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.

Like Light (Jayne Marshall)

Posted on September 29, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

(Edited by Laura McPhee-Browne)

My head is full of metaphors for him. His proximity pulls down hard on my stomach, the solid ground spins beneath me, a face travels slowly towards my own, as if from somewhere very far away. It’s true, in a sense. Nine months it took to arrive at this moment, whilst something grew and grew, unseen and asymptomatic, until eventually it became unmistakable, like a polyp, or worse: like love.

The soft feel of his face against my own…I’m a passionate woman, said Dolores Haze to Humbert Humbert, ridiculous in her seduction and in that moment perversely unsexy. A reminder of Kundera’s mind/body dichotomy: the intelligible lie and the unintelligible truth.

To choose to live above or below the neck. Pick a side and stay on it. Do so for as long as you can, until the inevitable unrest bubbles up, and one side can’t help but colonise the other. The driving forces are usually appetites, also ailments, or invasion by other people; mothers, lovers, surgeons, and artists.

When Nabokov was writing The Gift he was tortured by a psoriasis so bad he later admitted to Véra that he had contemplated suicide. The Gift is now considered a masterpiece. John Updike thought of his own psoriasis as a heaven-sent curse, and when it abated, a salvation. Physical evidence of God’s love.

As a child, messing around with my sister in our living room, I fell off a sofa and sustained a carpet burn which stayed on my shoulder for weeks. Not so many years later I had a love bite in exactly the same place, courtesy of my first boyfriend.

Now I’m imagining all the other mouths this tongue has been in. A hideous chorus line of them. It makes me want to sob. His tongue belongs to my tongue.

Recently I went to get a contraceptive device removed, and the doctor, instead of taking something away, found something extra. He discovered a tumour and maybe some cancerous cells as well. My nan, even far into her 80s, still saw her 16 year old self in the mirror. My beautiful body, she would say to her reflection. It seemed I had been neglecting my own.

The kissing stops. We are just looking at each other, stilled by something for a long moment. Animals sensing prey. After the doctor gave his verdict I went on to spend a lot of time with my legs spread high in the air, and had a lot of conversations with faces—like the one looking straight at me now—that peeped up at me from between my knees.

It should have felt intrusive and dehumanising to be judged and analysed in that way, but really it didn’t feel any different to a one night stand. At least they wanted to make me better, instead of all the unknowable ways in which I was making myself worse.

The kissing resumes as suddenly as it stopped. I’m pressed into the wall. Everything in the world is now either hard or soft. Slowly, slowly, sex has become more precious. I use it less like a currency now.

A few Christmases ago I cracked a tooth eating un-popped popcorn. The fluffiness of the popcorn was tricky; once in my mouth it shape-shifted into something hard and dangerous. Months later the foamy spit-up in the sink after teeth brushing revealed a solid interloper: a little bit of me, a shard of molar. I tried to ignore this absence for as long as possible. If I didn’t acknowledge it, then it wouldn’t, and would never, not be there. But it couldn’t, in the end, be willed into existence and I was forced to face up to the rot.

His hands are moving out of the tangle they have made of my hair, down my back, and around. The perfectly sanitary dental nurse was horrified. I confessed that it had been nine years since I last saw a dentist. She stared at me hard: ‘Well, at the very least you are going to need a good clean’.

Do you smoke? / No / Drink red wine? / Sometimes / Black coffee? / Yes. All one and the same: what is wrong with you? / Excuse me? / Why did you let yourself get into such a mess? / I don’t know.

They laid me out for an hour and forty five minutes. Two faces stared down into the cavern of my mouth, right into My Beautiful Body. I was just a mouth, only teeth and gums. Unbearably intimate: the reverse of the gynecologist.

In the end, they had to remove the tooth. I felt my body resisting the pull of the dentist’s pliers, no no no no no. I quietly spoke to it. Don’t worry, it is for the best, let it go peacefully. I found the expelled tooth very beautiful. I slept with it in my hand, carried it around with me for days afterwards, like a strange child. When the police want to identify a body that no longer bears any resemblance to its previous owner, they use dental records.

This man, he is brand new. He didn’t exist nine months ago. His bulk was unknown to me then. But now, now the entire universe is constructed of nine words, a fragment of a song that loops in my head as he puts the key in the lock: Lord above me, make him, make him love me.

As I recovered from the battering my body had taken, I thought about my life. In Spanish, when you give birth, you say that you give light. What was the quality of my light, what light did I now give?

As he undresses us I pre-feel it all, all over again. There is just one thought left in my head now. Only: let us be celebrated.

 

____________________________________________________________


Jayne Marshall
decided to trade her grey, rainy hometown in the UK for sunny Madrid. Since then her creative life has opened wide and now her time is almost fully spent reading and writing. She has started sharing her work in publications like Brittle Star MagazineLitro and Pikara Magazine, and will soon expand her horizons further with a Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford University (without leaving the Spanish cañas and tapas).

From the Corner of My Eye
(Jillian Butler)

Posted on September 15, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

If singles’ bars are hell, then lesbian bars are the deepest fucking circle. I was a newbie, a baby Dyke, fresh meat and everyone in the place knew it. In this bar, the other lesbians knew your stats: how long you had been out, your age, and your ‘label’ (Butch, Baby Dyke, Dyke, Femme, Soft-Butch, Grrl, etc.) and that is scary. The ‘community’ is small, so everyone knows everyone, but I’ve only been in Boston for three years.

I’ve got a small advantage: nobody knows me.

Women were hovering by the bar. A girl with leather pants and a see-through shirt seemed to be holding court amongst the chattering ladies. It was loud, so I wasn’t quite sure how anybody heard anything. I stood near the door praying Lauren would show up soon. I’ve been to a few lesbian bars, but never by myself.

A cute, pixie-like girl smiled at me as she came through the door. I stared, pushed my hair behind my ears, and totally forgot to smile back. God. I had no idea how to flirt or respond to someone flirting with me. Was she flirting or just being nice? No idea.

I could hear Ani DiFranco blasting from the speaker behind my head. The women were singing along, laughing. I still stood there, staring.

‘Charlie! Charlie!’

Thank God.

‘Lauren! Hey!’

‘Sorry, my meeting with Professor Lyons took forever. Did you order yet?’

‘Not yet. I just got here. Let’s go sit.’

I took off my coat and smoothed out my striped boy’s polo. Baby Dyke. I’ve accepted the moniker. In fact, I embrace it, now.

Lauren was my first ‘gay’ friend. We tried dating, but dating someone you see for (roughly) 10 hours a day becomes a bit tedious. We both played for the women’s soccer team at Boston College and were history majors. So, we decided that ‘best friends’ and, eventually, roommates were better-suited labels for what we were.

‘What was your meeting about?’

The bartender walked over to where we sat nestled in the corner, hovering over the brass and mahogany bar. She looked us up and down.

‘Can I get you ladies something to drink?’

Lauren put her coat on the back of her stool, revealing a tight, white tank top under her ‘BC Soccer’ pullover. I think I heard the bartender’s jaw hit the floor. In fact, I am pretty sure everyone was now staring at us. Well, at Lauren. She had straightened her hair and mindfully applied a layer of shimmery lip-gloss, so she welcomed the attention.

I spoke up, ‘Um yeah, I’ll have a Bud Light. Lau?’

‘I’ll have a tequila shot and a Corona with lime.’

The bartender smiled and walked away.

‘Jesus, shots already? Bad day?’

‘Not bad, fucking long. Professor Lyons would not stop talking. He wants me to consider going on at BC for my masters in English. Blah. Blah. Blah. I told him I have a year and a half left. Let me get through that first.’

Awkwardly, I turned on my stool to find a woman standing behind me, somewhat staring. Lauren turned her head, trying not to laugh in the girl’s face.

‘Oh, do you need to order something? I’m sorry.’

‘Yes I do, but do you go to BC?’

It always scares the shit out of me when somebody I don’t know knows me.

‘Yeah. Why? Do you?’

‘Charlotte? Right?’

I grabbed the bottle of beer in front of me and started drinking.

‘Yeah. Do I know you?’ I yelled as I squirmed on the stool.

‘Oh sorry! I don’t mean to be creepy or freak you out,’ she laughed. ‘I.T.A., your American lit class. I’m Cara.’

From the corner of my eye, I could see Lauren making faces. It was our unwritten rule to not leave a bar or club with anyone we did not arrive with. Since neither of us has family close by, we became each other’s family.

‘Hi, Cara. I’m Charlie, but you already knew that.’

‘Ha ha, yeah. Can I buy you a drink?’

Cara seemed nice enough, but I wasn’t into it, and she completely ignored Lauren who was sitting right beside me.

‘Thank you. That’s really sweet, but my friend, Lauren, sitting beside you, just bought me a drink. Thanks though.’

Cara turned to look at Lauren and smiled, ‘OK maybe another time? See you on Thursday… you know, in class.’

‘Sure, Bye.’

Cara headed back into the lesbian abyss.

‘Jesus. She stood right in front of me. Haha! Do you draw rainbows on your papers or something?’

‘No, but that creeps me out. How did she know I was gay?’

‘Are you seriously asking me that question right now? I’m pretty sure you wear men’s sweatpants, sweatshirts and sneakers all day every day. You look gay.’

‘Really? I guess I never thought about it. But, you wear the same thing!’

‘No shit. Have you talked to your parents yet?’

‘No.’

I motioned to the bartender.

‘What are you waiting for?’

The bartender made her way down to our end.

‘Two beers?’

‘Yeah and two more tequila and lime shots, please.’

She brought the drinks over. I took both shots.

‘Jesus, Charlie. Are you trying to spend your night on the bathroom floor?’

‘I can’t think when I talk about this. It scares the shit out of me. They’re going to stop talking to me. So, I’m trying to drag it out until graduation. At least school will be done.’

I swallowed back the panic lodged in my throat and took a sip of the piss warm Bud Light.

‘You don’t know that. You’re their kid.’

‘My parents…There is a reason they visit once year. I don’t even know how to describe it. They just don’t care. I’m an only child on purpose.’

Lauren put her hand on mine. I could tell she was trying, but just couldn’t understand. Her parents were supportive. I often pretended that my parents knew: that they did not care that I was gay. It was easier than thinking about what their true reactions were going to be. How could I wrap my mind around something so scary? I had to tell them. I knew that. They’re my parents: the only family I have, but I knew that wouldn’t be the case after the conversation.

The bartender came over with two more shots. ‘You ladies look like you need these.’

We pushed them down.

‘Gross. What was that?’ Lauren yelled, lowering her mouth in disgust.

The bartender laughed, ‘Something that will help you forget, well, at least for tonight.’ She smiled at me and walked away.

I liked her.

A few shots and beers later: life was light and the room was a little hazy. I remember dancing on a barstool to a Joan Jett song. I was drunk. It was getting close to last call. So naturally, we ordered two more shots.

‘Hey. Hey! We gotta go soon or we’ll never get a cab,’ Lauren yelled over at me.

I found myself wrapped up in a conversation with an older woman. Rachel? No. Ann? Anyway, she did something important. Lauren maneuvered through a sea of women, over to where the woman and I were standing.

‘Charlie! We have to go now.’

‘Hi, Lauren.’

‘Yeah, sorry to spoil the fun, but we have to go now.’

The older woman grabbed Lauren’s arm. ‘Charlie’s coming home with me. She’ll be fine. I live over on Boylston.’

‘I’m sure you’re great and all, but she’s shattered, so she’s just going to go home.’

The woman got a little possessive and stood in front of me. I saw Lauren’s face go sour. She was a little tipsy, tired and annoyed. I walked away.

‘Charlie, hey Charlie,’ the woman called after me.

My brain was trying to tell my mouth to say something, but neither wanted to cooperate, so I just kept walking. Lauren must have gone over to the bar to grab our stuff, because I could no longer see her in my line of vision.

Shit.

Somewhere between the exit and the sidewalk my balance collapsed, hurling me onto the cold, sticky sidewalk. My jeans were now covered in someone’s spilled beer. My knuckles were bleeding from a sad attempt at breaking my fall.

‘Hey, are you OK?’

I felt someone lifting me up. She kept talking, as she brought me over to the curb and sat me down.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘What? No you’re fine. We’ve all had nights like this.’

‘No. You’re pretty, and I’m drunk. My parents are going to disown me, sorry.’

Words just kept spewing from my mouth, and she sat there and listened. Spools of dark chocolate waves pooled around her face, giving way to iridescent blue eyes. I did not want to look away. In fact, I’m sure I didn’t. When she broke into a smile, even though it was one of pity, I felt like somebody had electrocuted my body. She could see right through me.

‘Jesus. What happened to you?’ Lauren ran over yelling.

