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.’

 

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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.

 

____________________________________________________________


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.

 

____________________________________________________________


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.

____________________________________________________________

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.

The Warlock (Robert Feeney)

Posted on April 28, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

.

1

It is 8:14 again. The alarm claws its way out of the chalkboard box in your head. You make a mental note to change the settings to a softer tone later. For now, your energies are devoted towards restarting your senses. The light tapping on the windowpane turns out to be rain, so an unpleasant walk to work lies in store for you. Flatulence propels you out of bed and into the bathroom. Do you brush your teeth first (turn the page to paragraph 45), or take a shower (turn the page to paragraph 33)?

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2

You have seen this episode before. It is the one where the man finds himself in an unusual situation, and has to do humorous things in order to escape. Will you change the channel and watch something else (turn to 2), change the channel and watch a film instead (turn to 34) or decide to shave your genitals (turn to 10)?

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3

You text out a nonsensical message – gekquraqqef – giving it your utmost attention. The sound of tiny wheels recedes behind you. You breathe out a sigh containing equal particles of relief and shame, and absent-mindedly wipe the droplets off your mobile phone screen. Turn to 22.

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4

You have left something at home, your wallet. This day is a write-off. Without money, even lunch is beyond you. Why not return home and construct a system for never forgetting it again. Perhaps if you keep a lot of change in it, you will notice the absence of its weight. But change is meant to be kept in a jar, and later sorted neatly into small plastic bags provided by the bank. The sky starts to darken again. Turn to 28.

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5

The doorbell rings a few more times, and each one sends a sliver of panic into your heart. You start humming. A good excuse will be needed to explain this to the boss. Luckily, you have the rest of the day to think of one. Turn to 42.

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6

You listen to a sports podcast while working out on the floor of your bedroom. One of the hosts makes a joke about a rival sports team, and the energy consumed by your laugh makes you wobble on the nineteenth press-up. You wonder for a moment if it is worth going for twenty one. No-one will know you quit early. But you push through the laughter barrier and hit your target. Will you reward yourself with a glass of orange juice (turn to 23) or a slice of processed cheese (turn to 12)?

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7

The pharmacy has an array of creams, oils, washes, lotions, spreads, salivas, but you are reluctant to ask for help due to the delicate area of your problem. After thirty minutes of reading unreadable ingredients, you settle on a tube with a picture of a coconut. The shop assistant tells you the price is €14.35. In your wallet you have 2 €10 notes, a 50c, 3 10c and 3 2c pieces. If you know how much you want to give the assistant, turn to the paragraph with the same number as the cent value in that amount. If that paragraph makes no sense, or if you just want to hand over €20, turn to 19.

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8

You reach out a trembling hand and take the occult book from the shelf. Inside, the mystery of your predicament is revealed. Turn to 30.

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9

He does not ask you if you want a bag, and it is too late now to ask him for one without losing face. You put the cardboard box under your jacket to keep it protected from the rain and onlookers. However, the bulge now makes you look like a bomb disposal expert. Indulging the fantasy, you imagine a friend’s funeral that you have been asked to speak at, and how the church crowd murmurs as you step up to the pulpit. Oh look, they say, there is the famous bomb disposal expert and true knower of the deceased. He will know what to say, they say. If you say an Our Father and three Hail Marys, turn to 21. If you say oh fuck, turn to 38.

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10

They say you should do one thing everyday that scares you. Perhaps this mantra can become part of your daily routine. You make a note in your electronic calendar, undress, and shower with hot water to soften the hairs. The shaving cream dispenser is rusted and empty, so you make do with seaweed oil shampoo instead. However, after finishing your inner thighs, you recall reading somewhere that re-emerging hairs can cause irritation. You decide to do some more research before continuing with this project. It is getting late. Turn to 50.

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11

It is still raining when you leave the house, and your eighth umbrella of the year is bent and will not open properly. The walk uphill to the office is character-building. On the way there, you see a woman pushing a pram towards you. Even at this distance, you recognise her as a half friend from university, an economics student with a fake bindi who was named after a tree by her progressive parents. Do you avoid this awkward meeting by crossing the road immediately (turn to 25), pretending to look at your mobile phone (turn to 3) or pretending not to know her (turn to 47)?

.

12

Too late you realise that the cheese will give you weird dreams. There was that one time you ate a quattro formaggi pizza, dozed off, and dreamt about clanking sounds. You somehow knew it was the sound of your childhood bicycle being repaired. You walked down a flight of stairs, and saw your mother fixing it, even though she had no idea about how to do so. And you never had a childhood bicycle. You feel very tired. Turn to 50.

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13

How will you justify this laziness to your brain? You did some exercise yesterday (turn to 29), your leg hurts (turn to 24), there’s a good film on TV (turn to 34), or exercise could potentially make you sick after eating that pasta (turn to 41)?

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14

You are probably right. Turn to 32.

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15

Yes, it could be a parable about the economic crisis. Successful businesswoman buys flat in uptown development, but finds herself trapped in a sort of alternate reality. You resolve to buy a notepad tomorrow so you can begin to flesh out the characters. The TV screen has dimmed from lack of input. You turn it off and go to bed. Turn to 50.

.

16

You notice that the inside of your thighs is blotchy and red raw. Perhaps it is the result of chafing, or something more serious. A few internet searches sets your mind to unease, as the diagnoses are varied. Exposure to air, you feel, is the cure to all life’s ills, and an empty office is an opportune time to test that theory. Are you content to spend the rest of the work day pants-less (turn to 40), or will you buy some cream instead (turn to 7)?

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17

You lift the mobile to your ear, and utter a rising hello to complete the illusion. Outside the rain has stopped, and the air is fresh and clean. You are shocked when your phone starts vibrating. An incoming call from your mother, ironic punishment for the previous lie. How will you justify not answering it? You are very busy at work (turn to 49) or you left your phone at home (turn to 4).

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18

The friend is all smiles, and once she has the laptop, she leaves in an uncomplicated manner. When you close the door, a gust of air informs you that your zip is undone. You cannot be sure if she noticed. Turn to 42.

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19

The assistant mumbles an apology as he hands you a load of change. You doubt that he is truly sorry. On the way back to the office, the wallet feels like an extra limb. Turn to 42.

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20

The queasiness subsides as the day continues. You have probably just been eating too much mayonnaise recently. You make a note in your phone to switch to a low fat alternative, watch an internet documentary about the perils of dairy, and consume the office milk supply glass by glass, in an experiment to determine if you are lactose intolerant. The results are inconclusive. Turn to 42.

.

21

You walk past a church and overgrown graveyard on your right. If you wanted, you could go in and say a real prayer. You could go to confession. You could light a candle, or turn one on, as they are probably electric these days. You could look at the rafters, where you used to imagine the pagan monsters were kept. You could splash your face with holy water. You could reach into your pocket, take out the office door key, and open the office door in front of you (turn to 42) or you could go home (turn to 32).

.

22

The office, a converted house, is quiet. The rest of the staff are out on the road, and you have been left behind to man the phones and ensure that the fax machine is fed regularly. After the seventeenth game of solitaire, you realise the freedom available to you in this situation. An out-of-office message can be recorded for the phones, and the fax sated for at least a few hours with a thick wad of A4. The scroll containing life’s possibilities is unfurled before your eyes. Will you watch some pornography (turn to 16), walk down to the corner shop to purchase an out-of-season ice cream (turn to 39), or just go home altogether (turn to 28)?

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23

Too late you realise that the remnants of the juice’s acidity will prevent you from brushing your teeth for a hour or so, and it is already midnight. To pass the time, you try to listen to some music. However, the shuffle feature on the MP3 player has randomly sorted the first three songs in perfect alphabetical order, and the pattern disturbs you. You stand on one foot, lightly brush your teeth, and go to bed. Turn to 50.

