The nights grew hotter and the air faintly sugary. Luna sensed a man just out of range. She waited. And while she waited, she read books from the library, sometimes through the night, and she wrote every few hours in her diary; impressions, stories, snippets of songs or the poems of others, the tentative beginnings or fractured middles of her own. On weekends she worked double shifts at the restaurant and she learned the name of the opaque whore who worked the corner—Sindy (‘with an S’, she stressed). Luna wasn’t sure if the S was ironic or not. Sindy lived in the room next door. Sometimes Luna saw her in the morning, across the way in her kitchenette, making tea in cheap, lacy underwear, and they’d wave.
There was no breeze the night she met him, just a thick surrounding air as if a hundred men were breathing close. She walked down the artery known as the Strip, ugly faces jutted out of doorways like wrong words in a sonnet. Young men with bold eyes and foolish grins walked in gangs. A souped-up panel van with fat wheels revved at a set of lights. A boy with thick eyebrows and acne leaned from its window and yelled. Cold Chisel blasted down stairwells. The entrance of one was marked by a neon figure that swung its hips back and forth, torpedo breasts jutting out, the mouth a smirk, and an eye that winked. It wasn’t yet dark and the sun set slow behind the buildings. The light changed around her as she walked, settling on trees and faces, sharpening everything, glowing rose-gold and fading, as if it were light from another planet.
Luna’s shift began like any other at the old restaurant squeezed between a strip joint and a Jewish delicatessen. She was serving his table; he was one of a rowdy group of friends. There was something about the sharp blue eyes that made her feel alive and nervous. She noticed he drew the energy of the room to him and that even though he was the quietest among them, the gentlest, listening attentively, sweetly, when he spoke people bent toward him, beamed at him, stretched to hear his every word. Luna spied a well-worn jeans leg, rubbed to white thread at the knee, and a scuffed black boot protruding from the table. The room absorbed the generous sound of his laugh. She saw shyness in his wit and manner. There was something golden and regal about him, something sensual about the way he stood at the end of the night, taking an aged flaking leather jacket off the back of his chair and putting it on in a smooth, graceful motion. He caught her looking and smiled.
The second time he came to the restaurant he sat alone, watching her with intent, just short of staring. When she placed his bill on the table he introduced himself as Ed and he asked her name. She replied Luna and he said ‘the moon’, as if it all made sense. After counting notes to pay, he pressed a slip of paper into her palm. She looked at the torn strip in the kitchen, behind the swinging doors. She looked at it when she got home, staring into its big looping letters as if it were a crystal ball. Edward Yates 624.2801. She looked at the strip for two days, and then she called.
When they met for a drink he said he was a singer in a band she’d never heard of. When they parted he kissed her cheek, said he was leaving town the next day but would get in touch when he got back. Two weeks later Edward Yates the Second came calling and Luna brewed a strong pot of Irish Breakfast tea and they sat at the laminex table and sipped tea out of stained mugs. Ed’s eyes scanned the room, stopping to linger on the cover of a book beside Luna’s bed. He stood up, walked over to the book, and picked it up, weighing it in his hand as he turned toward her with the beginnings of a twinkling eyed smile at the edges of his mouth.
—You like Bukowski?
—I like his poems, confirmed Luna. Not so much all the drinking and gambling and fucking stories, but some of the poems are beautiful.
Ed read the title out loud: Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame.
—Feminists hate him, he said, but I think they’re missing the point. He’s the Marquis De Sade of our age, exposing its ugliness and weaknesses.
Ed brought the book back to the table, took a sip of tea, and flicked through several pages.
—Which is your favourite?
—I’m only about a third of the way though, but so far my favourite is a poem called ‘the tragedy of the leaves’ from the ‘60s.
—Will you read it to me? asked Ed.
—Okay, said Luna, with a shy shrug, before picking up the book and turning the pages back until she found it.
She cleared her throat nervously and began.
— ‘the tragedy of the leaves’:
awakened to dryness and the ferns were dead,
the potted plants yellow as corn;
my woman was gone
and the empty bottles like bled corpses
surrounded me with their uselessness;
the sun was still good, though,
and my landlady’s note cracked in fine and
undemanding yellowness; what was needed now
was a good comedian, ancient style, a jester
with jokes upon absurd pain; pain is absurd
because it exists, nothing more;
I shaved carefully with an old razor
the man who had once been young and
said to have had genius; but
that’s the tragedy of the leaves,
the dead ferns, the dead plants;
and I walked into a dark hall
where the landlady stood
execrating and final,
sending me to hell,
waving her fat, sweaty arms
screaming for the rent
because the world had failed us
Luna looked up at Ed, still holding the book open. He smiled with sad eyes and said,
—Yes, that is a beautiful poem. He paused, then added,
—You have a beautiful voice, and a great sense of timing and rhythm.
—Thank you, said Luna, looking away and placing the burnt orange paperback at the corner of the laminex table.
Luna didn’t know then who he was, who he was in the world that is, and Ed liked that. He liked the way she failed to fawn, and that she must have seen him, and taken to him, simply for himself. Over time she discovered that Ed was not as people seemed to imagine him. He was not particularly wild, or aggressive, though he did house a subliminal rage that made its way into song, revealed onstage. No, he was sensitive, gentle and intelligent, relatively sober, and more intellectual than his longish hair, gaffer taped boots and ageing leather jacket implied. That day, the day of his first visit, they fell silent after the poem, until he cocked his head to one side and invited Luna to dinner.
—That would be lovely, she said, and he took up the pen resting on the table with one hand, picked up her hand with the other, turning her wrist with a delicate twist, and wrote his address on the palm of her hand.
The next night Luna walked the short distance to his house and found him watching a documentary on deep-sea fish. His room was bright: sunny and white-walled, the attic of a large terrace house. Luna sat on the bed beside him and watched the screen to avoid his eyes: a mysterious creature swam with headlight eyes casting a brilliant beam through the subterranean black, and another turned invisible when threatened. As he moved about the room strong and slender, shirtless in tight black jeans and black-rimmed reading glasses, she watched sinewy muscle stir beneath his luminous skin. As they talked she caught glimpses of long lean legs and the noble profile of his great head. She saw in him the bearing of a Viking warrior, the pride of his ancestors honoured in the cut of his stride. He turned the TV off and asked her to choose a record while he went downstairs to the kitchen for drinks.
Luna sat on the floor and flicked through the endless line of records that stood to attention in a row on the worn carpet like so many soldiers stretched side by side across a trampled field. She selected Lou Reed’s Berlin and hooked the needle to the vinyl. He heard the tender notes of piano, resonant with the endless grief of WWII, bitter sweet with poignant memory, as he came through the door, gin and tonics in hand: In Berlin, by the wall, you were five foot ten inches tall. It was very nice.
They listened and talked, Luna stealing glances of the different aspects of his being, the ways he held his head, the animated expressions that passed across his face. After a meal of spaghetti he sang for her, strumming a woody guitar. It was very nice. In the small hours, he poured his creamy shoulders onto her, breathing close with earthy marijuana breath. Oh honey it was paradise. Later, Gylan Kain broke up the dark, chanting: Black satin, Amazon, fire engine, crybaby, heh. They slept awhile and woke at dawn, stirring toward each other as the huge trees outside his window lathered up a storm. She held the muscle of his arm, pressing against the coolness of his skin.
Spring led the lovers into a summer of nights of cheap champagne on rooftops, and kisses backstage of hole-in-the-wall clubs with drunken crowds, of watching him sweat and sing in white rays of light, of tracing his veins in a candle’s glow, the way she had once traced Jean’s. Luna followed the streets of fine wrinkles around his eyes; she didn’t care that he was older. She held his poker face to the light, counted his freckles and measured his limbs, noted it all for a reliquary. She drew the details from him: he had a brother somewhere south, his parents were long dead, he left school young and worked on the railroads, until music, yes music, which became his life. There was a black and white photo of his mother in a frame. He said she was a redhead who smoked and drank and swore.
