Category Archives: Issue #2

To Fall At Your Feet, John Elder

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 …It was a beautiful sparkling morning and Marmie said she was going to the river to make a fire on the rocks and bathe herself in the shallows and pick some flowers and put them in her hair like she’d seen in the picture book and could we all just leave her alone for half the day. I started to follow her down the slope because I was six years old and lovesick with my mother…

To ‘Fall At Your Feet’ is a re-telling of the Persephone myth as a meditation on mortality, narrated by the Hades-like character who doesn’t rule the Underworld, but rather is a man who stops visibly ageing at the age of 50 at the end of the First World War and becomes increasingly fixated on the day-to-day dying of others. Here he is in his early childhood…

It was a beautiful sparkling morning and Marmie said she was going to the river to make a fire on the rocks and bathe herself in the shallows and pick some flowers and put them in her hair like she’d seen in the picture book and could we all just leave her alone for half the day. I started to follow her down the slope because I was six years old and lovesick with my mother. Sometimes if I playfully made a sad face she’d pick me up and talk to me and let me put my hand inside her dress and hold her breast which I still wanted so much but she said to stay with daddy. It was her birthday and she wanted to be a girl. I had a little whinge and turned away and tried to make the world a terrible place but it wasn’t. She said daddy wanted me and could I go to him straightaway please and she touched me on the face and I was more lovesick than ever. But I nodded and let her go.

Daddy had asked me to bring in a few small logs and watch for spiders but I remembered instead a sweet red hen I’d made friends with and wondered what she was up to. She loved me in the same way I loved Marmie. All I needed to do was say hello and she’d follow me around. I found her in the orchard where the trees were old. She was nesting the morning in a hollow where somebody was buried from before I was born. As soon as the chicken saw me, up she came and said hello and there was an egg all nice and brown and warm and not too dirty. I put the egg in my pocket and she made no complaint. I started off, walking in big funny steps, and we made a parade in and out of the trees. When daddy called from an open window to get those logs, my little friend followed me to the woodpile and when I was squatting down looking for spiders, she stood by my side and gurgled concern. She followed me back and forth into the house until daddy said to take her out again because he wanted the floors all clean. He was making a fuss and normally didn’t. I picked her up, the hen, and was holding her like my baby and daddy forgot about her. He showed me the socks he’d knitted for my mother and I said they were fine. Marmie was turning twenty today and she was feeling strange that no other people had ever come asking if she belonged to them. Daddy said they were being strange with each other. They were a bit mixed up because sometimes Marmie was daughterly more than his wife but not to worry about it he said. This wasn’t the way daddy talked any other day because he wasn’t a talker at all and because I didn’t know what to do I drifted into the small-child vagueness that sings unto itself and is lost to history. You only remember what you paid attention to in the first place and I was off in that fuzzy nothing place with my friend the red hen until daddy ran his finger and thumb along my arm and said there were Chinamen coming up the track and it was true. They were singing softly like a wheel sings he said. He had an ear for softness.

We went out to the gate and looked down the track and over the bridge came fifty or so Chinese men and women in rusty red suits and slippers. We’d had a few Chinamen working for us but these coming up the track were very proud of themselves. They were jogging along in two straight lines. A dozen of the men were built like tombstones and carried great clanking sacks. There was a bitter vegetable smell and what I didn’t know to be fish and some kind of sausage and other smells that made me drunk. The sweet red hen was restless and I let her down but she stayed close to my feet. Daddy and I didn’t talk. We watched the Chinese come up the hill and when they passed by every one of them turned their heads to say good morning and daddy nodded and I waved. And then they carried on singing like wheels. They were heading up the rise and we were walking back to the house when one of the women ran back and called out and smiled and sort of bowed and handed daddy an envelope. He put it in his pocket and told me to get out my town clothes and brush them off for the ceremony we were having that afternoon for Marmie. The sweet red hen followed me inside and daddy didn’t say anything about it.

At about four o’clock that afternoon the Chinese came back again. Daddy took me out to the gate and Marmie too. She was wearing the old straw hat in which daddy had found her on the day she was born. Half of the Chinese were carrying a cast-iron bed and they were singing a different song and travelling very slowly. Their song made me think of swallows playing over the water; mad as butterflies and impossibly happy was their tune. Propped on the bed was a very old woman. She was about a hundred yards away and one of the taller Chinamen held a brolly with an enormous canopy to keep her shaded. He had a paper fan in his other hand and was very busy waving the flies away. He was walking along sideways. Marmie had read in the newspaper about gay parties and she wondered if this was one of them. She was walking with her arms folded and then she dropped her arms and swung them like a child and sang in sympathy with the Chinese, and then she danced ahead of us, whirling away and then dancing very slowly, edging her way toward the bed. The old woman was arranged there on many pillows to be almost sitting up but well secured and she was looking around with a smile on her face from very long ago. Her face was heavily powdered to keep the sun from burning and the flaky whiteness made her look like a statue in a graveyard. Daddy knew this old woman from a homestead five miles away and he said let’s walk up to meet her. Her name was Mrs Alice Farnham. She might have been the oldest woman in the world daddy said and the Chinese were carrying her very carefully. If she’d been travelling by wagon, the track would have broken all her bones and up close I could see this was true. Marmie sometimes made me lovely animals she’d seen in picture books by arranging and balancing twigs together and Mrs Farnham was no better put together than those crazy twig unicorns and seahorses. Daddy got beside the bed and walked along as if there were no Chinese in attendance. He wasn’t being rude, he just didn’t know them. He was asking Mrs Farnham if she’d like to come to the house for a cup of tea or stay for dinner but it took a number of moments for Mrs Farnham to dig herself out of the long-ago world to say:

`They’re taking me to the train,’ and she thought it was very funny, in a confiding way, as if it was somebody else, some silly fool she’d once been friends with being carried along. I’d seen people visiting our homestead talk this way. I didn’t know what to do with it.

`Do you remember me?’ said daddy. He’d visited Mrs Farnham’s place a number of times some twenty years ago, while chasing down some men.

`Did you?’

 One of the Chinamen was telling Marmie that Mrs Farnham, famously old, had been invited to the grand opening of the Asphodel hotel in Melbourne. The Chinese had been sent to fetch her. They were carrying her to the town of Woodend, another twelve miles away, where they’d all take the train the following afternoon.

`I knew some good reverends but you wasn’t one of them, were you?’ said Mrs Farnham and daddy said no, he wasn’t a reverend and when Mrs Farnham looked like she might fly apart in confusion daddy said he used to do God’s work.

`You’re not the one who married me and Arthur,’ she said.

`Mainly in the funeral line,’ he said, and that tickled her.

`There’s nobody left but me,’ she said.

I’d never seen someone so pleased with themselves and bitter at the same time. She caught me staring and she was gone from daddy and everything that was going on. She was off somewhere playing with a doll and having her hair brushed and pinching hard the cheek of a little brother and making big eyes as to what could be the trouble. I’d seen other children engaged in such sweet warfare when we’d taken apples and eggs into Woodend and there was one little girl who I longed to see again who had spoken to me and teased me and chased me through the holding store and Mrs Farnham gave me the same sorts of feelings for here she was looking down at me, excited and stunned both of us, one child meeting another. We talked to one another with our eyes. Mrs Farnham wanted to take me somewhere to play and I wanted to go there and Marmie took my hand and pulled on it fearfully but I pulled my hand away and tried to climb on to the bed. Daddy said no and the Chinaman talking to Marmie suddenly crouched down and walked along with his backside stuck out, his face in front of mine, very serious like he had a stomach ache and sort of looking up at Marmie at the same time and saying how the Asphodel hotel had been carved from an immense hill of red rock and wasn’t that amazing. Every room was a great cave he said filled with ancient treasures. He’d been one of the carvers of the rock from the first day, him and a whole army of Chinamen. Marmie said people passing through had talked about it. It was already world famous said the Chinamen who then bid for daddy’s attention and asked if he might graciously accept the invitation to the grand opening on account of daddy, the great Pialuto, being a person of historical note and everybody would be so pleased to see him there.