.

24

Your leg does hurt. You should see a doctor. Or, maybe, wait a week and see if it gets better. If it is still hurting then, will you go to the hospital (turn to 35) or wait another week (turn to 37)?

.

25

The traffic is heavy. For a horrible instant, you think you might be stuck on this side. The sound of the pram is getting closer. You avoid looking, in case you lock eyes. There is no option but to dash out and rely on the kindness of drivers. A brief ray of sun illuminates your passage. You reach the other side unscathed. There, for the purposes for motive, you pretend to be engrossed in a shop display. Turn to 22.

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26

Yes, it could be a parable about modern ennui. Woman gets new job in office, but a mysterious force prevents her from ever leaving. You resolve to buy a notepad tomorrow so you can begin to flesh out the characters. You get up to turn off the TV, but find it has automatically done so already. You go to bed. Turn to 50.

.

27

You play a video game. As the commander of a large space armada, you are asked to determine the fate of a world infected by a new form of Black Death. Will you devote your resources towards finding a cure for the pandemic (turn to 46), or fire bomb the planet surface (turn to 46)?

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28

You manage to get your umbrella open for the trip home, but the direction and strength of the wind force you to hold it in front of your body, like a shield. Vision impaired, you collide with a lamp post, further bending the frame. The rain stops. You manage, with great effort, to close the umbrella. A BMW is parked next to you. With childish force, you jump into a puddle next to the passenger door, and send dirty streaks rolling down the metal. Turn to 32.

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29

Your brain is about to inform you that this is a lie, when it is distracted by a familiar piece of music coming from the TV. It is the theme for a seventies comedy show. You realise that this is the tune you hum when you are nervous. Will you consider the implications of this revelation (turn to 43) or watch the show (turn to 2)?

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30

If you are reading this paragraph, you have made a mistake, or cheated, you naughty person. Please return to 1.

.

31

He nods and smiles, and places your cereal in an insufficiently sized paper bag. When you leave, he says he will see you tomorrow, which you find presumptive. Turn to 42.

.

32

The apartment is cold. You throw your umbrella onto the carpet to dry out, and prepare a pan of boiling water. After adding the pasta, a search in the fridge reveals no conventional pasta sauce of any description, just a jar of white stuff and a bottle of soy sauce. It could be the next taste sensation, but it does not turn out so well, and you eat a disappointing meal in front of the TV. There is a film on where people are murdered in inventive ways. You scratch your leg. Tonight is exercise night, and you are due to move up to twenty one push-ups and seventeen pull-ups, but it is difficult to get enthusiastic about it. Will you do the exercise anyway (turn to 6), reschedule exercise night to tomorrow (turn to 44), reschedule exercise night to the day after tomorrow (turn to 13), or try to forget about it (turn to 27)?

.

33

The water is very hot. Halfway through the shower, you realise you meant to shave beforehand. Now the steam will have fogged up the mirror, rendering a clean cut impossible. You tell yourself that stubble is fashionable these days, as you knead seaweed oil into your curls. Turn to 11.

.

34

A man is transformed into a talking coconut. You have seen this one before, but you watch it again, in its entirety, to confirm your opinion that it is bad. You are sure you could write a film if you wanted to. You have lots of ideas. Would you write something about a haunted hotel (turn to 15) or a haunted office (turn to 26)?

.

35

Listening to your body is a good idea. It is a very natural way to live. A pain means go to the doctor. A fart means go to the toilet. A yawn means go to bed. Turn to 50.

.

36

You unburden yourself of the many coins in your possession. The assistant slides the tube over the counter, and thanks you by name, even though you are sure this is the first time you have met him. You leave feeling slightly light-headed. Turn to 42.

.

37

Time, and exposure to air, heals all wounds. It will probably be fine tomorrow, no reason to worry. You yawn. You could watch another film on TV (turn to 34) or go to bed (turn to 50).

.

38

A driver has just powered through a pool of water next to you, sending most of it spraying over your trousers. The cereal box is unharmed, but you feel disempowered by the experience. You resolve, some day, to jump in a large puddle next to a car, and restore balance to the world. In the meantime, you return to the office, and fold your damp clothes over the radiator. Turn to 40.

.

39

Walking to the shop, you wonder if this is the influence of subliminal advertising. The film you watched last night had a character being stabbed through the heart with an ice cream cone. By the time you reach the shop, some of that influence has faded, and the rain has made you self-conscious about buying a cold dessert. But the shopkeeper has noticed you. Will you pretend to receive an urgent phone call which demands you take it outside (turn to 17), or buy something at random (turn to 48)?

.

40

The afternoon passes in a wonderfully uninhibited fashion. Then the doorbell rings, and you remember that a friend of your boss was due to visit today in order to borrow a laptop. You know that if you delay too long in opening the door, she will suspect you of watching pornography. Will you pretend to be out (turn to 5) or dress as quickly as possible and answer the door (turn to 18)?

.

41

The noise from your stomach means either that you should eat something, or that you should definitely not eat something. You decide to never listen to your body in future, as it is just a confusing mess of biological signals. To spite it, you go to bed early. Turn to 50.

.

42

You spend the next few hours reading comments on the internet. Virtual persona Duffydack08 writes that the football team you support is akin to a terrorist organisation. You are about to type a witty reply when you notice the clock has reached 5pm. Leaving the office, you realise you might have wasted your life. Thinking further on it, do you come to the conclusion that comment boards are bastions of free speech (turn to 14), cesspools of humanity (turn to 14), or another thing you should probably not think about too much (turn to 14)?

.

43

It probably just means you are emotionally stunted. Revelling in this newfound state of childhood, you consume an entire packet of biscuits with a pint of milk. Then you remember that the last time you did this, it gave you terrible gas. You go to bed, wary. Turn to 50.

.

44

You will have to remember to change your shower routine, but the rescheduling should work. You sink further into the sofa. The film has finished, but a new, bigger and better one is starting. Watching two films might be overly decadent for a work night. Will you watch it anyway (turn to 34), watch a short, safe comedy instead (turn to 2) or look for alternative entertainment (turn to 27)?

.

45

You brush standing on one foot. A magazine article you read recently said this was a good way to stay fit. But your leg starts to ache when going over the gums, so you cheat and balance yourself on the towel rack. Turn to 11.

.

46

The screen freezes. The game has crashed, taking with it an hour or so of galactic unification work. You scratch your leg and temples in frustration. Some research on the internet informs you that this is a common bug in the game. Virtual persona Duffydack09 writes that the developers are akin to a corrupt religious institution. By the time you have finished reading his post, three hours have passed in the real world. You feel very tired. Turn to 50.

.

47

As you get closer, you realise that you do not, in fact, know her. It is just a woman pushing a pram. You walk on, feeling a heaviness in your chest. She must have broken her umbrella too. Turn to 22.

.

48

You scan the stationery for a moment, but then move on to the breakfast cereals. There are several factors to consider – vitamins, iron content, value, box size, colour, fear of cartoon animals, wholegrain, multigrain, ingrained eating habits, price as indicator of social status, the environment, starving children in Africa, font, that bee looks more like a wasp. You take your choice over to the counter, and the shop assistant asks how you are in a friendly tone. Will you maintain a customerly distance (turn to 9) or inform him of your physical and mental well-being (turn to 31)?

.

49

Actually, there was something you needed to do at work. You eat a sandwich in a nearby pub while trying to recall what it was. There, the large amount of mayonnaise overpowers the taste of the fillings, and you start to feel queasy. The rain taps on the window logo. Will you take a sick day and return home (turn to 28), or tough it out in the office (turn to 20)?

