-dancing on my frown lines?

At home in the mirror I see my forehead bears two horizontal strips of flesh-coloured plaster. I touch my skin and it’s numb, tight and bulging. White from the anaesthetic. Blood weeps from under one of the plasters, and I dab it with a tissue. I’m to rest. Use ice-packs on the swelling. Keep my upper body elevated. I tilt my head and my face stares back at me. Familiar—I still have green eyes—and yet strangely different. I think of the hundreds of women whose skin is stretched and tightened. Cut into. Lifted. For vanity. And I notice that in the bathroom mirror one of my eyebrows is raised way above the other in a state of permanent surprise.

____________________________________________________________


K W George
is a Brisbane-based writer who, as a fair-haired child, spent all her summers on the beach. She has won the Hal Porter Short Story Award, been short-listed for a number of competitions, and been published in Meanjin, Tincture, Going Down Swinging, Field of Words, and Award Winning Australian Writing.

Lifeguard (Grace Finlayson)

Posted on April 3, 2018 by in Lies To Live By

On Tuesday afternoon, two weeks into the summer holidays, I watched the old women swim laps of the 50-metre pool. Up and down the lanes they went, swimming freestyle and breaststroke and something that seemed like butterfly. Sometimes, when they reached the brick wall at the end of the lane, they clung to the edge of the pool and caught their breath. The air was warm and the sky was big and open. Mum never came to the pool, but I swam ten laps every day because she asked me to. Mum wanted me to be someone special, like Susie O’Neill, one of the Olympians who visited our school. ‘You’ve always been a water baby,’ Mum said.

*

On Wednesday morning, on the way to the pool, Mum and I were arguing.

‘I don’t want to go,’ I said. I smacked my hand against the window.

Mum gripped the gear stick. ‘Grow up,’ she said.

We slowed down behind a row of cars at the traffic lights. The indicator ticked. I breathed in and out. Mum checked the time on her watch, then pushed her sunglasses up onto her head. The lights changed and I slumped down in my seat.

‘We’ve talked about this already.’ Mum said. ‘The pool’s the best place for you this summer.’

‘But you can’t make me go.’

‘Well I’m not going to leave you out on the street.’

‘I’ll run away after you drop me off.’

‘No you will not,’ she said. ‘I’m getting sick of your smart-assed attitude.’

I sighed.

That summer, Monday to Friday, Mum dropped me off at 9am and picked me up after work. I was too old for the school holiday programme and Mum said I couldn’t be trusted at home on my own. As we pulled into the car park, I kicked Mum’s handbag that was sitting in the space under the seat.

‘You have to go now,’ she said.

‘You can’t make me,’ I said.

‘For god sake, it’s already after 9.’

‘So?’

‘Get out,’ she said.

I got out and slammed the door.

‘Fuck you,’ I said.

Mum wound down the car window.

‘Don’t you dare use that language with me!’ she yelled.

‘I’m just being myself,’ I said.

Mum revved the engine, lowered her glasses, and shook her head at me.

I walked up to the booth at the entrance and paid $3.75. I knew everything about the pool, like the secret place where older kids went to smoke and the storeroom that was never actually locked because Terry, the manager, lost the key. One day, when I was meant to be practicing my diving, I memorised the graffiti under all of the picnic tables. Almost everyone who worked at the pool was a teenager who went to the high school behind my house. Every day, the same boy with dyed blonde hair wrapped a yellow paper band around my wrist to show that I was allowed to be there. If you were under 16, your wristband was yellow. If you were older, it was red. I pushed through the turnstile and headed to the shady spot of grass that sloped down towards the diving boards.

Mum had been working as a decorator for almost a year. She spent a lot of time in empty houses, trying to make different rooms look more comfortable than they really were. She left sticky notes around the house with curtain measurements and the names of different carpet companies. Every year, on my birthday, she sat on the end of my bed and talked to me about making plans. She always said I had too much unmanaged energy.

At the pool that day, I was worried that Mum thought I really was going to run away. I thought she might call the pool office and describe me to the lifeguards and ask if they could see me swimming laps in the slow lane. Mum could be a bitch like that. She never let me do exactly what I wanted. At home, it sometimes felt like Mum was spying on me. She always came into my room when the door was closed and she’d go through my school bag when I wasn’t looking.