‘I fell, so I’m sitting. Oh, this is…’

‘Hi. I’m Audrey. Your friend fell. I just moved her from the foot traffic.’

‘Thanks. I’m Lauren and this mess here is Charlie,’ Lauren said as she attempted to put my coat on me.

I tried to stand, but failed. Audrey grabbed my arm. I wanted to touch her tiny, pale hand.

‘Audrey, do you want to hang out?’

She giggled, ‘Well, it’s late. So, I’m gonna head home, but I’ll write down my number. Maybe another time?’

She took a pen out of her messenger bag, ripped the first page from some book and wrote down her number. As she placed the folded piece of paper in my jeans pocket, I (sloppily) fell on her and kissed her right on the mouth.

‘I’m pretty sure I love you.’

Lauren rushed over and grabbed me, apologising for my drunkenness. I could see Audrey blushing and smiling. I tried to push my hair from my face, so I could see her, but I just kept making it worse. I couldn’t let her leave, but Lauren’s strong hold prohibited any further movement. I waved bye.

She put her hands in her pockets and walked away

Lauren smacked me on the head. ‘I love you? God, you’re drunk.’

***

Fuck. My mouth was dry, and my head was throbbing. I still had the shirt from last night on, with only my underwear and one sock. My face was stuck to the leather sofa and bathed in drool that had pooled at my chin.

‘Good morning, Sunshine. You want coffee?’ Lauren sang at an octave I was currently unable to handle.

‘Oh my god. No. I need a bucket, though. I feel like I’m gonna puke.’

The more I moved my head, the more the room kept spinning. I had to put one leg off of the couch to keep balance.

Lauren laughed at me. ‘I’m not surprised. You were taking down shots like they were water. It was gross.’

‘Please tell me that I wasn’t an asshole or did anything stupid.’

She didn’t answer.

‘That bad? ‘

‘I’m just gonna tell that you that, at the very least, you owe me dinner. I did save you from some woman that looked like she was ready to take you home and put you in a cage, and you were all for it.’

‘Jesus. Thank you.’

‘Oh. You kissed some girl and told her that you loved her.’

I jerked my head from the couch so fast that I gagged. ‘What? Who?’

‘I don’t know. Audrey, I think? She gave you her number. She seemed nice enough.’

I tried sitting up, but forgot my leg was hanging off of the couch. Instead, I fell and whacked my face on the table, spilling the full glass of water everywhere. I laid back down. Lauren grabbed paper towels from the counter and threw them at me.

‘Relax. You were too drunk to be an asshole. You fell or something. She helped you. I found you with her sitting on the curb.’

‘I was that messy, and she still gave me her number. And you didn’t recognize her?’

‘No. I’ve never seen her. You should at least call to apologise.’

I grabbed my jeans (that were now covered in water) from the floor and searched through the pockets. I was giddy. I didn’t remember a lot from last night, but I did remember her. There it was, on the page of some book: 617-222-1003, and below there was a little note: Hi. I’m Audrey. Call me sometime. She must be either crazy or a glutton for punishment: either way I resolved to call her.

‘What time is it?’

‘It’s 11:14. Are you going to call her?’

‘Yeah. Now I’m curious. Is she crazy? Why would she give me her number?’

‘I don’t know.’

The cordless phone was dead, so I had to sit in the living room and call from that phone. Lauren sat and stared at me as I dialled.

‘Hello? Is Audrey there? It’s…’

‘Charlie. Hi. I recognised the voice,’ she laughed.

‘Oh, yeah sorry. I, I just wanted to apologise for, well, being so drunk. Lauren said I may have kissed you? I’m sorry. God… that’s not really like me.’

‘It’s ok, really. We’ve all had those kind of nights’

‘Thanks. I just wanted to call to apologise…’

‘That’s it?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, do you want to try it again?’

‘Try what again?’

‘You’re killing me,’ she laughed. ‘Meeting. Would you like to try meeting again? I mean…you do love me. So, I think we should re-meet.’

‘If I remembered that, I’d probably be a lot more embarrassed and politely decline. But, clearly, I was a mess, so yes. Yes, I’ll re-meet you.’

‘Good. How about Lucy Café? It’s on—’

‘I know that place! It’s about five minutes away from me.’

We arranged to meet later and I offered to buy dinner to make up for my debauchery the night before. She didn’t say no. When I hung up, Lauren grilled me for details.

‘You heard the whole conversation.’

‘But you’re smiling. What do you think?’

‘I don’t know. It’s weird. It’s like I know her. It feels like it isn’t new…it’s so weird.’

I told Lauren I needed to eat and sleep, since I was meeting Audrey at seven. I didn’t want to be sick or hungover.

My bed welcomed me, but my brain was going a hundred miles an hour. I was twenty two years old and had not had any type of substantial, adult relationship. With Lauren it was less of a relationship and more of two young girls figuring out if they were truly not-straight, and it didn’t end badly because it never had a beginning; it just happened and then changed. I was happy things had unfolded the way they did: Lauren was my rock, my family.

I had never even met this girl, and I was already thinking about our relationship? Maybe this is what a soul mate was? Or love at first sight? I don’t know.

Calm the fuck down, Charlie.

I needed to just slow down, so I ate half of a bag of Doritos while I watched some ridiculous infomercial on TV.

At 5:30 my alarm went off, so I opened my eyes. Fifteen minutes later Lauren came in and threw a pillow at me.

‘Shut it off. Get up!’

‘I’m up…What are you doing? Did you even leave the house today?’

‘I may not have drank half of the tequila in Boston last night, but I had enough to make me feel like shit today. And no, asshole, I didn’t go out of the house, but I did watch, like, three movies. I feel like a zombie.’

‘What should I wear? Do I need to dress up?’

‘I mean it’s not a five-star place, so probably not anything too dressy.’ She started fanning through my closet. ‘What about this? You can’t go wrong with a little black dress.’

‘A dress? Yuck. I hate eating with a dress on. I smell. I need to shower.’

‘Yeah, you do. Wear black converse with it. You’ll look cute. God. Open a window or something. It smells like a brewery in here. Gross.’

I crawled out of the bed, opened the window and shuffled into the shower. I mustered up the energy to get dressed while Lauren made me coffee.

‘You look nice. Don’t be too awkward.’

I grabbed my bag and left.

The street was bright and moving fast. People were swirling past me.

Get your shit together.

The cold air was breathing life back in my body. When I saw the sign for the restaurant, I stopped, pushed my hair behind my ears and fixed my dress. My legs looked like long, white sticks. I doubted my choice in dinner attire, but it was too late to change.

She was already sitting when I got there, but stood when she saw me. Her smile drew me in. The waiter took me to the table.

She smiled, again. ‘Hi, I’m Audrey. Nice to meet you.’

‘Hi, Audrey. I’m Charlie.’

She was beautiful. Her hair was perfectly messy, and her olive skin radiated under the form-fitting white v-neck shirt. The waiter made his way over to the table, breaking me from my obvious staring problem. He approached Audrey.

‘Good evening, ma’am. Welcome to Lucy Café. Is this your first time dining with us?’

‘Oh, no. I’ve been here before.’

‘Great, can I start you with a beverage?’

I stared at the menu. I was unsure of the country the food we would be eating was from. Nothing was recognisable, so I just sat there.

‘Is there anything you recommend?’ Audrey inquired.

‘Well, if you like a sweet wine, I recommend the tej. It’s an Ethiopian honey wine. Or, if you like beer, there’s tella. It’s a beer made from cereal grains. We also have domestic bottled beer, house red and white wine, and soda.’

‘Charlie? What would you like?’

The waiter kept his back to me.

‘I’m just going to have water, for now.’

Audrey giggled, ‘I’ll try the tej, along with a water. Thank you.’

I wanted to ask her about everything: her family, her life, but words were not forming in my mind fast enough. I watched her move the plate and napkin to the side, so she could rest on her elbow.

‘Hi.’ That was all I had.

‘Hi. How are you feeling?’

‘I’m good. I mean, I feel ok. This morning was rough, but I’m good now.’

‘Good.’

The waiter came back with a tray full of beverages. He served me, then Audrey.

‘Did you decide on your meal, yet?’ He nestled close and leaned into her with a menu. It was weird. He pointed out the food he liked and stared at her, waiting for a response. She looked over at me.

‘Oh, hi. I’m ordering too. There are two of us here, eating.’

He stood up. ‘Right. Do you know what you’d like?’

‘Yes, I’ll have the bayon-ee-too?’

Bayenetu, and you ma’am? Have you decided?’

‘I’ll have the same.’

The waiter took my menu and stood near Audrey. ‘I have to tell you, your eyes are beautiful.’

Audrey squirmed in her chair, ‘Um, thanks.’

I wasn’t sure if I should tell the guy to leave her alone or let it go. Either way, Audrey looked uncomfortable.

‘Should I go knock him around? Let him know you’re here with me. I’m not sure he’ll care, but hey, I made an ass of myself last night. I could be on a roll. But wait, this is a serious question: what did I order and why are people eating with their hands?’

Audrey laughed so hard that whatever she was drinking spilled out from the side of her mouth. She stood up and leaned over the table, motioning for me to come closer.

‘My turn,’ she whispered as she kissed me.

I kissed her back.

I didn’t care, for once, about people watching.

We both sat back down. I looked over to the waiter’s station. The waiter looked pissed off or disgusted, and I saw him mouth the word, Dykes, to the guy next to him.

Audrey saw too. She grabbed my hand from under the table, ‘You wanna get out of here?’

I nodded and threw $40 on the table.

We put our coats on, grabbed our bags and each other’s hands, and walked out.

 

______________________________________________________________

Jillian (Jill) Butler recently graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Boston with a Master’s degree in English (Creative Writing and Education). She currently teaches high school English. In her ‘spare’ time Jill is a freelance editor and is also the founding editor of Provocateur, an LGBTQ+ literary magazine. As of this summer, three of her short stories will have been published in various anthologies and literary magazines/journals. When she is not editing, writing or teaching, Jill can be found hanging out with her wife and almost three-year-old daughter in Burlington, MA.

The Dunes (Kate Murdoch)

Posted on August 29, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

A single egg separated to form them. Yet Tamasine and Orla had rarely been apart. Once her twin met the boy, Orla spent more time alone. He was heavyset with the air of someone ready for a fight. Tamasine said she felt safe with him.

‘That’s because he’s scary,’ said Orla, eyes narrowed. ‘You’re safe because no one else wants to go near him. He has shifty eyes.’

‘Jealousy,’ sighed Tamasine and flicked a sheaf of blond hair over her shoulder. They sat opposite each other on their single beds, the roman blind tapped on the edge of the window in the late summer breeze. Their beds were unmade and strewn with magazines, nail polish bottles and discarded clothes.

Orla pondered the word. Maybe she was, a little. The boy had dragged her sister into a fast-moving current whilst she stood lost on the shore. Tamasine walked with a saunter, her hips swayed. She wore bright pink lipstick and a trainer bra beneath her school dress. She spoke of them hidden in the high grass at the sand dunes, the rumble of the surf muffling it all.

Orla imagined what it would feel like to be chosen. For a boy to lie down with her and unbutton her dress, his fingers edging up her inner thigh. She blushed.

It was after school on a Friday and she waited for the train. Tamasine had been held back because her English assignment was late. Orla watched a plastic bag billow over the platform as an announcement crackled through the loudspeaker. A huddle of young mothers gathered near her, their prams arranged in a semi-circle. Grey smudges shadowed their eyes and their summer dresses were crinkled. Only a few years older, yet their faces were careworn, their postures slouched.

The sun prickled her skin and she shaded her eyes.

‘Hallo,’ a voice came from behind. She turned to see the boy, Rupe. Tamasine’s boyfriend. ‘I thought we were going to meet on the corner?’

Orla hesitated. His devouring gaze made her stomach swirl and her mouth dry. She touched her hair and gave a tentative smile.

‘Oh, I forgot. Sorry.’

‘Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s go. You’re on the wrong platform, you duffer.’

Rupe seized her hand and led her down the stairs to the tunnel beneath the tracks. It reeked of stale urine and decomposed rubbish.

The train had just screeched to a halt on platform six. A surge of panic rose in her chest as they sat at the back of the carriage. Rupe’s hand was on her knee as they sped towards Cronulla, brick veneer houses a brown blur outside the window, lurid graffiti zigzagged on paling fences.

A pang of nausea as she ventured another smile. ‘Beautiful day,’ she said.

‘You’re acting weird, Tams.’ He shrugged and kissed her neck, his lips warm and slippery. Orla tried not to shudder.

Her mother would be slicing carrots for the casserole. Her snack of two digestive biscuits and a glass of lemonade waiting on the bench. The squeak of the Hills Hoist as Mum pegged washing and her laughter as she bantered with Mrs Anderson over the fence.

