Easily the Hardest Thing
(Jane Downing)

Posted on July 16, 2016 by in Lies To Live By

sad-child-1374392232NWKWas there any normal anymore? The others in the waiting room were at either end of a spectrum, tottering on an unfair seesaw between the obese and anorexic. The woman opposite Belinda had shoulders like a wire coat hanger and cheekbones like hooks. The man to her right looked like he had a large pet curled on his lap, but it was his belly. Belinda could feel the waistband of her navy work skirt riding up over itself and resolved something about TimTams. She had enough lap to rest a Women’s Weekly on; she turned the pages at arbitrary intervals. The whispering of the paper was to help her feel calm, composed like a good poem. Her mother said calm was infectious. Her mother said, try it. Belinda figured if yawning was, why not serenity?

Then the Venetian blinds crashed onto a low bookshelf in a waterfall of loud, unstoppable noise.

‘Darcy,’ Belinda hissed. Her son – the reason she was here, the reason for all this, the appointment, the wait, the false composure, the noise, the shrieking headache – jumped down from on top of the shelf, skittling out-of-date Reader’s’ Digests, and grabbed the head-rail of the blinds. A protruding screw dusted with plaster ripped his skin. Belinda put her magazine on the chair to her left and reluctantly got up, just as the door to the office opened.

At last.

Darcy forgot the blood and responded to the new stimulus by doing a circling, whirling 1950s Red Indian dance in the middle of the waiting room. The last patient pushed past with a tissue firmly to her nose – a sop to emotions or allergies, it was impossible to tell which.

The Homeopath called a name. ‘Beatrice?’ She spoke so softly Belinda heard her own name and started forward. But the ballerina bag-of-bones was moving with surprising vigour.

It was already past the time Belinda had been told on the phone. She looked at her watch in a pointed, does-no-one-know-the-cost-of-parking-around-here way. When she looked back up the door to the office was closed again and Darcy was dragging the broken bones of the blinds toward her.

She didn’t look at Darcy while she was taking the blinds off him. She propped them against the wall, like some shambolic, shredded set of skis and sat down. Darcy still had the end of the stripped-out chord in his hand. He wrapped it round and round his mother’s ankles, tethering himself to her. She flicked the magazine. She had no emotions left to muster. She’d gone through anger and embarrassment and pity and heartache. Ten years in a revolving door.

‘I’m at the end of my tether, end of my tether,’ he chanted. No-one in the waiting room had to wonder where he’d learnt that phrase.

 

Belinda didn’t want sympathy. She didn’t like the evil looks she got in the supermarket from perfect women and men in suits – as if children never played up – but at least she was used to that. The Homeopath had eyes brimming with compassion; so full in fact that they didn’t appear able to blink let alone close.

‘How much do you know about the restorative effects of homeopathy?’ the woman asked.

Belinda turned slightly in her chair so she couldn’t see Darcy over by the shelving which ran down one side of the office. He had a stem of some dried herb in his mouth.

Of course she knew what homeopathy was. She’d made the appointment hadn’t she? ‘It’s where you take a little bit of what causes the problem. Like immunization…’

The Homeopath shook her head very slightly. She had long hair. It must take her hours to wash and dry each morning, Belinda thought. She wondered if the controlled movements were because the woman was sitting on the ends of her hair and couldn’t actually move her head any further.

‘Did you have your son immunized?’

‘Yes.’ Belinda had done all the right things as a mother. All the pages in his Blue Birth Book were signed off.

The woman she’d come to for help sighed. ‘I see…’ It was not a long-suffering sigh. It was a sad-for-all-the-world sigh. ‘We have a lot to rectify.’

The Homeopath got up from her desk – and from sitting on the end of her hair – and walked over to Darcy who’d touched everything on every shelf and now seemed intent on de-winging a barley-husk angel. She took his hand without interrupting the flow of her talk, something about vital forces and miasmas and the disturbance caused by the Triple Antigen shot. Her slow, considered movements were mesmerising, like the dance of the stouts Belinda had tried to get Darcy to watch on a weekend David Attenborough documentary. Belinda had trouble concentrating on the words because Darcy was letting the stranger lead him back to a chair by the desk without protest. Without protest, she thought, an observation worth repeating. Darcy sat quietly. Just like the stout’s prey: like the stunned rabbit.

‘I’ll look up the Repertory but one thing is clear…’

Darcy was up again. The Homeopath turned those brimming eyes on him and he instantly sat, now with one leg tucked up under himself so he was higher than Belinda and could bounce like he was on a spring. He took out his mobile and started playing Worms.

‘Your son is around technology a lot isn’t he?’

‘It’s hard not to be, this day and age. He’ll be at high school soon. You know high schools. The Ritalin is not… It’s so hard doing it alone…’ All the considered sentences Belinda had lined up to tell the Homeopath splattered out over the top of each other, tripping each other up, falling against the unremitting gaze of the other woman. She wanted to convey the full depth of her fear: a child ostracized by his peers, a child unloved. It came out as clichés, about bullies and bullying. But when she looked directly at the Homeopath, Belinda could see her words being sponged up, with a now, now, and those little controlled, empathy-filled head movements. The Homeopath interrupted Belinda at the second ‘end of my tether.’

‘Our homeopathic armory was prepared in the mid-nineteenth century so we’ve had to come up with some new preparations for today’s ailments. Ritalin only attempts to address the symptoms, and as you’ve discovered, is worse than useless for you son. We have to go further and look at the deeper disturbances of the vital force. How long has he had a mobile phone?’

Belinda remembered the first one. She’d bought it for Darcy’s first day at school. He was to text her when he got on the bus each afternoon and then ring her when he was safely through the front door. From her office, Belinda would talk him through locking the door, finding fruit and muffins, not touching the sharp knife. The kitchen was always a mess when she got home around six. She’d lost count of how many phones were lost over the primary school years. She murmured a simple, ambiguous, ‘he’s had one a while.’

‘Technology is a dangerous thing. Our society is jittery. Allergic. So throw out the Ritalin,’ the woman commanded, ‘and we’ll try…’

‘I have to go to the toilet,’ Darcy whined. He pocketed his latest mobile and left the room.

‘To the right,’ the Homeopath told his back. The weight of the air on the room suddenly felt lighter. Belinda leaned forward to listen.

‘I have just the remedy. We’ve taken a small part of the circuit board of a mobile phone, diluted, highly diluted, one in a trillion parts should be the right potency.’

It sounded reassuringly scientific with all the details and precise proportions but Belinda felt a twinge of doubt. Something about protons and neutrons surfaced from science class. ‘But if it’s diluted that much…?’

The Homeopath didn’t miss a beat of her patter. ‘Diluted yes, and at each step, potentized. Water has memory. The succussion, the forceful striking of the remedy, ensures efficacy.’

They were all good, strong words, Belinda had to admit, as Darcy came back in. There was a 50 cent sized patch of wetness on his shorts. He sat down as he was told but started to drum his hands on the desk. ‘Succussion,’ he sang. He tossed his head back and drummed wildly in imitation of Animal in The Muppets.

‘Not percussion,’ Belinda hissed. She gave the Homeopath one of her perfected looks. The one that said, ‘see, this is what I have to put up with.’ It was a detachment that helped her survive, but the doctors hadn’t recognised her look for years. They’d treated her like a child abuser each time she took Darcy in for stitches or plaster. They noticed the fading bruises and the thick scabs. Then one morning in the GP’s surgery Darcy did a Tarzan swing off the lamp used to shine a light up her vagina every second year and broke his collarbone. It was the day she walked out with a prescription for Ritalin.

Anything had to better than it. It was a dangerous drug for goodness sake. And Darcy hadn’t calmed down. She remembered her own miserable years at high school – the other kids were not going to be kind to her child. It was a jungle out there and she needed him to join the herd.

 

The landline was ringing when they got through the door.

‘It’s me. Can I speak to Darcy?’