I stepped up onto the starting blocks and rolled my shoulders back. My bikini bottoms were too tight and my tank top was too big. The lifeguards were changing over. A tall teenage girl in red shorts climbed up onto the seat. Her name was Olivia.

I could swim, but I was still afraid of drowning. The lifeguards were always talking to their friends or drinking whole bottles of Gatorade in one go. Sometimes, while I was swimming, I messed up the rhythm of my breathing and swallowed so much water that I had to stop for air. The lifeguards never noticed. I always swam in an outside lane so that I could reach the edge of the pool if I needed.

I knew Olivia, the lifeguard, because our mums used to be friends. Once, a few years ago, we went to their house for dinner. Our mums drank wine and we all watched a concert on TV that was being filmed live in Sydney. Olivia never said anything about that night so I thought she didn’t remember me. Last week, Olivia looked after me when I hurt my knee. I’d swum my laps and I was playing in the medium-sized pool that was for little kids. I jumped in and scraped my legs against the bottom of the pool because the water was too shallow. Olivia cleaned my scrape with iodine on a piece of cotton wool. She stuck two band-aids over the cut and told me to look after myself. At home that night I took the band-aids off and saw I had a bunch of tiny scabs, clustered together like a group of stars.

I swam three laps of freestyle. I’d trained myself to open my eyes underwater, even though it stung and it felt like all of the water was trying to rush inside me. The tiles around the pool were dark blue and everything underwater was hazy and endless. After nine laps I stopped and clung to the edge of the pool. I saw Bevan, a boy from school, over by the picnic tables. He was with his mum and his little brother, Darren.

Bevan married my friend Lauren only a few weeks earlier. We held the ceremony at lunchtime at the back of the soccer field. We stole confetti from the art room cupboard, and Bevan’s friend Sam brought a bottle of vanilla coke, which he shook and sprayed into the air like they do at the end of a Formula One race. Lauren didn’t ask me to be one of her bridesmaids. She said seven girls were already too many. I was in charge of the flower bouquet instead. I picked a bunch of daisies from the flowerbeds outside the staff room and I stuck them down with sticky tape to the top of a 30-centimetre ruler. When the bell rang at the end of lunch, Lauren threw the flowers into the air. Bevan moved towards her and stuck his tongue in her mouth. Lauren pulled away and made a face, but Bevan put his arms around her and kissed her again. Sam cheered and some of the bridesmaids laughed. Bevan once said I was frigid because I wouldn’t show him the colour of my undies on the bus to school camp. I was glad I wasn’t married to him.

At the pool, I watched Bevan, Darren, and their mum lay their towels on the grass. I pulled myself up out of the water and sat on the edge of the pool. I waved to Bevan when he looked in my direction, but he didn’t notice me. I slipped down into the deep end and swam my final lap, kicking off hard from the wall and staying under as long as I could. I didn’t like school, but I was counting down the weeks until I could go back and get out of this routine. For the rest of the day I lay on the grass and twisted my hair into tiny plaits.

When the lap pool closed at quarter to five, the lifeguards blew their whistles and came down off their seats. They wound up the lane ropes and pushed them into the store cupboard. I waited for Mum in the carpark. As I watched the traffic lights change, and a bird hop across the asphalt, Olivia came out of the turnstile. She was swinging a bunch of keys in her hand and chewing on the end of a lollipop. She leaned against the wall beside me and squinted her eyes towards the sun.

‘Do I know you?’ she said.

I stopped and looked up at her. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘You gave me those band-aids.’

‘Oh yeah,’ she said. ‘What’re you doing here?’

‘I’m waiting for my mum,’ I said.

Olivia twirled the lollipop in her mouth.

‘What about you?’ I asked.

‘My boyfriend is picking me up.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Cool.’

‘I’m hanging around to take some photos,’ Olivia said. ‘For my art portfolio.’

‘I thought you were a lifeguard.’

She laughed. ‘Only to save money,’ she said. ‘Next year I’m going to photography school. I’m going to make something of it. My granddad used to be a photographer for The Age.’

Mum’s car was coming around the corner. ‘What do you take photos of?’ I asked. Mum pulled up in front of us but I looked away, pretending I hadn’t seen her. I wanted to keep talking to Olivia.

Mum honked the horn. ‘I’ve got to go,’ I said.

I opened the passenger seat door. Mum was wearing bright red lipstick. As we drove home my towel made a damp patch on the car seat. For dinner, Mum made microwaved chicken and sweet potato. She stood in silence by the microwave, watching the container twirl. I wondered if Olivia was at home with her mum, or if her boyfriend took her out for dinner, or maybe they were alone together at his house.