Luna learned about the women and she felt each one keenly, their legacy and memory. They were blonde, or dark or in between, sisters and enemies. She was bonded to them by her love for him and by her jealousy. They had a way of appearing in his touch and thieving it from her. She endured his absences restlessly, conjuring him in endless tropes of fantasy in her diary, counting his fictional steps around town, speculating on where he was, who he was with, what he felt, what he thought, if he thought about her, how he felt about her. His return brought profound relief, a kind of shocking surrender to trust. He came back. He came back. It amazed her every time. One day she wrote in her diary, sounding more pretentious than she meant to:
Falling in love is both an act of leaving home and of trying to return home, to bodies inside bodies.
Luna was immature, a child still in many ways, but this much she had grasped in their heated beginning, in the unspeakable, slippery, barely known way of new knowledge. She had dreamed of others. There had been boyfriends before Ed. But none revealed divinity as he did, none made her laugh till her belly ached or serenaded soft and smart, or appeared within her like a magician making alchemy of her thoughts and moods, rearranging them at will.
At the close of her shift Luna went to him and lay beside him wearily while he rubbed her feet and kissed her neck, the sensual prickling strokes of his whiskers on tired skin tickling her awake and to wanting. He played records like an addict and her ears were fashioned again, by him, by what he heard, by how he heard it and it seemed to Luna as if she was hearing music for the first time. Through Ed, a tune she thought she knew could bloom into a three-dimensional sonic garden, pulsing light and shade, grown in the dirt of melody and word, sublime and perilous. She followed him too into the fire hazard clubs and the downstairs cellar bars that were his stage now that his glory days were behind him. There the devout worshipped while he pranced and performed. Afterward she would follow him, linked at the hand, through the heaving crowd to the surprise of clean air and post-midnight streets. Sometimes Luna took her diary in her faux zebra skin bag, writing in it during sound check and sometimes when Ed was out on stage, little vignettes or teenaged toned declarations like:
I don’t love him because the crowd does, but when I hear his voice ringing through the room, and I see him up there so loose and free I feel like I could explode with pride.
The nights and the venues and the sets bled together in Luna’s mind forming, for the years and decades to come, a writhing mass of memory in which each experience as audience to Ed’s band became the one archetypal memory. The roadies moved the same way, lumbering around the stage in their worn t-shirts and their hung low jeans; the toilets were reliably stark and grubby with cheap, hard paper down to scraps on the roll, and the bitches (Luna called them ‘the bitches’) all looked the same in their form-hugging black and made up faces. Only one night stood out, etched in her being in every detail as raw as if it had happened yesterday. It was not the most dramatic of those nights, or the most thrilling, but it was the one she remembered.
Luna sat alone at a booth table scribbling in her diary in too-dim lighting as Ed took hold of the mike and introduced the last song. She looked up and caught sight of some bitches hanging by the side of the stage and her mouth twitched. Her eyes shifted to poor, drunk Lenny Manetas lolling about in the booth facing hers. Lenny, who Luna sometimes caught staring at her like a hound dog, was a different kind of singer to Ed. Rumour had it his parents sent him to an asylum, when he was just a child, and all he had left was singing the blues. Luna bent down to her diary and wrote in capital letters:
SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD!
When she looked up Lenny stood looming above her, drink in hand.
—Feel like company? he yelled over the noise.
—Sure, said Luna with a tender smile.
Lenny slumped into the booth opposite Luna and fixed her with his sad, blue eyes. He leaned across the table between them with his curly hair hanging like a mop over his huge sweaty face, peering through those coarse ringlets of his. Lenny took a gulp of whiskey, and Luna glared at two girls (bitches!) who had stopped Ed at the door backstage as he came off. She couldn’t see their faces but Ed stood for some time talking to them (bitches!). She couldn’t see their faces but she knew the girls and all the girls like them. She couldn’t see their faces but she didn’t have to. She knew how their eyes performed and their lips auditioned. She saw how they stood, holding their bodies to face him like advertisements.
Luna felt sick so she concentrated on the way Lenny held his glass. Lenny raised his eyes up and gave her a queer look. Then he leaned over, grabbed her hand all urgent, and opened his mouth to speak. Luna could smell the smoky kick of whiskey on his breath and she tried to block out the deafening hum of the taped music and drunken talk, but his message evaporated in the din like mist in the air and she never heard a word.
Meera Atkinson is a Sydney-based writer, poet and scholar. Her writing has appeared in over sixty publications, including Salon.com, Best Australian Stories 2007, Best Australian Poems 2010 and Griffith REVIEW. Meera is co-editor of Traumatic Affect (2013), an international volume of academic essays exploring the nexus of trauma and affect. ‘Darlinghurst Nights’ is an excerpt from her novel Luna Alaska, which was part of her thesis for a creative PhD on the transgenerational transmission and poetics of trauma at the Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney.
I had always wanted to be a jongleur, to leap from the shoulders of another, to fly and tumble, to dare myself in thin air with nothing but my arms and legs to land me safely on the ground. An acrobat is not a bird, but it is the closest a person can come to being free in the air. The nearest to an angel’s gift of flying.
But that was as a child, when my body was secure, like that of a boy, and I felt myself whole and able to try anything. That was before my arms and legs grew soft and awkward and my woman’s body took away those strong, pliant surfaces of skin, before I knew I could bleed and not die or, worse still, carry a life inside me and die because of it.
In spite of my body, the dream remained. It was the idea that I loved; I understood enough of the world to know that I could never be a jongleur.
I remember Roland especially, though in my child’s fancy I called him Swallow. He was part of a traveling troupe that visited our town one market day and began to perform in the middle of the crowd, the music and the colors of the costumes nudging us to stop and watch. A circle formed, with Swallow as its center. His costume was gray striped with red, his face painted with blue on his cheeks and forehead and red on his nose. He balanced the hilt of a sword in each hand, the blades standing tall above him, and danced, lifting his knees, pointing and scooping his feet in front and behind. When he stopped, his confrere gently placed an apple on the tip of each blade. Making sure they were still, the balance certain, Swallow stepped right then left, forward and backward, a slow and graceful single carole, smiling at us all. Finally he threw the swords up and caught them in one hand—though someone shouted, ‘Blunt, you fraud’—and gathered the apples with the other. He bowed deeply and ran to join his companions, who were building a tower, three on the bottom then two on their shoulders. With dancing feet, Roland climbed from leg to arm to leg to arm and onto the shoulders of the men on top. He stood still for a moment, arms in the air, stretching out to the heavens, face tilted up, then leaped and tumbled. I gasped to see him swoop like a swallow in the gray sky beyond. He landed surefooted and still on two slippered feet, and the six men formed a line, bowed deeply, then turned around, pulled down their breeches, and farted at us, one at a time. The crowd laughed and cheered but I was still leaping in the air with Swallow.
When I saw him later that day with his face cleaned of color, I saw his nose was not at all like a swallow’s beak, but sat to one side of his face as if it had been dough flattened by a rough hand. He told me he had fallen when learning to tumble; his own knee had broken his nose as he landed.
The day after I was enclosed I thought of Swallow. I’d thrown away everything in this world and leaped into the air, lighter than I’d ever been, flying to God, who would catch me in his arms. Here, like Swallow, I was a body without a body. Even inside the thick walls of my cell I felt I could see the sky all around me, blue and clear, and I thought I had what I wanted.
I didn’t know then that I had landed on hard ground and broken my bones with my own body.
The Church of St. Juliana
Hartham, English Midlands
St. Faith’s Day, October 6, 1255
I was near the door, where women should stay. The floor was hard, refusing me, though I lay facedown, my arms out- stretched, embracing it, wanting this life, this death. I knew there were people nearby, those from the village who had come to look or pray, but I saw none of them. Voices in the sanctuary that seemed so far away sang a dirge, a celebration of loss, prayers for me. I knew the words: I had read and reread them, memorized them, prayed on them, but now they were nothing but sound. The dank cold of stone crept into my bones; I did not feel the drops of water on my back, their chill blessing. I had become stone.