At Cronulla station they jumped the gate to avoid the ticket collector. The descending sun turned the footpath orange as she followed. A broad back, close-cropped brown hair. The dunes appeared as they came to the top of a hill. Beside them the road hummed with traffic.

They reached the bottom of the hill and the beach. Salt-tinged air caressed her cheeks. The dunes towered near them, burnished ripples of sand undulating towards the vast sea, its teal waters winking light. The grasses whispered as they moved forward, as high as their shoulders. Orla held her breath—enclosed in a secret, or caught in a trap, she wasn’t sure. The grass tickled her calves and Rupe sat down in a small gap. He patted the space next to him. All she could see was olive green grass, sea, horizon and the deepening blue of sky.

‘It’s time, Tamasine,’ he said in a quiet voice.

Orla’s voice was high and thin. ‘Time for what?’

‘For this.’ He leaned over and kissed her hard, his tongue prying into every part of her mouth, his hand snaking up her thigh. She gasped and pulled back.

‘I’m not ready.’

Rupe panted, his face blotched red. ‘You said you were, last time. We planned this.’

Without waiting for an answer he pinioned her to the ground. She squirmed as he ripped her underpants off and kneaded her chest with his other hand. The metallic sound of a belt buckle as he undid himself.

‘No. No, I don’t want it.’

‘Yes, you do.’

Searing pain, warm trickle, rhythmic grunts. Orla wept in silence, sand clutched in her hands. The susurration of the grass and the endless roar of surf. The vast blue above as she rose from herself, her mind suspended.

It was almost dark as she travelled home on the near-empty train. She held her dress together where he had ripped off the buttons, sticky between her legs and dusted with sand. A middle-aged woman touched her shoulder and she recoiled.

‘You all right, love?’

A mute nod and the woman left her alone. A blue light flashed from her driveway as she staggered up the street.

***

The other women were kind, if a bit frazzled. Orla’s room was tiny, but big enough for the bassinet to stand next to the single bed. Magpies nested in the gum outside her window and squawked in tandem with her boy at dawn. Mum visited once a week and held him while she showered. Once she had seen her friends at the supermarket, shrieking with laughter. She ducked into the cleaning aisle, heart thundering as she touched her greased tails of hair.

Another time she saw her sister in the street. Tamasine stared at the mewling infant in the pram, before her gaze traversed Orla. Pity and scorn flitted across her features. She walked on without a word.

 

____________________________________________________________


Kate Murdoch
exhibited widely as a painter before turning her hand to writing. In between writing historical fiction, she enjoys writing short stories and flash fiction. Her stories have appeared in Eunoia Review, Spelk Fiction, Sick Lit Magazine, Ink In Thirds magazine, and Feminine Collective, among others. Kate’s debut historical fantasy novel Stone Circle will be published by Fireship Press in December 2017. Find Kate on her website and on Facebook and Twitter.

 

The Ship (Nathan Curnow)

Posted on August 1, 2017 by in Flash Fiction, Lies To Live By

The radio says there’s an overnight storm arriving at 1am, so he sets the alarm clock on the floor of his room, beside his mattress in the bare apartment. After twenty years of marriage he was almost back to living in a student share house, but he discovered a cheap one bedroom across town that’s as empty as his allocated car park. He knew calling it quits meant financial disaster, now he’s renting for the rest of his life. He needs time to find his feet and he’ll find them soon, a lie that he’s telling his kids.

The storm driving in is meant to get wild. It’s been weeks since the last one hit. He’s been trying to keep busy with twelve-hour shifts and watching dvds on the laptop. He barely earns enough to contribute to school fees, meet rent and buy fresh food. It takes a month of saving to go on a date because he pays for her meal like a gentleman. Is this what he chose, this separateness, a life he can barely afford? Travelling is out, so he rides each storm, like the one that’s coming in tonight.

His alarm starts squawking like a pirate’s macaw, so he slaps it in the face. What he’s about to do might be an ancient pastime, which makes him feel less pathetic. The gale is battering every angle outside, beating windows in aluminium frames. The gutters are clogged and the rainwater falls, splattering on the concrete beneath. He’s half asleep as the storm hauls the trees, a branch scraping the corrugated fence. A new world has arrived that doesn’t cost a thing, so he lies there just like he’s practised.

He imagines he’s travelling in the bowels of a ship, as if everything led to that. He’s on an adventure, far off the coast, in a liminal wave of chaos. He’s alone but seafaring, lurching along to a destination that’s bound to come—the eye of a storm, the ocean bed or calm water with a fine horizon. Wherever he’s going, something is happening and he’s been waiting for something so long. Tonight it’s as if he rebuilt his life, going places after years of coping.

He stays in that ship as long as he can, before the storm passes and sleep returns, before morning and the choices he’ll have to make, like what he’ll cook just for himself. One day he’ll remember that man on the floor imagining beneath the covers. He’ll have company then, a new wife perhaps or maybe an irregular lover. No one will know that he’d wake at night while his kids across town slept through. But there must be others in their own low ships, with only weather and a way to be.

 

____________________________________________________________


Nathan Curnow
lives in Ballarat and is a past editor of Going Down SwingingHis previous books include The Ghost Poetry ProjectRADAR, and The Apocalypse Awards (Australian Scholarly Publishing). He has won numerous prizes and appears regularly at festivals across the country, although he is often thrown by his notes.

 

 

SIX WEEKS – The Summer of 2006 (khulud khamis)

Posted on July 14, 2017 by in Book Extracts, Lies To Live By


Nairouz, a Palestinian woman from Haifa in her 40s, has to make room in her too-busy life, to care for her disabled mother for six weeks, when the Second Lebabon War breaks in July of 2006. The novel follows her life during six hectic weeks, as she negotiates between her two children, academic career, activism, and caring for a disabled mother.

Day 1 – 12 July 2006

Great. This is just great. Just what I needed to add to all the chaos in my life right now. I put down the phone and sink into the sofa. I hear Yasmeen’s hushed voice from her bedroom, but I can’t hear the words themselves. Secrets of the young on the phone. Razi storms in, his sneakers caked with mud, and before I can say something, he’s already banged the door to his bedroom shut. Not even a ‘Salam, mama.’ His life revolves around football, computer games, and his two best friends. I need coffee. Strong coffee. Then I can think straight and try to figure this out. Maybe by the time Emad gets home from work I’ll have figured out something and I can run it by him.

Everything was set up carefully. Neelam, the Nepalese woman living with my parents and taking care of my disabled mother leaves in two days for Nepal for six weeks. She’s been with us for the past two years without taking any days off. She has three small children back home, and she misses them achingly. I can’t imagine the strength it takes to leave your children for so long to ensure a better future for them. The sacrifice. Rafiq volunteered to go through the bureaucratic process with the agency and find a temporary replacement. I called the agency this morning to make sure the replacement will arrive as agreed, tomorrow, so Neelam can show her everything. The man on the other side of the line was courteous, apologizing that I had to wait on the line while he checked the file on the computer. ‘Can you spell the family name again, please?’ I did, and was asked to wait again. No. They didn’t have any such request on their files. ‘Can you check again? Maybe the file wasn’t updated yet?’ No. He’s quite sure that’s not the case, but he’ll check again. Can I leave him my phone number and he’ll get back to me?

He called an hour later, all apologies again. ‘I’m sorry, but I went through all the papers on my desk, and the computer files, but there really isn’t any such request filed. You’re saying tomorrow? That’s impossible. We need at least one month notice in advance. I’m really sorry, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Yes, I’ll keep your request on my desk, and if anyone becomes available I’ll let you know. Although I doubt it.’

Breathe, Nairouz, breathe, I tell myself. You can deal with it. You’ve dealt with more difficult crises in your life. You’re raising two teenagers and doing a damn good job at it. You managed to get a fucking PhD while raising two kids and managing a household. I take my coffee, cigarettes and mobile out to the verandah and am hit by the thick, hot, humid air of July. There’s no point in calling Siwar for help. She’s so fragile and emotional. She’s always been the impractical one of the three of us. Quiet, sensitive Siwar. I’ll call her later this evening just to update her, after I straighten this out with Rafiq and we figure out what to do. I dial Rafiq’s number, even though I know he’s probably in one of his important meetings and he’ll be angry at me for disturbing him in the middle of his work day. ‘Rafiq? Hey, sorry about bothering you, but it’s urgent – about mama. No, she’s fine. It’s the replacement from the agency . . . there is no replacement.’ I feel my pulse rise again as Rafiq tries to calm me down, telling me it must be some mistake. Somebody must have misfiled the paperwork. He’ll sort it out and call them on his lunch break.

I walk back inside, into the cool air-conditioned apartment. Emad was in charge of the dishes last night, and so I’m not surprised to come to a sink full of dirty plates, cups, and two pots. If you could at least have soaked them! Just because I mostly work from home doesn’t mean I have endless free time, I talk to Imad in my head. I roll up my sleeves and start washing the dishes, when Razi comes bursting in, ‘Mama, I need some money. Just a hundred.’ I turn around to face my son, water dripping from my hands onto the floor. ‘Didn’t baba give you and your sister your weekly allowances only a couple of days ago?’ He stares at his feet, hands digging deep into his jeans pockets. ‘Where are you going?’ I ask in resignation. His eyes light up as he realizes he’s not going to have to beg for it this time. ‘Don’t know yet. Maybe see a movie and then head down to the beach.’ He follows me to the bedroom like a puppy. ‘It’s coming off your next week’s allowance,’ I tell him, but he’s already out the door. He’s like a tornado, this kid.

I sit down on the edge of the sofa, and my eye catches the pile of books on the coffe table. Screw the dishes. I pick up Vikran Seth’s A Suitable Boy and tuck my legs under me. I’ve been putting off this book for so long. I remember when it arrived in the mail, I was both horrified and delighted at the same time at the hugeness of it. I start reading, and am immediately transported to India, finding myself at a wedding. For a few hours, I leave my life behind: my own mother, Neelam, Razi and Yasmeen, even Rafiq. I enter a different dimension, a different time.

I jump when I hear the front door bang. Emad’s strong voice reaches me; he’s on the phone talking business. Immediately, I am flushed with inexplicable guilt. I put the book face down on the table, and rush to the bedroom. I stand in front of the mirror and look at my reflection. Shit, I look a mess. My hair is all tangled up, a pencil sticking out from the back, which I used to secure my hair with. I quickly let my hair down and run a brush through it before tying it neatly in the back with a pain hair band.

‘Habibi,’ I try not to sound hysterical when I come back out. I have to stand on tiptoe to reach his cheek and kiss him. He wraps his free arm around my waist, and walks with me toward the verandah, still talking into the phone. When he finally ends the call, we stand still, my small body enveloped by his strong arms, and just watch the sea for a while. It’s become our ritual, a few moments of togetherness, of calm, of just him and me, before going back to the chaos of our lives. ‘Mmmm, you smell like oranges,’ he inhales my hair. ‘And you smell sticky and sweaty,’ I reply. His laugh is husky. ‘Should we share a cigarette?’ It’s his way of asking what’s wrong. He can sense it from the slightest touch. ‘You’re so transparent, Nairouz,’ he’d always tell me.

‘Well, let’s wait to hear from Rafiq. If he doesn’t fix it, we’ll think together,’ he says after I tell him about the mess at the agency. ‘As I see it, there aren’t too many options. We won’t be able to find anyone on a day’s notice.’

I’m still hopeful, but another part of me knows what this means. But I’m not ready to think about it just yet, so I push the thought away and focus instead on cutting the vegetables for the salad while Emad prepares the pasta. ‘Oh, Razi isn’t having dinner with us,’ I remember when I see Emad taking down four plates. He raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t say anything. He knows better than me that there’s no holding that hyperactive boy at home. And from the guilty look on my face, he guesses that I gave him some money. ‘Only a hundred, and I told him we’ll take it off from next week’s allowance.’ Emad laughs, ‘Yeah, right. He’s almost an adult and still thinks money grows on trees.’

At seventeen, Yasmeen is a quiet girl. Yes, sometimes I hear her laugh on the phone, a friend or two come over, but mostly she spends her days caved up in her room, with her sketchpads, charcoals, oils, and pastels. She is so much like Siwar. When I call her to dinner, she comes out as if from a different dimension of reality, her fingers smudged with shades of yellow and green. ‘Did you people hear the news today?’ she asks as she washes her hands in the kitchen sink. I quickly glance at Emad; he shrugs his shoulders. ‘No, but I’m sure you’re going to update us.’