*

The next day, the boy at the pool made my yellow band a bit too tight.

‘That hurts,’ I said. ‘Can you make it looser?’

‘Nope,’ he said.

I tried to swim my ten laps without any breaks. I didn’t want to see anyone from school. I was bored and exhausted, and the muscles in my thighs kept twitching randomly. In the afternoon, I waited in line at the canteen while two girls in front of me kept flicking water from their hair into my face without realising. They were whispering in each other’s ear. The Frosty Fruits always sold out on Fridays so you had to wait longer while people decided what they were going to buy instead.

I saw Olivia leave the office around the other side of the building and walk across the grass towards the exit. She had her wallet in her hand so she was probably going to buy her lunch from the shops across the road. I decided I wasn’t hungry anymore. I stepped out from the canteen line and watched Olivia walk further away. I went up to the door that said Staff Only. I turned the doorknob and went inside. The office was dark and messy. There was a desk and three walls of shelves and one small window. There were cardboard boxes of plastic cups, and stacks of coloured paper signs left over from the winter that said pool closed for the season. I saw the same orange box that Olivia had brought with her when she gave me the band-aids.

I got down on the floor and sat under the desk and closed my eyes. I just wanted to be inside for a little while. I could feel my heart beating fast and I breathed in and out to try to slow it down. When I opened my eyes, I saw a red PhotoReady packet poking over the edge of the desk above. Outside, the canteen lady was yelling.

‘You didn’t pay for that!’

‘He took my money, miss!’ a boy yelled back.

I pulled the photo packet down to me. I decided that if Olivia came back I’d tell her I was looking for band-aids again. Maybe I could cut my finger with some scissors to make it more believable, I thought. I took out the photos, one by one. I felt like a fortune teller with a deck of tarot cards. I lay the pictures down in rows on the carpet. Every photo was taken last week. I knew that because all of the pictures were of me. There was my face, turned to the side, looking into the water. There I was on the starting block, hugging my arms to my chest, deciding whether to jump. There I was climbing out of the lap pool, looking weak and tired. My hair was slick and my fingers were wrinkled. I felt like I was being pushed underwater.

I crawled under the desk again and pulled open Olivia’s sportsbag. I threw her towel over the chair and stuck my hand inside the bag. I found a tube of sunscreen leaking inside a zip-lock packet, a box of cough medicine, and two pairs of pink underwear. Then I found her camera, disposable, like the kind I took with me to camp. I looked through the little square viewfinder and everything felt far away.

I heard the sound of feet on the pavement outside the door and caught my breath. Olivia opened the door and saw me holding the camera in my hand.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ she said.

I shrugged.

‘Come with me.’

I followed her out the door, still holding onto her camera. She slammed the door behind us. I squinted my eyes because of the sun. It was hot and I was starting to sweat. The day was turning inside out.

‘Where are you taking me?’ I said.

Olivia led me around behind the building. There was a small ally way, between the brick wall and a barbwire fence. There were four garbage bins and an old hose. The smell of the rubbish was thick in the air and there were flies hanging around. We stopped walking and I leaned against the wall. I noticed Olivia had small sweat stains underneath each of her armpits. She crouched down in front of me so our faces were on the same level. Her skin was oily and her freckles were dark brown from spending so much time in the sun. Olivia opened her mouth and stared at me.

‘I don’t want you to tell anyone you saw those photos.’

‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘Promise me,’ she said.

I leaned in closer to her.

____________________________________________________________

image: a photo of Grace Finlayson
Grace Finlayson
is a writer from Canberra living in Toronto. Her short fiction has been published in Meanjin, Seizure, Scum Mag and elsewhere. You can follow her on twitter @gracefinlayson.

In the Palm of Her Hand
(Katie Monteleone)

Posted on March 20, 2018 by in Lies To Live By

Image: a child's, woman's and man's hand on top of one another

Megan is small. Megan is born six weeks early and Megan is small enough to rest in the palm of her mother’s hand. Megan is small enough to ride on her dog Powder’s back like a clinging beetle. Megan is small enough to slide behind the refrigerator to retrieve her lost ring-pop. Megan is small enough to sleep in her parents’ bed, especially when Dad decides to sleep at his office. She’s small enough to order off the ten-and-under menu even though she is eleven now.