The bishop lifted me to my feet, my legs leaden, and guided me toward the altar. I took the candles they gave me; now a flame glowed in each hand and I could see nothing beyond them. From somewhere outside my ring of light, the bishop’s words implored me: Be fervent in love of God and your neighbour.’ I knelt and prayed.
Then words, paper, and more words: I signed to all I had asked for. The clinking of the thurible’s chain and the bitter-sweet smell of incense drifted close, quietly wrapped around me like a shroud, like arms that loved me.
They led me through the front door, away from the gathered light of candles and people, and out into the night, black and chill. We walked through the graveyard, wet grass under my feet, the dead all around me. Singing came from the darkness: ‘May angels lead you to paradise’; this was the hymn we’d sung for Ma when she died, and later for Emma, too. At the cell we stopped and the warm hands that held my arms let go. I shivered. The bishop’s voice commanded, ‘If she wants to go in, let her go in.’
The dark mouth stood open. I took a breath and stepped inside. Blackness yawned around me, damp on my face. But voices were nearby, sweet ones, singing, ‘Be of good courage, thy desire from God is at hand.’ They laid me down on the floor, scatterings of dirt and words falling on me, into my mouth and eyes. Death desired me and I accepted: ‘Here I will stay forever; this is the home I have chosen.’ I could feel my bones, white and still in the black soil; worms wove among my ribs like wool on a loom. Deep in this darkness I am dead. My body dissolves, crumbles, turns to earth. They turned and walked away, left me alone.
I startled, fright hot and sharp in my chest. Blows shuddered the door. I stood and pressed my hands against it, felt nails splintering wood, the sound sharp in my ears, then echoing inside my head. These hammer blows that sealed my door were the nailing of my hands and feet to the cross with Christ, the tearing of his skin and sinew. The jolt of each blow pushed me away but I strained to feel it, the shiver of resistance humming in my body.
When she was dying, Emma had opened her hand for mine, held on to me, held on to life. Another nail, and another, the judder running through my arms and into my chest, through my jaw and into my teeth. The taste of blood sharp on my tongue. Christ made no noise, his face tight with pain; Emma didn’t speak, just looked at me, her eyes fading. Blood dripped, then ran.
The hammering ceased but still my arms throbbed and silence rang in my ears. Then scuffling, tools clinking, the church door banging shut, the dull click of its latch, low and serious voices fading. I stepped away from the door, the smell of incense floating up from my robe to touch my cheek.
Two candles burned on my altar; they must be the ones I had carried in the church. I took two or three steps toward the bed and sat down delicately, as if not to disturb someone else’s sleeping place; the straw rustled. I stood up again and peered into the gloom. Of a sudden my body came back to me: my heart was beating hard, my legs were shaking, and my belly ached. I needed to piss, now. I looked around for the bucket, found it at the end of the bed, pulled up my robe, and squatted. The ache in my belly lessened and I felt calmer. I reached out, touched the cold stone wall, rough and gritty on my hand. The clotted smell of dampness, the earthy smell of moss. This was to be my home—no, my grave—for the rest of my life.
I knelt at my altar and began Compline—’The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end’—but my words ran out. I’d prayed these words each night since I was a child; they were part of me, like breathing, and now they had deserted me. But this was my life, to pray. I began again, my breath fast and shallow, hoping that the thread would catch and the words be pulled along. Nothing; they would not return however much I concentrated. It was as if I’d never learned them. My first night alone and I had no prayer. I snatched at some lines: Iesu Criste, Fili Dei uiui, miserere nobis . . . Domine, labia mea aperies . . . I sang Veni creator spiritus over and over until my heart settled and slowed. My head drooped. I blew out the candles and crawled over to my bed, crossed myself, and closed my eyes. It was done.
My life was becoming more and more real in this new world that I had found for myself, and some days even passed without me thinking of David. But when that happened, I felt guilty that I hadn’t, and somehow cheap that I could let a day pass without him being a part of it.
I knew I had to ‘get over it’ as Karl put it – but there was part of me that didn’t want to, that felt it wasn’t right that I should. In some way, it was as if getting over it meant that I would love him less, or that he was less important to me, or maybe that all we had together was somehow less meaningful – and that wasn’t true. I felt that I couldn’t let it be true. It was the pain that helped to keep his memory alive. But time does seem to numb that pain – at least the everyday gnawing, unbearable pain that eats you up and doesn’t let you breathe. The pain changes to occasional sharp stabs that hit you all of a sudden and take your breath away instantaneously, leave you reeling. This pain can be ignited by a phrase spoken in a certain cadence, a riff of music, a fleeting scent, something that you wouldn’t even think meant anything, but all of a sudden there would be David, large as life, smiling or shouting or whatever, taking your insides and twisting them sharply. This pain took many years to fade completely.
And so my life went on, slowly pushing me up that path of recovery until I saw for the first time in forever the evidence of the sun.
It happened as I was walking down the corridor at school one day, just an ordinary day, juggling a stack of textbooks and a pile of exercise books, as you do. My attention was suddenly riveted by a new poster that adorned the wall at the junction of the corridor – a poster advertising ‘Daffodil Day’ and featuring a mass of yellow blooms. I stopped, suddenly shocked into memories of the past.
I saw David cavorting through the gardening section of the hardware store, camping it up about going there on a weekend like all the straight guys. Sean and I had watched him choose the bulbs he was going to plant along the edge of the garden. I wanted tulips, but David had insisted. He had known even then, although I hadn’t, the significance of what he was doing.
‘Daffodils,’ he insisted. ‘Beside the lake, beneath the trees fluttering and dancing in the breeze,’ then fluttered and danced his way to the checkout, with Sean grinning behind him, encouraging him. I smiled as I recalled the look of horror on the face of the boy at the checkout when he came on to him. As memory flooded back, I could almost feel the touch of his arms around my neck, his lips on my mouth, as he kissed me in front of everyone when I handed over my card, as if what I had done was something special. Now, half-way around the world, I realised how special it was.
Then, inevitably, someone bumped me from behind and the pile of books went flying.
‘F…..or goodness sake, can’t you look where you’re going!?’ I felt rather pleased in keeping the obscenity at bay. I smiled, and bent to pick up the books, satisfied with my unwavering professionalism and startled from any maudlin recollections by the silliness of the situation. I certainly wasn’t paying any attention to the person who had caused the spill.
‘Let me help you, Sir!’ A soft, deep voice disturbed my smug musings, and I looked up into the darkest eyes framed by the longest lashes. He was already crouched in front of me, piling up the books. He grinned at me, then lowered his head to his task, letting floppy dark brown curls hide his smooth tanned skin. Then he stood up with the pile he had made, and I was forced to look up his body to meet those eyes. I stood slowly, and he handed me the books.
Oliver, the boy from the photo, from the glimpses in the playground. But here he was only a breath away; close enough to feel his warmth, to breathe in his scent, to notice the way his hair curled around his ears. I was caught in his spell as he lowered his chin and looked up at me through his long, dark lashes. Our eyes met and we breathed in unison. Oh God. A slow smile curled around his mouth and lit up his face. I stared at his lips, my thoughts stripped completely naked for this young Adonis to read. And I knew, in that second that our eyes held, that he read those thoughts clearly. Then he grinned again and dashed off down the corridor to join his friends. I watched him go, knowing that something important had just happened, but already telling myself that it was nothing. And then he turned, walked backwards a few steps, and looked back at me, smiled, winked. And I knew in that moment that if I wasn’t careful, I would be in the biggest trouble of my life. And it was already too late.
‘He was really helpful. I was just wondering who he was. Tall, dark hair, fairly long. Year 11 or 12 – named Oliver…’
‘Oliver! That’s my nephew!’ Anna laughed. ‘Oh, he’s a charmer all right. My brother met his mother in England when he was on holiday there. Sonia’s husband had died when Oliver was a baby, and Martin fell in love with her and her little boy. He’s very good at drama, too…’ and she was off again about that damned play, about how we should be getting on with it, if I was going to do it, and this time there was no real hesitation.