‘Hizballah killed three IDF soldiers and kidnapped two.’ My hand, holding a salad bowl, stops in midair. I stare at Yasmeen across the table as I try to comprehend what she has just said, and what it might mean. Shit. Kidnapped soldiers can only mean disaster. Israel will definitely retaliate. As I slowly realize my situation, with three academic articles due by mid-October, the stacks of books I need to read before the academic year begins, the syllabuses I need to prepare for the two courses I’ll be teaching, and the three students whose MA theses I’m supervising, my mother, two confused teenagers on the brink of adulthood, and now this, I put the salad bowl down and sink into the chair, dazed. ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ I say to no one in particular. ‘Here, give me the bowl, mama, I’ll do that.’ Yasmeen takes the bowl and starts dishing out salad for us. Emad watches me and for once, there are no words of comfort that he can think of. We eat dinner in silence. When the phone rings, I rush at it, hoping against hope that somehow Rafiq managed to fix it. That it was some mistake, some misplacement of documents. The moment I hear Rafiq’s voice, I know. ‘I’m sorry, Nairouz.’

***

I try to focus on the book in my hands, and I find myself reading and rereading the same paragraphs, the same words, over and over. Their meaning eludes me. ‘Did you talk to your sister?’ Emad’s voice brings me back into the living room. ‘I forgot . . . but I can’t imagine Siwar taking care of mama. She can barely remember to eat sometimes. And anyway, I think she’s supposed to fly to Spain sometime soon, for some dance therapy workshop. She said she’ll be gone a few weeks. I think she mentioned staying with some friends in Andalusia.’ Siwar, my baby sister, still unsettled, still looking for herself in this world. She’s recently been taking some advanced dance therapy workshops somewhere in the desert. Last time she came to visit she seemed finally at ease in her own body. Like she’s finally found her thing, that very thing that makes her happy and content. I can’t dump this on her now. But I should call her in any case. I put down the book, it’s no good anyway, trying to read in this state. I grab a notebook and start jotting down things. Just the act of getting things down on paper gives me a feeling of control. I can do this. I can juggle around things and fit them around. Most of the things, luckily, are things I can do from anywhere, as long as I have my laptop, Internet connection, and my books. ‘I’ll make you a cup of chamomile tea to calm your nerves down, Nun.’ Emad, the one responsible for my mental health. I don’t protest, only give him a silent, thankful smile. What would I do without you, Emad?

***

Day 2 – 13 July

When I finally wake up, Emad is already gone to work. There’s a note on the kitchen table, scribbled in his untidy handwriting: Be kind to yourself today. Love you. He does this sometimes, reminding me of small beauties. I am taken aback by the simplicity of his words, or maybe just surprised how easily we forget to appreciate the simple things in life, taking them for granted.

Razi is already gone for the day too. I try to remember if he told us where he’ll be, but can’t. I send him a message, and he responds that he’s on his way to the beach and won’t be home till late in the evening. I find Yasmeen in her room, sitting on the carpet, still in her pyjamas, painting on a large canvas. I worry about her sometimes. Siwar says to just let her be. This is how artists are born. Emad agrees with her. I bend down and kiss the crown of her head. Before I leave, I tell her she can heat up some of last night’s pasta for lunch. She just nods and continues painting.

It’s just after eleven when I leave the house. I walk down from Hess street, then through the stairs that lead me first to Hillel, then Massada street. I need the walk to clear my head. It’s all downhill to Wadi Nisnas, and I can use the cardio when I go back up in the evening. Or I can take the bus or have Emad pick me up.

Neelam opens the door for me. She’s in her mid-thirties, a slight body. Long, thick, dark brown hair braided, resting on her left breast, reaching all the way to her hip. Today she’s wearing a lavender colour sari, with thin yellow swirls running through it. ‘Hello, Naroos, how are you?’ Her smile reaches her kind eyes. ‘Namaste, Neelam. I’m good, shukran.’ She trails behind me into the living room, where mama is sitting watching a movie. When she sees me, her eyes light up, ‘Na . . . Nanu . . .’ she laughs and shrugs her shoulders in apology for not getting my name out the way her brain willed it. I hug her, making sure not to put too much pressure on her right arm, and kiss her on both cheeks.

She makes a movement with her left arm, and when she realizes she won’t be able to mime what’s on her mind, she switches the TV to a news channel. ‘Boom boom, eh,’ she points to the television screen, then at the newspaper lying on the coffee table. I forgot all about it. I haven’t listened to the news this morning, so I don’t know what’s happening. I take the newspaper and read about the kidnapping of the two IDF soldiers. The Prime Minister is quoted that there will be massive reaction. Nobody, nobody, will threaten Israel’s security. ‘Don’t worry, mama. We’re safe. Anyway, they know in Lebanon that Haifa is a mixed city, right? They wouldn’t bomb us.’ I see her nose crinkling, then she clicks back to the movie.

Neelam brings tea and sits down opposite me. ‘Where is replacement? Coming today? Have to teach her. So many things.’ She says in broken Arabic. My eyes widen in surprise. We were so busy trying to figure out what to do that we forgot to update Neelam and mama. I scoot over to the edge of the sofa so I can reach mama’s hand. She looks at me and smiles. It’s a lopsided smile, the left side more alive than the right. I take a deep breath. This is it. There’s no going back now. ‘I’m the replacement.’ Mama looks at me, not really comprehending. ‘Mama,’ I say, ‘I’m going to take care of you while Neelam’s gone.’ I don’t explain any further, because that might make her sad, knowing that I’m doing it because it’s been forced on me. The laughter that comes the moment the words sink into mother’s brain surprises both me and Neelam. She slaps her left hand down on her knee, then, with an effort, gets up, supporting herself on her cane, and stands in front of me, waiting. I look at Neelam, and she shrugs. I get up, and mama’s fragile left arm is around my neck. She struggles to pull up her right arm from the shoulder; it lifts halfway, then falls back down. I take her right arm, and gently lift it up to my neck, so that she can properly hug me. ‘Su . . . sukraaam,’ the kiss she plants on my cheek is wet. I didn’t expect this gratitude.

For the next few hours, I follow Neelam around, taking down notes of all the chores she does. It’s overwhelming, and Neelam seems to be all over the place, doing five six tasks simultaneously. I didn’t realize there is so much to do. So much work. ‘No worry, Naroos. At five thirty, we have one free hour. Is when baba Jawad come home. They play chess together,’ she motions to the wooden chessboard on the side of the coffee table, which I only now become aware of. ‘We can sit in kitchen and write down, make order.’ Her words have instantaneous calming effect on me.

***

I sit at the kitchen table, notebook open to a new page. I’m ready to write down every detail, afraid to miss something small but important. ‘Eight thirty, mama get up, bathroom first. Dressing, and breakfast at nine,’ Neelam speaks slowly so I can write it down. She goes through the day, hour-by-hour, breaking down the day into small increments, each hour marked by a chore. ‘After breakfast, Tuesday and Saturday, B12 and folic acid pill.’ I write down the timetable of the pills on a separate sheet. When Neelam has gone through the whole day, she gets up to wash our cups. ‘Is easy, Naroos. After two days, you remember and no need for paper.’ I guess she’s right. Looking down and reading through, it all follows a certain logic, an organized frame, something to hang on to, some control. It probably eases mama’s anxieties as well, knowing what comes after what. It gives her an illusion of control over a life she’s lost control of. ‘I go now to finish packing. Then I give mama shower. You watch, is important. Last thing for today. Then bed.’

She leaves and I am left stranded, suddenly feeling the weight of it all. So much to care for one person. I thought once baba was home, he’d take over. A shower. The most basic action, the most intimate activity of the body. I’m not going to cry now. My mind drifts to the first days mama came home from the rehabilitation center. Two weeks of scrambling for a moment of sanity. Two weeks until Rebecca finally showed up and rescued us all from insanity. Two weeks of arguing, yelling, screaming. Two weeks of tears shed at night, in utter loneliness. None of us had an idea of what we were doing, and mama was freaking out. Until baba set his foot down and called the agency for migrant workers. ‘Obviously, we can’t do this on our own, and you girls have your own lives you need to get back to.’ Rebecca had been with us for six years, then it was time for her to go back to her own family in the Philippines. Rebecca . . . I should write her an email. I’m suddenly angry with myself for not keeping in touch with her, the woman who took care of my own mother, cooking, cleaning, washing. Showering. A woman who became family. I vaguely remember an email from her writing that she’d made it back home safely and the emotional reunion with her own family. I can’t remember now if I ever replied to her. I write down her name next to the medicine timetable for mama so I don’t forget to write her an email.

Showering mama turns out to be an hour-long ritual. I watch as Neelam washes her with the gentleness of a mother washing her own child. The thought crosses my mind suddenly: I’m not going to be able to wash her like Neelam does. Her hands move in complete sync with mama’s body movements. Her movements are at once efficient and graceful. I am entranced at their intimate, silent, slow-motion water-dance, and come out of my reverie only when I hear the absence of running water. ‘Give me that stool, Naroos,’ Neelam’s voice is efficient. ‘One towel for feet, one for body, yes? You can remember this?’ She helps mama lower herself on the stool and starts drying her wrinkled body.

It takes another twenty minutes before mama is tucked in bed. I kiss her on the cheek, and she beams at me. There is something childlike in her smile, the anticipation of something wonderful, like soft pink cotton candy.

I walk into the living room, where baba is explaining to Neelam that he’s taking the day off tomorrow to drive her to the airport. ‘But baba Jawad, train is OK. Is faster, you can take me to train station,’ but he’s not hearing any of it. ‘Nairouz, my favourite daughter,’ he winks at me. ‘You look a bit haggard. Take an advice from your old man, and don’t watch the news tonight. Nothing new, same old story all over again. Don’t worry too much, it will be fine.’ I nod and turn towards the television to try and glimpse some news, but he’s already flipped to a sports channel. ‘Neelam, please leave some room in your suitcase, I have something for your children. Some small gifts.’ She waves her hand in protest, and starts to say something, but I stop her with a hug. ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’ I walk out into the still hot evening, taking baba’s last words with me: it will be fine. Yes, it will. It has to.

I decide to walk back home. As I walk up Khoury street up to Hadar, I call Emad to see if he’s up to meeting me halfway. He stays on the phone with me until we meet in a hug. Ever since the stairs rapist roamed the stairs of Haifa a while ago, I avoid walking them at night. A piece of personal safety that was taken from me. I used to love jogging up and down the stairs in the cool evenings, alone with my thoughts. Not anymore. Now I have to nag either Emad or Razi to accompany me.

‘It doesn’t look good,’ he replies when I ask him about what’s going on with Hizballah, breathing heavily. ‘Sorry, habibti, can we talk at home? I’m not in shape for these stairs. Or tell me about your day, and I’ll be a good listener.’ I’m just beginning to tell him about all that’s waiting for me for the next six weeks, when we hear a sudden, loud crashing noise somewhere. I stop, horrified. ‘Nah, don’t worry, probably just some ship uploading cargo, you know how loud they can be,’ Emad is panting. ‘No, Emad, this was different. And it didn’t come from down below. It sounded like . . .’ what the hell did it sound like? Not a rocket, surely? I run the rest of the way home, any rapists lurking in the dark waiting for their potential victim the least of my concerns at this moment. I need to get to the news.

The kids are both in the living room for once, glued to the television. ‘There’s a war, yamma’ Razi greets me with excitement, ‘like a real war!’ Yasmeen is sitting cross-legged on the carpet, her sketchpad abandoned on the coffee table.

I watch in horror the replaying of the day’s events. While I was learning how to care for my mother, a woman has been killed in her home. An apartment building in Nahariya took a direct hit from a Hizballah rocket, killing her and injuring others. Monica, I test the name silently on my tongue. She was sitting on her balcony when the rocket hit her building. The news blurs in my mind – names of the two kidnapped soldiers are released, IDF attacking in Al-Dahyia, where Hizballah headquarters are situated. More rockets on Israel, Prime Minister threatening on the screen. Then the camera zooms in on a familiar spot. I see the view of Haifa from up above, I can see Bat Galim right below. Stella Maris. How did the news crews get there so fast? Two rockets. I unglue my eyes from the screen just enough to see Yasmeen rocking slowly back and forth, hugging her knees. She’s staring at the screen with wide eyes. I pull her towards me and envelop her body in mine. ‘We’re safe, habbuba, it will be fine,’ I parrot baba’s words and kiss the top of her head. ‘We’re going to be just fine, Yasmeenti.’ Rockets are falling on Haifa. How did this happen? Shit. Never before had the Hizballah fired any long-range rockets that reached Haifa.

