(edited by Laura McPhee-Browne)
Most people think that Werzy is my twin sister. I did too, until Mum told us both the truth when we needed our birth certificates for a History project in Year 8. It was bit of a shock to find out that Werzy was my Aunty and one month younger than me.
See, my mother is the eldest of thirteen, and when her Mum, Nanna Cornelia, had Werzy — her thirteenth — it was all too much. We took her in as one of our own and moved, quick-smart apparently, from Adelaide up to Brisbane.
Werzy took the news a lot better than I expected; my surname, date of birth, star sign, and parentage hadn’t changed, but Werzy’s whole world was turned upside down. So her nonchalant attitude seemed odd to me at the time. What I didn’t know then was that she had a much bigger secret hidden away in her fubsy body.
Werzy got her nickname in primary school. Her first name, Wilhelmina, drew the attention of Brad Cunningham, a bully who was prone to a bit of rodomontade which I thought was to cover up his bad case of haplography. I found out later though that his dad was a blue-singleted wife basher who drank every day until he became catawampus. Poor Brad, no wonder he couldn’t spell. Anyway, Willy, as we called her at the time, always carried a dictionary around with her. She was a logophile, and if you think I’m a bit verbose it’s actually all her fault.
‘Wilhelmina, Wilhelmina, she grows on a rock and couldn’t be meaner,’ sang Brad one little lunch, when we were made to sit under the camphor laurel trees to drink the free, warm milk.
‘He’s suggesting I’m rupestrine,’ said Willy, unperturbed. She showed me the word in her dictionary and I laughed. Brad didn’t take too kindly to my cachinnation, so he stood up, walked across the cracked asphalt and punched me in the nose. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I cried. Wilhelmina stepped in and kicked him in the groin.
Brad dropped to the ground like a sack of starchy tubers and the whole of Year 5 sat stunned with opened mouths. After all the kerfuffle, the principal called a school assembly. He gave a ten minute lecture on bullying, and appropriate and inappropriate responses. Then in front of us all, he gave Willy, yes Willy, two cuts of his cane and then Brad got six. The assembly was dismissed and I spent the rest of the day trying to be as apatetic as possible because by now the whole school knew my sister had stepped in to defend me. If I knew then what I know now maybe I would have cried out, ‘She’s my Aunty, not my sister,’ but I’m sure it wouldn’t have made a difference.
For some reason Brad spent the rest of Year 5 trying his darnedest to get on side with me and Willy. I didn’t mind since I figured that if I could be seen joking around and even rough-housing a bit with the boy who got six cuts of the cane without even a wince, maybe the humiliation of being the boy who needed his twin sister to step in for him might wane? Brad even tried to use big words to gain our favour. He consulted with the librarian and together they found the word lexicomane. He started calling Willy ‘Lexi Comane’, but my twin sister, once again, stopped him in his tracks. She said, ‘Brad, lexicomane is not a real word. If you desired to attribute a word to me to characterise my propensity to use big words, you could have scrutinised the thesaurus a bit more thoroughly and found sesquipedalian. Now that is a real word.’
Brad was without word. For a moment anyway. He picked up a stick off the ground and threw it at a noisy crow in the tree. ‘Did you know I can throw a rock from the top of Mt Gravatt all the way into the Brisbane River?’
‘Your mendacity metagrobolises me,’ said Willy.
‘I give up,’ groaned Brad. ‘You win, Willy Wordsworth!’
And that was that. Out of sheer frustration, Brad the bully, trying to ingratiate himself with the master of the lexicon and the swift kicker to the testicles, had popped out a nickname that stuck like the proverbial mud. Like wildfire the name Willy Wordsworth swept through Sunnybank State Primary School.
In the weeks ahead it got trimmed and morphed. Willy Wordsworth was truncated to Wordsworth, then that was transmogrified into Wordsy. And then finally, in true to form Australianisation, it ended up rolling off our tongues as Werzy.
After Mum told us that we weren’t twins, Werzy and I grew apart a bit. It wasn’t really because she was now my Aunty, which we decided to keep as a family secret for the moment, nor that she was still a word freak quick to violence; it was more that in High School the boys hung out with the boys and the girls looked down on us as immature and despicable. Werzy was fine with me one on one, but at school, even though she was quite a tomboy, she hung out with all the pretty girls in our year; the very same girls that us immature and pimply boys used to fantasise over.
Brad Cunningham and I would watch them from the other side of the quadrangle.
‘Why doesn’t Werzy invite us over to hang out with her mates?’ Brad would ask from time to time.
They would laugh and hug each other, even hold hands as they walked to period five after lunch. It was then that I first thought Werzy might be a lesbian.
‘Did you know Tina Westbourne is intimately allied with that young and hirsute PE teacher, Mr King? It’s ridiculously clandestine and she has unmitigatedly succumbed to limerence. It’s quite disconcerting,’ said Werzy one afternoon after school as we divided up the rest of the milk left in the fridge. ‘He’s a certified philanderer. An interloper of the worst kind,’ she continued, with spittle forming a line of ebullition along the lower labium of her mouth. She was optically verdant and beastly, and clearly jealous of Mr King’s success.
By the time we reached Year 12 Werzy got over Tina Westbourne by having several sexual dalliances with other girls — and I was still a virgin! On the night of the graduation formal she called Mum and Dad and me into the loungeroom to announce that she was a man trapped inside a female body. I was discombobulated, and didn’t know whether to say, ‘Sure bro!’ or ask, ‘So now you’re my Uncle?’
Inside my busy mind I was reconstructing the world. I realised that Werzy wasn’t gay after all — she was a he, and therefore as heterosexual as moi. I took it all in my stride and in the car as Dad drove us to the formal it dawned on me that Werzy was now uniquely and perfectly placed to help me crack onto Tina Westbourne. Howzat that for serendipity?
Sean Crawley writes short stories, songs, non-fiction and the odd angry letter which he occasionally sends. He won the Hervey Bay Arts Council Short Story Award in 2015 and has been published online and in anthologies, the most recent being The 2016 Newcastle Short Story Award. Sean has worked in education, mental health and once owned a video shop in a dying town. He writes early in the morning at his desk currently located on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland.
Turpentine is a type of tree. How could Martin not have known? He’d lived in Bamberg for eleven years – he should have known.
‘It’s true,’ Anne said, expansively, her eyes widening as she spoke. ‘Turpentine forests surrounded Sydney, before European settlement. That’s how it was.’
Martin was a retired accountant, but even so. He knew the smell well enough, knew it from the half-used bottle in his shed, from numerous times cleaning paint brushes, forearms, fingers and palms. He could have summoned the smell to his nose, to his throat, but in so doing he would have looked quite odd, foolish even, and so he resisted the temptation. Pride, that’s what it was – gets its teeth into you at an early age, or doesn’t.
They were chatting over breakfast at Bethany’s, Anne’s favourite café. This was the third occasion in four weeks, after being introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Initially, neither had taken kindly to the idea.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ had been Martin’s first response.
The acquaintance was Peter Taylor. Peter, from the golf club, perhaps the greatest of the non-playing members – he could have a drink with anyone.
‘A retired academic?’ Martin said. ‘No, nothing in common. Thankyou, but no, and I doubt she’d have an interest in the likes of me.’
‘Don’t be so sure,’ said Peter. ‘There are all sorts of perverts in the world – age shall not weary them.’
That was Peter for you. He owned the TyreMart in town, though by now the place was managed by his twin sons, George and Michael – that had gone down well at school, especially during roll call. Bright boys, inherited their father’s entrepreneurial spirit, but not his graft. Big plans for a carwash, apparently.
‘In which discipline?’ Martin asked, thinking it couldn’t do any harm.
‘Discipline?’ Peter replied. ‘No one said anything about discipline. You kinky old bastard.’
‘Department,’ Martin said. ‘Subject. What was her area?’
‘French,’ replied Peter. ‘So you never know.’
Martin and Jean, his dearly departed, had several times holidayed in France. On their final visit, some fifteen years ago, they rented a farmhouse in Provence. The children joined them for the first ten days, his son with his then fiancé, followed for the remainder by Jean’s younger sister and her family. By then, he and Jean had grown hopeless at being alone.
‘I rather like the smell of turpentine,’ Martin ventured. ‘It makes your cheeks blush.’
‘And your brain,’ Anne responded, tilting her head for some unknown reason.