‘So when do we cast?’
He auditioned for Romeo, and I knew the part was his before he even opened his mouth. He would tilt his head down and look at me from under lowered lashes, and he knew all too well the effect it had. And he’d wait to catch my eye, then hold my gaze for too long, then smile his desire at me, tempting, teasing, cruel. He knew. I tried to ignore, to deny, but he knew, and although nothing was said, and I remained ever the calm professional, there was something unspoken alive between us.
An excerpt from Dancing with the Daffodils by Tarion Keelan.
Christina’s gone. In the corner of the bedroom are the cardboard cartons to be sent on to Brisbane, where she’s gone to be with her family again. The day after she leaves the deliveryman comes to pick them up. He’s got a sandy-coloured goatee and smells of beer. He’s on his own, the cartons are heavy, so you offer to help. Half an hour later they’re all gone. You sit on a stool beside the now-empty corner and notice one of her blond hairs on your jumper, the one she knitted with her mother and her grandmother. You gently pull at it, but it has somehow become tangled in the woollen threads. You tug it out a short, sharp movement as if you were pulling a hair off your own head.
Over the next few weeks you’ll find them everywhere, these strands of fine blond hair. Sometimes they’re in unlikely places: resting on a window sill, caught under a chair leg. But most often they’re entwined in your clothes. You open your wardrobe, pick out something to wear, and there one is, snagged around a shirt button, snarled in a sock. Of course you don’t keep them, but it feels wrong to put them in the bin. You end up opening the window and letting the wind take them from your fingers.
Your flat is three rooms at the top of a large Edwardian house. It’s made up of a kitchen, a sitting room, and a bedroom, flanked by a long corridor. The toilet is out on the landing. You rent the place from Frank and Karen, a middle-aged couple who live in the rest of the building. They’ve been project officers for the local council all their working lives, and are model landlords: they never make you feel like a tenant. You like your flat. It’s pleasantly shabby and reasonably functional and, up there on the third floor, the windows are always full of sky. With its high white walls and black-painted floorboards, it feels like one of those contemporary art spaces that shifts from rundown building to rundown building until they either go mainstream or fizzle out.
The place has one major quirk. There’s no bathroom, so the bathtub is in the kitchen. And the bathtub is a quirk in itself. It’s short, squat and very deep with a moulded step that you sit on, the enamel worn thin by successive tenants. The kitchen is quite small, and fat from the cooker – not stove, cooker, you’re in London – collects on the bathtub’s rim. You’re continually wiping it away, this spray of fatty droplets from chops, sausages, bacon, and whatever else you cook. You hate the constant mix of substances: bread crumbs in the soap caddy, specks of dry shampoo on the oven door. It never fails to remind you how broke you are, how you don’t even have enough money to get back to Australia. In six months your visa will run out, and there’s no hope of an extension.
You’re broke because you’re unemployed, and you’re unemployed because of the impending war in the Gulf. Two weeks ago a tense-looking Sue, the head teacher of the English Language School you worked at, asked you into her office. You weren’t surprised when she told you that projected enrolments weren’t looking good, and that it wouldn’t be possible to keep you on. She began to give the obvious explanation, but you told her there was no need. You didn’t need to be reminded that ever since Bush and Thatcher had vowed to throw Saddam out of Kuwait, students had stopped coming in droves. The recent announcement of the UN Resolution authorising ‘all means necessary’, accompanied by the mobilisation of a global army ready to attack Iraq, hadn’t helped matters: it looked certain to be a winter of empty classrooms.
When you collect your last pay you find it fattened out with a two-week bonus, which at least softens the blow. Still, things are looking grim. You’re a foreigner in this country, so you can’t go on the dole. But even if you had the money for a ticket home, you don’t want to go just yet. A dose of self-reliance will be character building, you tell yourself. Just what the Lady ordered.
You spend your days hammering out job applications on the portable Remington a friend lent you. Your typing isn’t very good. It’s fast but not accurate, so you waste what seems like hours in stationery stores finding the best value paper, weighing up the pros and cons of correction ribbon over liquid paper. In your covering letters you don’t take any risks and are always careful to obey British conventions. You never ‘apply for a position’, you always ‘seek a post’.
It comes back to you again and again, the final incident that triggered Christina’s departure. You banged your shoe up against the rusting iron picture frame she’d left in the corridor, and sliced a large piece of leather off the toe. Your shoes weren’t exactly new, they weren’t even all that comfortable, but they were your Bond Street brogues, the only good pair you had. You’d always hated that stupid frame. God knows where she’d found it; it was so far gone it looked like it had been trawled up from the seabed. It had been standing in the narrow corridor for weeks, shedding huge flakes of rust, generally making a nuisance of itself. The sight of it, and the sight of your wounded shoe, filled you with rage. You kicked the stupid thing twice, three times, hoping it would collapse. It was surprisingly strong and each kick damaged your shoe even more. With a great effort of will you stopped, then stared down at the mess you’d made. The gouges in the leather were flesh-coloured against the black shoe polish. Then suddenly, something inside you snapped.
You kept very calm, walked down the corridor and opened the door to the bedroom. Positioned at the back of the flat, it had windows on three sides. In the clear winter light Christina was sitting at her worktable, gazing out the window. She was working on her sky diary, a large sheet of gridded paper whose squares she filled in everyday with a different colour, a colour that never actually resembled the sky, but, as she had told you, her particular interpretation of it. You started shouting at her, my shoe, look what you’ve done to my shoe, it’s ruined, it’s fucking ruined, that stupid frame, I told you not to leave it in the corridor, you know I’m clumsy, and now look at my shoe. She looks up at you, silent, waiting for you to stop, and as her ears flinch, as her eyes lose their dreamy lustre and brace themselves against your anger, you know that you have lost her.
In three weeks she’s gone. Until she leaves you continue to share the bed, an enormous, lumpy monster that stands on claw-like wooden legs and pushes you up towards the ceiling. You make love like you’ve never made love before, every touch your last. She’s never seemed more precious, more beautiful. One night when you’re fucking doggie style, her cheek pressed into the pillow, she weeps and starts to tear at her hair. You have to stop her ripping out great handfuls. Afterwards you know it’s better not to mention it. This is her only lapse, and for the rest of the time she’s completely calm, nearly serene, biding her time until she steps on the plane, wanting to make it as good as it can be.
The day of her departure arrives. It’s a late evening flight, which gives you time to have an early dinner. You make roast chicken with all the trimmings, her favourite. You don’t talk much during the meal, so it’s all over much too quickly, and when she offers to wash up you tell her not to be silly, you’ll do it later. You lug her suitcase through the quiet suburban evening, first to British Rail, and then onto the Piccadilly Line for the long haul to Heathrow.
Terminal Four is a madhouse of queues and security guards. It swallows you both alive, but you’re determined to see her off like any ardent lover. She checks in and you follow her across the squiggle-patterned carpet, the roar of the terminal making it impossible for you to really feel her presence for the last time. In front of the international departure gate you kiss and embrace and dissolve into tears, surrounded by a United Nations of different races toting the latest cabin baggage. You’ve been together for seven years. You are 29, she is 26. Three years age difference, a kind of golden mean, a comforting statistical average because we all know that men are less mature than women and need to be a little older to sustain any kind of relationship. She’s wearing her leopard-skin coat. It’s the last thing you see, the spots on the back of her leopard-skin coat, as she disappears through the metal detector. You don’t stay to watch the plane leave.
You catch the Tube home. It’s around 11.30 p.m. and the train is nearly empty. Without its usual crush of passengers, the carriage feels as light as an empty drink can. It shakes wildly as it hurls itself between the outer stations. You sit swaying in the clatter and din, staring at the line map stuck on the curve towards the ceiling. You randomly count down the stations: Hatton Cross, Hounslow West, Osterly, Chiswick Park, Stamford Brook, Hammersmith, Knightsbridge, Green Park, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Covent Garden.