.

50

You sit beneath the covers with your knees drawn up, and think about what you are going to do tomorrow. Your plan to treat yourself to two bowls of cereal turns into a swarm of bees, and you know you are falling asleep. You are sure you have forgotten something. The bees are tapping at the window. Turn to 1.

 

_______________________________________________________

Robert Feeney taught English for six years in Japan before returning home to pursue a Masters in Creative Writing at University College Cork. He is the author of several short stories, articles, plays, and a sitcom script that was kindly rejected by the BBC. His favourite colour is either blue or grey.

Unburied (Lauren Butterworth)

Posted on April 10, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

The Unburied climbs from her grave and all the little pieces of her fit like unshattering glass. The femurs groan into the sockets of the hip, the ribs crack into the sternum. She picks at the dirt gritted into the dents of her finger bones and looks down at all the holes of herself. She sighs. It hadn’t been an easy climb, prodding at the dirt from so far below. It had fallen relentlessly onto on her tongue when she’d had one. Filled up the deflated cavity of her lungs. He’d done a good job of it, she had to give him that. It had taken years to claw her way out.

As she shakes loose decayed cloth from ankle bones, the tibiae and fibula, she looks down at the disturbed ground. No headstone marks her place, nor is there any other indication of a loving and unhurried burial. Not even a name. She cracks into place the vertebrae, so troublesome in skin but now easily rearranged, and casts her hollow eyes around her. The ground is sunken, bordered by lumps of dirt and clay like ant hills. Beetles scurry over capillary veins of old roots and sodden leaves. Otherwise the garden is much the same. She’d planted the wisteria herself, and the nasturtiums that the chickens loved so much, though not the birds. They preferred the fruit trees, mulberry and persimmon. In summer she’d hear their rustling from the kitchen window and entice them with seed. The cat, as she’d tried to explain to him, was much too obvious. Stalking in the undergrowth was all very well in the wild but it wouldn’t do in the suburbs. Here you had to be alluring, entice with sweets and smiles. The Unburied grits her crumbling teeth. She knew too much about that.

She limps to the tomato vine and rests her fleshless fingers—the phalanges, she remembers—amongst the wilted green. Stakes stand in graveyard uniformity, but the produce is long gone. What a shame. Her romas won ribbons once. They were always the sweetest, the boldest, and she’d pluck them from the vine and eat them right there in the garden, or, best of all, peppered on toast with avocado and cream cheese. She’d allowed herself little pleasures now and then. Not that it had mattered in the end. Imagine, she thinks, running her fingers along the curve of a rib, all the cream cheese she’d have eaten if she’d known she’d come to look like this. Even though she lived alone, she’d creep into the kitchen to lick the Philadelphia foil at 3am. It was silly, but, as she told herself every time she caught her reflection in the wide kitchen window, life was just too short. She stopped though, when Angus started staying over.

Angus was a skinny man with a flat brow and thin, wiry glasses. He wore checked shirts buttoned to the top and taught middle-grade maths but she couldn’t begrudge him that. He approached her at the farmer’s market and offered to trade a punnet of romas for a bag of zucchinis, ripened in his own backyard three doors down. He told her she looked beautiful, as though they’d known one another for years. When she puzzled at him he blushed, told her they were neighbours. Hadn’t she seen him around? She wasn’t used to being called beautiful and she laughed awkwardly at him and stumbled. She had always been too tall with flat wide feet and felt ungainly in her skin. She would squeeze into too narrow shoes so that her little toe blistered red, perpetually disfigured. She borrowed Angus’ gumboots that afternoon when he showed her his veggie patch, and pretended her ankle was swollen from tripping on a step. Must be why they didn’t fit properly, she’d said. She used to imagine shaving the sides of her feet away as though from marble. Metatarsal, the arch is called, that joins the toes to the foot. Angus told her that. She crouches. She wonders if, in death, her hobbit feet, shed of skin and tendon, had narrowed to delicate points. She measures the distance from side to side. She sighs. It was bone all along.

And where is Angus now? The house is empty, or seems to be. The garden is overrun, and paint peels from wooden slats on the porch. Dislodged shingles collide in the gutter and on the ground by the fence. She’d wanted to do the repairs herself, and one of the benefits of such an Amazonian form was the strength it afforded her. But Angus had insisted, and she didn’t like to argue. He’d never officially moved in, but his things began appearing in the house in tiny increments: a toothbrush, differently-branded milk and spare trousers, then books, a guitar, lawnmower and car keys that hung perpetually on the spare hook. It bothered her that he’d taken for granted that she wanted the same things as he, but she never could quite tell him that. It was easier to let things take their course. It was the same when he’d started buying Philadelphia light and frowning at her when she’d add a teaspoon of sugar—raw, she’d rebut—to her coffee. But what could she say? He knew what she wanted to become and he was only being encouraging.

She grips the twin bumps of her hips. She used to run her hands along the skin because it was one of the few spots where she could feel the bone underneath. Angus liked them too. She pulls her thin legs through ankle length weeds. Pushes against the back door. She is almost surprised when, softly, it opens.

‘Hello?’ she calls, or tries to. She has no larynx or diaphragm to project the sound. She knocks her fists against the wall so it echoes. There are juvenile tags on the floral wallpaper and though she has no nostrils or any olfactory glands to speak of she is certain it stinks of rat shit. She can see the evidence in the gaps of the floorboards and digs the shaft of her toe into the crack to clear it away. She stumbles along the hallway stupefied by the stillness, the strangeness of it all.

She’d lived alone for many years because she preferred it that way: space to potter, to paint and garden and besides, she had the cat, what else did she need? Her heel bones click on the wood like the stilettos she never wore. She feels as though she’s breaking and entering. One of those abandoned semi-transportables by the railyard, graffitied, with sunken floors and piles of empty beer cans. She stoops to brush away the leaf litter by the front door. Turns into the front room. The layers of dust would choke her if she had lungs, but otherwise everything is just as she left it: a stack of unread books against packed shelves, a comb on the mantle with hair in the teeth, a photograph of Angus and her askew on the wall. As she takes in the remnants of her life like debris it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore that which niggles her. The question she can’t ask herself. She picks up an envelope from a stack on the coffee table. It is addressed to a name she is only beginning to remember, and dated a year she can’t fathom. She slumps into a chair and feels the heart that isn’t there sink into the chest that once held it.

Why has nobody come?

She tells herself she can’t have a panic attack because she no longer has a nervous system to ignite muscle spasms or adrenal glands to make her hands sweat, but her bones tremble just the same. She runs her hands down the femurs to her knee joints. She notices a thin, hairline crack at the top of the tibia. She can’t recall, at first, what the injury could have been, but the effort is enough to stop her trembling. Then it comes to her, a fury of a girl charging through her into second base. She’d fallen, one foot stuck between the girl and the plate. The bone snapped when she landed. Her mum warned her about softball. She was too clumsy, she said, too awkward. But that field was a space where she needn’t pretend to be graceful or prim, where her size was a barrier to petite things that would try to sneak runs. The softball girls exuded a strange kind of femininity, confident and earthy, so different to those at school who seemed to know something she didn’t. She wished she could take that power off the field. For there she became what she was again, tall and chubby, without any idea how to shape her appearance to express the woman she was becoming inside.

The Unburied stretches her legs and twists her ankles. Tilts her head and looks at her toes. They aren’t particularly feminine. She’s already established that. But what makes toes identifiably male or female? She knows that the male ring finger is longer than the index, with the reverse the case for women. Angus told her that. He told her lots of things he thought she should know. All the fleshy indicators of her body, the ample mounds of breasts and thigh, lips that guarded inward passages, are gone to dust. Would the investigative stumblers who finally come to find her—if they come to find her—be able to tell of her softball injuries and clumsiness in stilettos? Would her bones lie to them of the person that she was? For what is there, she suddenly wonders, to indicate she?