Emad suddenly gets up and turns the television off; I can see Razi already half-way up in protest, but Emad shoots him a murderous look and he sinks back down on the sofa. ‘All right, kids. Listen up now. You too, Nairouz. Things are going to change around here for a while.’ His voice is even, but I can see a flicker of confusion in his eyes when he meets mine. ‘If until now you had the idea that your mother is a superwoman, forget it. She’s going to need our help in the next few weeks.’ He disappears into my study and comes back with a yellow legal pad and a pencil. ‘Alright, you people are going to start pitching in some more into this family.’ He draws two lines, splitting the page into three columns. At the top of each he writes Razi, Yasmeen, and Emad. ‘Razi, what house chores are you taking up?’ Razi gives him an incredulous look, ‘But Baba, it’s summer. I just came out from a marathon of finals. I need to rest.’ Emad ignores him and writes down “washing dishes every other day.” Then he looks at Yasmeen. ‘I can take the washing machine,’ she says with a slight tremble in her voice. They go on like this for close to an hour, while I retreat into my study with a bottle of white wine. I hear their voices rising and falling, arguing over who will do what. ‘This is ridiculous! There’s a war out there, and you’re worried about dishes and timetables!’ Then the slamming of Razi’s bedroom door.

Later in bed, I run my fingers up and down Emad’s back. ‘You handled that quite well, I’d say. Extraordinary. You. Are. Have I told you that lately?’ He slowly kisses my closed eyes, lingering on each one, before turning off the light.

***

Day 3 – 14 July

The alarm goes off at seven, waking me into a new reality. I feel like one of the characters in Murakami’s books, where the reality has slightly shifted, and is now off and out of sync. Actually, I think as I watch my reflection brushing her teeth, it’s close to the after effects of bad hashish. Afghani hasish, Emad would say, though I have no clue if that means it comes from Afghanistan or if it’s just a slang word for bad hashish. Bad hashish is the kind that stays in your body for a few days instead of only a few hours. It makes you see things from odd angles.

The kitchen smells of strong coffee. Emad is sitting at the kitchen table, a steaming pot and two cups in front of him. ‘Waiting for you, hayati,’ he smiles at me. The yellow legal pad is on the table, filled up with various chores divided between the three of them. ‘Umm, hub, do you think this is a good idea when there’s a . . . war, rockets falling on Haifa?’ I’m surprised, but also pleased, that he’s still home. Usually at this time he’s already at his downtown office. ‘Precisely because of the rockets, we need two things: one, order. Two, give the kids things to do inside, so they’re kept busy and safe.’ I see his logic. ‘Anyway, Nasrallah denied that it was him who launched the rockets at Haifa, so maybe it was just a one-off thing,’ he sighs. ‘Also, I did an inventory last night. Kids have food for the day. I’ll stop by the souk after work to pick up some fruits and vegetables. We’ll take it one day at a time, and we’ll be fine.’ Things are collapsing around me slowly, and everybody keeps telling me things will be fine. ‘Yalla, go get dressed. I’ll drop you off on my way to the office.’

***

Afternoon.

Mama has fallen asleep in her reclining chair. Neelam is already gone, and the house is eerily silent after the chaotic morning and last minute instructions from Neelam and baba, heating up lunch, and some miscommunication with mama about some towels that I had put on the wrong shelf. Neelam said that sometimes she dozes off after lunch. It’s the one time of day that isn’t completely predictable in mama’s schedule. Neelam said the nap usually lasts between one and two hours, so as soon as I hear the soft snoring, I grab my yellow notepad and start writing. I scribble down as fast as I can; there’s so much stuff to do, so many things filling up my life, so many deadlines. I start out neatly, breaking things down into categories and sub-categories, but soon the list becomes just a jumble – the jumble of my life. I reread it and am astonished. I need to duplicate myself and soon. How can a single person do all this . . . this . . . stuff – and remain sane?

From the corner of my eye I see the television screen, channel 22 now running only news. I keep it on silent. The news will be fragmentary and chaotic anyway, filled with military jargon and sowing even more fear among the public. They now need to keep a unified front. Everything else becomes unimportant in the face of threats on the security of Israel. It’s what they live on.

I step onto the verandah with a cigarette and a cup of coffee and call home to check on the kids. Yasmeen answers after the sixth ring. ‘I’m just listening to some music mama,’ she replies to my answer in a bored tone. ‘Razi . . . yeah . . . he was gone before I woke up. Nope, didn’t leave a note.’ I ask her not to leave the house, at least not today, not until we figure out what’s going on. ‘Can you call your brother habbuba and ask him not to be late? I should be home around eight. Kisses.’

‘Hada hon, hada hon,’ I’m startled by mama’s voice as I close the verandah door behind me. She’s pointing at the coffee table. ‘The TV remote control?’ I ask her. ‘La, la. Hada hon, hada hon,’ now she’s pointing at her mouth, her hand cupped. ‘Water! You want a cup of water, mama?’ I beam at her, ecstatic that I understood what she wanted almost immediately. ‘La, la,’ she gesticulates with her arm, moving it to the right and then pointing back at the glass. ‘Oh, sorry,’ I hurry to the kitchen. Of course she wants fresh water and not water that’s been sitting there for a couple of hours collecting dust on its surface. Details, Neelam said. Pay attention to details. I notice her chapped lips as I hand her the glass. ‘Your lips, mama. You need some lip balm,’ she gives me a questioning look. ‘They’re dry, your lips,’ I try again. This time, she smiles back at me and nods her head in approval. ‘I’ll buy some tomorrow.’

My yellow notepad with my chaotic life in it lies now forgotten on the coffee table. The next two hours are a mix of watching the news, prime minister calming down the public now but at the same time sending threats to Hizballah, then cameras zoom in on some sites where rockets fell, then back to the studio where ex-army men and political experts on the Middle East argue between them, each trying to come up with the smartest interpretation, and predictions for the near future. In between, mama tries to communicate to me unrelated things that I should be doing. It takes a lot of questions on my part to understand what it is she wants. Laundry. I go and fill up the washing machine and get it started. Stripping Neelam’s bed and putting clean sheets, for what, I have no idea. Writing a shopping list for baba takes almost twenty minutes, as I have to guess the items by showing mama pictures of different food items from her small notebook. It’s a notebook the speech therapist back at the rehabilitation center prepared for mama. It’s divided into sections and has photos of all family members glued in it, then clothing items, food, and activities. When we’re done with the shopping list, she points at the chessboard. ‘Baba should be home soon, so you can play with him,’ I say. ‘La la, ana, ana,’ she points at herself and then at me. ‘I’m terrible at chess, mama, you know that,’ I say. ‘Ana, ana . . . Na . . . Nana,’ I see her struggling to get the word out. ‘Nairouz. Say, Nai-rouz,’ I split the word into two, pronouncing each syllable slowly. ‘Na,’ she pauses, her brow furrowing in concentration, ‘Na . . . Na-rooz.’ If it weren’t so sad that my own mother can’t pronounce my name, it would be funny. Still, she laughs at it, and I join her. ‘OK, one game.’ It’s amazing how, when her mind shut down, she can still play board games and win almost every time. That part of her brain has only become sharper for some unfathomable reason, while her speech is still limited to some forty or fifty words. Baba arrives just in time to watch mama grin as she check-mates me.

Showering mother turns out to be quite the disaster. I get everything wrong; at first mama seems patient with my clumsiness, but within minutes she becomes agitated and starts yelling undecipherable words, swaying her good arm, pointing in different directions. I panic, try to calm her down and understand what she wants; she gets even more frustrated with my questions. Baba comes in a couple of times to see if he can somehow help, but we both scowl at him. Finally, she gives up on me and lets me wash her without any resistance, her head averted from me in a painful grimace. My clothes are soaked through when we finish, and I come out of the bathroom dripping wet and defeated. As mother sits on her bed naked while I massage body lotion into her back, arms and belly, she starts laughing. ‘What?’ I snap, miserable in my failure. She points at my wet clothes, her laugh becoming now uncontrollable, her eyes watering. I grit my teeth, my anger bubbling up, until I can no longer hold it and I burst out laughing too. I laugh at the absurdity of it, I laugh because mother is laughing, I laugh at my complete inadequacy at showering her. ‘I’m sorry, mama. It’s all new to me. I’ll try to learn faster.’ She pats me on the knee, and I see her mouth struggling to get the right word out. ‘Shuk-ran,’ she thanks me, for what I have no idea.

After mother is finally tucked in bed, with the television turned on a movie channel, I collapse on the sofa in front of a cup of tea that father has made me. ‘Difficult first day, ah?’ he asks. I nod and pick up the abandoned yellow notepad from the coffee table. Difficult is an understatement, I want to scream. ‘It will be fine, like you said, baba.’ Suddenly I remember that I have two kids. Shit, I haven’t checked on them for a while. What a horrible mother I am. I quickly dial Emad’s number, and when he hears my tired voice tells me to stay put; he’ll come and pick me up in twenty minutes. He hangs up before I can ask about the kids. Until he arrives, I watch the news with father; they’re showing sites where rockets fell today in the North. A number of injured people, two killed – a woman and her grandson. IDF continues to bomb Al Dahiya in south Beirut. I slip the yellow notepad into my bag, and as I see it disappearing, I feel my whole life is slipping away from me.

At home, I eat the salad that Yasmeen set in front of me. Emad must have talked to them, because after dinner, Razi brings a pile of clean clothes to the living room. Yasmeen folds them, stacking them into four piles, and Razi takes the folded stacks, one by one, into each bedroom. I don’t remember them doing anything together as sister and brother in years. In their teenage years, they’ve become almost strangers, avoiding each other most of the time. ‘Hey, don’t you have some important academic paper you need to be working on?’ Emad asks as he clears the kitchen table and stacks the dishes in the sink. ‘Oh, don’t even think about it! Washing dishes is my new specialty. Yalla, go and get some work done. I’ll bring you tea in a few minutes.’

In my study, I take out the yellow notepad from my bag, put it on the desk, and just stare at it. When Emad walks in with na’ana tea, he finds me crying. He puts the tea down and sits on the floor. I join him. ‘You want to talk about it?’ he asks. Do I want to talk about it? I don’t even know where to begin. ‘Things are falling apart around me, Emad.’ Until a few days ago, I had an organized life. I was in control. I had all my deadlines figured out with a detailed plan. ‘And you feel you can’t hold them together anymore,’ he completes my thoughts. How the hell do you hold things together when all of a sudden you have to free hours upon hours every day to take care of your disabled mother? Hours you didn’t have to begin with? And now this stupid war. How do you make room in your life for a war? Emad stands up and I see him studying the yellow notepad. ‘You’re in the right direction, Nun. Be gentle with yourself. Take a few days off your regular life, and just focus on your mother. Things will settle down in that brilliant brain of yours and you’ll know how to deal with all of this,’ he points at the page with all the work-related deadlines. ‘Come,’ he gives me a hand. ‘Let’s take this tea to the bedroom. Forget work for tonight.’

On my way from the study to the bedroom, I involuntarily stop in front of the television in the living room. Nasrallah is speaking, threatening to attack an Israeli ship. No, he’s saying that they did attack an Israeli ship. Then the screen goes back to the news studio for analysis. I don’t want to hear it, not right now. We won’t be getting any real time truths anyway. The Israeli media is an expert at releasing partial information, usually distorted. Pieces start trickling bit by bit, and we try to piece them together like a puzzle, but the pieces never really fit into each other perfectly. It is as if they were originally cut wrong. I turn the television off.

Before going to bed, I check on the kids. Yasmeen is sketching at her desk. When I take a close look, I can already see that it’s a bombed building. ‘We’ll be fine, habbuba,’ I try to make my voice soothing, but she isn’t fooled. ‘I’m scared, mama,’ she keeps her fingers moving across the paper, not looking up. ‘I know, Yasmeenti, I know,’ I stand behind her and start unbraiding her thick, black hair in slow movements. She doesn’t resist. I can’t remember when we stopped doing this. The moments when time would glide by silently and the world would stop, to allow mother and daughter precious moments of together, of sharing secrets and releasing laughter out the window. ‘You never do my hair anymore,’ she makes it sound like a casual comment, but it hits me hard in the stomach. I had no idea that she missed this. I pick up her comb and start combing her hair. ‘What do you say about visiting teeta tomorrow? We can have lunch together and after that, if we’re lucky, teeta will fall asleep and we can spend some time together.’ Yasmeen looks up. ‘And if we’re not lucky?’ she asks. ‘Then you’ll get stuck in a game of chess with teeta. And believe me, she’s one mean chess player.’

 

____________________________________________________________

khulud khamis is a Palestinian feminist writer, author of Haifa Fragments, published by Spinifex Press (Australia), New Internationalist (UK), and translated into Italian and Turkish. Born to a Slovak mother and a Palestinian father, khulud grew up in two countries and between two cultures, her identity composed of both, and her multicultural background is reflected in her writing. She writes fiction, poetry and nonfiction. In her fiction, poetry, as well as non-fiction, she deals with political and social issues as they relate to and affect women’s lives, striving to bring forth local marginalised and unheard voices. khulud is a member of the radical feminist collective Isha L’Isha – Haifa Feminist Centre, where she has been an activist for many years, fighting for the rights of the most marginalised groups of women, and the co-founder of the Tuskuteesh grassroots project: a safe space for Arab women to share testimonies of sexual violence. She lives with her daughter in Haifa. Find khulud on her website, on Facebook and on Twitter @khulud_khamis.

