Afterburn (Kylie Hough)

Edited by Laura McPhee-Browne

I lie on a queen mattress covered in red peonies in a darkened room, looking up at the still ceiling fan. I can make out three spokes, or are they arms, or wings? A sole glider in a silent sky. Or an aeroplane. Small, compact, efficient—like the Cessna my father used to fly.


My mind jigs, jogs and I am three years old, in a house in Templestowe with three storeys. Dad pushes Mum around the nursery. She stumbles, grabs the wooden cot for support, trips, hits the wall at her back.

Get up, he shouts.

She moves shaking hands along trembling thighs. Tears spill onto the white cotton bump that becomes my brother.


Three storeys. Three stories.

One for Mum. One for Dad. One for me.

My brother doesn’t tell a story.

Let sleeping dogs lie, he says.

My elder sister denies there is a story.

Stop dreaming, she says, and live your life.


Three. A speckled summer dress. Red leather sandals. Perhaps there is a dummy in my mouth. 

I am here. I am not here. I am in the house but not of it. I am too little to understand. I am too big to forget.


I blink and reappear on the mattress in my daughter’s room, legs outstretched, my fingers clasped across my large intestine. We live on an island, my not-husband, our two children and myself. We live in a fortress. To get in or out you need a key and two remotes. It’s been thirty-nine years but the fear is as fresh as a spring lamb.



I’m alright, Mum says, it’s nothing, don’t worry about it.

I never touched her, Dad says, you’re all a pack of liars.

I watch her: sunglasses, skivvies, scarves.

Don’t ever get married, Mum says.


What is truth? I wonder under the fan with its identical legs, or is it fingers, or toes? My daughter stirs next to me, her tongue, click-clucking against her pre-loved thumb. Little Bird, I nick-name her. When she chirps, she brings cheer.

Sing, Little Bird.

I will never tire of your click-clucks and your I-love-You-So-Much-Mama.


In the hospital in Frankston where my mother labours for a day to bring me into the world, my father arrives on the maternity ward and looks at me, his daughter, in his wife’s arms.

Now we’ve got one each, he says.

I would never be allowed to compete with his first born.


I lean in to kiss my girl’s forehead and remember a time my mother used to do the same. I don’t miss her. I don’t miss anyone. I am too used to relying on myself for company. Hundreds of nights spent alone locked in a bedroom with Judy Blume, a diary and a grey lead, have made a recluse of today’s me.


Seven. In Templestowe there is a bathtub. Nonna bathes my little brother and I after school, before dinner. Billions of tiny bubbles rise, fill, pop. I hear laughter. I feel my brother’s fart-bomb expand and explode underwater.

Shhh! I say.

Little bodies freeze.

The sun sets on red cheeks and clean teeth.


I tip-toe into my son’s room. Check on me every ten minutes, he tells me at bed-times. It’s been twenty-five but he’s been asleep for at least fifteen. I see it in his malted Milo arms, raised high above a head covered with too-long-hair. I love him as much as he loves me. He reminds me every morning in case I forget.


Eight. The day we leave Melbourne, I sit with my brother in the back of the Toyota. We say nothing. There is nothing to say. My elder sister does not come with us. Nonna does not come with us. My brother and I wave good-bye. We cry. Dad tells us to stop whinging.

We are noiseless.


On my phone, in the notes section, at the stone kitchen bench, I write a poem about abuse and abusers. I want to introduce it with the words, What a Fucking Week, and stick one of those WTF emojis next to it. The one with the bug eyes. But I don’t. If I post the poem on Instagram, I will write: New Words. I might place a black heart next to it.


Twelve. Cairns is hot. I wear a singlet and underwear for eleven months of he year. Dad wears shorts. A Marlboro dangles from his mouth. Mum shops. A new dress for each day of the week. The leather lounge doesn’t sweat. That’s why they buy it. Leather means an animal died for me to enjoy it. Leather drives Dad further from me and my say-so.


The poem does not make my eyes sing. I try again. I move words, delete words, add words. I format the page. You can do so much with a phone nowadays. My chamomile tea lukewarm, it slips over my tongue, touches my tonsils and slides down my throat. Time to use the zip and reheat.


Fourteen. I get my period.

It is me or my father. I work on my mother for two years.

Please, Mum.

Yes, she says.

She flies with me to Brisbane and we take a bus from the airport to the boarding school. I think about my mother, my brother, my new baby sister. I worry I am abandoning them. My room is a bed, a desk and a shelf.

You’ll get used to it, Mum says.

I don’t. I cry, beg and plead with Mum to let me come home. Dad swears in the background. The phone goes dead. I decide to write a letter. Please, Mum. I’ll be good. I won’t get in Dad’s way. Love, me. Nothing has changed, Mum writes back. You don’t want to come home. Not really.


The poem is shit. I fear I am shit. Not a song, it resembles a wave.

Progress, I say it so I can hear my voice, not perfection.

I put the phone face down on charcoal stone and walk toward the stairs. I am less likely to return to it if it is not looking at me, whispering, beckoning. Leave Me Alone. I want to feed it to the river.


Eighteen. I am in cow country. I cannot believe where I manage to get accepted into university. What A Fucking Dump. Except it isn’t. I love every moment of not-studying for a Bachelor of Nursing in Rockhampton. The dry heat. Flamingos Nightclub. My boyfriend from Bundaberg.