`What invitation?’

We were all very startled, even Mrs Farnham, because Marmie, even when upset or angry, was painfully soft spoken, but here she was as strident as a hammer on an anvil. Daddy pulled the envelope from his pocket and handed it to the Chinaman and said he’d got another one in the post two months ago and he apologised for not writing thank you, no. The Chinaman was looking at the envelope in his hand like he didn’t know what to do with it and Marmie snatched it away, saying “well I’ll go then’’ and shocking to me was daddy shrinking away like all the water had gone out of him. He looked for a moment older than Mrs Farnham. The world wasn’t working properly. We were all travelling along very slowly, almost at the gate now, and there was the house and the orchards and goats and chickens, everything that was our life together didn’t seem to belong to us in that moment of nobody talking and all the earth turning in Marmie’s eyes like I’d never seen them. I wondered where we were travelling to if we didn’t go home. Daddy saw me worried and took charge in the strangest voice, as if he’d been drinking and crying in his sleep:

`You people can’t stay on the road tonight. You better camp here.’

An eel buttered the darkness and we spoke to one another as underwater creatures do. I was but a mollusc and it made no sense to say I was upside down. He bade me, the eel, to swim out to meet him. I had an idea of his whiskers and I can’t say why that is. He knew nothing of mothers and I knew nothing of whiskers. We were simpletons. When he grazed her belly, I felt him sliding by and there was a great shuddering and her hands were holding me and later she’d say, my mother, there he was eeling by and lo he was gone from both of us and there her fingertips on my knee. It made a little tent she said. She was sitting on the muddy floor of the river, the water bobbing her breasts and the light through the trees making sparks upon them. There was a great shuddering again, but the eel was gone to the darkness, it was all about me. A great creaking sound I would later hear on boats. So many sucking sounds if you really want to know. The apples fermenting in her bowels. My heart twice as fast and not so whomping. I may as well have been inside her heart. The tired river and the empty red trees sucked on one another and there was the pleading of the earth itself from long before my father and mother got me started. The ever-be drought had sucked the colour from the sky she said. And the river sighed. What does a river remember? I have begun to wonder, as perhaps Mrs Farnham wondered: if I travel on as I’ve been traveling, getting older inside and everything working beautifully, will my memories go back to before I was born?

 

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Primal, Alexandra Parsons

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…The desperate wail of the alarm slammed Kaye out of sleep. Her heart rate shot up, pounding in her ears and her eyes snapped open to darkness. Her hand immediately went for the sword resting alongside her before her brain had even caught up...

This chapter is from a YA novel in progress — Primal.

The desperate wail of the alarm slammed Kaye out of sleep. Her heart rate shot up, pounding in her ears and her eyes snapped open to darkness. Her hand immediately went for the sword resting alongside her, before her brain had even caught up. It was catching up now.

The siren, she thought. Locke had hooked it up to the trip wires outside. Her hand gripped tighter around the scabbard. That means they’re here.

Light sprawled out from under the door and she heard movement in the other rooms. There was the creak of metal supports as people jumped out of bunks and then bare feet drumming down the hallway.

‘What’s going on?’ called her sister Serena on the bunk below.

‘I’ll find out.’

Kaye vaulted over the bunk railing and landed crouched on the carpet, sword in one hand. As she slid on combat boots and a leather jacket she heard the rattle of riot gear being taken down from the weapons room. Shotgun cartridges were being poured into trench coat pockets and she noted the familiar shink of a katana blade being checked and slid back into its scabbard.

‘Something’s up. I’ll grab our gear,’ she said and headed out into the fluorescent-lit hallway.

She spotted Jaik walking out of the weapons room, sliding home the magazine of his pistol. He looked straight up at Kaye with ice-green eyes, calm as a glacier. There was a similar sword to the one in Kaye’s hand on his back and a bow case slung over one shoulder. Kaye dodged a few people as they ran between them, heading for the front of the warehouse, then Jaik threw the case with her compound bow in it and she snatched it out of the air. Next came a quiver with a few dozen razor-tipped arrows in it.

‘What’s the deal?’ Kaye shouted over the still-raging alarm. Jaik had circles of fatigue under his eyes and smelt like gun oil. She knew he hadn’t slept.

‘The trip wires have gone out the front but no one’s turned on the floodlights yet. We’re blind.’

Serena came out of the room, still in pink pyjama shorts that had a picture of a kitten on them yawning ‘sleepy time!’ Below the shorts her pale skin was mottled with bruises. Jaik handed her a shotgun that looked oversized in her fifteen-year-old hands.

‘What about the rear night watch?’ Kaye asked.

‘They only had one radio working tonight and we can’t get through on it. We need to inform them and get those lights on.’ He quickly looked the two girls over. ‘The three of us is enough. Let’s move.’

Kaye nodded and in unison they ran down the hallway in the opposite direction to the human traffic flow.

Kaye burst out onto the metal catwalk that ran the perimeter of the warehouse. The sound of their boots clanging on the steel jarred the stillness of the night. It must have been 4am and the dark seemed solid and tangible before them, like black glass. They stood at the rear of the building, looking out at the concrete courtyard they had once used for strength and endurance training. Somewhere out there were the truck tyres, empty barrels, ropes and rusted kettle bells they had thrown around on sweltering, heat-shimmer days. Now Kaye’s night-vision was bleached out from the fluorescent lights inside and her pupils only saw flat black with a few silver speckles dancing in her peripheries.

The sirens cut off suddenly and everything went silent. A cold wind raised its hackles and nipped at the back of their necks.

‘Can you see anyone?’ Serena’s voice sounded like a whisper after the alarm.

There weren’t any other voices, although the night watch should have been making their rounds along the fence line, torches zig-zagging before their feet.

Kaye opened her mouth to call out to their friends below but Jaik raised his hand.

He spoke quietly, ‘Just listen.’

Kaye’s breathing was too loud in her ears. She took a deep breath and slowed her heart beat. She let her senses slide out in tendrils to grasp the shape of the world. A breeze slid over her flushed face and swept black the fringe from her eyes. The ends of her hair swayed across her jaw line and as the buzzing slowly disappeared she began to hear something else. Something that told her they were already too late.

A gentle sucking noise rolled towards them, something like marrow being drawn out from bones. Then Kaye heard the crunching of ragged teeth on finger joints and a low moan of primal satisfaction.

‘Holy shit.’

A scent crept its way into their throats, heavy and putrid.

‘How many are there?’

Kaye looked over the railing, narrowing her eyes into the dark and willing them to separate the shadows into real shapes. She smelt open wounds and the copper tang of blood. Then the moon slipped out from behind its cover.

There were a dozen creatures, humanoid but deformed with twisted limbs that spasmed as they moved. Their skin was transformed with pustules and disease-riddled flesh that hung from their bones. Kaye could smell their festering sores and unwashed clothes. Fresh vomit still clinging to their shirts. The hunched forms swung heavy limbs as they stumbled through the remains of the night watch, tripping over limp ankles as though they were tree roots. The night watch boys and girls were like marble statues, their eyes wide and gleaming in the meagre moonlight. Their pale child fingers still clutching toy blades.

To the left was the small free-standing space of the control room. The glass was broken and nothing moved inside. They hadn’t had time to turn on the lights, Kaye thought. The creatures must have crept in somewhere, suddenly materialising from the night to dig yellow teeth into turned backs. Kaye’s shoulders tensed involuntarily. She remembered that it had been Lara’s first watch tonight. The girl had been nervous over dinner, digging aimlessly into a can of tuna. Kaye had sat with her while they listened to the TrueLight radio broadcast at 7pm and told her how boring the rear night watch was. ‘Nothing ever happens, the hardest part is not falling asleep,’ she had given Lara a light punch on the arm. ‘Come on, we’ll have breakfast waiting for you when you get back.’