‘Darcy, it’s your father.’

Darcy disappeared up the hall and into his bedroom. His television blared out a greeting as he turned it on.

‘He won’t talk.’ Belinda Lego-blocked the phone into the groove between her head and shoulder to listen while she put her bag and keys and sunglasses in their places. ‘No I am not being obstructive. I am not stopping him talking to you. Ring back in five minutes.’

When the phone rang again Belinda out-waited Darcy in the kitchen. She sipped her wine and listened to him humphing down the hall.

‘Hi Dad.’

Silence, except for the tap, tap, tap of Darcy’s heel on the skirting board.

‘Yeh, yeh.’

Tapping became banging.

‘You’re a wanker.’ A final bang. Then the phone was ringing again.

Belinda spilled the wine as she slammed her glass on the kitchen bench.

‘What did you call your father?’ she shouted at Darcy. Before he could answer from his retreat to the television, she said, louder, ‘it’s rude to say that.’

She stood at his bedroom door, tired but angry. She’d be blamed for this.

‘It’s what you call him,’ Darcy said, as if this had ever been an excuse in the whole history of childhood.

‘When?’

‘To Aunty Dee on the phone.’

‘You shouldn’t be eavesdropping. I’ve told you.’ The phone was still ringing down the hall. Belinda did her yoga breathing. Let her diaphragm calm her.

‘Well,’ she looked at him, almost her height, cheeks still chubby and smooth, ‘well, it’s not a young boy’s word,’ she continued in her reasonable voice. ‘It’s an adult word.’

‘Like shit and fuck and cunt?’ asked Darcy. He wasn’t looking at her. He was scraping more wallpaper off his wall with the sharp edge of the Warner Bros figure he’d got at the drive-through on the way home. Burgers for the belly, The Joker to keep him quiet on the drive (once he got over the vocal disappointment that he hadn’t got Batman or his Batmobile).

The phone went quiet. Her mobile shrieked in her handbag – classical ringtones could not disguise the insistent tone.

‘Where does he learn that sort of thing?’ her ex asked as opener when she go to it.

‘He’s eleven. He’s not a baby anymore. He’s grown a little since you ran off.’ The sarcasm was heavy. It was the tone of habit – because it was all his fault for leaving. That’s when Darcy got so uncontrollable. At least that’s the way it went in her memory.

She could hear the scraping of The Joker’s cape against wallpaper from down the wall.

It was all her fault for not coping.

Indiscriminate fury flooded her inner ear, drowning out Darcy’s father. She’d heard it all before anyway.

‘If I’m such a crap mother, you take him,’ she spat. Then swung around to make sure Darcy wasn’t in the hall listening. The scraping was for once a reassurance.

‘Call him on his mobile in future. I don’t want to hear your voice,’ she hissed into her own mobile.

‘Do you know how expensive it is to call a mobile? I’ll use the landline whenever…’

‘Cheapfuck. As ever.’ Mobiles don’t make a satisfying bang when you hang up angrily, she lamented. She had that foul taste in her mouth, the one she worried was a symptom of a cancer growing inside. It made the wine, when she finally got back to it, taste less like the label promised and more like vinegar.

 

‘Go to bed Darcy. I’ve got work to catch up on.’

He looked like a limp stalk of celery propped against the doorjamb of her study. Stick him in a bit of water and he’d perk up though.

Getting him into the shower was a dread each evening, and then the last hurdle: bed. She tried to lose herself in a briefing paper as she waited for the noises in the bathroom to subside. Then she went in, picked up the wet towel, hung it square, put the dirty clothes in the basket, weeded the toothbrushes out of the peace lily, dragged herself to his bedroom. Darcy was not there. She went to the kitchen. Not there. Back to his bedroom.

‘Get out of the wardrobe. You have to take this remedy.’

The door to the wardrobe cracked open. ‘Why not my pills?’

‘This is better.’

‘Will you read to me?’

Belinda felt the unbearable weight of being a mother. She shouldn’t have said that to his father: it was only when she was most desperate that she wanted Darcy out of her life. She probably shouldn’t have told him to ring Darcy’s mobile either, if his addiction to technology was the problem. The cumulative guilt made her say yes. ‘Just a quick chapter.’

So after Darcy had dutifully swallowed the drops she lay on the bed beside him with his birthday book from mad Aunty Dee who gave him one every year though she’d been told often enough that he had problems concentrating enough to read chapter books. The cover was ripped across a dragon’s snout and the pages were fat and pulpy from their own contact with water.

Darcy stood up on the mattress and traced the zoo animals on the curtains as Belinda read about training your own dragon. Darcy roared at the curtain lions and bellowed at the elephants. Belinda read through until he lay back down then she kept reading until they were breathing in time. And then they were both asleep.

 

As if her own mother knew there was calm in the house, Belinda’s mobile beeped the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. ‘Skype?’ was the succinct text message.

Belinda got to her computer in the study as it burred in the most old-fashioned telephone ring possible. She clicked on the green icon and her mother’s face filled the screen.

‘You look good,’ her mother said. ‘What drug are you on?’

‘Sleep.’

Her mother laughed and her dentures clicked over two thousand kilometers away and Belinda heard them.

‘Actually, I went to a Homeopath…’

‘Did you say sociopath?’ There was a slight disconnect between aural and visual.

‘Homeo-, not socio-, not psycho-’

Maybe it did sound psycho to her. Her mother was of a generation who believed implicitly what the doctor told them. No Googling to check symptoms, no second opinions required. Belinda persevered through a recount of all her new knowledge.

‘If it’s that diluted… surely there’d be nothing left in your bottle,’ her mother interrupted. ‘It sounds a bit like hocus pocus.’ But she used a kind voice, the one she’d used throughout Belinda’s divorce. ‘What did your GP say?’

‘Science and medicine haven’t a clue,’ Belinda protested. ‘This will work.’ There was no response. Her mother’s eyes were cast to the left. ‘Mum, what are you doing?’

‘Just having a little SMS chat to your sister.’

‘Where is she now?’

‘Turkey.’

Belinda looked through the dusty louvers of the alcove she called her study, out at the overgrown back yard that had been hers for ten years and sighed. ‘Will she ever settle down?’

Her mother ‘mmmed.’ Belinda could hear the keys of her computer clickety-clacking.

‘Besides,’ she said, competing to get her mother’s attention back, ‘this remedy is all about succussion and water memory, and particles, so it’s physics really. The woman quoted a scientist…’ Belinda concentrated so she could get all the polysyllabic words out in the remembered order. ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

‘I think you’ll find that’s a quote from a science fiction writer.’ Her mother always brought her back to earth. And buried her under it.

Her mother’s eyes locked on hers through the world wide web and relented. ‘Yes dear. Bringing up children. It’s easily the hardest thing you’ll ever do.’

Belinda didn’t say the unspoken – that it’d be a whole lot easier if Darcy’s grandmother hadn’t retired to the coast.

 

The front door was wide, presenting a rectangle of golden light to the street.

The season was changing and it was dusk when Belinda got home from work these days, and cooler, but not yet cool enough to have the heating blasting, which was the second thing Belinda noticed.

Darcy’s left shoe was near the door, his right shoe on top of his school pack halfway down the hall. Each sat in a pulsing miasma of vomited cheese-boy foot stench let loose by the heating. At the kitchen door the sweeter cheese smell hit her.

‘Darcy?’

Darcy came out of his room. ‘I made us pudding,’ he said, one word for each bounce toward her. Pudding was muffled in her jacket as he threw himself into her.

The frozen Sara Lee cheesecake was sitting on top of the heating vent in the family room. It was no longer frozen. And it was not so much on top as in the vent. Darcy had followed the instructions and released it completely from its packaging. The base crumbled as Belinda tried to lift it up.

Belinda felt she had two options: screaming, or the silent treatment. She carefully put the cheesecake on the bench that divided the family room from the kitchen.