Anne wasn’t one for mind-altering substances. Even as a student – she’d graduated in 1971, for goodness sake – she’d stayed away from serious drugs, and certainly during her career at the university. Marijuana but never chemicals, not even after she’d met Serge in Marseille and married him in Lyon. Serge – how apt a name: into her life and out the other side.
Anne smiled at Martin as she finished her cup of coffee. God knows she might have used something stronger, what with the trouble she was having with her daughter. Her daughter’s partner, more precisely, the way she spoke to Sabine and the children. The woman was a bully.
‘One of these days we should go on a bushwalk,’ Martin said.
Anne did not respond.
‘I said, one of these days we should go on a bushwalk. To Narrow Neck, for example. See if we can’t find those trees.’
‘Sorry,’ replied Anne. ‘I was miles away.’
She hoped she hadn’t offended Martin, hoped he’d sympathise with the way one gets carried away by one’s own thoughts, one’s preoccupations – one’s life. They were still new to each other, after all, had gone down only a layer or two, and so remained blessedly unrevealed.
‘A bushwalk?’ Anne said. ‘Goodness, I haven’t been on a bushwalk in years.’
‘Beautiful out there in winter,’ Martin assured her. ‘On a sunny day.’
Just the previous week Martin had taken his grandson on a bushwalk. They’d made it all the way to Mt Solitary. Stood together on the hump, looking back towards Bamberg, over the tops of trees, Martin doing his best with the local history. The boy had been patient and curious, for a twelve year old.
‘I’d not thought of bushwalking,’ Anne said. ‘Wouldn’t want to get caught out there alone.’
‘No chance of that,’ said Martin. ‘Fresh air, and good for the balance.’
Things were going well – Martin could feel it – so why not press on, take another step? They were enjoying each other, like adolescents with age-spots and pre-crimped skin, but infinitely more interesting. They had so much to avoid talking about.
‘It’s my turn to pay,’ Anne said.
Already? Martin thought. He had no further plans, and now the day would re-commence too quickly. Perhaps the club in the afternoon, though that would mean fielding Peter’s questions. He put himself together – keys, phone, coat, scarf – and went to wait outside, his collar turned against the wind. He paid attention to the door, opening it twice for an indecisive young woman and her tremendous stroller.
‘Thankyou,’ Anne said, joining Martin on the footpath.
‘No,’ said Martin. ‘Thankyou. For breakfast. For everything.’
‘You’re welcome,’ Anne said.
‘Same time next week?’ Martin asked.
‘Next week’s difficult,’ Anne replied.
It wasn’t that she wanted to drive to Sydney to look after her daughter’s children, but Sabine’s partner had arranged three nights in Melbourne, and their father couldn’t – or wouldn’t – have them during the week. A show, dinner, and God knows what else. Frankly, Anne hoped the rapprochement wouldn’t work. The woman was a bully.
‘The week after next?’ Anne said.
She leant forward to kiss Martin on the cheek, held his elbow for a second longer than she’d done the time before, and then she walked off in the direction of her car.
Martin didn’t leave, not immediately. He watched Anne disappear around the corner, and then he watched for a little while longer. What was going on? Even now, green shoots? Such capacity for renewal, such localised forgetting – how much more of this would they be granted? It’s ridiculous, and it keeps on being so. The way life might spring and lunge, in spite of itself, like a bull for the heart.
Craig Billingham’s poems, stories and reviews have appeared widely, including in Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Southerly, and Review of Australian Fiction. A collection of poems, Storytelling, was published in 2007. He is a Doctor of Arts candidate at the University of Sydney.
(edited by Michelle McLaren)
I exit Amir’s car at the hospital.
My eyes are drawn to a glowing baby in a pram as I enter the toilets. Her mother is applying foundation in light, bouncing motions. The baby starts crying loudly. The mother slicks some red lipstick on her lips. The baby’s cry is peppered with staccato hiccups. Black eyeliner is smeared under the mother’s eyes. She fixes it, and then outlines her lips with a dark red lip liner. The baby looks as if it’s choking. It is choking. The mother brushes her eyelashes with mascara, making them as long as possible. There seems to be something wrong with your baby, she’s choking. She is choking.
‘Calm down,’ the mother says in a cold, sarcastic voice, brushing her hair to one side.
The baby stops crying instantly.
See? She just wants you to notice her. Notice your baby. Don’t be like me.
Her phone rings. Looking satisfied, a proud smile spreads across the woman’s lips. ‘Hi love,’ she coos, pushing the pram towards the exit.
My first date with Amir flashes before my eyes. ‘I’d like to have four children, two girls and two boys,’ he had said, pointing to a cute toddler at the next table. The kid rocked back and forth, pressing his lips together whenever the mother put the spoon near his mouth. ‘I’ll never force my kid to eat something he doesn’t enjoy. It makes things easier,’ I had said.
‘You just give birth to the baby and I’ll take care of his food, I promise,’ he had laughed.
Amir has only recently regained full use of his injured leg. His right leg used to drag. Truth be told, he suffered all for me.
I leave the toilets to find the right sub-department: Oral Health.
I walk down the floral-wallpapered hallway towards the reception desk.
‘Hi, I am the interpreter for Rahim Karami.’
‘Good morning, let me check,’ she says mechanically. ‘Yes, he’s sitting over there.’
I approach a short, bald man in his fifties, who is squeezing his nose with his thumb and middle finger. Fumbling in my bag, I introduce myself: ‘سلام من دینا هستم. مترجمتون’.
His mouth opens with a laugh, displaying the four missing upper front teeth. He sniffles and wipes his nose with a handkerchief.
‘I’m Jane, his social worker,’ an Australian woman says from behind me. Her curly blond hair looks quite messy. I take my glasses from my bag.
Rahim slides a photo out of his pocket. He talks about his brother, Karim, who has been hospitalised for a while but is feeling well now. The laugh is gone.
‘من یه برادر دارم. بیمارستان بود اما الان خونست. حالش الان خوبه’
He puts his face close to the photo and stares at it for a moment, repeating Karim’s story.
‘من یه برادر دارم. بیمارستان بود اما الان خونست. حالش الان خوبه ‘
Why does he repeat himself? Is it the effect of desolation?
‘Rahim has this problem that makes him repeat everything several times,’ the social worker says. ‘Has he talked about Karim yet?’
‘Yeah, he did.’
‘Karim’s hospitalised and is unlikely to recover from his heart problems.’
Yes, his habit is the effect of desolation.
Rahim plays with the ID card hanging around his neck, turning it face up. ‘این منم’, he says, ‘It’s me’. He tries to make sure I understand that Jane has taken the photo.
‘.جین این عکس رو گرفت’
He settles himself comfortably back in the chair and repeats, ‘.جین این عکس رو گرفت’
I smile. The receptionist hands Jane some forms to complete. Jane asks me if Rahim is allergic to any drugs.
‘Rahim jan به چیزی آلرژی داری؟’, I ask him.
‘Allergy?’ he asks. ‘HAAA allergy,’ he points to the bouquet of flowers on the receptionist’s desk.
‘.من گلهای زرد و قرمز دوست دارم’
I tell him that I like red and yellow flowers too, and then ask the question again.
‘He doesn’t seem to know if he’s allergic to any medicine,’ I say to Jane. ‘I mean he doesn’t quite understand my question.’
‘That’s okay. Let me see what I can do.’
Jane calls another member of the organisation that looks after Rahim’s medical conditions.
A Chinese girl in the front row turns the pages of a magazine. She looks to be about my age, possibly thirty-eight. Rahim asks for a magazine. She sneezes. ‘Bless you,’ Rahim says. Her long straight hair falls around her face as she turns around and gives him a gentle smile. ‘Thank you.’
A stocky dentist with glasses comes out of room 28 to call Rahim. ‘Ha,’ Rahim says.
‘Come in Rahim,’ the dentist smiles, casting a rapid glance at me as I rise from the chair.
‘Hi, I’m Jane, his support help, and this is Dina, the interpreter.’
‘Nice to see you.’
Rahim touches the black mark on the door as he enters.
‘What seems to be the problem?’ the dentist asks.
‘He’s been complaining about severe pain in his upper front tooth since Sunday.’
The dentist adjusts his glasses on the bridge of his nose with his right hand, and writes something on a questionnaire-like form with the other. I hear the slow scribbling of the pen.
I hope Amir has arrived home safely. He is driving for the second time since the accident.
‘OK, what I’ll do now is to see if there’s any need for an X-ray. Then, before any special work is done on his teeth, I’ll contact the adult guardian to get permission. Ah, will you ask him to recline his head on to the headrest?’