She looks down. There’s an absence in her pelvis where her womb used to be. She rises and walks to the mantelpiece, marvelling at the emptiness. There’s a mug with mouldy dregs of tea, a thriving succulent. Strange. She would have liked to cultivate life, she thinks, picking up the little brown pot. Once she thought she had. A little seedling failed to bloom and was washed away in a stream of red. But she was twenty-three then and he was a backpacker in the laundry room of a London hostel, and if she still had the cheeks or the blood vessels to dilate she’d blush with the memory of the relief she had felt. She had begun to want though, near the end. Not with Angus though. She realised that the second time she was late.

She hadn’t planned not to tell him, but, like everything, it was easier. To add the weight of her decision to terminate to the anxious list of reasons she couldn’t love him proved far too difficult. Was it cowardly, she wonders, looking at down at her empty pelvis, or simply self-preservation? She remembers the way her stomach churned in the weeks it took to gather her strength. How she’d cringe when he made reference to the types of toys he’d allow their children, or how he’d like to extend into the back patio to allow for more northerly light, something they’d appreciate when they were retired. In the last year she’d taken to yoga and developed a new ease with her body. The bulges at her hips and thighs became striking in their curvature. It wasn’t because she’d changed measurably, though her muscles were defined, lifted and pert. It was her eyes that were different. The girl who had tumbled on the softball field and not shed a tear was still buried in there somewhere. She couldn’t be that girl with Angus. Crouching to poke her fingers back into that dent she realises, suddenly, that he knew it too.

But her fleshy impulse to swell with child was lost when the beetles and mites devoured it away. She couldn’t feel guilt anymore for what she had done. She wouldn’t. So she turns to the mirror above the mantlepiece. Runs her fingers along the bumps and hollows, the impressions of tendons and muscle insertions. The holes are soft. So are the joints in her shoulders. She traces thin fingers along the scapula. There is a dent. It is not a impression of tendon, it is not a muscle insertion. She remembers that heavy thunk and all her yellow bones rattle.

She turns. Sees the dent in the wall. The heart that isn’t there thumps hard. Her legs quiver, then break out to escape the room where the memories are erupting like vines from the dirt. They grasp. She runs. Back down the hall past the rat shit and graffiti, into the garden with the shingles that Angus didn’t fix. She collapses into the dirt by her unmarked grave. She rakes her fingers, tilling clumps of clay and worm warrens. She pulls them into her chest. Tries to fill her empty spaces with dirt.

The sky rumbles and rain turns the earth to mud. And so she begins to mould herself from sludge. She packs it onto the neck and clavicle, the spine, fills out the breastbone with pert little mounds. She rounds her hips and ass, big and womanly, just as they’d been in life. She can’t make them whatever she wants, she thinks, so fuck it. Let them be as they always were.

As she works, black birds gather. They peck at the ground between her feet, pulling worms like spaghetti. She ploughs her fingers and gathers the slithering bugs, presses them into the mud that fills the empty cavity of her womb. She had, after all, nurtured them there under the earth, along with all the other creatures that from her flesh made life. The house flies and blow flies, and the larvae that they laid. The flesh flies—Sarcophogidae—that birthed maggots with hooked mouths that scooped her oozing fluids. Moths that foraged through her once long hair. The birds, devoid of dinner, rustle their wings and fly away.

There’s a sound from the house. Footsteps that echo above rain on the tin roof. Rustling growing closer. She finishes rounding out her tummy, alive and squirming. She rises, striking now in her height. She’s never felt so like herself.

The backdoor creaks and Angus emerges. The Unburied turns her skull and widens her brittle teeth to smile. There is a gap where an incisor would have been. If she had a tongue she’d run it along the fissure as she had in that brief moment before the final blow.

Angus is white like a ghost. Like chalk. Like bone.

The Unburied and her squirming belly of strange fruit creep toward him. He is so still with shock it couldn’t be easier. She takes him by the hand, warm and wet with nervous sweat, and pulls him toward her. His grip melts her mud-hands to claws. She leads him to the disturbed and sunken ground. He struggles, but she is stronger. She always had been. And so she pulls him under. Puts all the pieces of herself back into the earth, fills in all her gaps with mud. Angus hardly makes a sound. Softly, softly, she packs them into the ground.

 

_______________________________________________________

Lauren Butterworth is an emerging writer with fiction and essays in Wet Ink, Libertine, Indaily and forthcoming in Crush: Stories About Love. She is co-host of the podcast, Deviant Women, and co-director of The Hearth, a creative readings event in Adelaide. She is also an academic advisor at Flinders University, where she completed her PhD in creative writing. You can find more of her writing at laurenbutterworth.com.

Paddle Boats (Katelin Farnsworth)

Posted on April 7, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

(edited by Laura McPhee-Browne)

We sat in a paddle boat and ate cheese sandwiches. The water swirled slowly around us.

This is nice, you said, and it was nice.

The rain had held off, just like we hoped, and the clouds were merely white smudges in the sky. When we finished eating, you took my hand and smiled at me with your eyes.

I love you, you said.

You waited for a response, clicking your fingers quickly. I watched a duck swim past our boat, making gentle movements in the water.

Please, you said, say something.

I mumbled, about baked beans and tinned sausages.

Back at the tent, your hands grappled with the tin kettle and I stretched out my legs and studied the ants in the dirt. The different reds and browns. Their bodies, tiny and large all at once.

Why don’t you love me, you asked, pushing a knife into a jar of peanut butter, breaking a piece of white bread in half.

I watched you eat, licking your lips, smacking them together, laying the knife down slowly. I shook my head. Spread my fingers out, pushed them into the dirt. Ants scattered, dancing over my knuckles.

You asked me again, your voice stretching. I wondered aloud if we’d see a wombat, snuffling round the back of our tent, near where we’d parked the car, near where our rain jackets hung off the side view mirrors.

Please. I dangled a tea bag up and down and looked back out towards the water, where swans were gliding.

Please. Your voice was croaky, swollen, stuffed full of a sunset that would never rise.

Please, you said again, the word beginning to sound like something other than language.

And then, because I’m weak, or something very close to it, I said I love you too, and you were radiant. We drove home together, through the darkness, and it started to rain a little. I leant my head against the window and you talked a lot, flapping your hands when they weren’t on the wheel. I listened and said yes at all the right moments. Because there were things at yours of mine, and it felt easier than saying goodbye.

____________________________________________________________

Hailing from Melbourne, Katelin Farnsworth won the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction in 2015 and came second place in the Rhonda Jankovic Literary Awards in 2017. Her short story ‘Round’ was featured in Award Winning Writing in 2015. Katelin has also been published in various Australian journals including Feminartsy, Lip Magazine, Tincture Journal, The Victorian Writer, Offset, Voiceworks, Verandah Journal, and Writers Bloc, amongst others. She studies Professional & Creative Writing at Deakin University and is currently working on a novel (or two!).

The Olive Pit (Lucas Smith)

Posted on March 31, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

When Janice agreed to marry me ten years ago, her one condition was that I give up active duty and take a desk job. At the time I was one of the best marksmen on the force and at thirty-five I still had good years ahead of me. ‘I love you honey, but I couldn’t handle it if you killed someone in the line of duty or if I saw you on the news beating someone with a nightstick,’ she said. ‘Even if they deserved it a million times over, you’d be a monster to me.’