Kaye’s hand seemed frozen to the railing and now she prised it free, working blood into the fingertips. Disgust welled within her as she watched the creatures flop like leeches from body to body, taking careless bites from exposed throats and shoulders. A familiar heat was rising, warming her limbs and making her toes tingle. Slowly, she nocked an arrow and lifted the bow at arm’s length. The skull of a creature came up in the circle of her sight. But the moon disappeared again and the scene went black as if curtains had been drawn on the final act.

‘Goddammit!’ Kaye hissed.

 ‘We need the floodlights. We need to see what we’re dealing with. That’s the priority now.’ Jaik was aiming down his sights too. Back in darkness, they could only hear the occasional rip of skin from muscle or the pop of a socket joint being dislocated. But they knew the control room was only twenty metres away. And it had access to the gate, electric fence, siren and lights.

‘I’ll go,’ said Jaik.

The thought of anyone going down there made Kaye’s insides churn but she knew who was most likely to make it to that room.

‘No you won’t.’ She straddled the railing and looked over the edge. About four metres. Far, but not impossible.

 ‘What are you doing?’ Jaik said as loud as he dared. Safe on the catwalk, they were yet to be noticed by the creatures below.

‘I’ll be there and back before you know it.’ Kaye had always been the quietest in stealth training and Jaik reluctantly knew it. Kaye lowered herself down from the railing as far as she could. ‘Cover me’ she said, then let go.

There was a solid thump as Kaye hit the ground. She landed on something springy and uneven and her ankle gave way beneath her. She stifled a cry and fell to one side, jarring her shoulder. She lay still and hoped she hadn’t been heard. She held her breath. The nearest sucking sound went on uninterrupted.

‘Kaye!’ Jaik hissed from above. She could just see the outline of Serena and Jaik’s heads looking down, silhouetted by the stars. Kaye gave a wave, not sure if they could even see it.

The smell was stronger down here. Like being locked in one of those old abattoirs they had toured in school. The scent held a dampness to it, a liquid quality that seemed desperate to drown you.

Kaye gave her ankle an experimental circle. It twinged but moved freely. Probably just soft tissue damage, she thought. No breaks. Kaye’s hands searched out around her, fingertips running over the concrete and feeling between the cracks. They found the still-warm, sticky stump of a leg. Her hand jerked away and bile rose in her throat. That’s what she had landed on. Kaye rose slowly, hoping her arrows wouldn’t jostle together. The control room wasn’t far, a five second walk any other day, but Kaye forced each movement to be smooth and quiet. Her leg muscles ached from the constant, controlled pace. Halfway there and she could see the glimmer of broken glass in front. She kept her eyes on the courtyard, scanning for any hint of movement towards her. Barely four metres away she could make out the dark shape of a creature crouched over a body. The gravity of where she was washed over her and she longed for the safety of the catwalk. Every centimetre closer she expected a creature to suddenly sniff the air, turn and fix its pale eyes on her before releasing a guttural howl and causing a  stampede towards her. But they didn’t.

Kaye’s hand met the rough concrete wall of the control room, slid over it and found the door handle. She used it to steady herself before squeezing through the open space, and suddenly she was inside. She breathed out her tension. The smell was claustrophobic here, reminding her of science classes except without the sterility of white gloves and scalpels. The light switch was on the dashboard near the windows, she only had to step over the black lumps on the ground to get to it. In the dark her mind gave those body bag masses gaping clown mouths and hollow eyes that followed her. Kaye’s boots squelched into the wet carpet as she stepped between the shapes. Her hands roved over the walls, found the dashboard and slid over chunks of broken glass. Finally, her fingertips found the switch – just as a hand shot out and gripped her leg.

Kay screamed, she couldn’t help it, and thrashed her leg as though spiders were swarming up it.

‘Kaye, where are you? What’s going on?’ Jaik shouted and Serena was screaming her name. Ravenous things were beginning to move outside. The concept of the floodlights cut through Kaye’s panic and she flicked the switch. White seared into the room and through squinted eyes Kaye saw the bodies strewn across the carpet. Half of one was moving, swiping at her feet. It was a boy from the night watch except now his mouth frothed and his eyes were completely white. He had been torn across the waist and his entrails dragged horridly behind him. Kaye jerked her leg away and kicked out, heel cracking against his jaw bone. Then the sword was in her hand and she swiped it down and through the meat of his neck. He flopped motionless to the ground like the others.

There were gunshots cracking repeatedly and guttural screams just outside the window. The creatures were lumbering towards the control room and now Kaye could see them fully illuminated. Weeping boils, sagging skin, festering gashes and everywhere the same colourless eyes trained on her. Kaye side kicked the door closed and slid the bolt home just before a fist smashed through the window. Kaye backed up, dropped the sword and brought the bow up. She let an arrow fly and it cut clean through the glass and into a creature’s forehead. Then there were eight arms cramming through the windows, swinging wildly like tentacles. An arrow shot through a sunken cheek bone. Another went through an eye socket. Kaye kept clear of the blood, pushing far back into the room. Bullets were raining down from Jaik and Serena on the catwalk. The bodies were piling up on the other side of the window but some  rose again, riddled with arrows and bullet holes. Beside her, the door was thumping. Kaye eyed the bolt that held it there, straining against the wood. Her hand went for another arrow and she could feel there were only a few left.

‘I’m almost out!’ Panic made her voice break. Kaye sent one of her last razor tips through a jaw bone and followed it with one to the jugular. Her back was at the wall. There was a crash and wood chips exploded from the door as the bolt gave way and a creature barged through. Its eyes locked on Kaye and it lurched forwards. She grasped the last arrow, placed it in the rest, but her fingers fumbled at the string and it fell away. Kaye saw the blood-tinged teeth of the creature, too close. Gangrenous arms stretched wide to embrace her. She dived under its outstretched arm, rolled and picked up the sword, then spun and cut through its torso. Before the body parts had even hit the ground she was sprinting through that door, dodging left as shots exploded overhead. There was a stampede behind her and bullets flew searing past her ears. She couldn’t look back. The ladder to the catwalk was a few strides away. But there was the bow in her left hand, the sword in her right, and no time to slow down. Kaye threw the sword up to the catwalk and simultaneously leapt for the ladder. Her shins smashed against the rungs and she started to haul herself up. Hands were snagging at her boots. There was a death grip on her right ankle. Kaye’s fingers were straining to hold on as they tried to drag her back down into a tangle of desperate limbs and teeth. Then Jaik and Serena grasped each of her arms and pulled her up onto the catwalk, far away from the hot rancid breaths and clawing fingernails.

Kaye put her back against the cool wall and breathed great shuddering breaths. Serena was hugging her, smelling like clean sheets and sleep, and Kaye loved it. Kaye rolled her head to the other side where Jaik was still kneeling, looking furious.

‘That,’ he said, barley controlling himself, ‘was fucking stupid.’

Kaye waved a vague and exhausted hand, ‘Floodlights on.’

‘You’re an idiot!’ He snarled.

Serena had her arms wrapped tight around Kaye, who gave her a few pats. When Serena looked up through the chunks of her black fringe Kaye felt sick.

‘Sorry Serena, I thought it would be fine.’ She gave her a proper hug back.

Jaik got to his feet, leaned over the railing and shot each of the creatures down. One shot, one kill, and the steel was back in his eyes. He picked up Kaye’s sword and handed it to her. ‘You’re not supposed to throw around a sword like this.’ Then he walked away and went down the ladder. As Serena and Kaye sat there, sweat turning to ice on their necks, he double-checked each kill and put a bullet into every one of their dead friends so they wouldn’t have to die twice. The shots rang out, one by one as their breaths plumed out white in front of them and dissipated into the grey air.