I make a conscious effort not to laugh my lungs out. Rahim’s head is in the air, next to the headrest, with his mouth as wide open as possible. His eyes are clamped shut. I wish the dentist could shove a toothbrush in his mouth and brush his yellow teeth.
‘Ha,’ he says, his eyes still shut.
I ask him to open his eyes; ‘Rahim jan, چشماتو باز نگه دار’.
Rahim does, then puts his hands behind his head and leans back. I move two steps nearer to touch his head and move it slightly. He blinks at Jane, with his index finger up, and then brings his hands towards me to show his badly damaged nails. He used to construct and repair walls, partitions, arches, and concrete blocks for fifteen years, he says.
He breathes in deeply, then pulls his shirt up to expose a huge, round belly.
‘Is he hungry?’ Jane asks.
‘Yes,’ he says.
‘He’s always hungry,’ Jane whispers in my ear.
‘Does he eat a lot?’
‘Yes, well, if he gets the chance.’
‘Please explain to him that I’ll take a thorough look in his mouth to see which tooth is causing the pain.’
I do as I’m asked.
The dentist wears surgical gloves and a mask. Rahim changes his position from prone to sitting upright, touching my wrist when he sees the mirror in the dentist’s hand.
‘What’s wrong?’ the dentist asks. Rahim points to one of his teeth in the upper right hand side of his mouth and says, ‘.دیگه درد ندارم’
‘He’s scared,’ I say, extremely impressed. ‘He says that he no longer has any pain.’
‘It won’t take more than one minute.’
‘Okay,’ Rahim says, reclining his head on the headrest once again.
Does he understand English?
‘All right,’ the dentist says, removing his left hand from Rahim’s mouth. ‘He needs to have a dental X-ray; I believe his tooth has to come out.’
Rahim’s big, round eyes are staring at me. He turns red in the face, and jumps to his feet.
He knows English.
‘Please ask him to bite this cardboard X-ray film and not move. We’ll go out of the room while the X-ray is done. Also tell him that I’ll give him some medicine just in case he has some pain after the numbness abates.’
Rahim seems to understand the whole procedure. ‘Okay,’ he says, rolling his eyes.
‘Open wide, good, now bite down hard and don’t move.’
Hesitant to bite down on the piece in his mouth, he points to Jane. ‘Let’s go.’
‘It’ll be all over very soon. You’ll be fine, you’re a brave man,’ Jane says.
He runs his fingers lightly over Jane’s arm, delighted.
‘Come on,’ Jane says, looking frustrated.
We step out of the room, leaving him alone. Rahim brings his thumb up as the X-ray machine buzzes.
‘Well, the X-ray proves that we’ll need to extract this tooth. There’s almost nothing left of it. It’s mostly broken. Please let him know that I’ll give him an injection before removing his tooth. He might feel a short, sharp pain but it won’t take more than a second.’
I convey the message. Rahim takes the position of a runner, but he halts and sits back.
‘Okay,’ Rahim says. He then repeats a story over and over about his brother hitting himself in the head when the doctor wanted to remove his tooth last week.
The tooth is now numb enough to be removed forever, to stop existing. No longer being there to help Rahim chew or bite. No longer going through the pain and difficulties Rahim will experience in life. The poet Rumi once wrote: ‘Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.’ In what form will a lost tooth or a lost hope come around? Oh, my baby. Where are you?
‘Here it comes,’ the dentist says. ‘There’s a bigger piece still remaining.’
Rahim’s placid expression changes to one of extreme anger.
The dentist places the piece of the broken tooth on the tray. The napkin goes red. I can feel the pressure on his tooth every time Rahim stares at me, tears leaking from his eyes. The dentist begins levering the tooth with his elevators. The tooth is really stubborn. It refuses to come out, very insistent on being there, as a witness to its life. ‘This piece is really uncooperative,’ the dentist says, replacing the elevators with extraction forceps.
Rahim moans, stretching his arms farther towards Jane. I pat him on his shoulder.
‘It’s already loosened somewhat and will be teased out in a second,’ the dentist says.
Is his tooth really hard to extract or is he an inexperienced dentist? Rahim is no longer shouting, as he is more obsessed with grabbing the dental assistant’s hand. She has grown anxious, no longer smiling or saying any comforting words.
Rahim screws up his eyes against the light.
‘It’s finished,’ the dentist exclaims with delight. ‘It was deep inside his gum. Well done Rahim, such a brave man. Rinse your mouth with water.’
Saliva drips from Rahim’s mouth into the dental sink, mixing with his blood. Then his mouth opens with a sweet smile to display the big space left by the missing tooth.
‘He’d better not have anything to eat for two hours and then have something soft.’
Rahim touches his belly and says ‘گرسنمه’.
Jane stares at him and frown lines appear on her forehead when I tell her that he is hungry. ‘He had a big breakfast just before coming here. How come he’s hungry?’ Jane asks, and then quickly turns her head towards me. ‘Please make sure he understands that he should only eat soft food.’
Rahim looks deep into my eyes and tells me that he loves Jane, that she is very beautiful. Then he rubs his tummy with one hand and his thigh with the other.
‘Is he still talking about eating?’ Jane asks.
I look back at him and exhale in disbelief.
‘Well, no. I don’t think so.’
He wants Jane to take his hand, now that he’s behaved so well. I tell her. A surprised expression crosses the dentist and the dental assistant’s faces. ‘What?’ Jane asks, sarcastic. ‘Ask the receptionist to book him another appointment in two weeks’ time,’ the dentist says.
‘Sure, I will.’
‘دوسش دارم’, Rahim says again; I love her.
‘Is there anything wrong?’ the dental assistant asks looking at him still seated on the reclining chair.
‘He’s talking about his brother,’ I lie, not knowing what else to say.
We thank the dentist and the assistant.
‘بهش نگو’ Rahim says, his fingers drifting slowly and rhythmically over his stomach, and into his lap. He doesn’t want her to know yet.
Rahim’s eyes drift towards Jane’s breasts as he talks about how enticing, round, and firm they are. I feel a shiver running down my spine. ‘Anything wrong?’ Jane asks, giving me a curious look. ‘No, everything’s fine. I’ll just have the assignment sheet signed, if there isn’t anything else I can do for you.’
‘No, thank you Dina. All done. The next appointment is on Tuesday the thirteenth. Let’s go Rahim.’
I walk down the footpath towards the shops, thinking about something soft to eat before remembering my noticeable weight gain over the last two weeks. I turn left and walk to the bus stop.
I board the bus.
A mother in the front seat fumbles for something in her bag. There is a baby crying in a crimson red stroller next to her. Its sound echoes weirdly in my ears. The mother seems uncomfortable. She screws up her nose as she stands, pushing the stroller back and forth. Her eyes squint and her neck muscles tense when she notices the looks from other passengers. No matter what the mother does, the baby does not stop wailing. The bus driver looks into the mirror above him to see what is going on. The crying sounds like an adult impersonating a child’s voice. Next stop. The bus pulls over to the side of the road. I make a stealthy effort to see the child. My stomach tightens as the baby’s face is revealed. Cleft lips. Large face. Receding forehead. Big head. Too big for his age. The mother’s eyes sweep over me quickly as she pushes the stroller towards the exit.
‘Not beautiful?’ she asks in an agitated voice as she exits the bus, a faint smile quivering at the corner of her lips. I feel tears prick the back of my eyes. ‘I―’ my heart tightens.
She looks across the street before pushing the stroller and waddling away. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I mumble, looking through the window.
Hasti Abbasi holds a BA and an MA in English Literature. She is a sessional academic and a PhD. scholar of literary studies and creative writing at Griffith University.
(Edited by Michelle McLaren)
Her skin crawled with sweat. She gathered her shirt and let the hot air seethe up her spine, to her bra, to her lymph nodes, where the doctor had prodded and she had winced at the cold hands, the prick of a manicure.
She leaned over the doormat, hands on the brick, looking at what was left of the word ‘Welcome.’ Sweat dripped off her forehead. She sweated more these days. It was something chemical.
When most of the sweat had dried on her skin she unlocked the door. She didn’t want dirt in the house.
She thought of all the patterns of sweat she had left on the road, on lawns, in driveways. Crystalline patterns now covered over with engine oil, leaves, dirt, taken away by the wind or tyres or bird feet. It was a good thing that her body could produce such substance. It was good to know.