We live, or used to live, on five and a half acres in the foothills, about ten minutes drive from the station. The previous owners of our property raised racehorses and when we bought it I converted the stable into a studio for Janice. I ripped out the stalls, bleached the floor, laid down hard wood, and installed insulation and double-paned sky-lights. Janice used the spectacular views of the valley and the Traverse Mountains as inspiration for most of her work.

Sometimes she painted a whole picture in just one day, in a trance, brush hand on the canvas, the other stretched out, palm up behind her like Tinkerbell. Her paintings were all over our walls. They still sell some of them as posters and postcards at the tourist centre. She said that the valley and the mountains changed every time she looked at them, brightness, colour, shadow, and eventually I came to see that too.

 

In 1989, after a nationwide manhunt, Jordan Depaul, hydroponics specialist, was found in the Salt Lake City house he’d barely left for years. He was convicted of the murder of five Dole Fruit truck-drivers between the years 1985 and 1987. God’s work. He had no regrets. It was the usual story, absent mother, bitter father, twisted personal religion. After he was sentenced to death he pored over the criminal statutes and discovered that a forgotten writ permitted him to choose the firing squad instead of the customary lethal injection. Depaul’s loophole was closed the next year, but it wasn’t retroactive. His wish had to be carried out and I volunteered for some of the carrying.

After ten years of shooting paper targets at the range, ten years of reading about robberies and on-duty deaths; even petty vandalism reports started to get my blood rushing. My brother was a typist in the Vietnam War and developed sympathetic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—even though he was never fired upon—transmuting his guilt at spending the war in an air-conditioned base. That guilt, fostered by typing up accounts of atrocities day after day, destroyed him. Maybe worse than if he’d actually fought himself. I understood him.

And, I wanted to know what it felt like to shoot someone. Some of my colleagues had killed perpetrators in self-defense and it changed them, lent them a certain gravitas. Any man who tells you he’s not envious, on some level, of men with combat experience is a liar. It sounds bad to say, but I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me by. And, what difference did it make if I did the shooting or not? Someone else would.

A week before the execution Warden Jeffries gave the five of us a tour of the execution chamber. He showed us the whitewashed wall with a slit cut in it for us to shoot through, and a mockup of the target that was to be pinned over his heart; a white paper square with a black circle in the middle. ‘Now, you all know this is highly unusual. Your job is not to let it turn into a spectacle,’ he said.

He then explained the procedure we were to follow on the night. An unmarked van with no windows would pick us up at the police station at eleven and drive us to the prison. Before our arrival, our five rifles would be loaded with two rounds each. According to tradition, one of the rifles would contain two wax bullets. At five to midnight we would be handed our weapons by an officer who had not seen them being loaded. We would enter the chamber and take our positions while the warden watched from the second level through one-way glass. Depaul would walk, or, if unable to move under his own power, be escorted in and given two minutes to speak. The shooters would kneel down behind their rifles and the squad captain—the role that fell to me, as the most senior volunteer—would whisper to each in turn to see if they were ready. Then the squad captain would give the ready signal to the warden, receive final confirmation from him through an earpiece, lower his rifle and count down from one to five. Then we would fire.

My four deputies were Johnson, who exasperated his partner with his inexplicable silences on duty; Young, who lost his left ring finger to the knife of a heroin pusher in Liberty Wells; Kupeofola, an imposing, black-eyed Tongan; and Selwood, the serious one, who never broached a joke, about himself or anyone else. We all had scored perfect 75s at the range at least a dozen times and averaged above 72, our identities were unknown to everyone but ourselves and the warden, and, it must be emphasised, we all volunteered for the detail. That week, the five of us practiced with blanks at the range every day during lunch break; our goal was to fire simultaneously with one loud report instead of five scattered cracks. Accuracy was a given. From twenty feet you can’t miss with a .30-30. When we started we sounded like five cork pop guns competing for attention. By the day before the execution, after about four hundred rounds, we finally started to sound like a cannon.

 

When I got home from work on the night before the execution, Janice was chopping onions. I could hear the sharp knock of the knife on the wood chopping board as I opened the front door. As always when she cooks, she had the radio on and of course they were jabbering in concerned tones about the big execution. She was the only person I know who prefers radio to television. She said radio allows her to imagine a scene while television imposes one on her.

After I shook the snow off my boots I came up behind her, wrapped my arms around her and kissed the back of her neck. The sting of the onion caught my eyes and I started to tear.

‘What are you making?’

‘Bolognaise. As if you care, so long as there’s plenty of it.’ She cracked a handful of spaghetti in half and dropped it in the pot. The water hissed briefly. She turned down the radio. ‘They just said the attorneys aren’t going to file any last minute appeals. It’s up to the Parole Board now.’

‘I doubt they’ll issue a stay.’

‘Do you know any of the firing squad?’

‘I’ve met them,’ I said, which wasn’t lying.

She set out the bowls and thudded the steaming pot of pasta in the center of the table. As usual, I finished her leftovers. While we were eating desert—mint chip ice cream—she asked, ‘Do you know what he asked for? For his last meal?’

‘No.’ The warden had advised me not to read the papers until it was over.

‘An olive.’

‘Just an olive?’

‘Just an olive. And he asked to be buried with the pit in his pocket.’

I didn’t know what to say so I scooped up a spoonful of ice cream. In the silence my spoon clattered on the rim of the bowl.

She began again. ‘Why do you think he asked for that olive and nothing else?’

‘Hmmm,’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t want anything but this ice cream.’

‘It seems odd, doesn’t it? Some kind of spiritual exercise, maybe? I can’t see a political point being made with an olive.’

‘Maybe he’s trying to invoke the olive branch of peace. Trying to tell us he’s found inner peace.’

‘What would you know about inner peace?’ she said with that teasing smile.

‘More than him, I bet. What would you want for a last meal?’ I asked.

‘You,’ she said, and leaned over the table and kissed me. ‘Or five blocks of Valrhona dark chocolate.’

 

The next morning I woke up before dawn, primed and alert. At six I did my half hour on the treadmill, had a shower, and then put my uniform and boots on—I forgot I didn’t need to be at the station until eleven that night. I walked downstairs to the kitchen with a heightened sense of reality, that transcendent awareness that used to make me turn the patrol car down an alley on impulse to find a mugging in progress. Everything looked newly congealed. I fixed myself a cup of coffee and went over to the living room window. The soft blanket of snow outside had thickened overnight.

‘What are you doing up this early?’ Janice had come down silently in her pink slippers. I always liked how she looked in the mornings. She never took her pajamas off before noon and when she walked I’d catch hints of her firm legs and smooth hips as the material brushed against her skin.

‘I don’t know, just looking at the mountains. They aren’t half as beautiful as those paintings by Janice Lee Draper. You heard of her?’

‘Aint she the wife of that handsome cop?’

‘I believe so, yes. He sure is one lucky man.’

‘I thought you weren’t working until tonight.’ She’d noticed my uniform. I’d told her I had the eight-to-two overnight dispatch shift.

‘Uh, I don’t know. I just forgot.’

She laughed and gave me a little pat on the behind. ‘Well, put something else on and I’ll get the pancakes ready.’

I came back down in civilian clothes and sat down in front of five steaming pancakes.

‘Mmm,’ I said, as I chewed, ‘these are good enough to be a last meal.’

‘Aren’t you funny,’ she said. Then she became quiet and I knew by the way she was cutting her pancakes, slowly with exaggerated precision, that she was about to say something serious.

‘You know, I had a dream about it last night. I was facing the firing squad. But no-one put a hood on me and I was trying to explain that I was the wife of a police officer. They had mistaken me for someone else. I screamed and screamed but they shot anyway. I didn’t feel any of the shots and I still had all my senses. The bright lights were on me and a doctor came and felt my wrist and I tried to tell everyone that I was still alive but no sound would come out. And I was complaining that I didn’t even get a last meal. Then I woke up.’