‘How did they even get in here?’ Serena asked. ‘The night watch is always quiet, everyone knows that.’

The rear courtyard had the best protection with high fences, good views and a gate that could only be operated from the control room. Only long-time members had a key to that room. Normally the team had so much warning from the trip wires that they could easily pick off parasitic strays from afar. Kaye had been doing it for weeks.

‘I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense.’

Jaik came clanging up the ladder, ‘I was told there was a small breach out front. There wasn’t meant to be anything back here.’ They looked across the silent courtyard, blood was now spidering across the concrete and filling up the cracks. ‘They were really taken by surprise.’ The sky was lightening, spreading hesitant fingers over the horizon and leaving the night behind.

‘We should talk to Locke about it,’ said Serena. ‘He can figure out if there was a breach or something.’

Kaye pushed herself up, sore and stiff, and quickly circled her blade to flick the gore from it. She wiped it down and put it away. Jaik opened the door to the warehouse and Serena walked through. Before Kaye followed she looked back and saw their old training grounds, now awash with blood.

 

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The Tin Man, Leigh Coyle

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Usually, after I said ‘good morning’ we stood politely smiling at each other until our business was complete. Today, she stayed behind in the shadows and invited me in.  I had to hurry to catch up with her as she walked down the hall.  I said to her back: ‘How are you?’ because that’s what I would have said to her face at the door.  She didn’t answer me.  Her bare feet made sucking sounds on the floor as I followed her along. The hall was dim so I couldn’t see much, which frustrated me as I’d often wondered what was in there. One of the rooms opening into the hallway must have been her bedroom, but I never found out which one. 

Then we were in the kitchen, which was disappointingly filthy and cluttered. My hands wanted to find a sponge to clean the dirty dishes on the sink. Still facing away from me, she pointed to a table and chairs and filled up two glasses with tap water.  I sat down and put my tin on the table.  When I rested my elbows on the plastic tablecloth, some crumbs stuck to my skin so I sat back and straightened my tie.  Ants made a line on the wall.  My nose searched out an odd smell. A radio wasn’t quite on the station.  I crossed my ankles under the table, counted the circles on the lino and divided this number by five.

When she turned around, the bruises revolted me – blotchy purple and yellow half-moons under her eyes and at the edges of her mouth.  They didn’t match her dress.  She looked older than the last time I’d seen her; that sudden aging which happens when you don’t see someone often, although she somehow looked younger too. I stared at her trying to work this out, while she sat down opposite me and sipped at her water.  You’re not supposed to stare.

I said: ‘I need to go to the toilet.’  I couldn’t think of what else to say, especially as there was still beauty in her face. She said: ‘It’s just down the back stairs and to the left.’  I must have looked worried, because she also said: ‘I’ll look after your tin.’ There were six stairs, so I went up and down twice. Outside, I breathed in and out a lot and didn’t go to the toilet.  Her garden was horribly muddled, like her kitchen.  If I’d had time, I would have found a hoe and done her edges.  I wondered whether I could leave by the back gate, but she was clever by keeping my tin.  There were fourteen pots with dead plants in them.

I went back inside and sat down at the table.  Her dress was loose at the top so I could see her breasts rising each time she breathed in. I stared at them instead of at her face.

‘And you’ve been well?’ she asked. ‘Busy?’  As if nothing was different.  The skin on her chest gathered in the centre and made a dark triangle. She said:  ‘It must be hard for you. Particularly now.  People are such mean bastards.’

I nodded three times quickly. ‘I’ve been pretty busy,’ I said.  I drank some water for something to do, turning the glass around when I noticed greasy marks on the rim. She tried to smile for a moment, but her lips went flat over her teeth. I heard a noise coming from another part of the house and my fingers gripped onto something sticky underneath the chair.  I could tell she wasn’t bothered about the sound, the way she kept twirling her hair around her finger. I wondered whether I could ask to use the toilet again.  A cat came into the kitchen and tried to rub itself against my legs.  I kicked it away. Her glass was dirtier than mine.  It disturbed me how she sucked away at the germs. She had seven matching cups hanging from a hook, plus one on the sink which was a different colour.

Then she said: ‘Come with me a minute. I want to show you something.’ I got my tin and she led me away from the kitchen back along the hall and into the doorway on the right.  This room was dark purple like her bruises.  It suited her better, but it wasn’t her bedroom, because in it there was only a purple couch, a table with a lamp, some white screens and ten wall photographs in frames.  The people in the photographs were laughing at nothing, except for a baby all by itself who just looked startled.  I sneezed four times on account of the cat, or maybe the dust.  There was a mirror on the wall too.  In it, my face looked small and pale like it was far away.   She left me standing there while she went through a door at the back of the room.  In there, was a dark rectangle, until she turned on a light and I could see her bending over, hair flopping forwards.  I kicked the cat again and it made a squeezed noise. She came back carrying a large piece of paper, carefully like it was valuable.  ‘Come closer, into the light,’ she said.  I put my tin down onto the table and stood beside her near the lamp.  I’d never been that close to her before.  She smelled like cinnamon and cat. I could reach her breast and grab it if I wanted to. ‘See what I took of you?’ she said.

Under her pink thumbs, stretched out on the paper, was a photograph of me waiting at Central Station.  I was standing beside the fourteenth light pole from the end, in the brown pants I was wearing now and my white shirt and tie, holding my bag in front of me. I looked bored, like I’d been waiting forever.  I was narrow like the pole and the camera looked down on me. I wondered if she’d taken the photograph from the sky, from the back of a bird.  People had left a circle around me, not standing too close. I hadn’t noticed that from down there.  I started to count them, but she put the photograph down on the table, next to my tin.  She reached for my hand and tried to hold it.  She said: ‘I love your face.  I want to take more.’

All I could think about was the slitty eyes of the cat and her breasts. I felt dizzy.  I said: ‘I need to go to the toilet,’ not out loud, just inside my head.   My hand was in hers and it was rougher than I’d imagined, scaly, not moist. My suit pants felt too tight and that wasn’t right.  She leaned in closer so her bruises seemed to cover more of her face.  I wanted to press them.  Again, she stopped her smile part-way saying: ‘Ouch.  The surgeon told me not to do that.’

Then the doorbell rang; a shrill sound that scared off the cat and made me think of the other noise from before.  She looked at her watch.  She said: ‘God. Is it that time already? Sorry.’

She dropped my hand and I grabbed my tin and held it to my chest, feeling my heart beating into it. I followed her back up the hall.  I imagined that each doorway was hiding other parts of me I would never see. I counted my footsteps trying to understand.  She opened the front door to a bunch of white lilies spiked with a handwritten sign which said: ‘Looking Better Already!’ and three giggling women pressed into her with kisses and penetrating voices. As I slid past them and the sick smell of flowers, she pushed some money into my tin.  Without laughing, but in a pleased way, she said to the women: ‘Just doing my bit for charity, but we’re all finished now.’

 

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Direct Line, Lauren Armbruster

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‘Could all persons with a Green Card please proceed to Gate number Ten? I repeat, Green Cards to Gate Ten,’ the disembodied voice said, its instructions echoing around the cloud filled arena. Green Card Number 62498365-2Alpha stared at the trait selection card in her hands…

This is the first chapter of a young adult fiction novel (in the making) which explores the contention between fate and free will. Temperance Broadfoot begins life with a special gift. One given to her by an accident at birth. Temperance has the power to communicate with Steve, the all-powerful Creator of Life. In her quest to find her place in the world and become the person she want to be, she finds that having a direct line to the big man upstairs is not as useful as it sounds. Especially when the decaying world she lives in is looking for a scapegoat.