‘It’s going to be yum,’ Darcy said doggedly.

Darcy did a superman swoop around the lounge chairs, leaping one to the other. Belinda ignored him. He took the cushions off the chairs and piled them in a tottering tower. Belinda didn’t say anything as he started to climb. She was biting it back, the only thing she wanted to shout. ‘Go on, fall.’ Instead: silence.

Even with the heating now off, the room was heavy and close as she chopped vegetables and put two fatty chops on the grill. Belinda wondered if this was what hot flushes felt like. When her life would be all over.

She kept her silence through dinner. Darcy stood beside his chair to eat. She was sure he was taunting her to say ‘sit down.’ Silence. She didn’t even look at him.

They didn’t have pudding, She placed the sculptured Sara Lee in the bin, where it looked like the icing on top of the day’s usual rubbish.

After packing the dishwasher she went to Darcy’s room. She shook the Homeopathic remedy bottle vigorously to get his attention, imagining she was a succussionist – with a mariachi band perhaps.

Darcy stared at his television. Some cops apprehending an offender with requisite levels of violence. He didn’t turn. ‘Dad says it’s only water.’

‘When did you speak to your father?’ Belinda stopped the shaking, realising only after the words were out that she’d relinquished her higher ground in the silent treatment.

Darcy didn’t acknowledge he’d broken her. Still didn’t turn. ‘He rang me on my mobile.’

‘Well you should have told me.’

Belinda came fully into the room which was almost bare over years of whittling down danger points. ‘Take your drops.’

‘But it’s just water.’

‘Expensive water I have to work to pay for.’

Darcy took the tiny glass bottle off her, snatched out the dropper and glugged back the entire contents before his mother could snatch it back. She could only watch in horror.

‘Fuck, Darcy.’ She grabbed him and frog-marched him to the bathroom and tried to stick her finger down his throat over the sink.

‘Mummy!’ He made a stuck-pig squeal and bit her finger.

Belinda collapsed on the toilet and sobbed. Darcy was gone. Pain and anger and overwhelming fear competed and paralyzed her for a moment. She had no idea what to do about an overdose. But she had to do something. Phoning Emergency sounded like an over-reaction, so she ran to the computer, clicked up the whitepages, tapped in Poison’s Hotline. It was a 24 hour number.

She ran down the hall with her mobile to her ear, searching for Darcy in each room as she went.

The woman on the other end of the invisible line was calm. ‘Slowly,’ she said kindly. ‘What has your son taken?’

Belinda couldn’t believe the woman’s reaction. The Hotline operator was still laughing when Belinda found Darcy. He was in the kitchen, hidden behind the bench. He’d sat down next to the bin and was smearing gobs of cheesecake into his mouth.

‘It is yum, mum,’ he told her. ‘I rhymed mum, because it’s yum in my tum.’

 

Belinda hung up on the Poison woman. She remembered being laughed at for years at high school. Her cheeks flushed and she wanted to cry. Darcy grinned up at her. His tongue shot out like a lizard’s. ‘Yum, yum, yum.’ Scorned, ostracized, she’d thought she’d die. Yet here she was – high school hadn’t killed her after all.

Darcy smiled around the sweetness of his forbidden pudding.

‘If I let you play with the screwdriver, will you undo every screw in the heating vent?’ she asked her errant child. Darcy was up and at the laundry cupboard rummaging in the tools before she could finish. ‘So I can clean it,’ she said.

Belinda took Darcy’s place on the floor beside the bin. She wondered, not for the first time, at Darcy’s huge capacity to forgive and forget and move on. She reached in and picked a tiny square of cheesecake out of the bin between her thumb and index finger.

What had she been thinking? A little bit of a circuit board shaken and not stirred…

The screwdriver scrapped. A sound to take the paint off if the metal edge hadn’t already. So she sang out loudly, from down on the floor. ‘Thanks for the pudding.’

Darcy’s voice was distracted by his work with the vent. ‘Not a problem mum.’

 

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Jane Downing is a writer of poetry and prose with over a hundred and thirty works of prose published in journals including The Big Issue, Southerly, The Griffith Review, Westerly, Island, Overland, Seizure, Hecate, UTS Anthology and Antipodes, and a similar number of poems in journals including Rabbit, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Eureka Street and Best Australian Poems (2004 and 2015). Her two novels were published by Pandanus Books at the Australian National University (The Trickster, 2003 and The Lost Tribe, 2005). One of her works was the lead story in the Grapple Annual which won the Most Underrated Book of the Year Award in 2015. In 2016 she was one of two Australians shortlisted, out of nearly 4000 entries from 47 countries, for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

 

MR NOONAN TO YOU (J Kane)

Posted on June 17, 2016 by in Lies To Live By

FullSizeRenderYou were nine years old you when you woke to find the dentist kissing your penis.
            Only he would know the extent of the activities that went on while you were under, as you never asked.
            Primarily now you looked back on your years at school as being defined by a strong appreciation of history, both ancient and modern, plenty of cross country running, scoring goals for fun, and crooked teeth.
            University was uniformly awful.
            You studied dentistry.
            No, just kidding.
            It was history, of course.
            Alone at night you would closely look at the portraits of prominent leaders throughout the ages from around the world and surmised that no smiles were ever present due to the condition of their teeth.
            That’s what this age can do to you.
            Graduation was never reached.
            Some subsequent jobs for the boy: forklift operator in a book distribution warehouse, dishwasher in nine different restaurants, cook in three cafes, digger of holes and ditches, planter of trees, dealer of drunks on a nightly basis, seller of secondhand furniture, delivery driver of pristine furniture, house-painter, within and without.
            You tended to move around.
            Neighbourhoods undoubtedly would go stale, some quicker than others.
            But you never went into debt once, you’d always rather have gone without.
            One time, no kidding, while planting the last tree of the day at dusk, you simultaneously saw the sun, the moon, and a rainbow.
            Never told anyone that before.
            It was during a stint as an express courier delivering urgent papers between boring building blocks that you saw him again, amid the lunch hour office parade.
            You chained your bike to a pole, dropped the papers into a nearby bin, and looked up at all the windows and wondered which floor held his surgery.
            A week went by before you returned to the area, a slow week, a lot of lying back and staring at the ceiling, no kidding.
            But then lots of lobbies were scanned at once, lots of listings of professional services provided, many of which you could still picture yourself one day performing.
            Hello, I’m in advertising, you’d  picture yourself saying.
            Hello, I can help you better manage your money.
            Hello, here’s my card, because I’m in the business you need the most at this given time.
            Hello, allow me to take you to lunch.
            Once you located the dentist’s practice, you started tracking his receptionist.
            She drank in the same wine bar most Thursday and Friday afternoons, being particularly partial to the pinot noir of Central Otago, New Zealand.
            When you managed to drink a drop from the same Lake Wanaka winery, you loosened, only slightly, your recently purchased red silk tie, and intoned To the weekend! And to all the wonder it might have in store for us, and you raised your glass.
            You thought maybe you should consider taking up acting one day.
            But for now the role of personal assistant to a renowned London architect was chosen as an occupation, pulled right out of the air.
            Another glass was ordered, as you listened to her meander over her daily drill, taking care to avert your eyes from your own reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
            The hygienist, she said, is a hoot.
            Leaving you to wonder whether you could smell a man’s soul down that hole.
            The dentist often travelled overseas to numerous locations, she told you, appointments often having to be rearranged, or passed on to respected colleagues, so he could go and bathe in the benefits of some other part of the world.
            Mauritius, Gothenburg.
            Prague, Fraser Island.
            Paris, London, London, Paris.
            New York, New Haven, Newfoundland.
            Lisbon, Lisbon, Lisbon.
            She had a slight, cute lisp when she said Lisbon, which suited her slight, cute figure.
            The pristine white shirt you wore for the occasion you wished you could have washed first, as it gave off an itching sensation on the inside of your left wrist and all along your shoulder blades.
            Maybe the cotton wasn’t as pure as it said on the packet.
            The silver necklace she wore resembled a length of dental floss.
            More weeks went away and died someplace, but a pattern to the doctor’s movements was finally detected.
            Soon enough, on any given day, you knew his approximate arrival time at the entrance to his apartment block.
            Everyone had a routine, one way or another.
            The silver hammer, the one with the blue rubber handle, was left behind by the maintenance man in the lobby between errands.
            It was better suited now, you believed, to the smashing of the dentist’s teeth down his throat.
            But he never arrived on the chosen evening.
            So you adjusted your plan, at first slightly, then significantly, suddenly abandoning all thoughts of self preservation, and spent every subsequent evening crouched in the corner of the overgrown rosemary bushes by the building’s entrance.
            But still he did not come.
            A simple explanation was waiting for you when you went to see the receptionist again.
            Screw the wine at this point, you were on the browns by now.
            The explanation?
            Easy, he’d won the lottery.
            Literally.
            Ended up abandoning his practice and flying off first class to some unknown destination.
            On the brief note he left behind, the receptionist said, first class was underlined, followed by three exclamation points.
            She offered you the final glass from her bottle, then ordered another.
            Never mix your drinks, that was something you would soon come to know deep in your bones more surely than anything else.
            A few days later, you met up again, you and the ex-receptionist, on the same stools.
            Her necklace of floss immediately caught your eye in the mirror behind the bar, even before you ordered the first round.