You’ve never been able to imagine, riding in that glinting carriage light, the boroughs of London pressing down above you. You can only ever imagine a blank space, an empty plain stretching in all directions, and you are always amazed when you step off the escalator and find yourself in the busy high streets.
This is an excerpt from Great Western Highway, the second novel by Anthony Macris in the Capital series. It was published by University of Western Australia Press in 2012; read the Verity La review here. A revised edition of the first novel in the series, Capital, Volume One, will be published by UWAP mid-2013.
I wished it were a phantom pregnancy. I prayed I was really Christine and had been impregnated by the Angel of Music. Or the ghost of Gaston Leroux. Not you. Never you. Never Dale Fiddich. Not Mr Dale Fiddich of Ascot Vale. No letters after your name. Just the school roll at your fingertips. I scrolled through the results thinking that ‘yahoo’ must be a sick joke in this context. A sorry smorgasbord of choices. ‘It won’t be long now,’ I told myself, ‘not too much longer.’ I scrolled more furiously. Titles blurred. Blue font filled the screen. I felt the buzz in my veins. Life blood. Blue veins. Blue like the computer screen. And the Wedgwood my mother had locked away in the crystal cabinet. Just in case. Fear of the two ‘S’s: smashing or selling. But I had never wanted to break china. Only men’s hearts. And I couldn’t be bothered stealing either. China and hearts weren’t worth all that much in the end. They couldn’t smother or suffocate or crush so I had no use for them. I clicked on the third website.
Sheryl Lynn Massip placed her six-month-old son behind the tyre of her car and ran him over, repeatedly crushing his head.
Josephine Mesa beat her two year old son with a toilet plunger then buried her battered baby in a trash bin.
I didn’t have to read the screen, I knew it off by heart. But seeing it in print made it real. Made it possible. Made the blood rush to my head. Made the plane ticket under my pillow my last chance. Last week I had been given a Barbie suitcase on wheels. Small enough for hand luggage. Pink enough to be mine. You told me that New York would make it dirty. Your orange case was filthy from all the travelling. But I wasn’t going to New York. Not this time. No little apartment in Brooklyn. No Empire Diner or Tom’s Restaurant. No celebration eggs sunny side up. No eggs at all. Ever again.
If only they had photos on the website. Photos of the dead babies. Photos of the mothers’ relief. The mothers’ first uninterrupted night of sleep since the baby’s birth. No conscience. No Macbeth to murder sleep or somnambulist Lady Mac to wring her hands. Just joy. Joy at the silence. At having your life back. At being in control again. And having bubble baths and a social life and young friends who have never contemplated being stitched up after giving birth. My best friend’s dad fainted during a video of a woman giving birth in a Health and Human Relations class when I was in primary school. He had five daughters. We thought it was funny. He didn’t faint during the video of the abortion. I closed the lid of the computer. I knew when I opened it again that Sheryl and Josephine would still be there. Waiting for me. Inviting me to join them. Special club. Perhaps there would be an addition. I decided to refresh the screen when I returned. Just in case I was already there. For my murderous thoughts. And vanity. I wanted a caramel macchiato. For all of us. Bitter but syrupy. If the barrista asked me if I wanted extra caramel on the top I would tell her ‘only if you criss-cross it across the top. Like ballerina’s ribbons’. I wondered fleetingly if anybody had ever strangled a baby with a pointe shoe ribbon. Starbucks. I remember what it was like. Before I knew. Before the plane ticket. Before the search for filicide.
I didn’t know I was carrying your baby then, I just wanted more tenderness. But you were always scared. Too scared to touch me or bring me daffodils until I asked. You wanted the schoolgirl and I just wanted to play house. But I only had six more months to be a schoolgirl and a lifetime to be a wife. Meeting lonely men in Starbucks was the saddest thing I have ever done. Up until now. If they have sex with me then the onus is no longer on you. It could be any of their babies. It wouldn’t necessarily be yours then and that would make it easier. For when the time comes.
He sees me and I can feel him smiling into the back of my head. I continue writing. It’s his lucky afternoon. He sits down and he tells me about his daughter and his passion for swimming. Solitary sport. Too much time to think in a place too much like the womb. I’m afraid of drowning even though I am a good swimmer. I represented my school in backstroke at the interschool sports. At Oak Park. I got caught on the ropes. Perilous zig zag. I peek at the clock on my mobile phone and hope he doesn’t see me looking. If he had a knitted hat with a pom-pom on the top and a set of mittens he could be straight out of an American Christmas movie filled with snowmen and turkeys.
I know he is the one I have arranged to meet because he looks out of place here. Argyle scarf. Hair too long and shaggy. Not as good looking as Darcy in Bridget Jones but just as dated and daggy. He might even have looked better in a reindeer jumper than Colin Firth. If he has a daughter he could easily be the father of my baby after we have sex. Except of course that I am already pregnant. But that is just a minor detail. Insignificant in the scheme of things. He is nervous and tries to look into my eyes but I can’t give him that. I can only give him my body. Once.
‘How old are you?’ he asks before we leave Starbucks.
‘Old enough. Does it matter?’ I smile at him.
‘Well, I guess not. Are you older than my daughter?’ he presses, taking my elbow like my old-fashioned grandfather.
‘How old is she?’ I reply.
‘Fifteen,’ he continues.
‘Absolutely.’ Absolutely leaves no doubt. I will absolutely have sex with him. Dale is absolutely the father of my unborn baby.
‘But not by much?’ he pushes.
I wanted to scream Freud and Oedipus. I wanted to fiddle with the salt shaker but there are no salt shakers on the tables at Starbucks. I always feel better when I feel up a salt shaker. I don’t mind the glass ones but my preference is for the cold, metallic, phallic ones.
‘Look, are you up for this or not?’ I snap, already knowing what his answer will be.
I return to my computer. Hand on my stomach. Throw my sodden panties in the wash. I pick up Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. I pin up a poster of Brooke Shields and her children. I fantasise about leaving my child with Gwen Harwood in the park.
Late at night. I don’t rely on the moonlight. I have an electric lamp. I switch on my computer. There is another one.
Asuka Lee electrocuted her baby in a bathtub and then buried her in the basement beneath her old toys and clothes.
It wouldn’t be long.
One day in English things did go haywire.
The teachers must have known exactly who Glory was the day she arrived. News would have travelled fast around the staffroom like the puff of cigarettes. Miss Keynote might have even announced something: I’m going to have to say something. Just watch. After all, her English syllabus was under threat. Give her to me and I’ll tell her what’s what. In any case, one afternoon after lunch, she swept into the English classroom all puff, hot and red in the face: ‘Stand up, girl.’
Glory and Lisa sat in the back row, as they always did. Their uniforms were a mess. They had been fighting each other through lunch, play fighting in the quadrangle in the sun. They had tried to be the first to rub orange quarters through the other’s hair, to see how far they could go before getting caught.
‘Stand up, girl. Do you hear me?’
There was something different about the way Miss Keynote spoke this afternoon, how her body swivelled into the room. You could almost feel the heat she was giving off. This mattered more than anything: it was about Miss Keynote herself, her sense of self and identity. Her voice shook too, as she nailed the words in place.
The air prickled with heat and Glory’s skin pricked with the sweat of her body. Everyone guessed, without it being said, which girl Miss Keynote was referring to. This was the confrontation Glory had been waiting for. But for some reason and unpremeditated at that, she let the words hang in suspension. Glory insisted, in her own silent way, that Miss Keynote reveal herself more, with more.
‘There are some parents in this school,’ Miss Keynote elaborated, ‘who think they know best how to educate young people, who are adept at the theory and practice of modern teaching, who dare to want to take our place.’ She said the word dare as she would strike a high C if singing an aria. All throat. A lifted soft palette. Quintessential control.