‘Always thinking about food, you.’ I chuckled a little but she wasn’t laughing. ‘What was your crime?’

‘Nothing. I hadn’t done anything.’

‘But they must have at least accused you of something?’

‘I suppose they did but I didn’t know what it was.’

 

After breakfast Janice went off to paint so I drove to the batting cages in town. You can just put all your focus on counting the rhythm of the mechanical arm and smacking the ball as hard as you can.

After warming-up in the 75 mile-an-hour cage I moved up to the 85 and was hitting nearly every ball into the back of the net. I was in a groove. Step, swing, pop. Step, swing, pop. Two eight or nine year-olds came over to watch me and after a particularly flat line drive I heard one of them say, ‘Maybe he plays for the Bees.’

The next pitch came out with no spin on the ball. The red stitches, two curves on the white, enlarged in slow motion as they rushed towards me. Before I could get out of the way, the ball hit the knuckle of my right index finger—my trigger finger—jamming it into the bat handle. For a second I felt nothing and then it felt like my knuckle had been cracked in a vise. I’d never seen a worse pitch from a machine. Six seconds later the next pitch thudded into the canvas backstop, straight down the middle.

‘If you rub it you’re a wimp,’ said one of the kids, ‘do you play for the Bees?’

‘No, but I’m flattered you asked.’

I peeled my gloves off and walked back to the girl behind the counter clutching her phone between her two thumbs—the kids trailing—and said, ‘You should check the 85 machine. It just hit me on the hand.’

She looked up. ‘Which one?’

‘The 85.’

‘We had them all serviced last week. No one else has complained.’

‘I’m not complaining. I should have been able to dodge it anyway. I just want to make sure it won’t get anyone else.’

‘Well I don’t know what you want me to do then.’

‘Think if it hit someone in the head.’

‘I’ll tell the manager when he gets back.’

The two boys, having lost interest in me, were looking at the rare baseball cards laid out in individual cases underneath the glass countertop. Generosity sneaks up on me sometimes. Their parents probably dropped them off at the batting cages for the day because it was too cold to throw them outside. It might be hours before they were picked up again.

‘Two packs of Topps, please,’ I said to the girl.

‘Ten dollars.’

I stretched out my hurt finger, which had begun to swell like a kielbasa, and opened my wallet with my thumb and middle finger.

‘Hey,’ I said, ‘take one each.’

They ripped open the foil packaging. ‘Thanks, Mister.’

 

Twenty-three years of shooting have given me hands like gold dust scales and my rifle weighed not a gram under regulation.

Aside from the few eager souls at the prison gate waving blue glow sticks and holding hands and singing, the ride over had been silent. We waited in an anteroom for what seemed like a long time. I kept my gloves on so no one would see my injury. Small talk was difficult but we did it anyway. It’s funny, I still remember Selwood saying his daughter had pneumonia.

We stood behind the concrete wall as Depaul shuffled out unassisted. A lick of white hair stood up at the back of his head. It was hard to picture this wispy man as the brash murderer on TV from fifteen years before. He declined to speak. The guard asked if he had understood that he had a right to speak. He said ‘yes, sir’ and then he was strapped to his wooden chair up on the wooden platform with black sand bags stacked high around to prevent ricochets.

His black hood was fitted, then the target was pinned to his chest with two safety pins. His bonds were double-checked and the guards withdrew. Perched between the black stacks he reminded me of a statue in its tabernacle. The others were ready. I kneeled down on the right end and took my right glove off but kept my hand in front of me so the warden couldn’t see from behind. I turned the safety off my rifle and put my finger, as tight and firm as a hose on full blast, pain barreling through it, on the outside of the trigger guard. I raised my left hand, the signal to the warden. ‘All clear, buddy,’ I heard him say. The paper target slowly turned into a baseball card and I heard myself starting to count. Around two, I remember thinking that the black now looked more like purple and the lights had brightened. I could barely make out the sandbags. I fainted somewhere before four with my finger on the trigger.

I don’t remember my rifle going off or the recoil hitting my shoulder but there was a bruise there the next day. When I came to, Kupeofola was shaking me from behind and three doctors were frantically undoing Jordan’s bonds. Blood was dripping down his chair and onto the floor. My finger was in a crucible of pain. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my knees. Kupeofola, Young and Johnson were staring at me with puzzled expressions. ‘What happened?’ I asked.

‘You hit him in the stomach,’ Selwood said.

They performed emergency surgery on Depaul that night. At two a.m. the warden decided I couldn’t be charged with any crime but I would have to present at the inquest. He drove me back to the station so I could get my car. I didn’t go home straight away but drove around looking at the encircling Traverses in the three-quarter moon.

When I got home Janice was still up, painting in the sky-lit stable. ‘The moon is good tonight,’ she said. She kissed me. ‘How was work?’

‘Quiet. It’s too cold for criminals. Did you finish anything?’

‘You’re gonna laugh at me.’

‘No, I’m not.’

‘Yes you will.’

There on the canvas, in shades of ash and pale green, was an olive. The morning took a long time to arrive.

 

____________________________________________________________

Lucas Smith
is a poet and writer from California and Gippsland, currently living in Melbourne. His work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks, Australian Book Review, Gargouille, Cordite and elsewhere. One of his stories was highly commended in the 2012 Age Short Story Award.

Damboon (Belinda Rule)

Posted on March 7, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

It was just Suzy and I, in the end, who drove down to Damboon on the Friday night. I picked her up after work in the big old navy-blue bogan-mobile station wagon I’d bought cheap off my uncle’s widow a couple of months before.

Heavily laden, we staggered down the garden path – the others were all now coming on Saturday instead, in the one car, and needed us to take some of their bags for them. Her house was a narrow Victorian terrace half-sunken into the ground, with faded Tibetan prayer flags above the door. Partway down the path, I got my sleeve caught on the thorny tentacle of a leggy, ancient rosebush. I wrenched myself free and stumbled. I would have backed up into the bush on the other side, but Suzy caught me.

‘Ta!’ I said.

Then I got stuck at the rusty gate.

‘Let Daddy do that,’ Suzy grinned and said. She shuffled past me, smelling like old-fashioned men’s cologne, with her leather jacket and her buzzed hair.

‘I think you should know,’ I said, ‘I don’t get along with Daddy.’

‘Daddy loves you, baby,’ she protested, winking. ‘You just let Daddy take care of you.’ She ushered me through the gate with a bow.

‘Oh, ho, ho!’ she hooted when she saw the car. ‘Bogan-mobile to the max!’

‘I told you.’

I had got breath-tested the other day, and the cop had looked at me – a woman in a cheesecloth dress with a pen in her hair – and said, ‘You are not who I expected to be driving this car.’

We put the bags in the back and got in.

Suzy threw her motorcycle boots up on the dashboard and said, ‘Well, fuck this holiday shit, let’s go down to Commercial Road and cruise for chicks.’

‘Hell yeah,’ I said, ‘I can put the back seat down and everything.’

I fired up the ignition. ‘Oh, baby!’ Suzy said.

‘Shit,’ I said, ‘someone’s parked behind me. I can’t manoeuvre this thing for shit. If I run into that car, you can’t tell anyone, alright?’

‘What are you going to do for me?’ she asked.

‘Not tell your girlfriend that you talk to me like this.’

Suzy clutched her chest like I’d shot her in the heart.

*

I was fizzing inside about this trip.

I had been living with my ex-girlfriend Steph and two of our friends when Steph told me she was seeing someone else. I left, and was thrown on the skids in a serious way, with nowhere to live and no money coming in, in the middle of summer when there was no sessional work going at the university. Now perhaps that time was coming to an end. First I had become a person who had a car. Now I was once again a person who could go on holidays.