She shut the door. In the hall she felt her body slowing, her heart settling. Her skin still stung with motion, a pleasant kind of flesh memory. Her stomach curdled a little. She had sprinted at the end until she felt her body reach such a pitch of protest it split off from the world, the dark a screen, the ground a shell.
Some days were full of a nausea that was even worse than what she had felt before the drugs, when her mind was at its most shattered, when she had first learned that the mind was far more than a mere acquaintance of the body. After snatches of sleep she woke with a horrible pain, stumbling to the toilet and hauling up everything, left exhausted and white, her mouth full of hot things that should stay far lower in the body.
Then there were days when she could run kilometres and feel every piece of strength she had ever possessed, sweating as she had been told only men sweat, pushing it off her eyebrows and chin, splattering the road.
She went into the living room and looked at the book under the lamp that was dark now but would later make a hard spotlight. It was a thin book but thick in beauty and wisdom. Things she had once looked for in the strangest, unholiest places before. But she had found you had to strain the mind as much as the body, there was no use running the streets if you left your mind to sag, to pale and bloat as if immersed in water.
Tonight she would sit in the light and she would go further than she had gone just now, thrilled to the point of exhaustion, her chest drumming and her palms dampening so she knew the mind and body were made of the same nerve and sinew.
But there was a knocking behind her. She was so surprised to realise it was a person at the door that she opened it before she had time for another thought. Half of her was still out on the streets, in the newly dark evening.
The air left her, as if a payment for the extra oxygen she had taken in those ten kilometres. Tiff stood so close it seemed she was halfway inside already, wearing a purple hubcap of a necklace as if she was on holiday.
‘Hello.’ She heard her own voice lapsing to politeness, her body settling the mania and reverting to the old passivity. All the air was gone. She hardened her chest, her spine, but her throat was burning and softening.
‘Hey!’ Tiff’s voice flashed through the dark hall. She was going to hug her. There was the old fragrance that brought in all the pain, the chaos, the neglect. The hubcap pressed against her throat. She was going to choke. The boundaries of her skin were gone, irredeemable. Then, as she pulled away, she felt the hot air come over her, like sandpaper, and she was solid, and separate, and the anger came in to rescue her.
‘So, you going to ask me in?’ It was the old cheerful voice, with a hint of threat. She had decided the mode of communication and the interlocutor had better not try to shift it.
She knew this voice as she knew every one of Tiff’s voices, every one of her gestures and postures and half-smiles, though she had not seen her or heard from her in months. It was like a dead relative returning, it was as startling, as infuriating. Because you know they have come back for something, there can be no other reason, they want something from you, and you have spent all this time grieving, and trying to recover, and grieving again, and half dying, and slowly recovering.
Tiff must have chosen her moment deliberately. It was the moment they all chose, when you are almost recovered, but not quite, so all the air is knocked from your body, so when they make their threat it gets you – you listen.
‘You can come in off the porch,’ she said. She left the door open behind the girl. She flicked on the light.
Tiff was wearing a dress they had picked out together months and months ago. She remembered standing in the dressing room, wanting to leave, the countless mirrors throwing their bodies back, as if they weren’t only two people but manifold, not rooted in space but fugitive as holograms. She remembered the dizziness and the emptiness and the nausea beginning. No, she wouldn’t think of that now.
‘I’ve just been running.’
‘I thought you felt sticky.’
She nodded. She wanted to fold her arms across her chest. The anger was here, but it was not raging, maybe later it would rage, and the thought petrified her, and for a moment everything flared up in her throat so she thought she would fall, this woman coming back here cheerful and threatening as if all was forgotten… No. She let it cool a little.
‘Well, should we have some tea?’ Tiff laughed. It was not a question. She was already moving towards the kitchen.
‘No.’ She didn’t laugh. ‘No. It was nice of you to drive over here. But you should have called. If you’d like to meet somewhere else, that’d be fine. But I don’t want to drink tea here, now.’
Tiff looked as if all the air had left her. She glared about the hall as if there might be somebody else who would take her cheerfulness and her threats as they were.
‘It’s been a long time,’ she said as Tiff looked about. ‘Maybe too long.’ She stepped to the door and held it.
She thought she saw a piece of something crease the girl’s face that she hadn’t seen there before. She was half waiting for Tiff to speak, half wanting. A moment of the old fragrance, the pain, the entanglement, her boundaries collapsed. Then Tiff was outside.
When she shut the door she felt the rage under her skin and she pushed all her energy to the surface to stop herself punching the pane of glass. She knew she could do it, she had done worse.
After a time that was very long or very short she locked the door and went to the kitchen. It was a shame she had to flood her body with chemicals to overcome such moments. But she had nothing else, she knew. Nothing but her own house where she chose to keep out what had caused her so much damage for so long.
She made a cup of tea and sat under the lamp. She felt her body picked out of the darkness, opened the book and felt its density in her palms. Her skin and her muscles remembered the strength, speed, sweat, bound together now, with the pain and anger and all her sickness, knowing what had hurt her and what was going to cure her.
Elisabeth Murray is a writer from Sydney who is interested in all things feminist, queer, and mental health-related. Her work has been published in Fields Magazine, Tincture Journal, Contrapasso, Voiceworks, dotdotdash magazine, and several University of Sydney anthologies. Her novella, The Loud Earth, was published by Hologram in 2014. You can find out more about Elisabeth on her blog.
Was there any normal anymore? The others in the waiting room were at either end of a spectrum, tottering on an unfair seesaw between the obese and anorexic. The woman opposite Belinda had shoulders like a wire coat hanger and cheekbones like hooks. The man to her right looked like he had a large pet curled on his lap, but it was his belly. Belinda could feel the waistband of her navy work skirt riding up over itself and resolved something about TimTams. She had enough lap to rest a Women’s Weekly on; she turned the pages at arbitrary intervals. The whispering of the paper was to help her feel calm, composed like a good poem. Her mother said calm was infectious. Her mother said, try it. Belinda figured if yawning was, why not serenity?
Then the Venetian blinds crashed onto a low bookshelf in a waterfall of loud, unstoppable noise.
‘Darcy,’ Belinda hissed. Her son – the reason she was here, the reason for all this, the appointment, the wait, the false composure, the noise, the shrieking headache – jumped down from on top of the shelf, skittling out-of-date Reader’s’ Digests, and grabbed the head-rail of the blinds. A protruding screw dusted with plaster ripped his skin. Belinda put her magazine on the chair to her left and reluctantly got up, just as the door to the office opened.
Darcy forgot the blood and responded to the new stimulus by doing a circling, whirling 1950s Red Indian dance in the middle of the waiting room. The last patient pushed past with a tissue firmly to her nose – a sop to emotions or allergies, it was impossible to tell which.
The Homeopath called a name. ‘Beatrice?’ She spoke so softly Belinda heard her own name and started forward. But the ballerina bag-of-bones was moving with surprising vigour.
It was already past the time Belinda had been told on the phone. She looked at her watch in a pointed, does-no-one-know-the-cost-of-parking-around-here way. When she looked back up the door to the office was closed again and Darcy was dragging the broken bones of the blinds toward her.
She didn’t look at Darcy while she was taking the blinds off him. She propped them against the wall, like some shambolic, shredded set of skis and sat down. Darcy still had the end of the stripped-out chord in his hand. He wrapped it round and round his mother’s ankles, tethering himself to her. She flicked the magazine. She had no emotions left to muster. She’d gone through anger and embarrassment and pity and heartache. Ten years in a revolving door.
‘I’m at the end of my tether, end of my tether,’ he chanted. No-one in the waiting room had to wonder where he’d learnt that phrase.
Belinda didn’t want sympathy. She didn’t like the evil looks she got in the supermarket from perfect women and men in suits – as if children never played up – but at least she was used to that. The Homeopath had eyes brimming with compassion; so full in fact that they didn’t appear able to blink let alone close.
‘How much do you know about the restorative effects of homeopathy?’ the woman asked.
Belinda turned slightly in her chair so she couldn’t see Darcy over by the shelving which ran down one side of the office. He had a stem of some dried herb in his mouth.
Of course she knew what homeopathy was. She’d made the appointment hadn’t she? ‘It’s where you take a little bit of what causes the problem. Like immunization…’
The Homeopath shook her head very slightly. She had long hair. It must take her hours to wash and dry each morning, Belinda thought. She wondered if the controlled movements were because the woman was sitting on the ends of her hair and couldn’t actually move her head any further.
‘Did you have your son immunized?’