‘Your mother, Glory. I’m talking about your mother. She says the sort of education we are giving our pupils is defilement, do you hear?’ Miss Keynote pointed a stick of yellow chalk in Glory’s direction. She was casting out evil spirits with this move. ‘Now stand up girl when I say,’ her voice wobbled on this command, betraying something else: did Glory detect nervousness?
‘Your interfering mother thinks she knows best.’ Snap. The chalk broke in two, fell and bounced on the wooden floor between her legs like something rude. ‘She dares to interfere in Our Literature. She says it is sex-saturated. You’ve only got to read the letters to the papers—‘Mother Disgusted with School Books’, ‘Immoral Books Third-Rate Gutter Trash’, ‘Be Wary of Homosexuals’.’ Miss Keynote must have learned the lines by heart. ‘Your mother says you are not allowed to read the book Improving on the Blank Page. Dr Joy Solider says you are not allowed to meet the wicked Holden Caulfield under any circumstance. She says that these books—books on our very own reading list, do you hear?—are pornographic.’ Miss Keynote was flying now all around the room, full throttle.
When the girls heard the words sex, homosexual and pornographic, they started to snigger. Miss Keynote made a mocking face like a clown.
‘And she’s saying these things in public, on radio, for everyone to hear!’
With a flourish, she tugged at her hair and to the surprise of everyone, yanked off the black curly wig she was wearing to reveal grey wisp pulled back neatly in a maroon velvet bow.
‘What do you have to say for yourself girl? Stand up when I tell you!’
None of the girls knew Miss Keynote wore a wig. Until then they’d always seen her with it on, had always thought this teacher had luscious black hair, the sort you put into hot rollers each night. Not this smooth, straight greyness. Everyone gasped. They’d never seen her like this, in the flesh so to speak, in such a theatrical act. There was something almost obscene about it, Miss Keynote disrobing in public and mouthing those rude words at the same time. They shouldn’t be watching this sort of thing but they loved it. Their very own peepshow. It was exhilarating.
That was when Miss Keynote started to laugh. But it was a very different laughter to the sort Glory was used to. It was an us-and-her laughter kept for special occasions and the girls wanted to join in.
Poor Glory wet her pants. She was all sweat behind the knees too where the elastic garters squeezed her folds of skin. She tried standing tall—thinking, hoping and wishing this would pass quickly.
Glory couldn’t look anywhere except stare straight ahead. She was paralysed, stunned. Holden Caulfield? She didn’t really know who he was yet; she thought the reference was to some kind of car. Pornographic? That didn’t sound good.
Suddenly, Glory astonished herself. Instead of being submissive and compliant, waiting for the next command, Glory banged down the lid of her desk. It thudded into the commotion of laughter and exclamation, wood smashed against wood. MotherJoy would have been proud—wouldn’t she?—if it were true the things Miss Keynote was saying. It was like an explosion.
Everyone in the class held their breath. What would Miss Keynote say next? She stood, mid gesture, unsure how to proceed. She tipped her head as if thinking up a plan, smoothed down the line of hair on one side of her face, the maroon velvet ribbon the only extravagance. She had flawless skin, faintly red heart-shaped lips.
If this were a duel, it should be Miss Keynote’s turn to respond. But before the teacher said anything Glory pulled words from deep inside her throat and out across her tongue through nearly clenched teeth.
‘Children don’t go to school to learn to think,’ she blurted out. ‘They go to school to learn to spell, do maths.’
Glory amazed herself with this utterance. She turned pink. What made her dare challenge this particular teacher, like this? Was it with the same spirit that drove her to stand up for Jesus? There was no going back. It was that quiet, you could hear the ladies in the tuckshop faraway cleaning up. Then Miss Keynote spluttered in response: ‘Where on earth did you get that idea?’
All Glory kept thinking for the rest of the day was that perhaps, for this one crazy, heart-choking moment, she had rescued her mother. She knew how to resuscitate a body, didn’t she? She was a Bronze Medallion, owned a cute metal badge with her name engraved on the back. It was an act of allegiance, surely, not madness. A composition—an intervention—of love.
(Extract from Bite Your Tongue, courtesy of Spinifex Press.)
When I was ﬁve years old, our ewe gave birth to a lamb. He was white and had eyes as black as olives. Shona and I named him Timba. Two weeks later my eldest brother Joshua held him down, and Papa slit his throat.
The place was Galilee, the fertile northern province of the land of Israel, and spring was in the air. It blew in from the deserts to the east to dry the mud beneath our sandals, and gave life to the sudden profusion of wildﬂowers blanketing the rolling hills. In the valleys, geometric plains stretched as far as the eye could see. Soon the grain harvest would begin and Israelites of all but the highest stations would swarm—babes strapped to their backs, sickles held high—across the ﬁelds. They would reap and gather the browning sheaves of barley, oats and wheat until the last shard of sunlight ﬂ ed from the sky, then fall to their knees to offer praise to God.
In the hilltop village of Nazareth, grapes ripened on the vine and in the groves nearby, visible from the roof of our house, ﬁgs, apricots and almonds swelled like expectant women on the boughs of ancient trees. In the months that followed, we high- lands people would join the ingathering, ﬁlling woven baskets with fruit, nuts and olives before the rains of winter fell again.
It was a time of promise: of warmth and plenty after the hungry wet. A time of temporary truce as the Galilean resistance ﬁghters, dug into a hill shaped like a camel’s hump in the nearby town of Gamla, crawled from their caves. Tired, hungry, in need of a woman’s love as well as a bath, the rebels slouched towards their homes in the upper and lower reaches of Galilee. They would linger there for weeks, joining the work of the harvest; later, they would travel with the other men of the village, their kin and clansmen, to Jerusalem as God commanded they do for the Passover Feast. The Roman legionnaires, relieved at the break in the Jewish rebellion, withdrew too—to Caesarea, their Mediterranean capital in our occupied land. There they would promenade on the boardwalk of the majestic harbour, recline in the healing waters of the bathhouses and cheer on the champions who raced, wrestled or fought to the death in the newly built Forum.
It was a time of prayer and puriﬁcation, as my mama sanctiﬁed her soul by baking tiny loaves of bread and lighting candles to cleanse the hearth of leavening for the coming Passover. A time when Papa hurried to complete orders at the woodshop before the pilgrimage to Jerusalem intervened. It was a time when my eldest brother Joshua still took me on his knee and told stories of Jewish trials and triumph. Tales of the strongman Samson, who lost his strength when his woman betrayed him by cutting his hair; of the prophet Daniel whose faith in God saved him from the lion’s den. And the wondrous tale of my papa’s ancestor King David, the shepherd boy who killed the giant Goliath with a single stone from his slingshot. I liked that one the best.
It was a time, for a child, when the texture of life in the small farming village of Nazareth was still ﬁlled with the wonder of surprise: the piquancy of food after fasting, the throb of the new-moon drum in my breast, the dance of the oil lamp’s light against our whitewashed walls as we lay down to sleep on Sabbath eve.
It was a time, so many years ago now, when I learned in no uncertain terms what it meant to be a girl.
‘Quick, Shona, hurry! The mother ewe! It is time!’ I shook my elder sister awake. It was late at night. Moonlight streamed through the uncovered window of our mud-brick house, its back end snuggled into the hillside like a sleeping cat, its tall face overlooking the square. Dutifully, my sister made haste to rise, then paused.
‘Rachael,’ she began, ‘you mustn’t. You know what Mama said.’
I knew. My eyes darted to my mother but she, Papa and all ﬁve of my brothers were asleep on their mats. Buried beneath several threadbare blankets, my mother’s short, slight ﬁgure looked like a corpse. I returned my gaze to my sister and shrugged, eyes wide with innocence. Helpfully, from below in the stables, the ewe bawled again, her pitch making clear that the matter was urgent.
‘Come on,’ I ordered my sister. She stood and, with a resigned sigh, submitted her hand to my outstretched one.