‘Could all persons with a Green Card please proceed to Gate number Ten? I repeat, Green Cards to Gate Ten,’ the disembodied voice said, its instructions echoing around the cloud filled arena. Green Card Number 62498365-2Alpha stared at the trait selection card in her hands. An A4 puce coloured card; empty boxes and nothing to show for her time so far. She had not really been listening to Steve the Creator or any of the other orientation seminars, and now realised that her inattentiveness may be the start of her downfall. She glanced furtively around at all the other faces. They were all shiny and new, like polished belt buckles. On her left stood another Green Card. Her honey coloured hair seemed attuned to the light emanating from the luminescent stars above and below her. Her green robes flowed behind her, as she stood still gazing, ethereal, at the centre of the arena. Alpha stared, envious. Honey blonde began to take steps towards Gate Ten, which appeared like a sentinel on the far side of the arena, huge neon numbers flashing above it.

‘Um, excuse me…’ Alpha began.

Honey blonde turned. She had penetrating blue eyes that glowed like sapphires. She smiled like liquid, lips melting into the softness of her precise chin.

‘Do you…um…I mean… Hi first,’ she stammered. ‘…and then do you know where Gate Ten is?’ Alpha began, grossly aware of her lack of finesse. Around her bustled other bodies, Greens and Blues, all moving like waves from the orientation buildings on the far northern end of the arena. Around her now she could make out sounds of white noise taking on voices:

‘I think I’m going to put in for Generosity…’

‘Oh no, you want Ambition, trust me my boy.’

‘…who would want Greed?…Selfishness?’

‘I think Seductive might come in handy Down There, know what I mean…’

‘Ha! Compassion! As if… ‘

‘Hello?’ said the voice closest to Alpha, ‘I said, it’s over there, in the far south western corner. Can you see the numbers?’ Honey blonde was pointing, seeming to take on the form of an archaic Roman statue. Her selection sheet was neatly folded in her palm. All filled in with neat crimson ticks and circles.

‘Oh thanks. I ah, it’s all a bit weird you know.’ Alpha failed to mask the awe she felt building within her. She nervously touched her hair remembering with disgust the red dirt colour framing her pudgy pudding face. At the Nationality Rounds, she had pulled out Irish Australian. She had been pleased, but it was now apparent, in the wake of this transcendent blonde beauty that perhaps the crown of red hair sprouting from her skull like maniacal thought bubbles was not the best start to this Life thing. If there was one thing clear to her at this point in her existence it was that Steve, despite what he has told them all a moment ago, had not created every being equal.

‘I’ll go with you if you like, I’m a Green Card too as you can see.’ Honey Blonde offered her hand to Alpha, ‘What’s your number? I’m 05005Zeta, but just Zeta will do, I’ve not met another Zee so far, but then I’ve only spoken to you and that Blue over there.’ She pointed to a Blue who was slapping other Blues roughly on the back. His black hair and almond-shaped eyes suggested he had plucked Korean of some kind from the draw. Lucky for him, Alpha mused, tucking her unruly curls behind her ears.

The two began walking together in no particular hurry and almost immediately the conversation turned to the next round of selections. The final round was to be free of Steve’s influence. Alpha was beginning to feel more certain that this was his way of ensuring all care and no responsibility. She peered at her card again, noting the heading in big chunky lettering ‘Free Will’. She would now need to make the final choices that could make or break her whole life. She recalled now, the first educational film she’d been shown, merely hours after her conception. The large theatre had seated a million or more. There has been speeches from alumni, those who had returned from Life and a whole bunch of boring orientation information, most of which she had successfully tuned out. In the final educational seminar, they were all shown the one and only film of Steve. Lulling back on a sun lounge, wrapped in a white terry-toweling robe, he grinned confidently from behind his oversized sunnies sipping some kind of blue drink complete with a bright pink umbrella. Suppressing hysterical laugher from behind his shades he warned that all choices would have direct and severe consequences after Birth.

‘Some choices can be altered by where and how you might be born, but for the most part, the qualities you choose, will stay with you throughout your whole life. So choose carefully’ he said, before disrobing, sculling down the beverage and diving into a crystalline blue pool. Alpha had heard that this pretty boy had only ever really worked a week in his whole life, so it was really no surprise that he had obviously very little interest in the whole process.

‘How much longer do you have?’ Zeta asked Alpha, interrupting her from her thoughts.

Alpha checked her Casio. The hands seemed to have moved rapidly from her last check. ‘Holy Crap, I am due for Birth in fourteen minutes! I thought we had days to do this!” Her heart began to quicken in her chest, the rhythm of a fast moving train. Her head spun. She showed Zeta her watch. Zeta flashed hers back; she had been here a lot longer but still seemed to have hours left. ‘Why is yours going so slow? I don’t get it!’

‘Ok, you need to calm down and remember your training.’

‘Training? What training!’ Alpha stared in disbelief as the minute hand began to speed up. She noticed that the blood in her was draining rapidly to her feet, she felt faint, the seconds ticked rapidly and just when it was all about to go black, a searing pain echoed through her cheek, resting somewhere in the back of her brain. Zeta stood before her open palmed, a look of serenity on her face.

‘You hit me!’

‘I had to; you were going to lose all your time panicking. You have to just calm down, remember what they told us in orientation. Time is relative. If flies when you are excited and anxious and slows down when you are calm or bored. Did you take in nothing?’ Zeta said.

‘Not really, I tried to listen, but it was all so boring.’ Alpha felt the hot sting on her face and glowered at Zeta. Zeta sighed and swiftly grabbed Alpha’s card from her sweaty palm.

‘I see your problem; you were allocated Impulsiveness and Impatience as your two allocated qualities. You are going to have to try and balance that out with some of the other traits before you get Down There or you are probably going to be back here before you can blink’. Zeta roughly flicked the card back to Alpha. Alpha held her card steady examining the information noticing that there had indeed been several qualities already greyed in.

‘I though we got to choose everything?’ she implored.

Zeta sighed. ‘You really didn’t pay any attention in orientation did you?’

Alpha had no time to answer before Zeta’s watch began to chime. The overture from The Nutcracker Suite began to play from her wrist and both girls looked at it curiously. Steve’s grinning head appeared suddenly on the watch face. ‘Hey. Look’s like someone is about to be born! You better cruise on over to Gate ten my friend and remember, don’t eat yellow snow!’ The transmission ended and they both looked at each other.

‘Well, looks like my Birth is about to happen. Maybe, I’ll see you sometime Down There. I think now that we met up here, we are supposed to find each other again Down There.’ Zeta’s excitement seemed to enhance her beauty even more. Her blue eyes twinkled as she leant in and gave Alpha the tiniest of kisses on the cheek. She smelled of strawberries and summertime and although she promised they would meet, Alpha knew instinctively that Life for her would probably be very different.

Alone again and watching the passing crowds of unnamed individuals, it was painfully clear how little she had prepared for this. Around her, people seemed to be charming and confident. She contemplated just throwing the ridiculous little card away. What good was free will if you were too stupid to figure out what to do with it, Alpha mused.  She sat herself down on the nearest cloud and sank deeper into her own distress, when from across the room, a Blue spotted her and began to walk her way. He was and older man, probably late forties. It was then she noted her youthfulness and recalled something about appearing at the prime of your life. This guy was obviously a late bloomer, she noted, whilst dismaying that her own existence seemed to peak at about fifteen, then gradually decline for the remaining years.

‘It appears to me, that you could use a little help.’ The man stood before her in his blue robe. His silver hair swept grandly off his face, the beginning of wrinkles teased the corners of his eyes as he gazed down at her full of heroic confidence.

‘I, um, I didn’t really pay much attention at orientation. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m a complete spaz.’ She felt unreasonably obliged to give this man a full confession.

‘Nonsense, just tick in the order you think it best. Start with some Confidence to outweigh this natural Anxiety I can see in you,’ he began, reaching for her card brushing her thumb with his own mighty hand, ‘then see how you feel.’