‘Yes.’ Belinda had done all the right things as a mother. All the pages in his Blue Birth Book were signed off.
The woman she’d come to for help sighed. ‘I see…’ It was not a long-suffering sigh. It was a sad-for-all-the-world sigh. ‘We have a lot to rectify.’
The Homeopath got up from her desk – and from sitting on the end of her hair – and walked over to Darcy who’d touched everything on every shelf and now seemed intent on de-winging a barley-husk angel. She took his hand without interrupting the flow of her talk, something about vital forces and miasmas and the disturbance caused by the Triple Antigen shot. Her slow, considered movements were mesmerising, like the dance of the stouts Belinda had tried to get Darcy to watch on a weekend David Attenborough documentary. Belinda had trouble concentrating on the words because Darcy was letting the stranger lead him back to a chair by the desk without protest. Without protest, she thought, an observation worth repeating. Darcy sat quietly. Just like the stout’s prey: like the stunned rabbit.
‘I’ll look up the Repertory but one thing is clear…’
Darcy was up again. The Homeopath turned those brimming eyes on him and he instantly sat, now with one leg tucked up under himself so he was higher than Belinda and could bounce like he was on a spring. He took out his mobile and started playing Worms.
‘Your son is around technology a lot isn’t he?’
‘It’s hard not to be, this day and age. He’ll be at high school soon. You know high schools. The Ritalin is not… It’s so hard doing it alone…’ All the considered sentences Belinda had lined up to tell the Homeopath splattered out over the top of each other, tripping each other up, falling against the unremitting gaze of the other woman. She wanted to convey the full depth of her fear: a child ostracized by his peers, a child unloved. It came out as clichés, about bullies and bullying. But when she looked directly at the Homeopath, Belinda could see her words being sponged up, with a now, now, and those little controlled, empathy-filled head movements. The Homeopath interrupted Belinda at the second ‘end of my tether.’
‘Our homeopathic armory was prepared in the mid-nineteenth century so we’ve had to come up with some new preparations for today’s ailments. Ritalin only attempts to address the symptoms, and as you’ve discovered, is worse than useless for you son. We have to go further and look at the deeper disturbances of the vital force. How long has he had a mobile phone?’
Belinda remembered the first one. She’d bought it for Darcy’s first day at school. He was to text her when he got on the bus each afternoon and then ring her when he was safely through the front door. From her office, Belinda would talk him through locking the door, finding fruit and muffins, not touching the sharp knife. The kitchen was always a mess when she got home around six. She’d lost count of how many phones were lost over the primary school years. She murmured a simple, ambiguous, ‘he’s had one a while.’
‘Technology is a dangerous thing. Our society is jittery. Allergic. So throw out the Ritalin,’ the woman commanded, ‘and we’ll try…’
‘I have to go to the toilet,’ Darcy whined. He pocketed his latest mobile and left the room.
‘To the right,’ the Homeopath told his back. The weight of the air on the room suddenly felt lighter. Belinda leaned forward to listen.
‘I have just the remedy. We’ve taken a small part of the circuit board of a mobile phone, diluted, highly diluted, one in a trillion parts should be the right potency.’
It sounded reassuringly scientific with all the details and precise proportions but Belinda felt a twinge of doubt. Something about protons and neutrons surfaced from science class. ‘But if it’s diluted that much…?’
The Homeopath didn’t miss a beat of her patter. ‘Diluted yes, and at each step, potentized. Water has memory. The succussion, the forceful striking of the remedy, ensures efficacy.’
They were all good, strong words, Belinda had to admit, as Darcy came back in. There was a 50 cent sized patch of wetness on his shorts. He sat down as he was told but started to drum his hands on the desk. ‘Succussion,’ he sang. He tossed his head back and drummed wildly in imitation of Animal in The Muppets.
‘Not percussion,’ Belinda hissed. She gave the Homeopath one of her perfected looks. The one that said, ‘see, this is what I have to put up with.’ It was a detachment that helped her survive, but the doctors hadn’t recognised her look for years. They’d treated her like a child abuser each time she took Darcy in for stitches or plaster. They noticed the fading bruises and the thick scabs. Then one morning in the GP’s surgery Darcy did a Tarzan swing off the lamp used to shine a light up her vagina every second year and broke his collarbone. It was the day she walked out with a prescription for Ritalin.
Anything had to better than it. It was a dangerous drug for goodness sake. And Darcy hadn’t calmed down. She remembered her own miserable years at high school – the other kids were not going to be kind to her child. It was a jungle out there and she needed him to join the herd.
The landline was ringing when they got through the door.
‘It’s me. Can I speak to Darcy?’
‘Darcy, it’s your father.’
Darcy disappeared up the hall and into his bedroom. His television blared out a greeting as he turned it on.
‘He won’t talk.’ Belinda Lego-blocked the phone into the groove between her head and shoulder to listen while she put her bag and keys and sunglasses in their places. ‘No I am not being obstructive. I am not stopping him talking to you. Ring back in five minutes.’
When the phone rang again Belinda out-waited Darcy in the kitchen. She sipped her wine and listened to him humphing down the hall.
Silence, except for the tap, tap, tap of Darcy’s heel on the skirting board.
Tapping became banging.
‘You’re a wanker.’ A final bang. Then the phone was ringing again.
Belinda spilled the wine as she slammed her glass on the kitchen bench.
‘What did you call your father?’ she shouted at Darcy. Before he could answer from his retreat to the television, she said, louder, ‘it’s rude to say that.’
She stood at his bedroom door, tired but angry. She’d be blamed for this.
‘It’s what you call him,’ Darcy said, as if this had ever been an excuse in the whole history of childhood.
‘To Aunty Dee on the phone.’
‘You shouldn’t be eavesdropping. I’ve told you.’ The phone was still ringing down the hall. Belinda did her yoga breathing. Let her diaphragm calm her.
‘Well,’ she looked at him, almost her height, cheeks still chubby and smooth, ‘well, it’s not a young boy’s word,’ she continued in her reasonable voice. ‘It’s an adult word.’
‘Like shit and fuck and cunt?’ asked Darcy. He wasn’t looking at her. He was scraping more wallpaper off his wall with the sharp edge of the Warner Bros figure he’d got at the drive-through on the way home. Burgers for the belly, The Joker to keep him quiet on the drive (once he got over the vocal disappointment that he hadn’t got Batman or his Batmobile).
The phone went quiet. Her mobile shrieked in her handbag – classical ringtones could not disguise the insistent tone.
‘Where does he learn that sort of thing?’ her ex asked as opener when she go to it.
‘He’s eleven. He’s not a baby anymore. He’s grown a little since you ran off.’ The sarcasm was heavy. It was the tone of habit – because it was all his fault for leaving. That’s when Darcy got so uncontrollable. At least that’s the way it went in her memory.
She could hear the scraping of The Joker’s cape against wallpaper from down the wall.
It was all her fault for not coping.
Indiscriminate fury flooded her inner ear, drowning out Darcy’s father. She’d heard it all before anyway.
‘If I’m such a crap mother, you take him,’ she spat. Then swung around to make sure Darcy wasn’t in the hall listening. The scraping was for once a reassurance.
‘Call him on his mobile in future. I don’t want to hear your voice,’ she hissed into her own mobile.
‘Do you know how expensive it is to call a mobile? I’ll use the landline whenever…’
‘Cheapfuck. As ever.’ Mobiles don’t make a satisfying bang when you hang up angrily, she lamented. She had that foul taste in her mouth, the one she worried was a symptom of a cancer growing inside. It made the wine, when she finally got back to it, taste less like the label promised and more like vinegar.
‘Go to bed Darcy. I’ve got work to catch up on.’
He looked like a limp stalk of celery propped against the doorjamb of her study. Stick him in a bit of water and he’d perk up though.
Getting him into the shower was a dread each evening, and then the last hurdle: bed. She tried to lose herself in a briefing paper as she waited for the noises in the bathroom to subside. Then she went in, picked up the wet towel, hung it square, put the dirty clothes in the basket, weeded the toothbrushes out of the peace lily, dragged herself to his bedroom. Darcy was not there. She went to the kitchen. Not there. Back to his bedroom.
‘Get out of the wardrobe. You have to take this remedy.’
The door to the wardrobe cracked open. ‘Why not my pills?’
‘This is better.’
‘Will you read to me?’