Granted, the holidays were with people whose idea of a good time was talking in a circle about the difference in their experiences of faith between Buddhism and Christianity. Before I knew them all, Suzy’s housemates and my housemates had once been one giant household, which had been all-lesbian, all community service workers, and had kept chickens, shared all the cooking, and had house meetings every Sunday night to work out their issues. Then they’d been evicted from the very large house and had to split into two smaller ones. I had taken a room in one of the smaller ones less than a year ago; I was the only one who had come via an ad in the paper and had not known any of them before. My household had inherited the chickens, and we had the Sunday house meetings too, but they were usually about something I had done wrong, such as putting a half-full mouldy sauce bottle in the bin instead of washing it out and recycling it.

By contrast, most of my friends over the years had been people I’d met at the university while studying subjects like Power, pleasure and the body in Renaissance Florence. My sort of people nominally belonged to the same side of politics as my housemates, but mine were the sort who liked to get drunk on cheap wine and crack up at double entendres about phallocentrism. If one of my friends had ever said while eating a bowl of lentils, ‘I just really think you can feel the energy of the earth,’ as my Buddhist vegetarian housemate once had, it would have been a joke.

But I didn’t seem to have any of those friends anymore, so the housemates it was.

*

We were in sheep country that dipped and rose like a green quilted doona, when Suzy said, ‘Roo!’

I chanced a look. But my eye had gone straight to Suzy, to the soft light on the t-shirt fabric stretched over her left breast.

Admittedly, I had looked at that breast before.

I wasn’t so confident travelling at a hundred and ten that I could chance a second look away from the road. ‘Where was it?’

‘Over that way.’

I kept a watch on the black-green stands of bush along the fence-lines of the paddock. I could just imagine a dark shape detaching itself and streaking in front of the car.

*

It was just before sunset when we crested the hill above Damboon. A plain, low, post-war holiday town, upstaged by a great bolt of Prussian-blue sea with a froth of white lace at the hem. Great, black cypress pines marched in an even line down the main street, which ran along the foreshore.

In town we passed a pub, the light in the disc-shaped Carlton Draught sign beginning to twinkle in the twilight, then a fish ’n’ chip shop and a servo. Then we turned right into the residential streets.

The house was salmon-pink fibro cement, single-fronted with a peaked iron roof. Its yard was runner-grass with bald patches of ochre sand.

Car unloaded, we stood in front of the open door of the elderly, chrome-trimmed fridge and looked at the groceries we’d brought with us. This would be the moment when the evening took a sudden turn for the depressing. Suzy would want to cook something like my housemates liked: a purgatorial pile of vegetables topped with two teaspoons of grated cheese, shoved in a baking dish and called a casserole, or a vegetarian meatloaf made entirely of unseasoned lentils cooked to mush, L.S.A. mix and grated carrot. Something that bore its wilful ignorance – or perhaps refusal – of culinary art, its denial of pleasure in eating, as a badge of some sort of hippy, pseudo-Puritan honour.

‘Don’t suppose you want to go to the pub?’ Suzy said.

‘You’re a genius,’ I said.

‘I know.’

*

On the beach, there was still a blue glow on the horizon between the black arrows of the cypress pines.

We passed beneath the trees onto the sand. I took my shoes and socks off and rolled up my jeans, while Suzy waited, serene in her high-zipped boots.

The breakers came in low and regular. I rushed to the water’s edge.

Further down the beach, the sand ended in dark shapes of rocks. Beyond that, the land was treed and rocky right down to the shore, ending in a distant point where lights illuminated parts of a wooden structure.

‘What’s out there?’ I said.

‘Dunno,’ Suzy said. ‘Too far to check it out tonight.’

‘Yeah, I know,’ I said. And then, ‘It looks like elves live there or something.’

Suzy smiled, hands in her pockets.

‘Or pirates. Or it’s where the ships come in from Avalon.’ I began to run in a circle around her, arms out like an aeroplane.

I wanted to do something explosive, something more than running around in a circle. But I couldn’t think what it should be.

I stretched my arms above my head and pretended to look out to sea.

A couple walking beneath the cypress pines were looking at me. I let my arms drop.

*

The pub was like the country-town pubs from when I was a kid: wood-panelled throughout with maroon carpet stamped black along traffic ways. Along the row of dull-brass beer taps sat local men in their high-visibility gear from the power plant over the hill. They were watching the TV over the bar, so uninterested in each other they might have been a family alone together in its private lounge room. For a long moment, when Suzy and I walked into the taproom, they reacted with almost the surprise of that family, if strangers had just let themselves in the front door.

If I’d known it was this much of a small-town pub, I might have tried to deflect Suzy from coming in. I had taken my hair down and put on some dangly earrings to come down here; I didn’t look like a local but at least I was a recognisable kind of woman. Suzy, on the other hand, might have been the only female person ever seen in this town who could have passed for one of the T-birds from Grease.

‘G’day,’ Suzy said, to the first of the row of rude stares. The whole row of them startled into brief, embarrassed animation.

‘G’day,’ the first bloke in the row returned. Some others nodded. Suzy sauntered though to the Ladies Lounge with me scuttling at her heels.

*

We were on our second pint by the time we finished dinner, when in walked two blokes from the taproom.

‘You ladies want a game?’ one of them said, gesturing at the pool table.

‘Aw yeah,’ Suzy said. ‘I’ll give it a go.’

The table was covered in a cloth. The two blokes put things to rights with an air of familiarity.

‘You blokes live here, do ya? You just lie down under the table and have a nice sleep at the end of the night, then get up in the morning and start again?’ Suzy mimed pulling a beer from a tap.

They laughed. The leader said, ‘I wish.’

They were big fellers: broad and thick around the middle, wearing navy-and-orange high-vis shirts, navy trousers and work boots. Lightly grubby all over. The leader was the ginger: Damian. The other was thicker-set, dark-haired: Chris.

We paired off for the game. Damian broke with an almighty crash, following through till there was more cue in front of his hand than behind.

‘There’s gonna be balls on the floor, later, is there?’ I heckled.

‘Balls on the floor,’ Damian parroted.

‘That’s a bit personal,’ his mate piped.

Each time either of them said anything funny, they would look at both of us for a reaction, then look at each other and twinkle, as if to say, Did you see what I did there?

Suzy shook her head.

‘Can I’ve a crack at this?’ I said to my partner, Chris.

‘Yeah, go for your life,’ he said.

‘Can’t resist some low-hanging fruit,’ I said, and dropped the ten ball in from where it teetered on the threadbare lip of the far centre pocket.

‘Aw!’ Damian hooted. ‘We’ve got a pool shark here.’

‘Aw, no, you’re not supposed to break it out till later!’ Suzy remonstrated with me. ‘When we’ve got ’em laying bets.’

‘Ha,’ I said. ‘Well, I’m going to miss this one.’ The only thing still out in the open was the eleven, back towards the centre of the table.

‘Nah, you’ll be right,’ Chris said.

‘Nah, I can never do these ones.’

‘Think positive,’ Chris said.

‘We can all think fifty-dollar notes are about to start falling from the ceiling if we want, but that doesn’t mean they will.’ I took the shot and missed, dribbling the eleven into a hopeless position flush against the cushion. ‘Where’s my money? You obviously weren’t thinking positive hard enough.’

‘You didn’t give me enough warning,’ Chris squawked. ‘You gotta get a run-up on these things!’

‘Alright, let’s try again.’ I made a face like I was taking a shit, and he copied me. ‘Is it working yet?’

‘I dunno,’ Chris said. ‘Keep going!’