With one last backward glance at my mother, I began picking my way through the sleeping bodies, leading my sister down the run of stone steps that led to the lower ﬂoor of our house. There, in the low-roofed, straw-scattered space we called the oorvah, the animals were stabled. Beside the ewe were a cow, two goats and a handful of chickens. Alarmed at the ewe’s bleating, the cockerel clucked and strutted while the hens ﬂapped about the room. The cud-chewing creatures turned to us, doe-eyed and panting. As I strode across the ﬂoor, towing Shona behind me, they shifted and murmured, then parted like the sea to let us pass.
The sheep’s liquid eyes were dark and wild. Her grey sides heaved. When she saw us, she tried to rise despite her bulk and desperate condition, but the tethers held her fast.
‘Oh!’ Shona was dismayed by the ewe’s suffering. She sank to the labouring one’s side, smoothing her white nightdress beneath her knee, and placed her ear against the ewe’s belly, listening. Then she beckoned me towards her and pulled me on to her lap.
We waited. The cow lowed and shifted, dancing candlelight across the room. The cockerel, rebuffed by each of the hens, withdrew sulking to his perch. The sheep bucked and thrashed, her ears twitching as my sister whispered words of comfort. But no matter how many times Shona looked, the folds between the ewe’s legs remained sealed.
I wriggled with impatience. Laying a hand on my sister’s arm I spoke solemnly. ‘We must hasten her trial before she loses heart.’
Despite her unease, my sister smiled. My words, their cadence, were unmistakably my mother’s; but when she replied it was with Mama’s words too. ‘It is not in our power to save her, Rachael. If she is deserving, God will deliver her. If she is not, He will cast her aside.’ She stroked the sheep’s side and gave a sigh at the weight of her helplessness. ‘There is nothing to do but wait and pray.’
Wait. Pray. Even on their own, these words vexed my spirit. Taken together, they made me feel like I’d been chewing sand. I stood and stamped my ﬁve-year-old foot on the stable ﬂoor. ‘I hate waiting! I hate praying!’ I declared. ‘Why can we not do something?’
My beautiful sister Shona. Heart like a split melon, back ready to bend, robes wafting the cinnamon-scent of her skin. Though six years my senior she was a follower by nature, not a leader. She had never sought to thwart me, but admired my wit and spirit. Her willing submission throughout my short life had encouraged me to trust my instincts; to step forward and assume command.
Now she turned her gaze to me. Her eyes were velvet brown and wide, fringed by lashes thick as fur. ‘What would you have us do, Rachael?’
And, somehow, I knew precisely what to do to save the lamb’s life.
‘Sit there Shona, by the ewe’s head,’ I commanded, and assumed my own place at the sheep’s hindquarters. ‘Now hold her head still, as still as you can.’
I pushed up the sleeves of my nightdress and took a deep breath. Then I plunged my hand deep into the sheep’s birth canal. Paying no heed to the blood and spongy membranes, I took a few moments to explore the terrain. I could feel bone and sinew, ﬂank and cartilage but, it seemed to me, all in the wrong places. At the end of the passage, where there ought to have been a head, two cloven hoofs and a damp fetlock were wedged instead. The lamb was stuck.
Crying out to Shona to comfort the ewe—Talk to her! Sing!—I sought to ease the newborn’s way. Scrabbling for purchase on the straw, I wrestled with the tiny body, rolling shoulder and arm this way and that to obtain leverage. I pushed and slid and tugged and eased while the ewe bucked and mewled, and Shona, hanging on to the poor creature’s neck, did her best to hold her until at last the errant limbs gave way. Working quickly, I pushed them into position and reached for the lamb’s head, tugging it into place. I gripped the tiny muzzle, braced myself and dragged it towards the light.
The ewe’s shriek would have been heard in Jerusalem. But with it came a torrent of blood and water and, ﬁnally, the pleasing bump and weight of a sodden lamb, still tethered to a pulsing membrane.
Shona was jubilant and threw her arms to the heavens. But this was no time for praise. The newborn had yet to draw breath; it was still and sallow. Lifeless.
Without thinking I bent to the lamb and sucked the muck from its nose, spitting it to the ground like a curse. I laid my head on its ﬂank to listen. Grabbing a tiny leaf-shaped ear in my ﬁst, I shouted into it, then cupped my lips around the muzzle and offered several of my breaths. When this failed to draw a response, I placed both hands on the body and rocked it, gently at ﬁrst and then harder. Nothing. I looked at Shona helplessly, at a loss about what to do next. My usual wellspring of ideas and plans was exhausted. My sister gripped my hand and squeezed it and we both turned back to the lamb, hearts pounding, breath trapped in our throats. We waited.
Finally, the lamb’s tail twitched. It sneezed—once, twice—then began ﬂipping like a ﬁsh to escape its caul.
My sister and I rejoiced. ‘You did it, Rachael!’ Shona exalted, throwing her arms around me. She kissed each of my cheeks over and over while repeating her words of praise. ‘You did it! You did it! You did it!’
But the ewe could not be saved. Her body leaked blood in waves that would not stop, soaking the straw and the hem of our nightdresses. Horriﬁed, I looked at Shona, then myself. We were covered in it.
‘Oh no!’ Shona cried, throwing herself on the animal’s neck. ‘Don’t die! Don’t die!’
But she did die. Touching her tongue to Shona’s nose, she twitched her tail and was gone. Shona threw herself into my arms and wept. The lamb, heedless of the sacriﬁce that had blessed it with life, shook free of its caul with a satisﬁ ed bleat. It ﬂicked its ears and began the work of standing.
He was perfect. Frankincense-white, unblemished, male: everything the Law said a Passover lamb must be. Mama would be so pleased. He bawled and teetered towards me, exploring the blood and brine on my outstretched ﬁngers, his suckling causing something wonderful, terrible, to bloom in my breast.
‘We shall call him Timba,’ I proclaimed and Shona, her face streaked with blood and tears, nodded and said, ‘Yes.’
An excerpt from The Book of Rachael by Leslie Cannold (Text Publishing, 2012).
james is having difficulty finding a mate for his rare tropical fish. he sold most of the male fish months ago to buy alcohol and pizza and sculpture supplies. and although he did keep three males for breeding, they all died mysteriously. three dead fish. unexplained.
and now it is mating season and he is in a fix. the pet store that purchased his males has a breeding program of their own and dislikes competition. the nearest available male is in dubbo.
james can’t get it together to put in his dole form, how is he going to get a fish to dubbo? he feels frustrated and useless, mopes around his aquarium with a sour face.
‘I have to go five hundred miles to get my fish fucked.’ he says. ‘fuck that, i’ll fuck it myself.’
(‘This unpublished fragment was deleted from snail by my editor at the time. it was probably a wise decision.’ Eric Yoshiaki Dando)
Poets are born, they say, not made. By the time of my own birth I was an over-cooked baby, having dallied in the interior of The Mudda for week after overcast week beyond the normal term. After such dalliance, little wonder I hanker to recover Arcadia. I am Boon, and begin by imagining the Mudda in the place where I was born long years before Australia and my friendship with Henry Luck.
The Mudda is what I called her and these two blunt syllables with their definite article established for me a proper distance. How else to share the world with the person who had carried me inside herself?
As my embryonic presence swelled her usually neat, Flemish frame, this grew ungainly as a washtub, and needed to be hauled, ah, upstairs, uphill, upfront and ups-a-daisy, onto double-decker buses and into the Pa’s small black car, this Mudda, my Mudda, being throughout these indignities Boon-buoyant, Boon-weary with the burden of me.
Did she complain? I believe not. If she sat at table, I was a round under her grey smock like a great cheese remembered from the plenty of pre-war Holland. If she returned from wet Woolwich High Street where she had stood half an hour in the queue for a ration of sausages or liver, she felt my presence as a grapnel on her every fibre. Her patience, her resilience, were entering my character, as were some of the qualities of her Brabanter forbears, my clean complexion and open forehead, my good-natured nose and my eyes a little too trusting of the world, perhaps.