 

____________________________________________________________

J Kane currently resides in the Blue Mountains of Australia (and at the moment is reading Francis Picabia).

 

 

 

The Rattler (Daniel Young)

Posted on June 10, 2016 by in Lies To Live By

man1Billy passed back the joint, his mouth hot and dry, his brain expanding but feeling too many things at once, wanting more and more and more, but with a queasy sense that this might not go well at all, except—you never know—maybe it would. It was his Grindr profile bio that Billy had gone for, followed up with his rough directness, somehow detectable in his short sharp messages, a hint at what he might be like in bed. But it started with that bio: Let’s rattle this ghost town. Yes. Let’s. And so they did—except no, they didn’t, because this was a ghost town without even any fucking ghosts, so what was out there to be rattled? No, they just went back to his place and now they were smoking and soon they would get down to business and then that would be the end of it.

He went to get some water and stood at the sink, wondering what was out there beyond the dark window. That river, like slug guts, winding its way from nowhere to nowhere, dark, brown, turgid. They swept a body out of it last week, and the police helicopter hovered, chop-chop-chopping the air with apocalyptic dread until the body was found and the water police came to collect ittreasure, mother-load; or something else.

Mother-load. He crept back towards the bed, swaying hilariously (or at least precariously), ready to see what this rattler was all about. Let’s rattle this ghost town. Rattle me. Rattle me. Outside, the dark streets rolled up and down across the city, and the river snaked its way somewhere amongst it, and only the possums were there to look out over the not-so-neat row of wheelie bins, ready to be picked up, rattled about, and emptied into hungry garbage trucks, adding to the stinking loads fermenting in the belly of the beast. He was ready now. Rattle me, he begged. Rattle me.

 

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daniel

Daniel Young is a reader, writer, editor, and software developer living in Brisbane. He has had short stories and flash fiction published in Hello Mr. MagazineMascara Literary ReviewBukker TillibulSeizureCuttings JournalVerity LaBide MagazineThe Suburban Review, and antiTHESIS journal.

He is the founder and editor of Tincture Journal and is reviewing all the novellas at allthenovellas.com. You can find him on Twitter @jazir1979.

 

The Bougainvillea Tree
(Laura McPhee-Browne)

Posted on June 3, 2016 by in Lies To Live By

FullSizeRenderfor Marjorie Barnard

            I saw two summers in one year once and I won’t forget it. Only once. I had started to heal by then, and often thought of no one but myself in that way that means you might be free. My face in the mirror I had kept in storage many months was the face of a woman who had decided, who bore lines from days lived unwell. I took deep breaths and moved rather slow to keep them. Voices of friends, of shopkeepers, of bus drivers were so new it was like hearing them as a baby, and rolling around in the joy of them. My mind was tired, and as tentative as a star. I walked down streets I had always known as if they were tangled.

            I took a room in a house with a big bougainvillea in its front yard and clouds of jasmine at its back. My room faced the garden; four large windows looking out towards a vegetable patch, a corrugated iron shed. The light came through almost always and made sense against the cream-coloured walls. Shadows painted and swayed; I hung dried gum leaves in the cracks and lay down on the small bed to watch. Outside the room tomatoes fattened, and parsley went to seed. At night, the streetlight lent company to my dreams; dreams I had as deeply as fingers in maple syrup, dreams I could not remember after waking up and padding out to the toilet. I always thought it was daybreak, in that room in the nighttime.

            Across from the house were a line of garages that had names, and tenants who pottered and yelled on weekdays. I lay on my small bed and listened to them, every so often moving my spine against the springs. I listened to the man who talked to anyone who passed him by with cheer, with gumption. I could not see him from the room unless I stood on my tiptoes which I did often, wanting to watch the way his mouth moved as he brightened everything around. He was old, and pepper-grey, and laughed enough to seem happy. He wore overalls mostly, the type that are blue and long-sleeved and grubby. I felt as if he had a wife somewhere, humming and loving him and him loving her too, a big old love that would make me sigh if I knew it. I sensed his contentment near me like a plump, pink prawn.

            There was a day after I had rested for some weeks that I took a walk, to find the creek that circled the neighbourhood and to let the sun dust me. I knew before I left the house that I would pass the row of garages with their names and doors and inhabitants, and that the old man would be there, standing and talking and rubbing at his spotted skin. It was cold in my room as I dressed, and I thought of mornings in the house I grew up in, milky porridge at the waxy wooden table and a mother and father barely talking. I saw the mist floating up off the trees beyond our verandah and out across the Yarra, the hard ice windscreen of my mother’s faithful ute. It sent a shiver down the centre of my back; why did I always think of winter in the summertime?

            I moved carefully out the front door and down the concrete path set in the grass towards the small, crooked gate. The bougainvillea tree was dazzling—rich and full with dark pink flowers, bowing slightly towards the bitumen as if made shy by its own greatness. I could see that it needed pruning, that it was gasping beneath its own grandeur. I thought perhaps I would cut at it that afternoon. Across the road I saw the old man standing, looking over at me as if we knew one another, the way I had imagined he would. He yelled out at me kind, loud words and I nodded back, letting my mouth turn upwards and my eyes crease to show him. I passed by, and walked on down the faded road to where the creek licked at flora and sat for what seemed like many hours, until the sun gave way to the moon, until I was shivering in a way that felt wonderful. That day was the day I started living again, and as I passed the place where the old man had stood, the dark fitting around me like a shell, I felt comfort in his presence—a guard dog waiting to be fed.

            Weeks began and ended. Spring was waiting patiently to bloom and I was still tired, resting most afternoons in the curdled air. I took more walks, but made sure I was never too far from the house and all its flowers and vegetables and sleeping mosquitos, for fear I would tire and wilt before I had returned. I was wandering back from a morning through the grass the day I saw the old man standing close to the bougainvillea at the front of the house. It was noon, and the sun was February-hot. As I got closer I could see that he was pruning, that as he moved little limbs dropped like beautiful blood at his feet. He was whistling, I could hear it along the air, and I called out to greet him, to thank him, though he didn’t turn but whistled on; moving his head and shoulders this way and that to see where he should bite. I walked past him, smiling, and he saw me and nodded his small, wisened head. I walked on, down the path set in the grass, towards the bottle bell door. He whistled on behind me, the click of the secateurs his percussion.

 

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Laura McPhee-Browne
is a writer and social worker from Melbourne.

She is currently working on what she hopes will be her first book, a collection of ‘homage’ or ‘echo’ stories inspired by the short fiction of her favourite female writers.