Belinda felt the unbearable weight of being a mother. She shouldn’t have said that to his father: it was only when she was most desperate that she wanted Darcy out of her life. She probably shouldn’t have told him to ring Darcy’s mobile either, if his addiction to technology was the problem. The cumulative guilt made her say yes. ‘Just a quick chapter.’
So after Darcy had dutifully swallowed the drops she lay on the bed beside him with his birthday book from mad Aunty Dee who gave him one every year though she’d been told often enough that he had problems concentrating enough to read chapter books. The cover was ripped across a dragon’s snout and the pages were fat and pulpy from their own contact with water.
Darcy stood up on the mattress and traced the zoo animals on the curtains as Belinda read about training your own dragon. Darcy roared at the curtain lions and bellowed at the elephants. Belinda read through until he lay back down then she kept reading until they were breathing in time. And then they were both asleep.
As if her own mother knew there was calm in the house, Belinda’s mobile beeped the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. ‘Skype?’ was the succinct text message.
Belinda got to her computer in the study as it burred in the most old-fashioned telephone ring possible. She clicked on the green icon and her mother’s face filled the screen.
‘You look good,’ her mother said. ‘What drug are you on?’
Her mother laughed and her dentures clicked over two thousand kilometers away and Belinda heard them.
‘Actually, I went to a Homeopath…’
‘Did you say sociopath?’ There was a slight disconnect between aural and visual.
‘Homeo-, not socio-, not psycho-’
Maybe it did sound psycho to her. Her mother was of a generation who believed implicitly what the doctor told them. No Googling to check symptoms, no second opinions required. Belinda persevered through a recount of all her new knowledge.
‘If it’s that diluted… surely there’d be nothing left in your bottle,’ her mother interrupted. ‘It sounds a bit like hocus pocus.’ But she used a kind voice, the one she’d used throughout Belinda’s divorce. ‘What did your GP say?’
‘Science and medicine haven’t a clue,’ Belinda protested. ‘This will work.’ There was no response. Her mother’s eyes were cast to the left. ‘Mum, what are you doing?’
‘Just having a little SMS chat to your sister.’
‘Where is she now?’
Belinda looked through the dusty louvers of the alcove she called her study, out at the overgrown back yard that had been hers for ten years and sighed. ‘Will she ever settle down?’
Her mother ‘mmmed.’ Belinda could hear the keys of her computer clickety-clacking.
‘Besides,’ she said, competing to get her mother’s attention back, ‘this remedy is all about succussion and water memory, and particles, so it’s physics really. The woman quoted a scientist…’ Belinda concentrated so she could get all the polysyllabic words out in the remembered order. ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’
‘I think you’ll find that’s a quote from a science fiction writer.’ Her mother always brought her back to earth. And buried her under it.
Her mother’s eyes locked on hers through the world wide web and relented. ‘Yes dear. Bringing up children. It’s easily the hardest thing you’ll ever do.’
Belinda didn’t say the unspoken – that it’d be a whole lot easier if Darcy’s grandmother hadn’t retired to the coast.
The front door was wide, presenting a rectangle of golden light to the street.
The season was changing and it was dusk when Belinda got home from work these days, and cooler, but not yet cool enough to have the heating blasting, which was the second thing Belinda noticed.
Darcy’s left shoe was near the door, his right shoe on top of his school pack halfway down the hall. Each sat in a pulsing miasma of vomited cheese-boy foot stench let loose by the heating. At the kitchen door the sweeter cheese smell hit her.
Darcy came out of his room. ‘I made us pudding,’ he said, one word for each bounce toward her. Pudding was muffled in her jacket as he threw himself into her.
The frozen Sara Lee cheesecake was sitting on top of the heating vent in the family room. It was no longer frozen. And it was not so much on top as in the vent. Darcy had followed the instructions and released it completely from its packaging. The base crumbled as Belinda tried to lift it up.
Belinda felt she had two options: screaming, or the silent treatment. She carefully put the cheesecake on the bench that divided the family room from the kitchen.
‘It’s going to be yum,’ Darcy said doggedly.
Darcy did a superman swoop around the lounge chairs, leaping one to the other. Belinda ignored him. He took the cushions off the chairs and piled them in a tottering tower. Belinda didn’t say anything as he started to climb. She was biting it back, the only thing she wanted to shout. ‘Go on, fall.’ Instead: silence.
Even with the heating now off, the room was heavy and close as she chopped vegetables and put two fatty chops on the grill. Belinda wondered if this was what hot flushes felt like. When her life would be all over.
She kept her silence through dinner. Darcy stood beside his chair to eat. She was sure he was taunting her to say ‘sit down.’ Silence. She didn’t even look at him.
They didn’t have pudding, She placed the sculptured Sara Lee in the bin, where it looked like the icing on top of the day’s usual rubbish.
After packing the dishwasher she went to Darcy’s room. She shook the Homeopathic remedy bottle vigorously to get his attention, imagining she was a succussionist – with a mariachi band perhaps.
Darcy stared at his television. Some cops apprehending an offender with requisite levels of violence. He didn’t turn. ‘Dad says it’s only water.’
‘When did you speak to your father?’ Belinda stopped the shaking, realising only after the words were out that she’d relinquished her higher ground in the silent treatment.
Darcy didn’t acknowledge he’d broken her. Still didn’t turn. ‘He rang me on my mobile.’
‘Well you should have told me.’
Belinda came fully into the room which was almost bare over years of whittling down danger points. ‘Take your drops.’
‘But it’s just water.’
‘Expensive water I have to work to pay for.’
Darcy took the tiny glass bottle off her, snatched out the dropper and glugged back the entire contents before his mother could snatch it back. She could only watch in horror.
‘Fuck, Darcy.’ She grabbed him and frog-marched him to the bathroom and tried to stick her finger down his throat over the sink.
‘Mummy!’ He made a stuck-pig squeal and bit her finger.
Belinda collapsed on the toilet and sobbed. Darcy was gone. Pain and anger and overwhelming fear competed and paralyzed her for a moment. She had no idea what to do about an overdose. But she had to do something. Phoning Emergency sounded like an over-reaction, so she ran to the computer, clicked up the whitepages, tapped in Poison’s Hotline. It was a 24 hour number.
She ran down the hall with her mobile to her ear, searching for Darcy in each room as she went.
The woman on the other end of the invisible line was calm. ‘Slowly,’ she said kindly. ‘What has your son taken?’
Belinda couldn’t believe the woman’s reaction. The Hotline operator was still laughing when Belinda found Darcy. He was in the kitchen, hidden behind the bench. He’d sat down next to the bin and was smearing gobs of cheesecake into his mouth.
‘It is yum, mum,’ he told her. ‘I rhymed mum, because it’s yum in my tum.’
Belinda hung up on the Poison woman. She remembered being laughed at for years at high school. Her cheeks flushed and she wanted to cry. Darcy grinned up at her. His tongue shot out like a lizard’s. ‘Yum, yum, yum.’ Scorned, ostracized, she’d thought she’d die. Yet here she was – high school hadn’t killed her after all.
Darcy smiled around the sweetness of his forbidden pudding.
‘If I let you play with the screwdriver, will you undo every screw in the heating vent?’ she asked her errant child. Darcy was up and at the laundry cupboard rummaging in the tools before she could finish. ‘So I can clean it,’ she said.
Belinda took Darcy’s place on the floor beside the bin. She wondered, not for the first time, at Darcy’s huge capacity to forgive and forget and move on. She reached in and picked a tiny square of cheesecake out of the bin between her thumb and index finger.
What had she been thinking? A little bit of a circuit board shaken and not stirred…
The screwdriver scrapped. A sound to take the paint off if the metal edge hadn’t already. So she sang out loudly, from down on the floor. ‘Thanks for the pudding.’
Darcy’s voice was distracted by his work with the vent. ‘Not a problem mum.’
Jane Downing is a writer of poetry and prose with over a hundred and thirty works of prose published in journals including The Big Issue, Southerly, The Griffith Review, Westerly, Island, Overland, Seizure, Hecate, UTS Anthology and Antipodes, and a similar number of poems in journals including Rabbit, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Eureka Street and Best Australian Poems (2004 and 2015). Her two novels were published by Pandanus Books at the Australian National University (The Trickster, 2003 and The Lost Tribe, 2005). One of her works was the lead story in the Grapple Annual which won the Most Underrated Book of the Year Award in 2015. In 2016 she was one of two Australians shortlisted, out of nearly 4000 entries from 47 countries, for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
You were nine years old you when you woke to find the dentist kissing your penis.