And if I pushed out my fist or my foot, how do I evoke the strangeness of her sensations? Here, did she but sense it, was a live butterfly fluttering against the interior of a balloon, here was the gear-stick of a small black car pushed back and forth against her inner fabric?
‘Nou, we zullen zien wat er gaat gebeuren,’ she growled, first in her own language to mask her impatience with the pregnancy, then in English, to show politeness to her host country’s maternity nurse, ‘We must see what comes, of course.’
If the Mudda’s patience was sometimes tested, I appeared at ease with the situation. Through those weeks of the British winter and early spring I hunched in the placental tree-house, stem-fed by her magnificent system. Into my future flowed those exact proteins and vitamins she could extract from the spam, the herring, the dried egg of that tin-food era, the orange juice, rose hip syrup and extra allowance of milk allowed for this pregnancy by her green ration card. While the Pa – unlikely career soldier – beavered among his memos at the British War Office, I spent the day, either rocked asleep by the Mudda’s internal rhythms, or dreamily pushing that exploratory gear-stick against her womb wall.
Do embryos dream? Did my own lifelong attachment to reverie begin in the tree house with some part-aural, part-maternal-fantasy? Is this where the protozoa of poems originate? For the muse is said to be a mother-figure.
Beglub-beglub pumped the Mudda’s heart. Gloink, her intestinal plumbing eased itself. Purrr, slid her blood along its Flemish conduits.
Is it possible my proto-intellect was actually wired to the maternal dreaming during her final weeks of pregnancy in the Woolwich army quarter? From some trace-memory I possess, here is Mrs Boon dozing during the February afternoons, tiaras of raindrops agleam under the telegraph wires, while the scenes behind her eyelids show the imminent Boon, a spiked coronet on my round head that must surely tear her as I leave her. Then, in this phantasmagoria of a woman-with-child in a monarchic nation not her own, she watches as I grow away from her wounded body, recede to some altitude above her head like a gargoyle leering from the façade of one of those decorous, overbearing English cathedrals that her Englishman husband had shown her during his intervals of post-war army leave.
Week to week, cell on cell, morula, blastocyst, trophoblast, from fertilized ovum to gargoyle I grew. Ears, limbs, testicles popped from me like mushrooms. Blood went beading along my arteries and capillaries; insulin was secreted; teeth aligned themselves below the gums in preparation for their future troublemaking. I gained the full human kit, with the apparent exception of the will to move on from that original tree-house welfare state. So complacent was my attitude to being born, it was decided three weeks after my term I would need medical help to be induced into the world. Poeta nascitur, non fit.
(An excerpt from the manuscript of the novel, The Poets’ Stairwell, by Alan Gould)
Jack has been hopelessly in love with Ava since they met at university at the age of 18. He is now in his mid-forties. Until the meeting in the excerpt below, he had not seen Ava for fifteen years – although he had thought and dreamed of her on a daily basis. As well, with Jack in the Asia-Pacific region and Ava in Oxford, the two of them have maintained contact through weekly letters.
The meeting occurs at Ava’s home in Melbourne. Ava and her husband Harry have returned home after 25 years in Oxford. Also at the gathering are two other old friends from university: celebrity philosopher, Conrad Lyall, and molecular biologist Helen Rankin, who, together with Ava, co-hosted the fondue lunch way back in 1980s Oxford to which Harry turned up uninvited – and never really left.
There comes a time in a life of intense and enduring emotion that it secretes a sort of chloroform. To break the pattern is to wake up under the anaesthetic and it is terrifying. Jack’s love was under threat as he sat in Harry and Ava’s home watching their perfect duet. She passed food, he poured wine; she went for another bottle, he uncorked it; he called her ‘Davey’, she called him ‘Oak’. And all those fond nudges and casual caresses as they went about their hostly duties. And a shorthand communication of gestures and eye movements, and words used so sparingly they might be grains of caviar.
What about me? Jack was thinking. What about me? as he watched the two of them so easy together.
Sex was partly to blame. Never had he been able to imagine Ava and Harry in bed together – not simply because he didn’t want to put Harry where he himself had so briefly been, rather he could not imagine the pale and flaccid Harry Guerin pumping his seed into anyone. Yet within weeks of the fondue brunch, Helen had reported that Harry was an overnight fixture at the flat.
Jack had been incredulous. ‘Surely not for sex.’
‘The walls are thin, Jack, paper thin. And believe me, they’re not discussing Shakespeare.’
Jack refused to accept that aspect of their relationship lasted very long, and when in her letters Ava clearly referred to her bedroom as clearly a separate space from Harry’s, Jack found the proof he needed to relegate Harry to a marital twilight zone, a sexual no-man’s land. But when he eliminated sex from the marriage, he tossed out all other intimacy as well.
There was no avoiding it now.
He tried to screen Harry out, to focus only on Ava, but she was strange to him. He did not doubt the truth of his Ava, the Ava of his thoughts and imaginings, nor did he doubt the reality of the woman who sat so close he could reach out and touch her. It was more that the two realities were fundamentally different, like the United States is different from Nigeria. As he tried to scramble out of his confusion, he found himself wondering how it might be to live without this love. He felt the possibility like a man losing his footing high above an abyss, a moment of doubt, a moment of falling, a mere flicker and then it was gone. (Reunion, p. 20-21)
Conrad Lyall is a celebrity philosopher, who has lived in the U.S. for the past twenty years. He is an attractive man, a serial-marrier who has also had numerous affairs. He comes across as very assured, a successful man who is at ease with himself. In the excerpt below, the reader learns of a different side to Conrad – Connie – as he tries to steady himself before a lecture to his home-town crowd.
Conrad Lyall was churning in the wings of the auditorium. He was accustomed to nerves before a lecture, the extra adrenalin charged up his performance and he had learned to capitalise on it, but tonight he was more jittery than usual. Melbourne might be located well off the world stage but home always demands more of you. There was family out there, his mother in particular, his ever-supportive mother who from the moment of his birth had set out to make something of her son. Even now, an old woman in her eighties, she would remind him he had been named after the great Joseph Conrad – more a reflection of her own youthful desires to be a novelist, Connie had long believed, than anything she might have observed in her infant son. His sweet, hungry mother who had channelled all her passions into her only child, so that in the patchy night hours when work and mothering were finished, it was a sour whine which dribbled from her pen. She had always been burdened with more aspiration than talent when it concerned her own ambitions, but in the case of her son she had long been convinced he had lived up to his name.
His mother was in the audience, together with old friends and acquaintances. Over drinks he had mingled with former colleagues – they’d certainly be watching his performance tonight – as well as two former students who had done rather well for themselves. There were snipers out there too, Connie knew exactly who they were, academics who had been quick to target him as all charm and artifice twenty years ago and had used the time since to practise their punches. Connie had long been aware that reputation was considerably less sturdy than he would like, but with his career now well-established surely it would take more than a lecture to a home crowd and a few bitter philosophers to topple the cumulative effects of twenty years’ work.
And Sara was out there too. He peered around the wings. Sara, ‘it rhymes with tiara’, was in the fifth row on the aisle and already on friendly terms with her neighbour. All glossy brown skin in her skimpy black dress, he definitely wanted to impress her.
It was a part of Australian folklore that expatriates only returned home when they were on the wane in the wider more important world. But his star had never been brighter. He had been attracting huge crowds both here and in the States; even the Europeans now acknowledged him. Such suspicion attached to popularity, yet in his own case there was no reason for popularity to condemn him as lightweight. If there was a problem, and he was unsure whether there was, it lay with the well-known collegiate capacity for envy. For the fact remained that while he might be tired and unduly anxious, and yes, he was very popular, irrespective of what some of his dryer colleagues might think, popularity did not rule out a serious and significant contribution. Dickens had been popular, Russell too, and Einstein had been a celebrity. Not to mention the de Bottons and Shamas of his own age – although he harboured the same doubts about them as he did about himself. (Reunion, p. 66-67)