Alpha poised her little pen and flicked her eyes across the grid until she found a row labeled ‘Confidence.’ Under each heading the scale went from zero to ten. Tentatively she put her pen on the number ten. A light orange mark appeared and she immediately felt better. In fact she felt great. As the tick formed on the ten, her heart pounded with a new sensation. She looked up sharply to this old man before her noticing with glee the deep trenches around his eyes, the wobbly paunch of his belly. ‘I feel amazing!’ she exclaimed. Beaming, she stood up and pushed past the old man who stood decrepit and wounded. She felt as though she was positively drowning in her own brilliance. The man frowned, he snatched the card from her grasp and held her by the shoulders.

‘Now, you should know better than that. Don’t start with tens. You can always go up, but you’ll feel gutted if you start at the maximum and then pull back. I bet you feel like a brand new penny right now, don’t you? Well, you have to remember that this is Life. Confidence is great but… are you even listening to me?’

Alpha could see his lips moving but registered nothing he said. He had, at once, become so boring. ‘Yeah, yeah, all I hear is blah blah blah old man.’

He grimaced. Then taking her card in his hand, and using his own pen, changed her ten to a four.

In seconds her newfound sense of self-amazement vanished. She felt like dirt. She glared at the man, overwhelmed by her own sense of failure.

‘I’m sorry I had to do that to you. But you can’t go around like that in Life. You have to find some balance,’ he said calmly. She hated him, she hated this process and most of all she hated Steve.

‘Ohhh, this Life thing is so much worse than I thought. How the hell am I supposed to choose who I want to be? I have no idea what this place is going to be like. What if I make all the wrong choices? What if I pick things that seem fine here, but are fucking useless Down There?’ Alpha slumped into an outcrop or clouds. They cushioned her fall, gently enveloping her. ‘This is all bullshit. I’ve got half a mind to tell Steve what a fuck up he has made with this whole…’ No longer had the words popped from her lips when a resounding sharp whistle cracked through her skull. The voice of Steve was like that: a half-tuned frequency, fingernails on a blackboard, the sound a shovel makes on concrete. She nursed her head between her knees and sobbed.

‘Questioning Steve are we now? He has a way of making sure you keep your complaints to yourself,’ the old man grimaced in sympathy. It had been a while since he had questioned Steve and his ears were still ringing with the memory.

‘I wonder if it’s the same Down There, you think Steve knows when you’ve got a gripe?’ Alpha mused. Her ears remained in tact. Questions about Life were not usually a problem, they did, after all, have the same destination.

‘I don’t really know. All I know is, you have about two minutes to make up your mind before you are called. I suggest you stop dallying, my girl.’ The old man held out his hand and helped her to her feet. He brushed her tears away with his finger and smiled warmly. ‘It will all be fine. Just pick three to five traits that you think will make you happy and then wait your turn. There’s no way really of knowing what it will be like for you. It’s different for everyone, or so they told us at orientation. If you had listened.’ He playfully knocked her chin with his knuckle, stood up and disappeared into the crowd. Alpha watched him go making a note of him. She hoped they would meet Down There and felt certain as he left that a part of her went with him.

Right. Think. She told herself resolving to make her choices and be done with it. She stared helplessly at the words: Piety, Humour, Resilience, Tenacity, Spite. There was no division between good and bad qualities and the ten-point scale, as she has just found, was not the easiest way to select. She flipped the card over in her hands again and reread the instructions of the front cover. The idea seemed simple enough, using a forty-point total, she was to select her personality for entry into the world Down There. Her survey card included over one hundred and twenty qualities to choose from which meant a whole lot of deciding. Trying to allay her panic again, she resolved to just begin ticking. She started with Passionate, four points, and suddenly the process seemed so much more important. She added a little Reluctance, six points, and then, after much convincing and debate, she tentatively rubbed them out. The combination of Excitement with Passion made her show four Blues and two Greens her card in a spin of jubilation, so she removed all but one point of that.

With ten points left unassigned, and debating the merits of being Flippant or Devoted, a panpipe version of a Bee Gees track began to play from her watch. ‘No, no, I’m not done yet!’ she gasped. The tune got louder and began to vibrate on her wrist. Suddenly Steve’s face appeared again, parroting the recorded message she had seen on Zeta’s watch. A baby somewhere needed a soul. Needed a Green Card. Frantically and without another thought she allocated her total points. She ticked Selfish, Greedy and Lazy as her first three, hoping that these would be helpful qualities. Tick by tick, she cared less about the process and more resigned to her eventual fate. Moments later, Doubtful of her future, pregnant with Wanting, and loaded to the teeth with Skepticism she hiked her way across the crowded arena to Gate Ten.

At the gate, an angel greeted her. She was chewing gum and looked bored. ‘I’m  62498365-2Alpha.’ Alpha said, examining the nonchalant figure.

‘Do I look like I give a shit,’ the angel replied, blowing a massive pink bubble that burst and slipped sheepishly back into her mouth. She grinned at Alpha and wordlessly nodded to a guard who stood a few metres away. Alpha contemplated asking this angel about the qualities she had selected, but balked after noting the absent minded way the angel began to stare at sections of her fringe. Taking the cure to leave, Alpha made her way to the bloated guard. ‘I’m 62498365-2Alpha,’ she tried again, hoping that this red-faced balloon may be a little more helpful.

‘That’s just super! Are you all ready to go?’ hje replied, his cheeks jiggling with the effort of speaking.

‘I guess so,’ she said.

‘And your soul mate, have you made a meeting spot in Life with them?’

‘My what?’ her eyes widened. ‘I’m sorry. My what?’ she demanded again.

‘Ah geez, don’t tell me you didn’t sort out your meeting place with your soul mate!’ he barked and pulled out a small two way radio. ‘Merv, we got another Green here that hasn’t sorted her SM situation. Copy.’ A crackled voice echoed indecipherable responses to which the guard responded with a wordless nod.

‘Look I’m sorry kid, but you ain’t got time to do nothing about it now. There’s a baby that needs ya.’ The guard paused, removed his hat from his balding head to wipe his brow and looked at Alpha with a rough mixture of pity and boredom. ‘Well, good luck Down There,’ he said.

‘Wait. You said I have a soul mate. What is that? What was I supposed to do?’

‘Look kid, I gotta lotta Births today, my back is killing me and my wife’s about to leave me for the schmuck over at orientation. I don’t have time to deal with your problems,’ he looked away, ‘Next!’

‘No wait! I only met two people here.’

‘Next!’

‘Please, I didn’t make a meeting place with either of them. Is my soul mate one of those?’

‘Next. Kid. It’s time. Adios.’ The guard waved her on, took her card from her clutched and in one swift movement, swiped his access card through some kind of reader. Alpha could feel her legs going out from underneath her. Her memories of orientation, what little there were, began to slip. She felt as though her whole body was imploding, sucking inwards and shrinking. She panicked and reached out for the only thing she could grab as she shrank further and further into what felt like a watery puddle. In one deft movement, she swiped the guards two way radio from his belt and descended into the puddle, the radio seeming to melt into her palm, disappearing somehow into her own flesh.

‘Steve! Help. I don’t know who my soul mate is! Steve!’ she cried into her palm.

But it was too late. Temperance Broadfoot, daughter of Angelica and Angus, was being born in a barn, somewhere southwest of Launceston.

 

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Playing Catch-up, Kylie Nealon

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…Scout was standing in a crackly, dry space that she didn’t recognise. For as far as her eyes could see, there were tall, sparse eucalypts undulating gently, stretching upwards to a cerulean-blue sky…This was home, but definitely no home that she recognised…

‘Playing Catch Up’ is part of a novel-length YA work, set in the not-too-distant future.  Incorporating elements of dystopian and steam-punk fiction, the novel follows the journey of Scout, an Australian girl plucked from an ordinary life to attend the Dorsay Academy. The Academy is part of a global company involved in researching and harnessing ‘extra’ mental capabilities that have been emerging around the world.  Scout, along with her friends Lily and Conor, are part of this new generation where their talents could be used for good – or for darker reasons yet to be discovered.