Only he would know the extent of the activities that went on while you were under, as you never asked.
Primarily now you looked back on your years at school as being defined by a strong appreciation of history, both ancient and modern, plenty of cross country running, scoring goals for fun, and crooked teeth.
University was uniformly awful.
You studied dentistry.
No, just kidding.
It was history, of course.
Alone at night you would closely look at the portraits of prominent leaders throughout the ages from around the world and surmised that no smiles were ever present due to the condition of their teeth.
That’s what this age can do to you.
Graduation was never reached.
Some subsequent jobs for the boy: forklift operator in a book distribution warehouse, dishwasher in nine different restaurants, cook in three cafes, digger of holes and ditches, planter of trees, dealer of drunks on a nightly basis, seller of secondhand furniture, delivery driver of pristine furniture, house-painter, within and without.
You tended to move around.
Neighbourhoods undoubtedly would go stale, some quicker than others.
But you never went into debt once, you’d always rather have gone without.
One time, no kidding, while planting the last tree of the day at dusk, you simultaneously saw the sun, the moon, and a rainbow.
Never told anyone that before.
It was during a stint as an express courier delivering urgent papers between boring building blocks that you saw him again, amid the lunch hour office parade.
You chained your bike to a pole, dropped the papers into a nearby bin, and looked up at all the windows and wondered which floor held his surgery.
A week went by before you returned to the area, a slow week, a lot of lying back and staring at the ceiling, no kidding.
But then lots of lobbies were scanned at once, lots of listings of professional services provided, many of which you could still picture yourself one day performing.
Hello, I’m in advertising, you’d picture yourself saying.
Hello, I can help you better manage your money.
Hello, here’s my card, because I’m in the business you need the most at this given time.
Hello, allow me to take you to lunch.
Once you located the dentist’s practice, you started tracking his receptionist.
She drank in the same wine bar most Thursday and Friday afternoons, being particularly partial to the pinot noir of Central Otago, New Zealand.
When you managed to drink a drop from the same Lake Wanaka winery, you loosened, only slightly, your recently purchased red silk tie, and intoned To the weekend! And to all the wonder it might have in store for us, and you raised your glass.
You thought maybe you should consider taking up acting one day.
But for now the role of personal assistant to a renowned London architect was chosen as an occupation, pulled right out of the air.
Another glass was ordered, as you listened to her meander over her daily drill, taking care to avert your eyes from your own reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
The hygienist, she said, is a hoot.
Leaving you to wonder whether you could smell a man’s soul down that hole.
The dentist often travelled overseas to numerous locations, she told you, appointments often having to be rearranged, or passed on to respected colleagues, so he could go and bathe in the benefits of some other part of the world.
Prague, Fraser Island.
Paris, London, London, Paris.
New York, New Haven, Newfoundland.
Lisbon, Lisbon, Lisbon.
She had a slight, cute lisp when she said Lisbon, which suited her slight, cute figure.
The pristine white shirt you wore for the occasion you wished you could have washed first, as it gave off an itching sensation on the inside of your left wrist and all along your shoulder blades.
Maybe the cotton wasn’t as pure as it said on the packet.
The silver necklace she wore resembled a length of dental floss.
More weeks went away and died someplace, but a pattern to the doctor’s movements was finally detected.
Soon enough, on any given day, you knew his approximate arrival time at the entrance to his apartment block.
Everyone had a routine, one way or another.
The silver hammer, the one with the blue rubber handle, was left behind by the maintenance man in the lobby between errands.
It was better suited now, you believed, to the smashing of the dentist’s teeth down his throat.
But he never arrived on the chosen evening.
So you adjusted your plan, at first slightly, then significantly, suddenly abandoning all thoughts of self preservation, and spent every subsequent evening crouched in the corner of the overgrown rosemary bushes by the building’s entrance.
But still he did not come.
A simple explanation was waiting for you when you went to see the receptionist again.
Screw the wine at this point, you were on the browns by now.
Easy, he’d won the lottery.
Ended up abandoning his practice and flying off first class to some unknown destination.
On the brief note he left behind, the receptionist said, first class was underlined, followed by three exclamation points.
She offered you the final glass from her bottle, then ordered another.
Never mix your drinks, that was something you would soon come to know deep in your bones more surely than anything else.
A few days later, you met up again, you and the ex-receptionist, on the same stools.
Her necklace of floss immediately caught your eye in the mirror behind the bar, even before you ordered the first round.
J Kane currently resides in the Blue Mountains of Australia (and at the moment is reading Francis Picabia).
Billy passed back the joint, his mouth hot and dry, his brain expanding but feeling too many things at once, wanting more and more and more, but with a queasy sense that this might not go well at all, except—you never know—maybe it would. It was his Grindr profile bio that Billy had gone for, followed up with his rough directness, somehow detectable in his short sharp messages, a hint at what he might be like in bed. But it started with that bio: Let’s rattle this ghost town. Yes. Let’s. And so they did—except no, they didn’t, because this was a ghost town without even any fucking ghosts, so what was out there to be rattled? No, they just went back to his place and now they were smoking and soon they would get down to business and then that would be the end of it.
He went to get some water and stood at the sink, wondering what was out there beyond the dark window. That river, like slug guts, winding its way from nowhere to nowhere, dark, brown, turgid. They swept a body out of it last week, and the police helicopter hovered, chop-chop-chopping the air with apocalyptic dread until the body was found and the water police came to collect it—treasure, mother-load; or something else.
Mother-load. He crept back towards the bed, swaying hilariously (or at least precariously), ready to see what this rattler was all about. Let’s rattle this ghost town. Rattle me. Rattle me. Outside, the dark streets rolled up and down across the city, and the river snaked its way somewhere amongst it, and only the possums were there to look out over the not-so-neat row of wheelie bins, ready to be picked up, rattled about, and emptied into hungry garbage trucks, adding to the stinking loads fermenting in the belly of the beast. He was ready now. Rattle me, he begged. Rattle me.
Daniel Young is a reader, writer, editor, and software developer living in Brisbane. He has had short stories and flash fiction published in Hello Mr. Magazine, Mascara Literary Review, Bukker Tillibul, Seizure, Cuttings Journal, Verity La, Bide Magazine, The Suburban Review, and antiTHESIS journal.
for Marjorie Barnard
I saw two summers in one year once and I won’t forget it. Only once. I had started to heal by then, and often thought of no one but myself in that way that means you might be free. My face in the mirror I had kept in storage many months was the face of a woman who had decided, who bore lines from days lived unwell. I took deep breaths and moved rather slow to keep them. Voices of friends, of shopkeepers, of bus drivers were so new it was like hearing them as a baby, and rolling around in the joy of them. My mind was tired, and as tentative as a star. I walked down streets I had always known as if they were tangled.
I took a room in a house with a big bougainvillea in its front yard and clouds of jasmine at its back. My room faced the garden; four large windows looking out towards a vegetable patch, a corrugated iron shed. The light came through almost always and made sense against the cream-coloured walls. Shadows painted and swayed; I hung dried gum leaves in the cracks and lay down on the small bed to watch. Outside the room tomatoes fattened, and parsley went to seed. At night, the streetlight lent company to my dreams; dreams I had as deeply as fingers in maple syrup, dreams I could not remember after waking up and padding out to the toilet. I always thought it was daybreak, in that room in the nighttime.
Across from the house were a line of garages that had names, and tenants who pottered and yelled on weekdays. I lay on my small bed and listened to them, every so often moving my spine against the springs. I listened to the man who talked to anyone who passed him by with cheer, with gumption. I could not see him from the room unless I stood on my tiptoes which I did often, wanting to watch the way his mouth moved as he brightened everything around. He was old, and pepper-grey, and laughed enough to seem happy. He wore overalls mostly, the type that are blue and long-sleeved and grubby. I felt as if he had a wife somewhere, humming and loving him and him loving her too, a big old love that would make me sigh if I knew it. I sensed his contentment near me like a plump, pink prawn.
There was a day after I had rested for some weeks that I took a walk, to find the creek that circled the neighbourhood and to let the sun dust me. I knew before I left the house that I would pass the row of garages with their names and doors and inhabitants, and that the old man would be there, standing and talking and rubbing at his spotted skin. It was cold in my room as I dressed, and I thought of mornings in the house I grew up in, milky porridge at the waxy wooden table and a mother and father barely talking. I saw the mist floating up off the trees beyond our verandah and out across the Yarra, the hard ice windscreen of my mother’s faithful ute. It sent a shiver down the centre of my back; why did I always think of winter in the summertime?