In the background, Suzy was shunting balls away like they were on rails. ‘Are you lot right?’ she said, leaning over with one knee up on the cushion to take a shot. She potted the ball with a crack, and Damian hooted like a kid in a dodgem car.

‘We’re trying,’ I said witheringly, ‘to make money fall from the ceiling.’

‘Well, then,’ Suzy said, ‘carry on, by all means.’

Finally it was Chris’s shot. He surveyed the pickings.

‘So youse are from the city, are ya?’ Damian said.

There was a pause. Chris didn’t take his shot.

They could have been fighting words.

‘Yep,’ Suzy said. ‘I grew up in Newcastle. Came down here when I dropped out of school.’

‘I’m Melbourne-born and bred,’ I said. ‘You blokes always lived here?’

Later, when we were quite a bit drunker, Chris leaned over to me and said, ‘She’s, ah, not into blokes, I take it.’

‘You’d take it right,’ I said.

‘Is she your missus?’

‘Nah. She’s not my missus.’

‘Are you into blokes, then?’

‘Love ’em,’ I said, ‘for lunch, with a bit of tomato sauce.’

I watched him bending over the table to take his shot, ponderous and careful. There were traces of black at his orange collar like pencil rubbings. You imagined a building falling on him, and him emerging with a bit of dust in his eyelashes and an expression of mild consternation. No doubt he didn’t mind how other people sorted the recycling.

I could fuck him.

All he probably wanted was someone who’d make him wash his sheets and buy some proper coffee. He’d probably quite like showing off to his friends about what a smarty-pants I was. I could take him to Christmas, to drinks at work, and absolutely no one would be weird about it at all.

He sunk his shot with a sharp tock.

‘Score!’ his mate called.

*

When Suzy and I shouldered in the front door, Suzy said, ‘I’m going to turn in.’ The bathroom door closed behind her.

I had half been thinking we were on a kind of date, and this was just the next phase of it.

I went and sat on my bed with the door closed.

When I heard the bathroom door open and Suzy’s door close behind her, I got up and used the bathroom myself, then got ready for bed.

The bed sagged in the middle, and the sheets had gone transparent with age.

As I got sleepier, I lost the leash on my mind.

I imagined Suzy turning me over, pressing my face into the pillow. A mother cat controlling her kitten.

I dared to roll to my hands and knees.

I imagined somebody coming in and seeing me that way and instantly, violently threw myself onto my back again. The hairs on my arms had risen in shame.

*

I had thought about a place like this for a holiday house for Steph and me: a cheap family place that the owners had filled with their terrible brown seventies crockery and mismatched wooden salad servers with burn marks. It would become our place, the way Rest’s Creek was my parents’ place, the way they started all their stories with, One year, down at Rest’s… Once we were sure we liked it, we would get our friends to come down too, and then it would be everyone’s place.

But those friends weren’t my friends anymore; they were Steph’s. I suppose I could have made it up with some of them. There was a period there where I would tell myself I was just going to try calling someone. I would try to plan what I was going to say. But I couldn’t get far enough through the plan before I would start to cry. So I had stopped trying to do that. Now I just didn’t think about it at all.

*

I was awake again. The air was dark blue, too dim to make much out.

I shambled out of bed and pissed explosively in the rust-streaked toilet. On my way back, I saw Suzy’s door was standing open.

I went to the kitchen. The back door was open onto the dark.

Outside, she was leaning on the railing of the back porch, smoking in a singlet.

She carried her shoulders so square and still, in that masculine way – beautiful.

I went out to her. When she noticed me, she moved a smidgeon. I leant on the rail beside her.

She offered me her cigarette, whole hand curled around it. It was almost exactly how I remembered a high school boy trying to style himself as he hit on me. She sold it utterly.

When I did not take it, she turned her body towards me in question.

I was seeing it: her bra-less breast beneath the white singlet, lovely as a tear-drop.

Heat was crawling on my scalp.

‘Who’s going to know?’ she said, smoky-voiced.

She was looming over me, within a hand’s breadth. Her face was a collection of shadows.

‘You would,’ I said. It was not a suave voice.

The shadows of her face emitted a huff of breath. I realised her hand was on my back.

‘Also, your girlfriend’s here in the morning,’ I said.

She recoiled. ‘So what? It’s just a ciggie.’ She strode off to the end of the railing. Only then did her silhouette say, ‘Settle down.’

‘You settle down,’ I said, and heard her gather breath for a retort.

I said, ‘I’m going back to bed,’ and left.

*

I was woken in the morning by Suzy’s two housemates barging in to leave their bags – now that more people had arrived, they would be taking this room while I, a single person, got booted to the bunk room. People were crashing around and calling to each other in the house.

The bathroom was occupied, so I went to the kitchen. All the seats were taken by either people or bags. My housemates were all there, unpacking things.

‘Hello, you,’ one said. ‘We’ve invaded!’

‘You sure have!’ I said, and ducked out the back door.

In the backyard, Suzy’s girlfriend, Tracy, was doing lunges in white leggings with a pink handprint design on the bum. Suzy lay on the grass, theatrically ogling her. Tracy looked down at her, shaking her head.

I took a swift detour and made for the gate at the side of the house.

The latch was rusted shut.

‘What are you doing, mate?’ Suzy called.

‘Uh,’ I said cheerily, ‘there’s people everywhere and I can’t even get in to pee. I don’t even know, really.’

‘You can pee here,’ Suzy leered. ‘We don’t mind.’

Tracy laughed and booted her in the side with her runner. Suzy made a show of coughing.

The latch came unstuck. I dashed through the gate and shoved it closed behind me.

The side fence only came halfway up the property line. I was essentially out on the street.

‘G’day, love,’ said an elderly man in shorts and thongs who was checking the next door’s mailbox.

‘G’day,’ I said, conscious of my boobs in my pyjama top, and let myself back in the front door.

I had walked a cigarette butt in on my bare feet. I picked it off.

I peered down the hall – the bathroom door was open at last. I dashed for it.

*

Showered and dressed, I made my escape quietly out the front door and scarpered to the beach.

I climbed onto the rocks at the end of the sand. As soon as there was no one in sight, I began to cry. I lurched from rock to rock, sobbing – one good sob to each rock. The light off the water clattered like a sack of new nails.

Eventually I dried my face in the wind and came back up to the street.

The squinty morning made things offensively present: a rubbish bin with its palings falling off; a jumble of Jim Beam cans on a picnic table, gathering ants. I sat down and watched the water froth and bash, shunting the seaweed back and forth.

A man’s voice, very ocker, was shouting for a woman with the same name as me. My neck prickled.

Provoked, I chanced a look. A figure stepped out from the fenced yard at the side of the pub, waving. It was Chris from last night.

I got up and crossed the sandy street. ‘Allo-allo! I was like, who’s this hoon shouting at?’

‘Ha. Come and have a drink?’

‘Geez, you blokes start early.’ I followed him into a runner-grass and sand beer garden.

Two men and a woman sat before a row of Bacardi Breezers at a picnic table. Chris pulled me up a plastic lawn chair to sit on the end, beside him.

The men were Chris’s brother, his mate, and his mate’s sister. ‘G’day,’ they all said.

‘G’day,’ I said.

I had expended my You blokes start early line prematurely. If I’d saved it till I’d sat down, it could have been an opener. Now I had nothing.

They all leaned forward, waiting for me to perform. When it became clear I had missed my cue, they waited a few, polite seconds longer to see if I would recover. I did not. As one, with the complete ease and indifference of siblings in each other’s company, they turned away and went back to talking among themselves.

‘Get the lady a drink, mate!’ Chris shouted at someone inside.

‘Nah, nah