You can find her at LAURA MCPHEE-BROWNE.

A Reluctant Sale
(Hayley Scrivenor)

Posted on May 6, 2016 by in Lies To Live By

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He mentions within the first few minutes he is a  lawyer.  That’s
why  he  can be trusted,  he says,  because he has a reputation to
protect.  Personally, I  always think there is something  a  bit off
about  someone  who  tells you they can be trusted,  particularly
when that person is trying  to  sell  you  something.  I  sit  at  the
back  of  the  small boat as it shudders  towards  the ‘Matisse’,  a
37  foot sailboat waiting  patiently  for  us  on  its  mooring,  and
cross my arms.
               ‘Plastic’  he yells,  gesturing to the small tacky blue  and
white boat that  we  sat  in.  ‘It was the wife’s idea of course!’ He
smiles ingratiatingly  at  my  partner  Stan, sitting beside him at
the front of the boat.  I feel excluded from the conversation, as I
will for  most  of  the  upcoming  hour  we  spend  going over the
‘Matisse’  and   all  its   particulars.   When  I   ask   the  lawyer  a
question  he  gives  Stan  the  answer,  a routine  that  is  already
getting  old  by  the  time  we  arrive and climb aboard the yacht.
It’s an old  boat,  but well made and beautiful.  Warm woodwork
gleams everywhere.
               We soon learn this lawyer’s boat-owning career, and the
lives  of   pretty  much  all  of  his  friends  who  have  boats, have
been maligned by women.  Women, who  don’t appreciate boats,
don’t    love    the    sea,   women    who    leave    their   cosmetics
everywhere and complain  about  the  lack  of  wardrobe space. I
imagine  these  women,   with   brightly   manicured   talons  and
impractical  high  heels, their bitchy tinkling laughter swallowed
by the waves.
               We  get  back  on  the  plastic  runabout  after  giving the
Matisse  a  full  run  down, the lawyer is unimpressed when I ask
him to show me how each  and  every  system  turns  on.  I  sit  in
the front this time with Stan taking  the  back seat.  I  am curious
to see  if  the lawyer will actually talk to me.  I  ask him to take us
around to  the  other  side of  the  bay.  There are some moorings
becoming  available  on  this  secluded  side of the bay soon,  and
he  urges  us  to  get on  the  waiting list.  Of course,  it’s  Stan  he
gives   this  information  to,  smiling   the  same  shit-eating  grin,
neck craned at an 180 degree angle.
               It’s almost too easy to slit the lawyer’s throat when he is
in that position.   The knife work is all me,   as  I  have  the  most
experience in that area,  but Stan does the heavy lifting.  I  make
sure   we   take   all   the   relevant  keys   from   his   body  before
dumping him over the side.  We don’t need my notes after all (if
it floats, Stan and I can sail it).  It’s getting dark and there aren’t
many  lights in  the  marina  as  we  make  our  silent  getaway.  I
remove the ‘For Sale’ sign  from  the  boat’s  aft  as  we  leave  the
harbour.   I  rip  the  plastic-coated  cardboard  into small pieces,
watching with a smile as they hit the water, refusing to sink.

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Hayley Scrivenor - A Reluctant Sale

Hayley Scrivenor is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong. You can find her work in Seizure Online, SCUM, Phantasmagoria, SWAMP and prowlings, among other places. She is a passionate member of the Wollongong Writers Festival team and spends much of the rest of her time learning, forgetting and re-learning how to tie a bowline.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Urban Alphabet (Kristen Roberts)

Posted on April 29, 2016 by in Lies To Live By

IMG_6641A is for ‘orses. And cows. But there aren’t any horses or cows around here, so people use it to mulch their flower beds instead.

B is for honey. Not that creamed crap, just the proper stuff that dribbles through your crumpet.

C is for understanding what’s going on around you, not just looking, you know? Like actually taking in the signs and making sense of them, not like Aunty Bern who thought that handsome young bloke really wanted to marry her and just needed money for the tickets over from Zambia. She couldn’t see the forest for the trees, old Bern. One of the first life lessons I learned – there’s always more than meets the eye. Gotta remember that, eh?

D is for a lack of effort applied to your studies. You only get out what you put in, eh? Just look at my cousin Mick — he’s sick of selling hotdogs to pissheads at 3am, but what else are you equipped to do when you dropped out of school at 15?

E is for trippers. Tried it once at a party, and got way too fascinated with a dead fish. But that’s a story for another time.

F is for swearing when your mum’s in town. She knows what you mean, but somehow it’s more polite than actually saying it.

G is for polite bewilderment, like when you drop hints for months before Christmas about tickets to see your favourite band but end up getting smelly soaps instead.

H is for addicts. You’ve really got to steer clear of the stuff – it’ll just mess you up. Chick I knew in high school? Gorgeous, popular, and smart too, but not anymore. Saw her hanging around at the bus-stop near the servo a few weeks back, and nearly didn’t recognise her. She walked across the concourse when she saw me and hit me up for a tenner, then abused me when I told her I didn’t have any cash on me.

I is for me. It gets really weird when people refer to themselves in the third person, you know? Like: ‘Stanley really likes a shandy after mowing the lawn’. WTF is that? Just say ‘I love a beer after doing the lawns’! We know who you’re bloody talking about.

J is for reefers. It’s another drug reference, I know, but it’s just for relaxing after a hard week.

K is for lazy agreement, ‘kay?

L is for modelling like Kylie is for singing.

M is for a feed after J. It’s all about the special sauce for me. Word of advice though: the staff don’t think you walking through drive-through to order is as funny as you do.

N is for O, the first word I learned how to spell. Mum used to say it real loud, and then ask me how many times she had to say it. Lots, apparently.

O is for surprise. And pleasure. Ohhh yeah.

P is for toilets and sometimes behind trees, never for footpaths or front doors, and definitely never for faces. Not cool at all.

Q is for tickets, or the dunny at a good gig (see? Use the toilets!). Not too sure about those people who sleep out the front of a shop the night before a new phone comes out though. I mean, it’s just a bit of technology that’s gonna be superseded by another one in a few months, yeah? My time is too valuable for that.

R is for pirates and their buccaneers. Speaking of pirates, you know that joke, right? The pirate asks ‘where’re my buccaneers?’ and the other bloke goes ‘they’re on your buccan head!’. Jeez that one cracks me up.

S is for bends. I’m not going to pretend to know anything about plumbing except that it’s one of the greatest inventions ever. That and penicillin. Oh, and electricity. Wait, this list could get really long if I keep going.

T is for pots, not bags.

U is for me. Aw, love ya babe.

V is for five, or peace, or up you, depending on which way you give it.

W is two sheep that look the same in a paddock.

X is for sneaky Facebook stalking.

Y is for curious minds. Seriously, you’ve gotta ask questions or you just become some robot, going about your day.

Z is for cartoons only. C’mon, no-one makes that noise when they snore. If you tried to make the sound of those little lines of z’s you’d make a smooth noise, and no-one snores nice, smooth sounds. Snoring is rough, jagged, and it’s loud. Those little z’s are bullshit. Just come over some night and listen to my other half snoring…or don’t, because that would be weird.

 

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Kristen Roberts is a writer and kindergarten teacher from western Melbourne. Her poetry and short stories have been published in a range of journals and anthologies including page seventeen, Australian Love Poems, Award Winning Australian Writing 2012, and Quadrant. Her first collection, The Held and The Lost, was published by Emma Press in 2014.

Distant Music (Dominic Carew)

Posted on March 4, 2016 by in Lies To Live By

FullSizeRenderElla Meagher strode down the corridor of the Bon Marche building in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Her long skirt billowed and threatened to trip her up. Her blouse was an aboriginal dot painting. She wore her steel-wool hair in a high bun and carried her head at a tilt, the way she always did when hurried.