 

Scout was standing in a crackly, dry space that she didn’t recognise. For as far as her eyes could see, there were tall, sparse eucalypts undulating gently, stretching upwards to a cerulean-blue sky. Blackened stubby grass mounds pushed up from the dusty ground. There was a slight breeze picking up the scent of eucalyptus and hot earth, making her stomach contort with homesickness. In the distance, she heard the faint sounds of cockatoos screeching in the trees. This was home, but definitely no home that she recognised.

The sun was beating down, searing the crown of her head. She tried to shield her eyes to get a better look at where she was, but found one of her hands being held by a small child. Not just any small child – her.  A much smaller version of herself with a confident grin plastered across her face. Scout dropped her hand and stared. Okay, this was weird.

‘Uh, hey,’ Scout said to her.

‘Hey,’ Mini-Scout replied, squizzing one eye up to better look at her in the bright sunlight. She was dressed in what Scout remembered as being her favourite outfit – jeans and a red Elmo t-shirt. She’d loved Sesame Street when she was a kid and that t-shirt was a prized possession. Seeing her smaller self was bizarrely strange and familiar all at the same time.

‘Why are we – you – here?’ Scout asked the small version of herself.

‘I’ve got a message.’ The little girl drew out the last word.

‘Yeah, ok,’ Scout drawled, ‘course you do. Because why else would we be standing in the middle of nowhere?’ She fought off an overwhelming urge to laugh.

‘I have!’ Mini-Scout scowled at her.

‘Ok, keep your knickers on. So, who’s it from?’ Scout was definitely finding this amusing. A small part of her brain registered regret at not having a smaller sibling to do this to in real life.

‘Who do you think? Mum, of course,’ the little girl shrugged, looking around.

‘Sure it is,’ Scout said. Of course, she thought to herself sarcastically. Who else would it be from?

Mini-Scout peered closely at Scout, not quite sure what to make of the eye rolling that this statement induced.

‘I can’t tell you here,’ she said. ‘Come on.’ She tugged at Scout’s hand, urging her forward.

‘Where are we going?’ Scout asked her. The small hand holding hers was hot and dry. The simple touch brought back long-forgotten summer afternoons of carefree bike rides around neighbouring streets, along with the dawning realisation of her ability to see the world in a different way to everybody else.

‘You’ll see,’ Mini-Scout said and kept walking. The ground between Scout’s toes began to change to a sandy texture, and she saw the tip of a sand dune rear up out of nowhere.

Scout followed her up the incline, puffing slightly. She watched as the little girl laughed joyfully as she ran down the other side, legs and arms akimbo and she found herself laughing as well by the time she’d reached the bottom. Her small doppelganger was waiting impatiently for her, feet twitching on the hot sand.

‘Hurry up!’ She grabbed Scout’s hand again, and headed towards the water. The tide was coming in and the shining water hurt her already sun-sore eyes.

They came to a stop near the shoreline, littered with seaweed and shells dumped in piles after a recent storm. Scout glanced around, seeing nothing and no one in either direction. The sea’s mercurial surface slithered around her feet, flashing fleeting images at her. She stared at them closely, only to see them disappear as quickly as they’d appeared. Frustrated, Scout turned her attention to the little girl in front of her.

‘So, how old are you?’ Scout asked her, crouching down to make eye contact with her, ignoring the silvery water around them. Mini-Scout was humming happily as she scooped shells together in the wet sand.

She looked up at Scout steadily. ‘I’m seven,’ she said. ‘You don’t remember being seven, do you?’

‘I guess not,’ Scout shrugged. ‘I don’t remember a lot of things. But that’s okay, I mean, who’d want to remember everything anyway?’

‘I do,’ the little girl announced importantly. ‘And I know why you have to remember now,’ she told Scout.

‘Why? Is that why Mum sent you?’ It’s just a dream, she told herself, dreams are meant to be weird. But if it was just a dream, why did everything feel so real?

Mini-Scout shook her head at the older girl’s stupidity.

‘Mum says you need to remember who you are,’ she said, suddenly sounding much older than seven. ‘She said to tell you that you’re going to have to be ready.’ Mini-Scout looked pleased, as though she’d remembered the message word for word.

‘Ready for what?’ Scout had no idea what the little girl was talking about.

‘You know.’ Mini-Scout scowled at her. ‘But you have to be careful.’ She sat back on her haunches, jeans soaking into the sand and waited expectantly. Scout couldn’t find anything to say, her mind racing to try and figure out what she meant.

‘You’re such a scaredy cat,’ she said derisively, dismissing her older self. From the distance came a sharp clap of thunder. The sky on the horizon had become dark, with clouds that resembled grey waves slowly waiting to crash down. The sparkly sea had turned a bleak grey, a waiting mass of menace.

‘I have to go now,’ Mini-Scout announced.

‘Wait,’ Scout scrambled to get up, tripping over piles of shells and tangling her feet up in seaweed.

‘I can’t,’ she said. ‘But you’ve got to promise that you’ll try to remember and go back to being us. Do you promise?’ she asked fiercely, holding out her pinky for Scout to shake.

‘I promise,’ Scout said solemnly.

‘Okay then,’ she said. ‘Bye,’ and began walking away, up over the crest of the dune. She waved once from the top before disappearing behind it.

‘Wait!’ Scout called out but she didn’t hear. The clouds had crept in closer, forming a dark ring hovering above her. The waves rose up and ropes of seaweed tightened around her ankles with a swirling tug, pulling her out into the cold water.

Quickly losing her footing, she fought back with flailing arms, reaching for the surface, only to be pulled down further into the dark depths.

Entangled in the malevolent swirls, Scout gulped salt water into her protesting lungs, choking. Panic started to set in, and her lungs burned.

Scout kicked hard, freeing herself of the seaweed, reaching the surface when another giant tug pulled her even further down. She was drowning. And there wasn’t a damn thing that she could do about it.

Come on, she screamed at herself, just keep kicking! Every muscle screamed for mercy. Not yet, dammit, she swore to herself, I’m not going to die yet.

Scout woke up gasping, trying to draw in deep lungfuls of air. The blissful realisation that she could breathe again helped to slow her panic. Her damp hair was mashed to her head and she hastily pulled her wet pyjamas away from her, trying to rid her body of the clammy, wet feeling that they were swaddling her. Come on, she told herself, you’re okay. Breathe in, breathe out. Swinging her legs over the edge of her bed, she rested her throbbing feet on the floor, enjoying the coolness of the concrete.

Glancing a little more closely, she noticed sand stuck crusted to her toes. What the hell? Before her brain could start processing this latest detail, there was a knock at the door, startling her. Shit! She caught sight of herself in the mirror opposite her bed.  Disaster zone didn’t even begin to cover what she saw reflected back at her. She grabbed a hoodie and pulled it over the saturated pyjama top, her skin crawling at the feel of the clammy cotton fabric plastering her body.

‘Hey, Hambleton.’ A muffled voice came loudly through the door, accompanied by another set of heavy bangs on the flimsy wood. ‘Come on,’ she thought she heard the voice mutter impatiently. Hunter, by the sounds of it. Great. The last person she wanted to see.

She swung it open, embarrassed, partially hiding behind the door.

‘Wow, you’re not really a morning person, are you?’ Hunter’s eyes ran a quick scan over her, taking in the full effect of her bedraggled, literally just-washed-up look.

‘I didn’t pick you for one, either,’ Scout replied, pulling the sweatshirt closer around her. ‘What do you want?’ He was taking way too much interest in how she looked.