I moved carefully out the front door and down the concrete path set in the grass towards the small, crooked gate. The bougainvillea tree was dazzling—rich and full with dark pink flowers, bowing slightly towards the bitumen as if made shy by its own greatness. I could see that it needed pruning, that it was gasping beneath its own grandeur. I thought perhaps I would cut at it that afternoon. Across the road I saw the old man standing, looking over at me as if we knew one another, the way I had imagined he would. He yelled out at me kind, loud words and I nodded back, letting my mouth turn upwards and my eyes crease to show him. I passed by, and walked on down the faded road to where the creek licked at flora and sat for what seemed like many hours, until the sun gave way to the moon, until I was shivering in a way that felt wonderful. That day was the day I started living again, and as I passed the place where the old man had stood, the dark fitting around me like a shell, I felt comfort in his presence—a guard dog waiting to be fed.
Weeks began and ended. Spring was waiting patiently to bloom and I was still tired, resting most afternoons in the curdled air. I took more walks, but made sure I was never too far from the house and all its flowers and vegetables and sleeping mosquitos, for fear I would tire and wilt before I had returned. I was wandering back from a morning through the grass the day I saw the old man standing close to the bougainvillea at the front of the house. It was noon, and the sun was February-hot. As I got closer I could see that he was pruning, that as he moved little limbs dropped like beautiful blood at his feet. He was whistling, I could hear it along the air, and I called out to greet him, to thank him, though he didn’t turn but whistled on; moving his head and shoulders this way and that to see where he should bite. I walked past him, smiling, and he saw me and nodded his small, wisened head. I walked on, down the path set in the grass, towards the bottle bell door. He whistled on behind me, the click of the secateurs his percussion.
Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker from Melbourne.
She is currently working on what she hopes will be her first book, a collection of ‘homage’ or ‘echo’ stories inspired by the short fiction of her favourite female writers.
You can find her at LAURA MCPHEE-BROWNE.
He mentions within the first few minutes he is a lawyer. That’s
why he can be trusted, he says, because he has a reputation to
protect. Personally, I always think there is something a bit off
about someone who tells you they can be trusted, particularly
when that person is trying to sell you something. I sit at the
back of the small boat as it shudders towards the ‘Matisse’, a
37 foot sailboat waiting patiently for us on its mooring, and
cross my arms.
‘Plastic’ he yells, gesturing to the small tacky blue and
white boat that we sat in. ‘It was the wife’s idea of course!’ He
smiles ingratiatingly at my partner Stan, sitting beside him at
the front of the boat. I feel excluded from the conversation, as I
will for most of the upcoming hour we spend going over the
‘Matisse’ and all its particulars. When I ask the lawyer a
question he gives Stan the answer, a routine that is already
getting old by the time we arrive and climb aboard the yacht.
It’s an old boat, but well made and beautiful. Warm woodwork
We soon learn this lawyer’s boat-owning career, and the
lives of pretty much all of his friends who have boats, have
been maligned by women. Women, who don’t appreciate boats,
don’t love the sea, women who leave their cosmetics
everywhere and complain about the lack of wardrobe space. I
imagine these women, with brightly manicured talons and
impractical high heels, their bitchy tinkling laughter swallowed
by the waves.
We get back on the plastic runabout after giving the
Matisse a full run down, the lawyer is unimpressed when I ask
him to show me how each and every system turns on. I sit in
the front this time with Stan taking the back seat. I am curious
to see if the lawyer will actually talk to me. I ask him to take us
around to the other side of the bay. There are some moorings
becoming available on this secluded side of the bay soon, and
he urges us to get on the waiting list. Of course, it’s Stan he
gives this information to, smiling the same shit-eating grin,
neck craned at an 180 degree angle.
It’s almost too easy to slit the lawyer’s throat when he is
in that position. The knife work is all me, as I have the most
experience in that area, but Stan does the heavy lifting. I make
sure we take all the relevant keys from his body before
dumping him over the side. We don’t need my notes after all (if
it floats, Stan and I can sail it). It’s getting dark and there aren’t
many lights in the marina as we make our silent getaway. I
remove the ‘For Sale’ sign from the boat’s aft as we leave the
harbour. I rip the plastic-coated cardboard into small pieces,
watching with a smile as they hit the water, refusing to sink.
Hayley Scrivenor is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong. You can find her work in Seizure Online, SCUM, Phantasmagoria, SWAMP and prowlings, among other places. She is a passionate member of the Wollongong Writers Festival team and spends much of the rest of her time learning, forgetting and re-learning how to tie a bowline.
A is for ‘orses. And cows. But there aren’t any horses or cows around here, so people use it to mulch their flower beds instead.
B is for honey. Not that creamed crap, just the proper stuff that dribbles through your crumpet.
C is for understanding what’s going on around you, not just looking, you know? Like actually taking in the signs and making sense of them, not like Aunty Bern who thought that handsome young bloke really wanted to marry her and just needed money for the tickets over from Zambia. She couldn’t see the forest for the trees, old Bern. One of the first life lessons I learned – there’s always more than meets the eye. Gotta remember that, eh?
D is for a lack of effort applied to your studies. You only get out what you put in, eh? Just look at my cousin Mick — he’s sick of selling hotdogs to pissheads at 3am, but what else are you equipped to do when you dropped out of school at 15?
E is for trippers. Tried it once at a party, and got way too fascinated with a dead fish. But that’s a story for another time.
F is for swearing when your mum’s in town. She knows what you mean, but somehow it’s more polite than actually saying it.
G is for polite bewilderment, like when you drop hints for months before Christmas about tickets to see your favourite band but end up getting smelly soaps instead.
H is for addicts. You’ve really got to steer clear of the stuff – it’ll just mess you up. Chick I knew in high school? Gorgeous, popular, and smart too, but not anymore. Saw her hanging around at the bus-stop near the servo a few weeks back, and nearly didn’t recognise her. She walked across the concourse when she saw me and hit me up for a tenner, then abused me when I told her I didn’t have any cash on me.
I is for me. It gets really weird when people refer to themselves in the third person, you know? Like: ‘Stanley really likes a shandy after mowing the lawn’. WTF is that? Just say ‘I love a beer after doing the lawns’! We know who you’re bloody talking about.
J is for reefers. It’s another drug reference, I know, but it’s just for relaxing after a hard week.
K is for lazy agreement, ‘kay?
L is for modelling like Kylie is for singing.
M is for a feed after J. It’s all about the special sauce for me. Word of advice though: the staff don’t think you walking through drive-through to order is as funny as you do.
N is for O, the first word I learned how to spell. Mum used to say it real loud, and then ask me how many times she had to say it. Lots, apparently.
O is for surprise. And pleasure. Ohhh yeah.
P is for toilets and sometimes behind trees, never for footpaths or front doors, and definitely never for faces. Not cool at all.
Q is for tickets, or the dunny at a good gig (see? Use the toilets!). Not too sure about those people who sleep out the front of a shop the night before a new phone comes out though. I mean, it’s just a bit of technology that’s gonna be superseded by another one in a few months, yeah? My time is too valuable for that.
R is for pirates and their buccaneers. Speaking of pirates, you know that joke, right? The pirate asks ‘where’re my buccaneers?’ and the other bloke goes ‘they’re on your buccan head!’. Jeez that one cracks me up.
S is for bends. I’m not going to pretend to know anything about plumbing except that it’s one of the greatest inventions ever. That and penicillin. Oh, and electricity. Wait, this list could get really long if I keep going.
T is for pots, not bags.
U is for me. Aw, love ya babe.
V is for five, or peace, or up you, depending on which way you give it.
W is two sheep that look the same in a paddock.
X is for sneaky Facebook stalking.
Y is for curious minds. Seriously, you’ve gotta ask questions or you just become some robot, going about your day.
Z is for cartoons only. C’mon, no-one makes that noise when they snore. If you tried to make the sound of those little lines of z’s you’d make a smooth noise, and no-one snores nice, smooth sounds. Snoring is rough, jagged, and it’s loud. Those little z’s are bullshit. Just come over some night and listen to my other half snoring…or don’t, because that would be weird.
Kristen Roberts is a writer and kindergarten teacher from western Melbourne. Her poetry and short stories have been published in a range of journals and anthologies including page seventeen, Australian Love Poems, Award Winning Australian Writing 2012, and Quadrant. Her first collection, The Held and The Lost, was published by Emma Press in 2014.