Megan watches. Megan watches Dad hide a glass of beer on the pantry shelf next to the dog biscuits. Megan watches the school bus ramble to a stop and she thinks of a future of pink clouds when she’ll drive her own car. Megan watches Mrs. Pierce roll her eyes at Bobby Anderson when he shouts “pussy” at two boys down the hallway. She watches the rain like splashes of thin paint outside of her window and she tries on a sparkly blue dress for prom. She watches her inbox pop with another college rejection email. She watches the world float in a haze; she can’t remember what she drank last night, but it made her throat warm and her mind free.

Megan is free. Megan is free as she rides with the windows down even though it’s five degrees outside. Megan is free as she grills chicken in her tiny apartment and picks out a show on Netflix. Megan is free to go to dinner with Henry from the gym. Henry is tall. Henry has big eyes that linger. Henry has a mole on his right butt-cheek. Megan is free when she sneaks out at 3am on a Wednesday to listen to the crackle of the cars on the street. Megan is free when Henry falls asleep watching TV on the couch; she can finally read in the bedroom alone. Megan is free when Henry asks her to marry him and Megan says no.

Megan is tired. Megan is tired when she lugs little Ben’s soccer duffle bag to the car. Megan is tired when she sits in the lamp lit night writing down her thoughts. Megan is tired when she crawls into bed and Robert’s eyes flutter open. He wraps an arm around her waist and says finally; Megan tells him she is too tired. Megan is tired when there is no more deli meat for little Ben’s lunch. She is tired as she waits in the checkout line at Walmart at a quarter to midnight. She is tired when little Ben points out the way the skin sags on her arms.

Megan is small. Megan is small as she stands in a grassy tent to see Ben walking down the aisle in a dark blue tux. She is small as she lies in her room with the lights turned low at 8pm and she can almost smell the scent of Robert’s cigarettes still lingering somewhere. Megan is small as she packs away the coloring books that she planned to keep for the grandchildren she’ll never have. Ben won’t have kids with Martha, he tells her. Just a dog, maybe. Megan is small as she pulls the shades in the living room and waits for Thanksgiving to pass. She is too small to reach the shelf where the Christmas decorations are stored. Robert used to reach them. Megan is small as she stands in the middle of the snowy yard and breathes in air that feels full of ghosts. Megan is as small as a ghost. Megan is small enough to rest in the palm of her mother’s hand.

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image: a portrait of Katie Monteleone
Katie Monteleone
is a fiction writer, playwright, lyricist and director from Lenox, Massachusetts. She attended Colby College in Waterville, ME, where she double majored in English/Creative Writing and Theatre & Dance. Katie is passionate about all types of creative writing with a particular focus on writing musical theatre. Past works include Lemonade Stand (music and lyrics), Lost With You (book and lyrics), and Waiting for Words (lyrics). Katie is currently writing and directing a new audience-immersive play called How to Start Over that will premiere at Colby College in April 2018. Instagram: @katie_monteleone

The Cry Room (Gaele Sobott)

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

Image: a mother holding a crying newborn baby

Image: a mother holding a crying newborn babyBirth

I just slipped out she said. Like a slip of the tongue, slipshod, a slip stitch forever unknitted. I was born. Slippery, sibilant, small in the scheme of everyday lives. Nothing stopped. There were no celebrations. I was born and everyone got on with their work in the power station, the briquette factory, the mine, a gaping, brown open-cut.

She hung the nappies and sheets on the line, coal dust settling on the whiter than whites, on the window sills and mantle pieces, on the froth of the men’s beer, in our lungs. I was two-months old. Thin and pale, she shivered, her breasts bulging red and hot above her shoulders, a painful mountain range of igneous rock. Mastitis the doctor said. Milk fever, once a reason for admitting women to the insane asylum.

He laughed with a fat, purple face and said, ‘Keep breastfeeding! Let the baby suck’.

Not having a bar of it, my mother put me straight on the bottle.

She laid me down to sleep, seething ready to explode because my father’s English friend from the Woodcraft Folk was Morris-dancing in the bathroom day and night, until he got a desk job at Maryvale Paper Mills. Then he moved out.

Irene, our neighbour, would throw me around like a football and babysit when my parents went to Hamish Gardner’s house for Communist Party meetings. Dad was a proud member of the Trades and Labour Council, a deputy rep for the Transport Workers Union. He drove the bright-yellow Euclids carting overburden from the coal deposit.