Comet Child (Judyth Emanuel)

Posted on July 4, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

Child I was under the weight of dark dark universes. Heavy weighed a lot of scary roars chucked at me but in my mind. Grew short too small for age five years. When in 1964. Ages ago now. In prettified place I lived sixties. Saw these times paths cemented crazy paving led to front doors pleasant houses on Wonga Avenue near Bantry Bluff. Always summer picnics at the beach. Face slathered pink zinc cream melted. Made my nose look stupid. Always sat alone on the sand. Warm sand dreaming between toes. Always not digging the sand with yellow plastic spade. Not even building a sandcastle. But just. Child gazed at far horizons any ones. And my mother got worried. About what. Always far horizons. Where my mind was. So decided it was. Confidence mine needed a boost. Get doing dancing, gymnastics, joining the school choir.

First square danced bite my lip. Dark dark universe this midday heat bore down stared down. At what. No that way. Second grade class all perspiring. What did why performing silly square dance. On boiling concrete. In school playground. Who people these made me. Dark universe roared. I felt this weight of gawking hands, clapping eyes clapped. Parents, teachers, entire school crowded in circle watching twenty wilting children. Started on the right foot. No. No turned this way spun a bit wrong. I trying really hard tried trip sashay allemande left-hand swing. But the dark. The roar. The terror I fled. Celestial child in flight fright. Faster than a comet in orbit. In her blood that solar system streaked through. Jelly legs running. Skedaddled quick. Where cometed straight into concrete kindergarten toilet block. After me fat Miss Hassel let her go. Old Hassel not fast enough this flesh wobbler like elephant in baggy cotton gingham. Stench of sweat underarms wet spit hissing,

‘Come Back Here Ernestine.’

But that darkest and roared. So fragile Phillip awful embarrassment. Turned quite pink at the had to dance twirl, chain right hand star with another boy. Why because. The last girl partner available was on the run. I was. I was. Safe now kneeling in front of the loo smelled of wee. Eyes watering. Mouth vomiting milky breakfast into that toilet bowl. Then trembling hand pressed the flush button. Just as this happened. Roll of toilet paper unraveled life of its own rolling under the door across the floor white strip rolled away away.

Next junior gymnastics got a bit confident in. Skipped wildly with older girls. I flailed little penguin arms skidding along surface of the ocean. Had burst of inspiration like a sea creature darting from its shell. I did shrieked this great confidence.

‘Hooray! If you’re happy and you know it, stamp your feet.’

Stomped little feet of happy. But Miss Hassel grabby dragged me from gymnasium. Into the corridor. Fatty hands shouted slapped me for showing off.

‘Stand in that corner Ernestine. Face the wall. Nobody likes a show-off.’

Struck across the cheek. Slapping stung tears show-off. Stomped anxious in my head. Now this creature. Delicate tendrils hacked off by cranky teacher. Off off off with her head.

 

Third thing to bring myself to self-confidence. School choir rehearsed what for. This gala concert. Mr Wright, the choirmaster instigated. Mr Wright leaden man. Cheap suit, springy hair, disgusting moles, intense eyes all grey. He conducted the choir as if plucking large bugs from the air. Sometimes scolded us kids bug-eyed.

‘Whatever is the matter with you Ernestine? I see a bulge in your cheek Reginald. I forbid bubble-gum. Spit it out this minute. Why are you frowning Ernestine? Quit fidgeting Susie, Bobby, Tracy, Sarah-Jane. You’ll all be the death of me.’

His own eyes got even more alive barking,

‘Do your best children. Sing sing sing from your heart. Yes, that’s it, wherever I may die…’

I squeaky sang. Wondered what death of me was. No one said. And why did Mr Wright’s eyes bark. All at the same time. So this practicing one song. Over and over I love a sunburnt country.

Not long later the night of the performance. Last row lined up tall boys behind us ten girls. Dressed in tartan uniforms. Higgledy piggledy lengths. Skirts supposed to be two inches below bare knees. Those were every school rules. The time choir us all took right places on this big stage behind red velvet curtain blocked out the universe. But I knew. It was out there. I knew it.

Mr Wright raised his arms sleeves rolled up hairy. Flicked the conducting baton. Which was just a pointy stick. The signal. Stage curtains whooshed apart. Saw jam-packed solar system rustled excited parents all staring excitement at us me. Voices hummed. Seemed like growling beasts. Cameras flashed all at stunned choir. This universe came at me. Bright menacing sight blinded. My palms seeped. Great tempest of quivering birds lurched from stomach to bowels. I shut mouth dry tight might heaving. Legs clenched together terrified of peeing my pants. Everything hurtling to me. Avalanched at me.

Mr Wright sniffed. Mr Wright glared me hard. Went into my brain. Don’t you dare. Run. Arched his two pinkies this crooked signaling at that pianist. Erect spine seated at piano. Poised to erupt. She smashed loud out the opening chords. We children us began to sing, I love a sunburnt country…her beauty and her terror the wide brown land for me.

My mouth opened but nothing came out. Not sick birds beauty the wide brown land. Run I thought. So I ran. Comet child dashed away away from devouring faces. From harsh rap rap rapping of Mr Wright’s stick. I beauty. I terror. And wide brown land. This none of it for me.

Miss Hassel stood big angry sweat in stage wings. Large horrified. Hands on hips outrage, she wrinkly mouthed,

Come.   Back.   Here.   Ernestine.

Children’s voices rose in unison sweet I ran. Sounded sort of chirruping. But much louder, higher madder. Every what choir child must stay put face the music. Wherever I may die, I know to what brown country my homing thoughts will fly. I knew. And the brown country homing thoughts flying I might die. But didn’t want anyone to see.

My mother missed the sight of me comet child scarpering across the stage. She just saw this. In the first row, the blank space where I wasn’t. Where should be standing but wasn’t. She did I expected anxiously half rose from her seat. Strained her neck. She must have.

The end of the performance. I heard enthusiastic parents clap talk all at once,

‘That was pretty good.’

‘Those kids knew every word by heart.’

‘Someone should tell Pamela to keep her knees together.’

‘Mr Wright seemed a bit cross.’

I thought he was.

‘Why did the littlest girl run?’

Because of joke of why did the chicken cross the road. Why. To get to the other side.

Chairs scraping I heard scraped on the wooden floor. The audience shuffling outside. I remembered about trestle tables loaded with aluminum kettle pots. Of this scalding tea everyone. Paper plates laden with iced finger buns lamingtons baked by the other mothers and transported inside Tupperware containers to provide supper every person there. I knew about this.

But wondered. Did my mother hurry backstage? She did somehow found me comet stalled bent at the waist. Wishbone shoulders hunched shuddering child retched the dark and roar, bile, phlegm, the showing off, skipping, singing, doing my best tried tried hard, the wherever I may die. Everything of the nothingness left inside child I was. And cried,

‘Sorry Mum.’

All the same time at. All all all. Brown thoughts. Sunburnt homing. Died dying inside tiny child.

My mother, always dying for a cup of tea. Never knowing what to say, except said,

‘Listen Ernestine you’ve got to try harder. Singing will help you grow bigger.’

Now I understood. This obvious. This shocking torment. This terror of performing in public. I now knew had prevented me from growing taller.

 

A slow burning comet waited. And waited to dazzle. I did. Reached far horizons of ten, twenty, forty years. Floods, fires famine stuff like that. Maybe love, hate, sort of a life. Really scorched through my veins. Got to my brain. I mixed them these things. Churned the lot. I whirled whirled didn’t throw up. Again. Faced the dark universe lost the fear. Wrote the roar in my head out with. This. Unstoppable how a comet child blazing across wide brown land. On very path of crazy paving zig zag. Solar system kissed me. Lots. Sloppy kisses. Something tossed bunches of roses. Maybe stars. I caught some. Gossamer comet grew much much bigger. The closer got to the sun. Which everything bright wonderful all okay. I couldn’t explain. Then now. It just was.

 

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Judyth Emanuel has short stories published in Overland Literary Magazine, Electric Literature Recommended Reading, Literary Orphans, Verity La, Intrinsick, Fanzine, Quail Bell, STORGY, One Page and Joiner Bay, and The Margaret River 2017 Anthology. Her stories are forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Thrice Magazine, and PULP Literature. She is a finalist in The Raven Short Story Contest, semi-finalist for the Conium Review Flash Fiction Contest and shortlisted for the Margaret River Short Story Prize. In 2016 she was awarded a Residential Fellowship at Varuna Writers House NSW. And her collection was suggested for the Writer’s Victoria Personal Patron’s Scheme. In 2013, she was accepted into the One Story Writers Workshop at the Centre For Fiction in New York. Find Judyth on her website, on Facebook and on Twitter @judythewrite.

 

 

 

 

Hello Dolly (Rebecca Jessen)

Posted on June 27, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

It is at once an ordinary and extraordinary Sunday. I am at home in Toowoomba with my girlfriend, and most of the daylight hours are spent assembling an IKEA flat pack bed. A task not to be underestimated. There are sore muscles and coffee cravings by the afternoon. There is a much-needed trip to a café, two mocha frappucinos and a triple choc muffin. Then there are Mum’s missed calls, the text, the urgency of them that makes me afraid to pick up the phone. The feeling that something bad has happened, the feeling that I can’t find out what, not here, in this ordinary café in an ordinary town on an ordinary Sunday afternoon.

I wait until I’m no longer in public—until I’m in the car, driving home with my girlfriend—to call Mum back.

‘Mae died,’ Mum says, through tears.

‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ It comes out quickly, both surprised and not.

‘When can you come down to Sydney?’ Mum asks.

I cry into my frappucino the whole five-minute drive home. Oddly, this isn’t the first time I’ve cried into a frappucino. And I know it won’t be the last.

My life has been steadily punctuated by the loss of loved ones, and still, this will be the first funeral I’ve been to. I was too young when Mum’s dad died. I was too in shock when my stepfather died. My experiences of loss up until this point have been private showings.

Later, my girlfriend sits me down and talks me through what will happen at the funeral. She knows loss as deeply and profoundly as anyone I’ve ever known. Her advice is practical, helpful. There will be a casket, there will be flowers, it will be more about the people who are left behind than the person who has left. This makes sense, in a strange, complicated way. There’s a chance family will fight, people might have a little too much to drink, there may be arguments over property, money. Grief does something to people and it is never what we expect.

The week is lost to work, negotiating days and times, flights, and long messaging sessions with my teenage sister. This isn’t her first loss, but she feels it just as keenly as if it were.

The day of the funeral comes and my girlfriend and I are awake and in the car before dawn. I’m flying out from the new airport, just out of town. My girlfriend waits with me until the security gates open, and as we’re saying goodbye, I say ‘Drive safe,’ and then, ‘Will you let me know you get home okay?’

She looks at me seriously. ‘Bec, I’m not going to do that. It’s a twenty minute drive.’

‘But the roads are dark and unfamiliar,’ I say.

She smiles, kisses me goodbye. When I land, there will be a message.

I leave on a plane too small to contain my nerves. I sit next to the right wing, and as we take off I watch the propellers spinning, the smoke rising from the small wheels, thinking that surely, these wheels will catch fire, with this friction and speed, surely these small wings will not lift us up, keep us there. I think about the way taking off feels so much like something safe being pulled out from under you. How many times I have felt that exact feeling. How quickly it can all change.

We fly into the sunrise and I see the view that I had missed earlier. The airport is surrounded by mountains—or hills, depending on your perspective. As we cross the border, I watch the early morning mist snake through the valleys of parts of the landscape I have yet to learn the name of.

When I arrive in Sydney, I catch the train west. Mum and my sister are waiting for me at the train station. The car ride home is quiet; Mum asks about my trip, how early I woke, what I ate on the plane, how small the plane was. These are easy questions to answer.

My sister sits in the front and sometimes she catches me watching her watch herself in the side mirror. We both smile when this happens. She takes the gum out of her mouth and drops it out the window. I shake my head at her, but she isn’t looking. She turns up the radio and sings along to a song I’ve never heard before. After a minute or so she changes the station and starts again.

When we get home, Mum and my sister both go to their bedrooms to dress for the funeral. Mum asks me to wake up my teenage brother, Shaun, and tell him to get dressed too. I walk into his dark bedroom and nudge his shoulder lightly until he wakes. He pulls me into a hug when he sees me and I wonder how this has affected him.