Ella was the oldest member of the faculty. She taught everything. She knew very little. At heart she was a writer and even published a novel a long time ago. Today, she held a tattered document in her hands, which she’d received from one of her first-years. She thought maybe it was the stuff of genius but couldn’t be sure. Not until she’d shown John Darley, the head of writing.

He was at his desk in his dark office when she came in. Strips of daylight glowed between the gaps in the curtains. She stood with her back against the wall as John read under the meagre lamp on his battered old desk.

‘God’, he said, as he turned the first page.

He chuckled a couple of times, at the exact same places she had chuckled. Page 4, first paragraph, and again on page 6.

‘What did you say this kid’s name was?’ asked John, placing the story back on his desk.

‘Gabriel.’

‘And what’s he like?’

‘Quiet of course. I’m yet to hear him speak.’ Then, after a silence: ‘I think we should let Dalrymple and the others know. The publishing houses too.’

John cupped the back of his head in his hands.  ‘Yes’, he said. ‘I suppose so.’

At the end of class the following day Ella pulled aside Gabriel and told him not get too excited and not to think for a moment he didn’t have a precariously steep and maddeningly long road ahead of him, but certain people in certain places wished to speak to him about his work.

‘Not the early stuff you wrote’, said Ella, frowning, ‘which frankly lacked… what’s the word? Oh, you know, it lacked. I’m referring to the more recent stories. The one set in Warriewood in particular.’

The one set in Warriewood, what? But Gabriel hated that story. He shuddered at his hatred. He shuddered at everyone and everything, always. To not shudder — to sit down and be, simply, still — was a faraway dream, a foreign country, the faint chime of a distant bell, rung by a distant hand.

‘What do you say?’ said Ella. ‘Can you do next Thursday at 1 pm?’

He muttered something that Ella took for confirmation and left the room. He left the Bon Marche building. He boarded an L88 bus and sat in the back corner with his hood pulled down over his forehead and his hands jammed into the pocket on the front of his jumper and there, in rhythmic motion, he slipped into reverie.

Gabriel lived in a boring room in a boring house on a boring street. He sometimes hoped his parents would find a way to quarrel — a smashed plate, a mad roar, anything to interrupt the ennui that wracked his little life. Warriewood was a boring place. There were McDonalds and Pizza Hut, the cinema, a shopping centre, a sewage treatment plant, and that was it. Gabriel could join the dots between these actants, could find cause and odorous effect, but, he asked, to what end?  Why look for meaning in Warriewood when what he longed for, really, was freedom from it? He pined for something different.  He knew nothing of what was out there — he’d only ever lived in Warriewood — and yet, whenever he walked the coastal paths atop the headlands along the beaches, he’d peer into the great unknown, across the roiling sea, and make out the vague shapes of a great world. He’d hear, in those moments, the great world’s distant music.

They wanted to speak to him about his work did they? He couldn’t for the life of him see why, so obviously reflexive were his stories. So weakly weaved. So thin.

But! By meeting them would he find the path…
from Warriewood?

The next Thursday at 1 pm, he waited in Warriewood Pizza Hut for Ella Meagher, John Darley, Clive Dalrymple and certain representatives from Allen & Unwin to arrive. He was resigned to hearing them out. He had before him an open book — Dubliners by Joyce — and a moist slice of Hawaiian.

‘Here he is’, came a voice from behind. ‘Reading away as ever.’

It was Ella. She slid into the booth and sat opposite him.

‘Gabriel’, she said, ‘allow me to introduce Charles Wilke and Christina Southern from A&U. You know John of course.  And this is Clive from the university’s commercial affairs office.’

They all piled in.

‘Apologies we’re meeting here’, said Ella, addressing the group. ‘But Gabriel, young lad that he is, wasn’t able to get himself out of Warriewood.’

‘Not at all’, said Wilke — a gaunt fellow. ‘Christina and I love our pizza.’

Christina forged a smile and nodded. ‘We’ve had a chance to read Distant Music’, she said. ‘Remarkable, truly.’

‘What Christina means’, said Ella, ‘is, do you think you could write more stories like it? A novel even?’

‘We’re not here to pressure you into anything’, said Wilke. ‘You have a rare talent with colour and light. It needs time. Take as much as you want. All we’re saying is, if you happen to find an idea worth rendering in longer form, we’re happy to talk to you about it.’

‘With one proviso’, said Christina.

‘Oh, yes’, said Ella reaching over the table to pat Gabriel’s forearm. ‘Nothing major.’

‘Nothing major’, said Christina. ‘That’s right.  All we ask is that your novel be set here in’ — she coughed — ‘Excuse me. In Warriewood’.

Distant Music took place at dusk. The sun off to light the world anew and leave Warriewood behind in darkness; a young boy standing on a headland, silhouetted against the sky, his head cocked as if straining to catch the words of a song and catch its aching melody. He wrote it in a single sitting. He wrote it from his heart.

‘We think you’ve hit on a place that, as far as we’re aware, has no representation in Australian literature.’

‘Christina’s right’, said Wilke. ‘Warriewood isn’t merely unrepresented, it’s energetically overlooked. A black hole, young man!’

‘Until, of course, Distant Music.’

‘Yes’, said Wilke. ‘Exactly.’

Gabriel sat there mute. Were they out of their effing minds? Who did they expect would buy such fiction? Even Joyce would struggle to sell Warriewood to the world, he’d likely not sell it to Warriewood! Worse, though, was that they’d not understood what he’d meant by the story. It’s not about here, he thought. It’s about over there.

‘We can tell’, said Wilke, ‘by the beauty in your writing, how much you must love Warriewood.’

‘That image’, said Ella, ‘of the blade of grass being borne down the gutter…’

She stopped. Her face changed. She was… yes, she was crying.

‘It’s a rare gift indeed’, said Wilke, ‘to see the kind of truth you’ve seen in Warriewood.’

‘Warriewood’, said Christina, and she raised her cup to Warriewood.

In his bedroom that afternoon, Gabriel lay and looked at the ceiling. He wanted out. He wanted to stow away on a ship bound for the Horn of Africa. Do ships go to the Horn of Africa? He wanted out. Normally he’d write himself free, but no more. For all he had was Warriewood. To imagine effing Warriewood. A novel (or novella) set in stinking Warriewood.

He left his house in Warriewood, past the treatment plant, along the road by Pizza Hut and high up to the edge of the continent. It was dusk again. Far below white foam heaved into the rock face, each wave shaping its jagged cheekbone.  There was a glow above the horizon, a violet thread, the distant shape of a distant song. And here I am in Warriewood.  That beach down there, oh Warriewood.

That night he dreamed of Warriewood. There were fires. A pizza oven caught alight and the flames touched each corner of the suburb. Before long McDonalds exploded spraying out showers of burger grease and the grease, it made the fires worse and the flames were tall as headlands and all they left behind was the charred, smoke-haze outline of a place once known as Warriewood. Only he survived the blaze and walking through the charcoal mess he saw that ash had buried the good citizens of Warriewood. Just their hands remained, poking through the silt as if reaching, ever reaching, and he wiped his tears with blackened fingers which left their marks in shocking streaks and… the wind blew.

He woke up, heart pounding, there in his little room, and wrote the first lines of a novel.

So here we are in Warriewood.

Yes (I know!) in Warriewood.

We lay our scene here. Can you effing believe it?

 

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Dominic Carew is a lawyer and writer from Sydney. His stories have appeared in Going Down Swinging, Seizure, Scum Mag and the UTS Writers’ Anthology. He is currently shortlisted for the Newcastle Short Story Award.

 

Shop Til You Drop (Jemma Payne)

Posted on December 4, 2015 by in Lies To Live By

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It was Dr Hope’s last day in the country. The girl selling necklaces was barely older than his twins. She wore a faded Adidas t-shirt, and when she turned away, the tag stuck out behind her neck, blotchy texta: Emily Goldsmith 2P.