The women went to Party meetings but my mother would rather have been at the picture theatre with its curved façade and big clock embedded into beige bricks. In summer, they turned on the air conditioning. In winter, she could take off her shoes, rest her feet on hot-water warmers and watch Vincent Price murder people in The House of Wax, 3D technicolour on a panoramic screen.

She took me with her once when I was a baby and sat at the back of the auditorium in the soundproofed, glass-fronted, cry room to watch East of Eden. I slept and she cried. My mother would sit in the cry room. Often without me.

In the theatre, she always refused to stand for the national anthem.

At home, she took a failed dish of bread and butter pudding from the oven, cried, splattered it against the kitchen wall.

What does it mean to be born in a town purposely planned and built, then purposely demolished for the coal that lays beneath it?

My birthplace is an ever-expanding, dark and greedy hole in the ground. With heat and oxygen, the coal spontaneously combusts. Lignite dust bursts into flame at the drop of a match, a spark, a welding torch, a yellow flash igniting in mid-air. Volatile, toxic. Giant, cylindrical cooling towers, chimneys, steel girders, high wire fences, power lines.

My birthplace is Brayakaulung land, Gunaikurnai, cleared, windswept, foothills.

What does it mean to be born to land where the ancestors are denied, where they are brutalised? Do they know my footsteps, my birth spirit?

My blood ancestors, Polish, Italian, Scottish, do they know my footsteps, my birth spirit?

 

Birth

I walk the short corridors of a small hospital, Bamalete Lutheran. I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been. Seventy-four kilos. Twenty-four years old like my mother when she had me.

First baby. My father drove to Melbourne to collect his friend from England.

First baby. My daughter’s father is out with friends.

The walls are green gloss, the floor concrete, painted dark red, polished, worn where I walk.

I walk because the nurses tell me I should. Read the birth records open on the counter in front of me. Stillbirth. Don’t think about it. Float.

The nurses give me an enema, warm and wet, not painful.

Cow bells ring hollow and deep. The land is dry, gold, studded with small trees and shrubs. I’m on my back on the bed. The midwife checks dilation.

‘Don’t hyperventilate. Breathe normally’, she says.

I read about the breathing in a book. Neon light.

The doctor is at the end of the bed. A tall German woman telling me to push. Round pain, rhythmic, I float. From deep within the back of my head I float. My hip bones separate like a spatchcock cut with kitchen scissors, pressed flat on the white sheet, I rip, a goat bleats at the window.

Release.

My baby cries.

Ten fingers. Ten toes. She is big.

A big baby.

Relief.

We wait as my uterus presses down. A balloon shrivelling in on itself, contracting against the placenta, the temporary organ I have harboured, accepted and must now expel. Every process orchestrated by this new child in the room.

The midwife wants to sew the tear that extends from my vagina to my anus.

The placenta is ragged maroon not flat-cake perfect circle. We wait for more contractions. My skin smells damp, of freshly-cut grass, metallic.

The needle in and in and in and in.

Is it curved this needle?

Is it huge, with a big eye?

Black thread pulls through my tenderness. Pulls me back together, hurting. No pain killers.

The nurse tells me to get up and walk to the room.

I lie on my bed. My baby next to me in a Perspex cot. Sleep.

She cries. I take her. Sleep.

A nurse holds her to my breast. She sucks. Sleep.

I wake. It feels like I’m giving birth again. Waves of pain.

I tell the nurse.

She smiles, ‘The uterus contracting back to its pre-birth size. It’s nothing to worry about’.

I can’t float. The nurse brings tablets. They dull the pain. Sleep.

The light bulb hangs from the ceiling, stark and still. I sit up to look at my baby, eyes closed, her chest rising and falling rapidly, small lungs, heart, kidneys learning how to work in this world, outside me.

A spider, light brown and black, with very long front legs speeds across the wall above her cot.

My feet feel the cold of the concrete floor. Trembling, I take her wrapped in pastel yellow, blue and pink softness, and hug her close to my chest.

Indecision and anxiety prickle my skin. The spider waits for my next move. I bend over, clutching my baby with one arm, grab my shoe and throw it. The spider falls. I’m not sure if it’s dead. Part of a spindly leg sticks to the wall.

At home with my baby. I am frightened to hold her in water, to rub her skin with soap. My breast swells, lumpy, the ducts blocked.