I stand in the kitchen and make a piece of vegemite on toast. The butter here is soft, even from the fridge. At home in the winter, the butter hardens, refuses to yield.

Mum comes out holding up two black jackets.

‘Which one?’ she asks.

I look from one to the other. I can’t tell the difference between them, so I ask her to try them on. She goes into the bedroom to do this, even though she’s wearing a shirt underneath. When she comes out wearing one of the jackets, I nod, ask her to show me the other. When she comes out wearing the second jacket, I say ‘Can you show me the first one again?’

‘Michael is meeting us there,’ Mum says. Then she picks up the phone to call him. To make sure that is what he is actually doing.

The four of us pile into the car and it could be any other day, we could be going anywhere, perhaps to the local shops to pick up groceries, or a little further, to the Westfield. We leave fifteen minutes earlier than we mean to. It doesn’t rain as predicted, but that will come, later.

My sister keeps her window down the whole trip and I shiver beside her. Mum is playing AC/DC’s The Live Album at full volume. As we speed down the highway ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ plays and I keep getting hung up on the line ‘knocking me out with those American thighs’, thinking, it’s such a great line. My sister complains the whole way through the song, begging Mum to play some ‘real music’.

Mum sighs, switches over to the radio and complains about never getting to choose the music she listens to in her own car. ‘Cheerleader’ comes on the radio and my sister shouts, ‘Turn it up.’

The first time I heard the song I was convinced that the singer was actually saying ‘Oh, I think that I’ve found myself a jellyhead,’ when really, he had been saying ‘cheerleader’. I was in the car with Mum and my sister at the time too; I had turned to my sister and asked her if he was saying jellyhead. My sister fell into a fit of laughter, and then embarrassment. I had become the uncool older sister. When the song comes on now, on the way to the funeral, my sister and I look at each other and start laughing. It feels strange to laugh like this now, but it doesn’t feel wrong.

We’re all quiet for a while, and as we navigate through the Sydney traffic and the erratic drivers I think about how small the lanes feel. Every time we pass by a car in the next lane I bring my shoulders in, as if the lanes are too tight, or the car too big for us to pass unmarked.

Our family doesn’t talk. We prefer the music loud and the windows down. We talk most when we’re worried about something, like when Mum asks my sister for the third time if she has turned the hair straightener off.

‘But what about the electric blanket, Olivia?’ Mum says.

My sister sighs, ‘Yes, Mum.’

This happens every time we get in the car with Mum.

My sister takes car selfies with me in the background looking miserable. Mum tells me I look nice and I think that my great-grandmother would have wanted that, for me to dress nicely. She loved to dress up, even if she had nowhere to go. Whenever we visited her in the nursing home, no matter the time of day, she was always waiting in her pants suit, with her best jewellery on and freshly sprayed hair.

When we get to Bankstown we drive straight past the turn-off we would normally take to visit my great-grandmother. I look back as we pass and think of my previous visit. How I somehow knew it would be the last.

I had seen her only weeks earlier, visiting Sydney for Mum’s birthday. We had dropped in on the way home from the airport. Marnie hadn’t been expecting us. She hadn’t been expecting us to see her like that, lost in the bedsheets, in her nightgown, her hair uncombed and without hairspray. We hadn’t stayed long: there were too many of us, overwhelming the room with so little to say. As we were leaving, Marnie uttered, ‘Where’s Rebecca?’ She had always insisted on using my full name, she thought it nicer—proper. But we had never used her full name and neither had she.

I moved closer to the bed. ‘Hello pet,’ Marnie said, reaching for my hand. I saw that she still had the framed newspaper article of me next to her bedside. Every time I saw her, she would tell me, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ She was the only person in my family to tell me that I could do good things. She saw something in me, something that even I couldn’t see.

Marnie squeezed my hand with what must have been all her strength. It was like saying goodbye. Perhaps she knew then what we wouldn’t know for weeks.

 

We are one of many cars that drive into the cemetery grounds, and as we pass the gravestones, my sister remarks, ‘Wow, so many dead people.’

Mum finds a park and turns off the engine. We are half an hour early. Who gets to a funeral early? It feels wrong. It’s cold outside so we sit in the car and wait for the rest of the extended family to arrive. Mum opens her door and lights a cigarette. The ash occasionally blows back through my window and settles on my jeans. I realise I have cat hair on my jacket and it feels disrespectful somehow.

‘Imagine if the coffin opened?’ my sister laughs.

I turn to her and attempt a serious look that immediately fades into a smile. It’s so like our family to be early for a funeral, sitting in the carpark making inappropriate jokes about dead people.

It’s nearly time for the funeral to start so Mum shuffles us all out of the car and we walk over to the chapel. The rest of the family are already there, making acquaintances with the funeral director. I can tell this makes Mum unhappy, left out somehow.

This is the first time the extended family has been together in a long time. We stand gathered close together in our own family groups, making small talk about the cold, the venue, our plans for afterwards.

‘I’ve been reading your blog,’ my aunty says to me.

‘Oh yeah?’ I say.

‘Yeah,’ she smiles, ‘It’s really interesting. Are you going to write about this?’

‘I don’t know,’ I reply. But I do know. I had already been writing in the car on the way to the chapel. What else is there to hold onto, if not these moments?

The funeral director approaches us; she tells Mum that the ceremony will be filmed, burned to DVD, sent to the family. In what circumstances would I ever find myself wanting to watch such a thing?

The ceremony goes much like I had expected. It is, after all, just another ritual. There are parts of it that are exactly like what you see in the movies. The speeches; the laying of flowers on the casket; yellow gerberas—Marnie’s favourite—this I had never known; reminiscing about the person who has passed; speaking of them in good stead; the carefully curated playlist. These are all markers of this ritual, moments that can be planned and played out in procession. We cannot plan for our own reactions, our own grief taking shape inside of us, the small details we will learn about the dead, the many things we could never have known, or never had the chance to know.

We knew my great-grandmother by many names. The adults in the family called her Dolly, or Mae. Us kids preferred the more affectionate ‘Marnie’. Her parents called her Dorothy, so in some way, Dolly seemed a natural progression, a mark of ownership perhaps. Some attempt to shift closer to the identity she had shaped for herself, closer to her own sense of belonging in the world.

‘Hello Dolly’ plays as the funeral concludes and all I can think of is how none of us will ever say those words again. I think of going home and downloading the song, downloading all the songs they played at her funeral. This is something I have done before; my own private ritual. This is the way I mark loss; the carefully curated playlist; the yearly, almost devotional listening.

It isn’t until I’m forced to grieve with others that I realise how private an act of grieving is. But perhaps I have always known this. I have always grieved privately, in my own time, on my own terms. Funerals feel so public, even when they’re not. You’re asked to lay yourself bare in front of others, all the while grief is turning you inside out.

As we leave the chapel, walking solemnly one behind the other, there are other families gathered outside. All around the funeral grounds, in fact, are families, waiting to play out their own rituals. I think about all of those people and who they might have lost. And all of the people after them, all going through what we have just been through. The endless cycle of grief and remembrance playing itself out over and over every single day.

In the carpark the talk is of directions and logistics. My grandfather is attempting to organise our procession, working out where everyone has parked their cars, where we will all meet to follow behind him.

‘I have no idea where I’m going,’ Mum says, lighting a cigarette.

‘Just wait there,’ my grandfather says, ‘I’ve got some timber to give to Shaun before we leave.’

‘Go help him,’ Mum says to Shaun, who lopes off after my grandfather in search of his car.

My older brother Michael stands by our car, waiting, then says, ‘What’s this doing here?’ and points to a piece of chewing gum stuck to the car door.

I smile at my sister.

‘Bloody Olivia,’ Mum says.

Shaun comes back with a grin and an armful of timber offcuts, motioning for Mum to pop the boot so he can unload them. Every time I fly down to Sydney to see my family, Shaun has a new project on the go. Years ago I helped him build a mini skate park using Paddle Pop sticks and a hot glue gun. He’s moved on to more sophisticated projects now. This time he’s building a small replica of a Boeing 747, using wood, cardboard, and—to Mum’s dismay—power tools.

Mum follows behind the other family members to the Bankstown Sports Club for the wake. We are going to lunch at a Chinese restaurant in the club. This had become Marnie’s favourite place to eat. Before the oxygen tank, before she could no longer leave her room except to go to hospital, before she became bedridden. We form an unconventional funeral procession; two 4WDS, a ute and Mum’s black Commodore with the pink numberplates.

My sister takes a grieving selfie to post on Snapchat. I look over and see myself in the background again, both of us looking miserable this time. I stare out the window as we rush through suburbs I’ve only ever known as names of train stations. I see a man carrying a small, yellowing mattress, hoisted up on his shoulder. Behind him walks another man, carrying a wooden bed frame.

Lunch is civil, respectful. There is a toast to my great-grandmother and her fondness for an afternoon shandy; a table full of Chinese food; a plate of fortune cookies—mine says ‘make the most of time with family’. There are photo albums passed around the table—even a few family portraits taken of our own; there is talk of future reunions that we’re all too polite to admit will never happen; and a final course of deep-fried ice cream.

My grandfather settles the bill and we all slowly leave the restaurant. Mum and my cousin slip out quietly for a much-needed cigarette, my older brother lags behind the rest of us, answering the third phone call in as many hours from his girlfriend, my sister checks in on her Snapchat selfie and my aunty tells me again that she’s been enjoying reading my blog.

We all stand in the club foyer, waiting for Mum and my cousin to finish what must by now be their second consecutive cigarette. There are the obligatory hugs and kisses from everyone, and when Mum and my cousin come back inside, we do it all again.

‘Well, have a nice life up in Toowoomba,’ my grandmother says, and it almost feels final.

‘You better not write about me,’ my cousin says, grinning but not joking as he waves goodbye.

As we’re driving home, the rain starts, just as predicted.

‘Yep, here it comes,’ Mum says.

‘There’s a Hungry Jacks, Mum. Can we stop?’ my sister asks.

‘You just ate,’ Mum replies.

When we get home I help my brother unload his timber from the boot. We take it out the back and leave it on the outdoor dining table.

‘We’ll put it in the shed tomorrow, okay? When it’s not raining, cause I don’t want it to get wet,’ he instructs me.

Inside, I see Mum place the single yellow gerbera from the funeral in a vase with no water. I know that by tomorrow, it will have wilted.

 

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Rebecca Jessen
lives in Brisbane and is the award-winning author of Gap (UQP, 2014). She is the 2015 winner of the QLD Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award. Rebecca’s writing has been published in The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, Overland, Going Down Swinging, Cordite Poetry Review, Tincture Journal and many more. Rebecca is currently studying her Honours in Creative Writing at QUT. She is writing poems about the queer future. Find more at Rebecca Jessen.

 

 

Sanctuary (Linda Godfrey)

Posted on June 9, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

Sticking out of the grey and white choppy water are four grey and white shapes. Not waves; they don’t break and roll to the shore. It has to be more than water. ‘What are they?’ I can’t work it out. They look like paddles.

Marcella shrugs.

We are sitting in the front room of my house above the dressing sheds, overlooking Austinmer Beach. We’re relaxing in armchairs, enjoying the warmth of the July sun through floor to ceiling plate-glass windows. Looking straight out to sea it’s as if you could see all the way past the horizon to Chile.

One or two people walk up the steps from the pool, towels over their shoulders, goggles dangling from their fingers, hair dripping, lips blue. There’s a breeze, the water is breaking onto the sand in small, messy waves. We’ve been talking about Marcella returning to Santiago for a holiday.

Some of her family is still there. Marcella’s husband was in the army, jailed because he knew a secret. Marcella petitioned hard to get him out. She didn’t elaborate on what she had to do in those interviews with his superiors. When he was released, they found sanctuary in Australia, with their two small children. He is permanently damaged by his experience.

Because she is a good friend, because Chile is on the other side of the Océano Pacifico, because Santiago is almost the same latitude as Sydney, I have this fantasy that the Pacific basin is one big cradle, rocking back and forth, lulling us with the movements and sounds of water. Both of us come from the rim of this basin (for this fantasy to work New Zealand has to sink or rock along with us in our cradle of water).

‘More tea?’

I come back with the tray of tea and biscuits topped with dulce de leche.

‘Dolphins?’ Marcella suggests.

I can’t make sense of the shapes, shades, colours, spots, size. ‘Sharks?’

Orcas? But those whales are not here, not at Austi.

‘It’s quite shallow there.’

The paddles are waving in the air. Waving’s exactly what they are doing, like when you have your hands above your head, dancing to a techno beat. The beat of these arms are more adagio.

They’re fins. Long, grey with scalloped edges, white and spotted.

