(Edited by Laura McPhee-Browne)
Bushfire smoke tasted in rain. I opened my mouth. Rain tingled, drying on my tongue the way it did on concrete. I stopped at the rear of a crowd waiting to cross the road. In front of me, a man draped his arm around someone’s shoulder. I felt an arm land on me lightly, knot of elbow pressing below a shoulder. I inhaled deeply, filling lungs with humidity. The arm lifted slightly, settling again as I breathed out. Across the road drizzle swirled, billowing like sheets straining from pegs.
My brother lived in the northern suburbs. It was hotter there, as if I’d crossed the Tropic of Capricorn rather than Bell Street. The tram’s rolling sound had a soothing rhythm, slowing my heart and thoughts. I stopped in a park, leaves sparking silver in glare. People reclined under trees. Shoes lay kicked off. I sat and watched their shadows jittering in the breeze. Not far away a man reclined in someone’s lap. Fingers slid through his hair. I felt each stroke, every trailing fingertip. There was a slight press into that dip around from my eye, where a spot of pain never entirely went away.
My brother’s front garden barely clung to life in the heat. Mine was meticulous. Right down to planting to the phases of the moon. I’d added lime to soil the way some people sprinkled truffle salt into pasta. Crushed aphids between thumb and fingers, forming a sticky paste of wings and bodies. Mulch tucked in like bedspreads around the trunks of trees.
Janice met me at the door. She placed hands on my shoulders when she kissed me. Her fingers found gaps between bones the way a masseur finds sore spots. She kissed each cheek, so slight. I followed her inside. My brother’s heavy steps approached from the sunroom. He often dozed in there, snoring like drowning.
‘You made it,’ he said. ‘Turn your clock back an hour for the time difference between here and your place?’
Janice sat opposite. I liked her. Probably too much. I wondered if she knew. Had any intuition about me surfaced through their mortgage struggles, near-separations and dull evenings in front of reality TV? I made sure only to stare at her when she wouldn’t notice. When she gazed out a window, read a magazine or slowly stirred gnocchi through simmering water. The last time I visited I’d heard her play violin. Her wavering music eased from the room like light under a door. It was the music of yearning. Wanting to be somewhere else. Music pacing alcoves and hallways. When it stopped, the last note hummed, hanging in mid-air as softly as a word spoken in love. It was as if it came from her own voice, she explained once. She cradled the violin.
My tea still had the bag in. I jiggled it, thin string over the join in my finger where fishing line often went.
‘We’ll snap freeze that tea bag when you’re finished,’ my brother said. ‘Save it for next time. Money has been classified as an endangered species here.’
Janice smiled, but so emptily it may as well have been drawn on. She asked what I’d been up to.
‘Cleaned out the shed,’ I said. ‘Found some of Dad’s old stuff. A crowbar that if pushed into ground would come out in China. So many dead spiders they must’ve turned cannibal during a famine.’
Janice watched me. I wanted my brother to leave the room. Just long enough to lean over and kiss his wife. Feel the heat coming off her face as we propped together. Touch the tip of her nose, her rounded cheeks. Then watch her draw back reluctantly, see if she put on that bland smile again when he returned.
‘Have you had any…you know. Episodes?’ he said.
‘One or two,’ I said.
He grinned. You had to know him to recognise the sneer in it.
‘You don’t know, do you?’ my brother said to Janice. ‘He has this problem. Although our mother told him it was a gift. In the same breath she said to him never talk about it. He’d be seeing a psychiatrist if he told the wrong person. What’s it called again?’
‘That’s it! Sounds like a sinus condition. Go on. Tell her. What is it?’
I looked at Janice. I couldn’t tell if her gaze was sorrow or love. Her eyes roamed my face. She said I didn’t have to talk about anything I didn’t want to.
‘When I see people touch I feel it,’ I said. ‘A handshake. Slap on the back. A kiss. I just feel it. Heightened senses or something.’
‘Imagine that,’ my brother said. ‘If you stabbed me right now he’d feel it. No blood or stitches. But the pain.’
Janice gazed at me.
‘What I want to know,’ my brother said, ‘Is how come I never received this ability? I mean, I can build a letterbox. Put up a picture. Why didn’t I inherit anything besides hair growing out of my ears and dislocating knees?’
I sipped my tea. The teabag label tickled a cheek so I pinched it out, squeezing at the top of the cup. I lowered it sodden to the saucer.
My brother reached over, gathering Janice’s hand in his. His face exerted as he squeezed it hard. Janice winced, snatching her hand away.
‘Feel that?’ he said. ‘Maybe next time you visit your hand will be bandaged.’ Janice examined her fingers. Colour returned to where they’d been white and bloodless. ‘What about this?’ He stood. The fatty tissue of his chest drooped through a t-shirt. He placed a hand either side of her face, roughly angling her up to him. Then he kissed her messily, exaggerating his movements so that her head tilted and strained involuntarily under him. He pulled away, staring triumphantly at her. Janice wiped the back of a hand across her mouth.
‘She’s a great kisser. Then again, you’d know.’
I stared at him. Janice reached across the table, seizing my tea. For an instant I thought she’d throw it over him. But she drank deeply, probably rinsing away his taste.
‘How would I know?’
My brother winked at me.
‘Can’t you feel these things? Isn’t that your gift? Unless of course you’ve cornered her when I didn’t know. But you’re not the type. You’re like a voyeur. Except you experience everything in 3D.’
I thanked them for the tea. Said I should be leaving. Finish cleaning out the shed. Digging through the rubbish in there was like archaeology.
‘Is that why you never did anything with your life?’ My brother said. ‘You didn’t need your own experiences because you took them from other people?’
They trailed me to the front door. He said we didn’t need to shake hands. He could join his so I’d feel like we had anyway. Janice opened the door. A strap on her top dropped, dangling in a loop down her arm. Had I known she loved me I would’ve gently threaded it back into place, smoothing it over the undulations of her shoulder. Instead I turned, and left them.
I walked towards the tram stop. A passing car thumped through a pothole. I looked around for couples, languishing in shade on verandahs, touching with fingertips, talking so softly and closely that their words landed gently on each other. I searched them out so I could feel what they felt. But there was no one. I pressed on, feeling nothing but dripping humidity and the dread of arriving home.
Peter Farrar has published a collection of short fiction, The Nine Flaws of Affection, and his stories have appeared in journals such as Overland, Island, Wet Ink and Etchings. His writing deals with a variety of topics, including living in a dying country town, waking from a coma, looking back over the years while in a nursing home, and the demands of returning from war. He is currently working on a novel.