The doctor gives me antibiotics for mastitis. I keep feeding.

She cries. Every night she cries.

I pull my hair, fighting the temptation to throw her across the room.

So tired.

We drive dark streets and she sleeps. Drive and cry. I am very thin. Mosetsi.

What does it mean to be born outside of marriage to a mother who wonders if the bleats of a goat are your first cries? What does it mean to be born to land that your mother came to as an adult? That your father’s mother came to as an adult? Bamalete land, Bangwaketsi land where your father and his father and all the fathers going back in time are deeply rooted in the sand, deeper than the roots of the shepherd’s tree?

Who knows the vibrations of your feet on the earth?

Who knows your birth spirit?

Who do you become?

 

Birth

I walk dusty streets beneath a dark-sky sliver of a moon but still I see my path. Walking, holding my daughter’s hand. My womb tenses again and again.

The telephone has been cut. No money to pay the bill. My husband is out somewhere with his friends.

I walk to my mother’s house. She drives me, forty-five minutes to Bamalete Lutheran.

The nurses check dilation. Straight into the birthing room. The midwife guides the small head from between my legs. I split but not much. She is not a huge baby. Just right.

A June girl born in the desert cold, on a winter night. Many stars in a black sky.

I sleep.

I eat brown motogo porridge heaped with sugar.

I sleep.

My husband in the corridor talks loudly to a nurse, joking, ‘If it’s not a boy, I won’t bother going in’.

Holding my girl, delicate, dark eyes looking at me as she sucks. The uterus contracts with double the intensity. Cramping in hard, unrepentant beats.

His skin smells of stale, bitter brew.

He brings strawberries.

In the afternoon, my baby reacts. The strawberry seeds grow in my milk, grow on her skin, spotted-red welts.

I know how to wash this little one. How to put her to sleep but her sister pinches her. She howls, vulnerable, not understanding.

Hurt digs into my loneliness, into my tiredness. It becomes a rage I supress in slow, unending tears.

The doctor gives me antibiotics for the mastitis.

The little one continues to suck and as her eyes close, drowsy, her sister yells and slams the cupboard doors.

What does it mean to be born a girl when your father longs for a boy? Bamalete land, Bangwaketse land.

The land where you do not learn your father tongue?

What does it mean to be born second and in between because there is another one to come?

 

Birth

He started off as drops of blood, thorn in the side, sharp to the point of ectopic. Scans showed a peanut with a big heart throbbing life in the uterus, the right place for an embryo to be. He.

Gravida 3

Elderly Multigravida

A grey-haired doctor treats me with an arrogance I am well acquainted with. He makes arrangements for an amniocentesis test. I want more information. He ignores me. Raucous twitching scratches at my throat.

‘I will think about it’, I say.

Broken veins form an angry net across his nose and cheeks.

His lips are thin when he speaks, ‘You are no spring chicken! It’s imperative you check for Down Syndrome. It won’t take long, painless, perfectly harmless’.

‘I will think about it.’

He throws the form and his pen across the desk and huffs, ‘I advise very strongly that you do the test’.

I’m up, walking towards the door. He doesn’t see me out.

This father is a different man. From another land. He says, ‘Wait and see. We will love our baby whatever happens’.

I’m working as a bookkeeper, paying the salaries. We all have strict toilet and tea times, and a locker room where we leave our bags and put on overcoats and elasticised paper caps and paper shoes before padding across the factory floor. The women make wound dressings. Sometimes they sneak one into my pocket and I take it home, peel it open, stick it on my skin.

Morning sickness invades my existence, deep, persistent nausea. In the fourth month, it leaves. I feel free.

An oversize red jumper, stretchy black pants and black lace-up boots become my uniform. Baby grows within me.

A fart escapes climbing the stairs.

I wee myself at the table during Christmas dinner at our friends’ home.

Run my stretchy black pants under water and dry them on a towel.

No one realises.

The hostess proudly serves suckling pig. Slaughtered at three-weeks old. My baby’s father is sick at the thought. He cannot pretend he eats pork.

It’s difficult to find a comfortable sleeping position. Difficult to turn my body on the bed.

This baby is overdue. He likes it in the womb. I eat curry.

The father curls his body around mine from behind. We have sex three nights in a row.

I sit for almost three hours in the cinema watching The English Patient. None of it convinces this small being to screw headfirst, round and round down the birth canal.