She passed him the necklaces. The plastic bag was red and inconceivably thin, like a wilted bubble, more delicate even than the ones he used to freeze his girls’ sandwiches so they’d stay fresh until lunchtime. One anchor-shaped pendant was already poking through the plastic.

‘Thank, thank’, said the girl who wasn’t Emily Goldsmith.

David quashed the urge to ask her to double-bag it. He held it from underneath, the wood beads moving like bird bones in his palm. Behind him, the girl had taken up a bowl of rice, and he wondered who had made it for her, what they were doing at this moment so there’d be more for tomorrow.

David Hope had only two daughters but so far he’d bought thirteen necklaces.

 

This was part of the cultural program tacked onto the research trip. The hotel had a pool and a restaurant, but they were encouraged to interact with the locals for a day before the flight out. They were actually told, interact, which made Dr Hope think of his kids’ educational iPad apps. Interactive researchers, interactive natives. Learning is FunTM.

‘You may feel uncomfortable haggling, but accepting the first asking price is often seen as disrespectful’, the guide explained. Their cultural education took place on plastic lawn chairs in a little carpeted room off the restaurant.

Dr Hope could count to ten in the local language. He rehearsed haggling in his head. It unsettled him when numbers were negotiable.

 

The day before, there was nothing uncertain about the numbers. While the technician made measurements, the scientists stood in the river shallows in long rubber boots. They waved to the barefoot kids who watched them from upstream. They chatted about sport and another researcher’s son, whose guinea pig had had two pure white, dead babies. She’d spent last night on the phone, paying fifty cents a minute to tell him stories about animal heaven.

‘Dr Hope, could you please check this?’

Their technician – oh God, was it Michael or Mitchell? – was a PhD student, supervised by one of Dr Hope’s international colleagues. Today he wore yellow jeans tucked into his boots. Evidently the field trip was an opportunity for fashion statements unutterable in the lab.

‘I mean, is it set up okay?’ the student asked. ‘Because maybe —’

Dr Hope checked the instrument to placate him. ‘That is the highest reading we’ve had. But this is where the waste-water outlet was.’

‘Can’t we do another sample?’ the student asked.

He was too young, David thought, to get doctor before his name. The barefoot kids waved. David looked down. The current had wrapped a shred of flimsy plastic around his boot, red, funny colour for a shopping bag. ‘Remember, it’s a cumulative thing, over the time period we’re here it won’t — Mike.’

‘Mitch.’

 

He’d met Mitch at the perfectly choreographed cultural welcome. Traditional, the guide explained. Though probably not lunch served with drinks brought out in sealed plastic bottles.

‘Mitchell’, said the guy next to him.

‘David Hope.’ They shook hands, mingling the sanitiser on their palms.

‘But do you think’, Mitchell asked, looking round the room at the women serving, ‘they’re getting decent pay?’

A man leant between them and took their empty water bottles, one in each hand, stepped back, and replaced them with new ones, like a magic trick. Something swept over David’s arm: the man’s tie, a generically traditional print repeated in the women’s skirts.

‘Sorry’, David said.

Mitchell waited until he was gone before resuming his attack, or reassurance, or whatever it was. ‘Well, it’s no different to buying cheap anything. I mean, everyone knows…’

David felt airsick.

An hour before, from the plane, the factory site was a gap amidst the tin, rusty corrugated roofs crammed around its rectangular negative space. The site photos he’d been emailed showed cinder-blocks and stringy shrubs keeling over into pools of mud. But later, in person, they looked less like weeds than sun-starved houseplants, the kind his wife would’ve diagnosed as ‘leggy’ and in need of a trim and fertilise.

David had copies of the initial site plans in his briefcase: nine thousand square feet of damp scrub-land, slope of four degrees toward the river. Descriptions of stubborn mud-wallowing trees that could have been mangroves, what David called in school talks a river’s kidneys. No photos, just blueprints signed off by the entrepreneur. He’d have waved back at the kids and bought their necklaces. Only bottled water for him, though, as if the place was already contaminated.

 

The next day he got back on the plane, and left. The factory site sat empty, weeping on the river’s shoulder.

 

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Jemma Payne studies creative writing and Spanish, and is undertaking an internship with the Wollongong Writers Festival. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in Tincture Journal and Voiceworks, including in the Voiceworks #100 Special Edition, and she was shortlisted for the 2015 Visible Ink anthology. Find Jemma on Twitter @jemmalpayne

 

Joey (Deb Wain)

Posted on November 11, 2015 by in Lies To Live By

FullSizeRender1You shouldn’t be hitchhiking out here on your own, she says when she leans across and opens the door of her shiny four-wheel drive. The young woman she addresses hurries to throw her backpack onto the floor at the foot of the passenger seat. She quickly scans the driver for signs of her being an axe-murderer and, not finding any, settles into the passenger seat doing up her seatbelt.

You shouldn’t be picking up strangers, she smiles. Thanks. My name’s Kelly.

Maureen completes the introductions and asks the obligatory, Where are you heading? I can take you as far as Gummundah or the turn off from the highway if you want to keep heading north.

Nowhere, I’m going nowhere in particular. Gummundah sounds good.

Maureen had been startled when the shape of the young woman appeared in the headlights, an unexpected apparition at the side of the road, the little surge of adrenaline causing a tingle in her fingertips and making her hold in her breath. The girl had frightened her because she seemed to materialise out of nowhere, appearing fully formed in jeans, t-shirt and backpack.

They sit driving in the croon of the road noise for a while before Maureen says, Well, now that we know each other better, you can tell me where you’re really going.

Kelly laughs. She looks out the window at the trees and scrub that disappears at the perimeter of the headlights.

Yeah, what does it matter? I’m running away, she confesses.

Oh?

Yep, like a little kid. Bad relationship, though, not because I got grounded. She laughs again, I’m actually heading to a cousin in Darwin but I figure it won’t matter how long I take to get there since he doesn’t know I’m coming.

You travel light, Maureen says looking at the small backpack like ones that kids use to carry schoolbooks.

Yeah, that was out of necessity too. I had to go quickly and quietly. She smiles tightly. He isn’t a nice person, my ex. Kelly breathes out heavily, He never hit me though, it didn’t ever get to that. I wouldn’t have let him hit me. The road signs flash past announcing town names and distances, warning that drowsy drivers die and that micro-sleeps can kill. The rumble strip glows at the edge of the road like a headless arrow pointing their way.

So, what about you? Why are you going to Gummundah, do you live there?

I used to. My dad runs the pub. I’m going to see him.

Mmm. How long since you’ve been back?

Well, that depends who you ask; either too long or not long enough.

Maureen grips the steering wheel and peers into the arc of the headlights. She imagines a messy tangled web that keeps expanding and becoming ever more tangled; knots swell and pulse at the junctions. The centre white line flicks past in time with the pulsing nodes.

They are quiet again. The trees on either side of the wide road nearly meet overhead in places, leave open spaces in others. Kelly looks forward to the openness and clarity of a desert night sky. Maureen dreads the malty smell of stale beer that creeps out of the carpet and sheds off the walls of the pub. It will make her feel like a child again. It will make her feel guilty.

Kelly rests her head back against the seat, breathing deeply. So, she says, why did you run away?

Maureen smiles, Who says I ran? Maybe I went to the city for work.

Doesn’t mean you weren’t running.

My mum got sick. Cancer. Dad and I looked after her until right near the end. We couldn’t do it on our own. Dad was trying to run the pub, he had help but it was still hard. I was seventeen. I quit school to be with mum. In the end I couldn’t watch her disintegrate in a hospital bed. I didn’t have my license but I loaded up the old ute and left. I wasn’t there when she died. Maureen can’t keep the catch of guilt out of her voice. She’s told the story many times, she tells it as a penance. She doesn’t want people to get the mistaken idea that she’d been a good daughter, doesn’t want them to pity her.

And your dad?

Maureen’s head snaps around to look at the girl, What do you mean?