Chapped lips open a crack. I breathe through my mouth and sigh in front of the bathroom mirror. Unplucked eyebrows hover above irises which occasionally harbour the multiverse at play. Light streams in the window from a boat on the water. Just Keep Writing. I finger a freckle, rub on some night-cream, relent.


Nineteen. Nursing school consists of one late night after another, followed by calamari and chicken-salted-chips with Coca Cola. Sometimes there is ice-cream.

Deny, binge, purge.

The communal toilet with the frayed brush has a wonky seat missing a screw. No one seems to mind an ice-cream rimmed bowl.


Disorders are disallowed, swallowed, repressed. I know because they swirl in my guts. Eventually though, I realise there is no escape.

Regurgitation is a necessary evil.

I make a note on the pad on my bedside table: Appointment psych book nxt wk. I open my copy of Good Prose and go to chapter three: Memoirs.

Maybe, I think, I’ll have a go.  


Twenty-two. Dearest Kye, I’m alright, Mum writes in a letter that finds me working nights at a hospital in Brighton, don’t worry about me. Everything is the same. How is England? Pebbles underfoot, a pier built from light, breaded fish and hot chips. A call home to the ex-boyfriend from Bundy. Fine, thank you. Everything’s fine, Mum. I’m glad you’re alright.


I close my book and sink in the super king next to my sleepy rock, my frame melding to white cotton. Bon Voyage! I think the words, look through the sheets, see pictures. Spanish sunsets, French wine, Moroccan mountains. I read that the brain blocks trauma. It explains why I remember leaving Australia on a one-way-ticket, but none of my birthdays.


I run from Brighton and all that is good. I roll a fiver in a small house in the outer suburbs of London. I snort enough Snow White to kill me. My body doesn’t know it though, and I live. My friends are not my friends. They are beliefs brought to life by the way I feel about myself: I am nothing, nobody, a no-hoper. This is what my father gives me: a craving for self-destruction.


I toss and turn in bed. The text came the night before last and I have slept in spurts since I read it. You are selfish, you are small, you are a snake. I believed them once. My father’s words. His projections, his predictions, his put-downs. Fear though, is primordial, a response I cannot unknot. I blink and see my breath. All around me is pine and snow. I am back in Bubendorf. It is quiet and white. I am safe.


Twenty-five. I decide to be a doctor, then a naturopath, then a lawyer, then a psychologist, then a vet, then a teacher, and finally settle on being a nurse.

Stick with things, Mum says, give yourself options.

It is not who I am, but it pays for groceries, rent and electricity.

Once the bills are paid, I write in my diary, I will give myself permission to be who I am.


Next morning it rains. Puddles form in the quadrangle with the palm trees by the pool. I see a magenta orchid, a swallow swoops, and I wonder how colours are categorised. Primary subtractive: How is it, that a colour striking, strong, sweet, is affiliated with taking away? I kiss my children, I check the street for my father’s car, my heart galloping in my rib cage.


Twenty-nine. I hear him first. His voice a promise I want to keep. Ask her out, before someone else does. He admits a colleague badgered him for two weeks, spilling all over homemade rolls and minestrone served by a fire in a rainforest restaurant. Our first real date. We let each other down time and again but my not-husband remains the one who picks me up when I fall.


I throw on the grey cotton T-shirt I picked up in Paris last year. On the front it says, Be like Francoise. My inner rebel identifies with Francoise and her reckless behaviour but this not-quite-middle-aged dreamer of dreams now protests on the page. The children leave for breakfast with their dad. Home alone, I write and the rain falls. Turquoise, shell yellow and grass green flow from my fingertips.


Thirty-three. My not-husband and I begin a life together.

I’m not certain you’ll cope with children, he says.

I want a family of our own, I say.

It is love — giving and receiving — that I live for.

Gurgles and gummy smiles, I crave more than anything.


The last message goes to my mother. Dad means it for all of us.

You are dead to me, he writes.

If I hadn’t known fear, would I know love?

I am not who he says I am.

Is there anything to forgive?

I continue my work to un-learn what I knew. To un-know what I learned.

I am grateful for pencils, pads, sharpeners and erasers. For time.


Thirty-four. We start a family, my pillar and I.

Little Love Two follows Little Love One.

Things fall apart. We fight to hold them together.

Then we give up and watch what we built burn.


I pull black from white. Words fill a once blank page. Whether I succeed or not I am convinced I am where I am meant to be.

Daddy, Mummy, come see our play! Miss eight and Master six squeal and shake. Pirates, parrots, ploys ahoy! Support squeezes my hand, I smile and rest my head on his shoulder. Maybe, I think, we’ll be okay.



Maybe it’s best for everyone, I say to my not-husband.

I don’t want you to go, he says, but if you think leaving will bring you peace, I support your decision.

Maybe it’s me, I think. Maybe he’s not the enemy.


Silence from the father who rejects me.

Cut loose by the big sister who doesn’t believe. Grief reminds me of what I have.

I am here. I am not here. I am in the house but not of it. I am too big to understand. I am too little to forget. While life breathes me another day though, I am reminded that not everything that burns is destroyed.


Kylie Hough studies Arts at UNE where she is a Vice-Chancellor’s Scholar. In 2015 Kylie was awarded the Lucy Elizabeth Craigie Award, the Richard B Smith Memorial Prize and the Australian Federation of Graduate Women Inc. (AFGW) NSW (Armidale) UNE ARTS AWARD. She was a finalist in the 2018 Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction. She has written for literary journals Feminartsy, The Write Launch, and Storymart.