The hospital is in a cold place especially for women. Hull Maternity.

A male nurse measures dilation.

He says, ‘You are doing very well. Opening up like a flower in spring’. The urge to scream at him is furious, kick him.

Recoil.

Think of his feelings.

I don’t want a male nurse.

My daughters are with me, two friends, the father. They hold my hand. Talk. Laugh. The midwife allows them in the birthing room. They hold their breath when I moan and grunt my animalness into the air. One friend grabs the gas and sucks on it. The other friend glares at her.

I have never had gas before. I wait. Stoic.

Entonox.

Bear down.

Give me some.

A nurse places the mask over my nose and mouth. I breath in and float.

Wait.

Push.

‘I can see the head. Nearly there. Push.’

Total length of labour five hours fifteen minutes.

Membranes to birth one hour seventeen minutes.

They hold him high. His legs curl towards his chest. I see huge testicles. He cries. My daughters laugh. The father holds his son.

Birth weight 4.139 kilos.

APGAR 9 at 1 minute, 9 at 5 minutes.

The midwife places this baby boy on my chest, my chin rests on his head. He is quiet. He is warm against my skin.

The father, the friends, the daughters are hungry. They go to eat pizza. Laughing as they walk down the corridor.

The midwife leaves. The nurses leave.

My child sleeps.

1st degree Perineal tear. Sutured by Ann Watson.

Blood Loss 250 mls.

Membranes complete but ragged.

I get up from the bed, legs shaking. Place a hand on the wall and manoeuvre to the door. Across the corridor to the bathroom. I stand in the shower, blood pouring onto a mosaic of small blue and white tiles.

Lonely.

Weak.

Hot water pounds my head and back.

I cry.

No sleep in the ward. There are ten mothers, ten babies. My baby sucks. The nurse is pleased. Contractions three times as strong. I cry. They give me painkillers.

Dulled light. Morning is on its way. I want to go home.

Discharged.

Mother is very tired, otherwise well.

The father drives to London to collect an uncle who stays with us. They play loud music and card games.

I lay on the bed on my back, arms and legs stretched out.

I stare at the ceiling. I cannot move. I cannot speak.

The father asks me what is wrong. My daughters are concerned. I hear them. I see them.

I cannot move.

I cannot speak.

They call the doctor.

I need rest.

The doctor tells me I am suffering from hysteria.

I have not recovered my tongue. I say nothing.

Antibiotics for the wrathful breast. Mastitis. Hot baths. My baby continues to suck.

The doctor says I must stop breast feeding.

I am too thin. Too tired.

He prescribes Prozac.

I thicken around the middle, around the brain. I am dulled down.

What does it mean to be born outside of marriage to an old mother who defies authority, hides her depression and throws away the medication? What does it mean to be born on a small wiggle of land that your mother and father came to as adults and will leave?

Who will know your footprint?

Who will know your birth spirit?

English is a dominator language.

Was there ever an English word for a woman who has just had a baby?

In the time when women had control of birth, was there a word?

When women cooked special food to ensure the mother’s recovery. When they made sure she got rest, when they shared the care of the newborn. Maybe then there was a word.

My mother often sits at the kitchen table staring out the glass doors at the sky. She says, ‘Aren’t the clouds beautiful. I’m very lucky to be able to watch the clouds’.

She says this many times a day.

The present and recent past crumble, her mind outstretched, hoping for memories. But they are mirages, dark, frightening gaps in her existence.

She is forced further and further back in time, seeking solid ground.

Walls are crumbling too. Inhibitions, restraints.

She is entirely inappropriate.

She voices her fears, her hates, past secrets, abuses.

She hugs me in a way I have never known. Shows love, simple, straight-forward, child-like love without resentment. It is strange but liberating to be loved in this way by my mother.

I begin. I learn. I understand.

My birth spirit.

*

This story was written in response to Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs of young women holding their newly born babies, exhibited in Nude: art from the Tate collection, Art Gallery of NSW, 5 Nov 2016 – 5 Feb 2017.