Humpbacks. Humpback whales travelling north, heading to warmer water to breed and birth their babies. It wasn’t that long ago that they were killed for soaps, paints and their tough, flexible bones that predated plastic .They were almost extinct. Now they can frolic off the coast, looking forward to their summer holidays in Queensland, playing with their calves until they are ready for the long swim south.

I’ve lived here for a long time. I know this beach. The southern end has deep ripples of sand, rocky underfoot and treacherous. It’s where the rips develop; if they catch you they will drag you out past the saltwater pools.

We’ve been talking, drinking tea, eating caramel and watching the fins sloshing about in the waves for an hour.

I ask Marcella, ‘What are they doing?’

‘Where are my keys?’ She’s talking to herself.

‘They must be on their backs.’

‘Yes,’ she laughs, ‘scratching an itch.’

Rubbing their barnacles off on the ridged layers of sand, probably finding a rock near the surface to really get rid of those last stubborn ones.

The whales have found sanctuary.

Marcella breaks my reverie. ‘I need to get going,’ she says.

We are witness to whales resting off our beach but all I say is, ‘You good to get down the steep driveway?’ I stand and farewell my friend in broad morning light, after tea. The bulbuls sing in the oleanders, the waves lap the sand and the fins wave noiselessly in the air.

I come back from saying goodbye and the fins are gone. Itches scratched, the whales continue north in the big warm basin of the Pacific.

 

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Linda Godfrey
— Poet. Writer. Editor. Program Manager of the Wollongong Writers Festival. Curator of Rocket Readings, readings of poetry and an open mic, part of the Sydney Writers Festival and Wollongong Writers Festival. Series editor of microliterature anthologies, reader, manuscript assessor, teacher, judge. Fiction and poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies.

Made For You
(David Adès)

Posted on May 26, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

‘You’re not good enough for any woman,’ Miranda screamed. ‘What you need isn’t a woman: it’s a blow-up doll.’

Even Chester acknowledged it wasn’t his finest moment.

Whatever heat there was in his relationship with Miranda had been cooling. Lately, they had been going through the motions and they both knew it. She had been telling him for months that she was too good for him. He wouldn’t admit it to her, but he agreed.

They both knew, too, that if anyone were going to end the relationship, it would be Miranda. Chester was both too much a coward and too entrenched in his own inertia to take decisive steps to effect change. He also preferred to be in a relationship, even one trending towards misery, than not to be in one at all.

Of course, he found a way to goad Miranda into action, though that was never his intention.

Miranda had been doing overnight shifts at the hospital. The one night she changed her pattern and came home in the middle of the night, it was to find Chester in her bed with Tiffany. Tiffany beat a hasty, undignified and totally naked retreat, leaving Chester to face the full glare of Miranda’s rage. He enraged her further when it occurred to him, though he was not stupid enough to say it, that this could be described as a lover’s tiff. He couldn’t hide his amusement at the thought and Miranda saw a smirk on his face. If she could have killed him with her glare, he would have died on the spot.

Miranda was gone within hours, taking her bed and much of the furniture with her. She did not say where she was going. Neither she, nor Tiffany, answered or returned any of Chester’s calls. He found himself suddenly very much on his own, feeling rather sorry for himself despite the predictable consequence of his conduct. He was not fond of his own company and solitude was no friend.

Three weeks after Miranda’s departure, the air thick with both her absence and silence, a large box arrived addressed to Chester. There was no indication of the sender. The handwriting on the box was definitely not Miranda’s. Strangely, it looked a lot like Chester’s own writing.

Puzzled, Chester maneuvered the box inside the apartment. It was surprisingly heavy. Opening it, he found a large capsule and an instruction sheet. The instructions were simple: open the capsule, taking care not to damage its contents, peel back the capsule’s outer layer, and then allow two days for the contents to self-initiate. Chester assumed that the final instruction meant to leave the contents alone for two days.

The capsule’s outer layer was soft and pliable but opaque. It was only when Chester peeled it off that he could see what it contained: a woman, completely naked, extraordinarily beautiful, with blue tinged lips and long eyelids on her closed eyes. Chester’s immediate impulse was to cover her with a blanket. His second was to panic: she wasn’t breathing. His third was to notice that she wasn’t actually a woman at all. He had no idea that technological advances had made such strides: how could something so lifelike be a doll? In the end, feeling awkward with the doll’s nakedness, though not awkward enough to refrain from gazing at her intently for a few moments, he succumbed to the first impulse and covered her. He felt a strange flush at this unaccustomed gesture of near chivalry.

The next two days were a strange mixture of anticipation and dread.

Chester was unsettled. He went to work and came home, the doll inert on the floor where he had left her. He couldn’t stop thinking about who might have sent him the doll and why. Given her parting remark to him, it seemed like Miranda’s handiwork. If so, it greatly surprised him. He didn’t credit her with that much imagination. Nor did he think she would bother: if she was done with him, it was final and she would be looking forward not back. But if it wasn’t Miranda, who was it?

Chester was a mid-level accountant leading an innocuous life. Monogamy was not exactly his strong suit. There was the debris of a number of failed relationships courtesy of his poor judgment and personality flaws, courtesy of repeated infidelities, but nothing setting him apart from a generation of other flawed and wayward men. It had been more than two years since his last transgression, if he left out that little fling with Erin that had remained undiscovered.

Mystified, Chester trawled through the litany of his failures trying to determine who, apart from Miranda, might still bear him a grudge or might otherwise have reason to send him such a doll. There was no shortage of possibilities, he realised, but no real clues. He remained at a loss.

Chester couldn’t help stealing glances at the doll.

She looked alive somehow, sleeping. Her presence infiltrated the apartment. A glow seemed to emanate from her.

The self-initiation period ended on Friday evening.

When Chester checked again on the doll upon returning home from work, nothing seemed to have changed. Then he noticed the slow rise and fall of the blanket. The doll was breathing, and now truly did seem to be alive, sleeping. Chester wondered how on earth something that had been inert could now be ‘breathing’. Was it some kind of simulation? If so, it was remarkably realistic.

Chester waited for several hours for something else to happen, but nothing did.

Fatigue overcame curiosity. Chester went to bed on his old retrieved futon on the floor and slept fitfully. Dream fragments rose towards consciousness and submerged again: running through endless corridors trying to escape pursuit; writing his name and address on a box of old clothes when he was moving to the apartment leaving behind the wreckage of his engagement to Amber, a box that never arrived; meeting a man who was wearing the same tattered sweater as him, also with holes in it; Amber disappearing abruptly and totally; the confusion of love, lust, passion, sex, flight; police knocking on the door, asking questions, calling him ‘a person of interest’.

Sometime during the night he dreamed a naked, warm body sliding into the bed next to him. He was sleeping on his right side. The body settled in, snuggling close as if it were accustomed, familiar. A hand found his left arm, placed his left hand low upon a smooth belly, close to the pubic line. A dream of a voice: hold me. Soon after: the slow, even breath of a body entering sleep.

Chester awoke with a start, aroused. It wasn’t the usual morning pressure in his bladder arousal. It was arousal responding to touch, the touch of a hand feather-light on his skin, a sure hand, stroking, squeezing, applying pressure and releasing, a hand using fingers, fingernails, palm, cupping, tugging, fondling, a hand prompting a groan through his lips as he opened his eyes to a room already brightening with morning light.

The doll seemed impossibly more woman now than doll. She was sitting beside him on the bed in her nakedness and he could feel the pressure of her body alongside his, the weight of it, the warmth of her skin. She released him as he opened his eyes, leaning over him, her breasts swinging a little, bequeathing him with a radiant and welcoming smile.

‘Good morning, you’ she said, startling him with speech, startling him with the dream of a voice that was, in fact, real.

‘B-but…’ he stammered before trailing off at a loss.

She seemed to enjoy his confusion, something gleeful finding its way into her smile, the face almost that of a child playing a trick on an adult.

‘We can talk later. Right now, I need your hands, I need your lips; my body needs your body.’

Chester’s body was asserting its own needs such that he couldn’t think past them, a problem he was not altogether unfamiliar with. He yielded to them. Questions could wait.

The doll guided his hands and his lips to where she wanted them. Chester needed little encouragement. He inhaled her scent, her taste, both pleasant, hinting at vanilla. Her body responded to his every touch as no woman’s body had ever responded to him before. She seemed soft and strong at the same time, her body warm and yielding and alive, her breath coming faster as he licked and sucked and stroked her, becoming jagged, moans rising to her lips.

‘I was made for this’ the doll said, more to herself it seemed than to Chester, ‘I was so made for this.’

Chester was helplessly aroused by the doll’s arousal and responsiveness. He felt her sense of urgency as her moans quickened and her hands pressed his head harder between her legs, as she arched her back and shuddered, letting out a cry of release.

After a few moments, the doll gave Chester an appraising look.

‘Now I know what all the fuss is about,’ she murmured. ‘I’ve been machine tested of course, but that was my first ever human induced orgasm. I have to say, there is absolutely no comparison.’

The doll giggled abruptly at Chester’s look of incredulity.

‘I told you, I was made for this. I was made for you.’

Before Chester could ask or say anything, she resumed her ministrations of his body. Again, his questions dissipated in arousal and desire.

Not only was the doll unbelievably responsive to Chester’s touch, she seemed to have an innate understanding of his body. Several times, with hand, with mouth, with her body, she brought him to the verge of release and then withdrew her touch.

It was finely gauged. Chester knew that each time just one more touch, one more movement, would have been enough and he marveled at the doll’s ability to sense exactly when to stop. Each time she left him to subside before touching him again.

As much as the process excited him, Chester’s frustration and need for release grew more and more intense. He didn’t want to wait any longer. ‘Please,’ he pleaded silently to himself, ‘please, please, please.’

The doll lay beneath him, glistening, the sheen of something like sweat on her skin, her whole body an invitation. She was the most beautiful ‘woman’ Chester had ever seen, his eyes drinking in her flawless skin, her tautness and curves, the vanished blue of her lips, the gloss of her black hair, the lost worlds of her eyes.

‘Come,’ she said, and there was hunger in her voice, anticipation, and other nuances too complex for Chester to discern. She received him then, his urgency, his rhythm and thrust, her body once more responding, her breath and his, her moans and his, her ardor and his, her destiny and his.

Even had he wanted to, Chester was past the point of stopping himself now. Everything pent up in his body – a lifetime of infidelities and errors of judgment, guilt, frustration, shame, poor choices – was seeking release, a release Chester had not even known he needed.

The doll moved with him, responding to his rhythm with hers, urging his body’s release. ‘Come,’ she whispered again, and again, ‘come’ and as Chester’s body surged into her, she arched once more to receive him, her legs tightening around his waist.

Chester was riding a wave, larger than any wave he had ever ridden, up and up towards the crest, pulled along by its surge and power. Immersed in his own body, he was nonetheless very conscious of the doll beneath him, of her apparent abandonment to lust. The doll’s body answered his body’s every question, even as all his other questions remained unasked, unanswered.

A cry rose up in her as her body answered his. ‘I was made for this,’ she cried upon his orgasm, her legs tightening further in some compelling reflex, impossibly strong, her arms around his chest squeezing him, squeezing the breath, the very life out of him.

There was a tender smile on the doll’s face as she quietly left Chester’s apartment. She had completed her first job perfectly and was already anticipating the next. A thrill coursed through her: she had been engineered so well that her work gave her irresistible pleasure. There were so many men deserving her ministrations, so many possibilities. Something sparked in her artificial mind. Yet another possibility beyond the parameters her creators thought they had put in place. Her smile lit up her face as she began to make her plans.

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David Adès returned to Australia in 2016 after living for five years in Pittsburgh. He is a Pushcart Prize nominated poet and short story writer and the author of Mapping the World (Wakefield Press / Friendly Street Poets, 2008), the chapbook Only the Questions Are Eternal (Garron Publishing, 2015), and the recently released Afloat in Light (UWA Publishing, 2017).

David won the Wirra Wirra Vineyards Short Story Prize (2005). Mapping the World was commended for the Fellowship of Australian Writers Anne Elder Award 2008.

David has been a member of Friendly Street Poets since 1979. He is a former Convenor of Friendly Street Poets and co-edited the Friendly Street Poetry Reader 26. He was also one of a volunteer team of editors of the inaugural Australian Poetry Members Anthology Metabolism published in 2012. His poetry has been published in numerous journals in Australia and the U.S. with publications also in Israel, Romania and New Zealand.

David’s poems have been read on the Australian radio poetry program Poetica and have also featured on the U.S. radio poetry program Prosody. He is one of 9 poets featured on a CD titled Adelaide 9. In 2014 David won the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize. His poems were also Highly Commended in the 2016 Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize and a finalist in the Dora and Alexander Raynes Poetry Prize 2016.