What’s wrong with him, is it cancer too?

Maureen looks steadily at the hitchhiker, Yes.

The thud of the kangaroo makes them both scream. Maureen stomps on the brake pedal hard but too late. Kelly is still screaming when the car stops. A sharp intake of breath, scream, a breath.

Stop, says Maureen, loud, strong. The girl gulps in air like someone just pulled from beneath a weight of salt water.

Are you okay? Maureen asks. I have to check and make sure it’s dead. Okay? Kelly gulps and nods.

Maureen disappears into the darkness behind the car. She takes longer than Kelly expects but the girl doesn’t look around. She doesn’t want to see the shadowy shapes behind the vehicle, one maybe two still moving.

There is blood on Maureen’s hands when she returns to the car.

Can you get me the rag out of the glove box? It’s an old tea towel.

What happened? Are you bleeding?

It had a joey.

Where is it? Is it okay?

It was too small, Kelly.

Oh, was it dead? There are tears in the girl’s eyes, they shine in the interior light. Shadows dance in the headlights still looking down the road to their destination.

No, says Maureen, It wasn’t. Let’s go.

 

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Deb Wain is a poet and short story writer who is passionate about the Australian environment. She has generally been employed in jobs where she talks for a living. When not writing or talking you can find Deb dancing in the garden, drinking coffee, or continuing her studies in creative writing. (Deb is a current PhD candidate at Deakin University.)

Ramen Night (Harold Legaspi)

Posted on October 30, 2015 by in Lies To Live By

FullSizeRender Dorian travelled lightly. He arrived at Narita airport as a tourist with only his laptop, Evian facial spray and a toothbrush. It was Dorian’s first visit to Tokyo, and curious of the Japanese, he jumped into a limousine-bus travelling to Shibuya with a grin from ear to ear. ‘I’m here to conquer’, he informed the driver.

Dorian and Yumi had never met before. Yumi had answered an online personals ad which Dorian posted and then forgot about for over a year. He was tired of being used by other women he met online, but longed for companionship. Dorian and Yumi kept up their exchange until Dorian casually mentioned he’d be in Tokyo; it then seemed natural to progress their friendship out of cyberspace. They arranged a blind date for 9pm at Shoto Café in Shibuya.

At six in the evening, Dorian returned to Shibuya after a day spent at Tsukiji Fish Market heckling at the tuna auction. He changed briskly and tried on the new jacket he’d purchased from Shinjuku. Then he headed out to Roppongi to an Izakaya, a sake bar, called Gonpachi, to take in the cozy Japanese interior which had inspired the sword fight scene from Kill Bill. At the Izakaya, Dorian ordered a katsudon and indulged in the warm cherry sake, guzzling it down in one gulp.

The night crawled; Dorian kept eyeing his watch till it read 8:30pm then set off to Shoto Cafe, a prison-themed establishment, for his date.

At 9pm, Yumi was in the lift alone when Dorian stepped inside. The doors shut but neither of them pressed the button. The pair made eye contact. Yumi was the first to speak. ‘Are you Dorian?’

‘Yes’ Dorian replied. ‘I’m meant to be at Shoto Café. Have I come to the right place?’

Yumi grinned. ‘I’m Yumi, your date. Are you on your own?’

‘Yes. Yes. I read that Shoto was on the fifth floor. You’re on your own too?’ Dorian asked, comforted by Yumi’s appearance.

‘Not anymore’ remarked Yumi. ‘Join me for a nightcap?’

Dorian sighed. ‘I was thinking the same thing.’ He laughed, then pressed five.

Dorian and Yumi sat in the corner of the café. The subtle light and ambient music created an intimate, soft yet electric mood. Yumi took off her blazer to reveal a slender neckline. They ordered the same thing – a ‘Mother’s Milk.’  The packaging on the carton depicted a baby sucking on the teat of his mother. In Japanese, the slogan read: ‘The breast-tasting drink, EVER!’

Dorian was nervous, and took his first sip. ‘Deliciously wholesome; so natural. Is there anything more life-giving than mother’s milk?’

‘I doubt it. Freud would have a field day in Japan. The inventor of Mother’s Milk obviously had an Oedipus complex’, said Yumi.

‘I shudder to think of the scene inside the manufacturer’s factories… poor farm-girls and milkmaids shackled up to cold, pitiless machines that squeeze their tits’, Dorian gasped.

Yumi covered her mouth with her hand, grinning. ‘Ai-yah!’ She took a gulp and got a milk moustache. Dorian nestled his hand on her face and wiped away the white trail above her lip. The pair giggled like schoolgirls.

Underneath the table, they shifted their legs closer until they were touching.

‘How much longer are you in Tokyo?’ Yumi asked.

‘Two days. But I’m not in any hurry to leave. I can stay longer.’

‘I’d like to invite you to my home for ramen night. My home is also my salon. I make kimonos. It’s just around the corner. Not tomorrow, but the day after.’

‘It’s a date’, Dorian beamed.

On his final night in Tokyo, Dorian doused himself with cologne in preparation for his visit to Yumi’s abode. His slicked back his hair and wore boat shoes purchased from a street vendor in Harajuku. The address Yumi gave him read ‘Nonbei Yokocho’, which translated to ‘Drunkard’s Alley,’ off Shibuya’s bustling centre.

From the outside, behind a glass window, two mannequins wearing kimono stared at him in a mid-bow pose. He knocked. Yumi appeared wearing a kimono, smiling. Dorian bowed, took his shoes off then entered.

Yumi was no shrinking violet. The moment Dorian set foot in the salon she took charge of the cooking, raiding the fridge for ingredients.

‘What are you doing?’ Dorian asked.

‘I’m cooking you dinner. Did you know that here in Tokyo, parents arrange for their sons and daughters to cook together with potential life-partners? It’s the surest way to determine suitability’, Yumi grinned.

‘I saw a vending machine today where I could get cupcakes in a can. Can the Japanese be any zanier?’ Dorian asked.

Yumi walked to the cupboard, stood on her tippy-toes and reached for a contraption resembling a fan. ‘I got this as a gift from my cousin.’

‘What is it?’

‘You attach it to your arm while you eat. Turn it on and the wind blows your food to cool it down quickly.’ Yumi handed the device to Dorian, who inspected it with a keen eye.

‘Genius! I’ll never burn my tongue again!’

‘Just press the button’ said Yumi.

The pair watched Yumi’s ramen, the steam drifting from the broth. Wary of the shaved pork and the consistency of the miso, Dorian took a bite. Then, he took another. The chili paste mingled with the chewy noodles, while the spring onions gave it texture and zest. No dish was left unfinished. The bowls appeared clean after the meal, as if they had just been washed.

After they ate, Yumi beckoned Dorian upstairs to her display room. She took his hand and guided him closely. Yumi flicked on the lights to reveal a row of mannequins, each wearing a different kimono.

‘Take your pick’ she said, ‘go on.’

Dorian’s jaw dropped. Light reflected off the silks and filled the room with scintillating colours. He gently brushed his hand over the pieces one by one, and then chose the kimono closest to Yumi.

In the changing room, Dorian was sweating. So the nagajuban goes under the kimono, the obi-belt goes over it. Or is it… Wait…

‘Are you OK in there?’ asked Yumi.

‘I’ll be out in just a minute’ Dorian replied, perplexed by the items of clothing.

‘Do you need a hand?’ Yumi was eager to see how he’d look.

‘I’m OK, still… trying… There!’

Dorian stepped out of the changing room. Yumi’s face lit up. She grabbed Dorian’s hand and placed him in front of the mirror.

‘Now you’re one of us’ Yumi exhaled, as she stared at the mirror into Dorian’s eyes.

 

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Harold Legaspi was born in Manila in 1980 and migrated to Sydney in 1989, where he now resides. In 2015, he embarked on a writer’s residency in Beijing. He is writing his first novel. He tweets @haku_chen