____________________________________________________________

Image: portrait of Gaele SobottGaele Sobott has published a range of acclaimed works including, Colour Me Blue and My Longest Round, co-authored with Wally Carr, the second edition forthcoming with Magabala Books. She identifies as a disabled artist and was selected for the first cohort of the Australia Council for the Arts 2014 Sync Leadership Program. In 2015 she was artist in residence at Google Australia. Gaele is the founding director of Outlandish Arts. She produced NoRMAL, a performance of stories by four artists on their experiences of disability, the Australian tour of Caroline Bowditch’s, Falling in Love with Frida, the Australia-UK creative development of Deaf Australian playwright Sofya Gollan’s play, MotherLode, in London, and Fools’ Gold, a series of poetry performances, workshops and critical discussion events involving artists who experience psychological and emotional distress. Gaele was commissioned to write Zaphora and Ali for Urban Theatre Projects’ Home Country staged by Sydney Festival 2017. She participated in the DADAA and Perth International Arts Festival Aesthetics of Access residency in March 2017 with Jenny Sealey MBE, Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company UK. She was also selected to take part in the two-week Jo Bannon Penetration and Performance residency in Adelaide in August 2017. Gaele facilitated the Access2Arts Embody project for disabled writers and is currently leading the Writing Me project. She has just completed a collection of short stories about life in an apartment building in Lakemba, Sydney, where she resides.

The Health Inspectors – Part One
(Anthony Macris)

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

(from an untitled novel in progress)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________________________________________

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

Canjeera (Deb Wain)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot canjeera! Hot canjeera!

Fortunate is he who gets it.

Lucky is the one who eats it.

Good wife, buy it.

Give it to your knight,

So he would roar like a lion!

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hot canjeera!’

The lion roars.

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

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

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

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

‘So he would roar like a lion!’

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

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

 

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

Arsehole Jam (Caitlin Farrugia)

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

(edited by Michelle McLaren)

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

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

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

1955

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

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

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

1949

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

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

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

1961

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

____________________________________________________________


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

The Art of Leaving (Miki Laval)

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

(Edited by Laura McPhee-Browne)

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

‘Sorry, I’m early,’ she says.

‘I hope you weren’t waiting long.’

‘Where?’

‘At the door.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A month. I think.’

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

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

‘Is it?’

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

‘You were?’

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

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

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

‘So much money, and all for what?’

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

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

‘So, you do websites?’

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

‘So, you don’t do websites?’

‘I’m a musician.’

‘Really?’

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

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

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

‘Do you cook?’ she asks.

‘With two kids, you sort of have to.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Which is?’

‘Cocky asshole.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The production quality is definitely there.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We just finished printing this promotional piece.’

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

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

Daniel points to the last photo. ‘See.’

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

She reaches into her bag and pulls out her phone.

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

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

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

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

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

‘How long ago was that?’

‘Eight months. How about you?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you sure?’

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

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

‘Oh, honey, everybody knows.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m giving it a try.’

‘You believe in God?’

‘Yes, don’t you?’

‘God no. I mean, sorry…no, just no.’

‘Not agnostic.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A massage parlour.’

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

He nods his head.

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

‘Okay. What did it look like inside?’

‘There was a desk and some chairs.’

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

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

‘Ah.’

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

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

‘The usual.’

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

‘Pretty much.’

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

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

‘I get chills just thinking about her.’

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

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

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

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

‘But you fell in love with her?’

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

‘Hmmm,’ she says.

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

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

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

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

‘Thinking what?’

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

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

‘Yes.’

‘From what exactly?’

‘From the way her life has turned out.’

‘Because she’s a sex worker?’

‘Yes, obviously.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What the hell, Daniel?’

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

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

‘No,’ they both say at the same time.

‘I mean it’s actually sort of funny.’

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

‘It’s just a coincidence.’

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

‘Ask her yourself if it isn’t.’

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

‘I was actually wondering about that.’

‘You were wondering.’

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

‘How is this possible?’

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

Claire and Daniel turn towards each other.

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

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

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

‘Claire. Her name is Claire?’

‘Yes, obviously.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I know.’

‘For your own good,’ she is saying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone should threaten to leave.

Someone should say, fine go.

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

Oh, the mournful horror.

There had been none of that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You just took a bath?’

‘It was an impulse.’

‘That’s hilarious.’

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

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

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

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

‘From cradle to grave and womb to tomb.’

‘From erection to resurrection.’

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

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

And then she is gone.

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

____________________________________________________________


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

The Black War Thesis
(David Thomas Henry Wright)

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘This is my research,’ said Verity.

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

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

‘And your supervisor has agreed to this?’

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#1

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

#2

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

#3

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

 

____________________________________________________________

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