‘We’ve been called in to some big-deal early meeting before breakfast. Everybody’s been called in to it – students, staff, pretty much everyone in Dorsay, I think. I’m just letting people know,’ he replied.

‘Wow, that’s weird. Okay, uh, thanks. I didn’t pick you to be the messenger type. Not really your thing, is it?’ She bit her tongue. Don’t keep him talking, she scolded herself. Just shut the damn door! She suspected that there was more to this seemingly altruistic act than met the eye.

‘Yeah, sure, whatever.’ It appeared that her curiosity had got his attention in some unexpected way, given the amused look on his face. He looked at her more closely, a slight smile ghosting across his face.

‘You might want to rethink the showering with clothes on, though.’ He gestured at her with a casual sweep of his hand. ‘I’m guessing that even in places like Australia, being fully clothed isn’t what most people do – but that’s just a guess. And maybe try to ditch the sand.’ He looked pointedly at her hands, wrapped around the door.

Remnants of the sand that she’d hastily wiped off her feet had clung to her fingertips.  Scout went scarlet and opened her mouth, but before she could reply, he got there first.

‘We’re in the Atrium in half an hour.’ He walked off down the hall and she shut the door with a sigh. This day was getting weirder by the minute and she hadn’t even made it to breakfast yet.

Half an hour later, Scout was standing at the back of the Atrium, Dorsay’s central meeting hall, properly showered and stomach grumbling. She caught sight of Lily and Conor sitting near the front and made her way over to them, plonking herself gratefully on the seat that Lily had saved for her.

‘So, what’s up?’ she asked them.

‘Dunno,’ shrugged Conor, ‘but whatever it is, it won’t be good.’ His gloominess reminded Scout of Eyore, always slightly down about the world around him, regardless of the time of day or situation.

‘Maybe it’s something awesome, like an overseas field trip?’ Lily suggested, her perkiness a deliberate contrast to Conor’s phlegmatic gloom. She looked perfectly groomed in her uniform, as always. Lily always made Scout feel slightly untidy and she found herself smoothing her hair surreptitiously in response.

‘Maybe they’ve flown in our parents for an early parent-teacher conference,’ Scout suggested. After this morning’s nightmare and visit from Hunter, a bit of positive news would be a welcome relief. Conor’s face darkened and he looked away. She glanced at Lily who shook her head very slightly. What had she said?

Stealing a glance back at Conor, he’d already begun picking viciously at the edge of a nail already battered, ignoring them both.

Boys, she sighed to herself. They were so bloody complicated sometimes.

The buzz in the Atrium was beginning to pick up. Glancing around, Scout saw that it had filled up with hundreds of the company’s employees from the surrounding compound. Though Scout and the other students had seen the elegant structure many times from their wing, this was the first time that they’d actually been inside it.

Everyone in the atrium was wearing differently coloured uniforms, the Dorsay logo displayed prominently over the top left sleeve. Scout felt pretty drab in her grey uniform, compared to some of the other uniforms clustered in the large conference hall, which ranged from dark blue to red, green and black. Somehow even though the style was exactly the same on everyone, the colours made them look exotic and vibrant by comparison to the students.

Her attention was brought back to the front of the room by a judiciously placed poke in the side from Lily. Before Scout could register a protest, Lily tilted her head to the front of the room.

‘Ladies and gentleman.’ It was Cerys Westwood-Jones, CEO, Dorsay’s equivalent of the Emperor in Oz’s Emerald City. Wow, that was unexpected, Scout thought. A huge rumour mill surrounded her and, though they’d gotten a brief overview about her when they’d arrived at Dorsay as part of their orientation program, she’d remained pretty much a mystery.

Westwood-Jones stood confidently up on the podium, calmly surveying them all. A woman of relative youth, she appeared to be a woman of tight control and confidence. Her uniform, unlike everyone else’s, was white. More Glinda the good fairy than Oz, Scout thought, wondering if that she could really be that obvious in her choice of colour.

‘Thank you for coming,’ she continued when the noise had settled down. Her voice was smooth with a slight huskiness to it, as though she’d been talking or arguing for ages before she’d gotten up to address them. She had that quality that made people sit forward and take notice of her, despite her relative slightness of build.  The energy seemed to flow off her and Scout found herself leaning forward, straining to not miss a word.

Westwood-Jones swept a smile over the assembled crowd below her. The weak English sun streamed in, bathing the room in light if not warmth.

‘As we all know,’ she began, ‘Dorsay has been at the forefront of scientific and technological advancements for over forty years. The best scientists in the world have undertaken our research and experimentation in human evolution and genetics. The next generation is here, ensuring that these advancements continue.’ At this, she swept a glance at Scout and the students who were sitting near her, lingering for a millisecond longer on Scout. ‘The progress that we have made in the last few years has shown us that we are on the brink of something spectacular.’ Looking at them all, she paused and took a breath. Scout couldn’t help but feel the defiance leaking out of Cerys’ mind, underpinned by a feeling of adrenaline, despite the tight clamp she was keeping on her thoughts.

‘The purpose of calling this meeting is to prepare you for our next step. The ultimate step for Dorsay. We will be launching Stage One of the Alpha Project.’

A collective gasp rose up from the hundreds of people gathered in the atrium.  Scout glanced at Conor who shrugged, looking as baffled has she felt. Lily, on the other hand, sat as though she’d expected every word of what she’d just been told. The pitying look she gave Scout told her that she and Conor were seriously behind the eight ball on this one. Just once, Scout thought, irritated, just once I’d like to feel as like I’ve got some idea of what the hell is going on around me.

‘I know that you will have many questions. Rest assured that the Corporation values your contribution to our shared vision.’ At this, Westwood-Jones shot a lightning-quick look in the direction of what appeared to be the Dorsay board, all wearing purple. Not a flattering colour for most of them, Scout noted, especially the short, sweaty man standing closest to the podium.

‘The next phase of Dorsay’s history will not only be challenging but immensely rewarding. For now, I will leave you in the capable hands of our Director of Strategic Planning, Will Taylor. He will be outlining our program over the next few days and weeks as we work towards the most important step that humanity will take.’ With that, she stepped down, nodded to a podgy, purple-encased man and exited through a side door, leaving behind her an increasingly excited crowd of people.

Before Scout could discuss any of this with Lily and Conor, Will Taylor stepped up to the podium and cleared his throat. The sudden silence that fell in the room spoke volumes about him. His expression was harder and more watchful than his CEO’s had been, and his tight collar made his florid face bulge even more, pushing his eye sockets into ever-smaller slits.

‘Good morning.’ His softly accented voice was at odds with the solidity of his frame.

‘Each company sector will have a follow-up briefing, immediately following this meeting. Your sector leaders will be able to answer any immediate questions that you have. This process will be taking place using clear guidelines designed to minimise disruption.’ He glanced around the massive room, enunciating his next words precisely. ‘This information must not leave the compound. Any leaks to the media or other organisations will result in swift consequences for the responsible parties.’

‘That’s all for now. I would ask that you now make your way to your sector meeting rooms.’ At that, the barely-held back murmuring broke into a surge of heated talk. Waves of palpable anticipation bounced off the walls.

‘Um, what the hell?’ Conor leaned forward to voice what Scout was also thinking.

‘I’ve got no idea.’ Scout confessed. Lily started to say something but was interrupted by the sound of mocking laughter coming from behind them.

Conor stiffened and Scout turned around to see her early morning wakeup call sitting with his elbows balanced on his knees, chuckling to himself as though amused beyond all measure by their ignorance.

‘What’s so funny?’ Scout leaned over the back of the chair and eyeballed him. What was this guy’s problem, anyway? She just couldn’t get a handle on his erratic mood swings and superior attitude.

‘I’m just not sure how you two made it in here. She,’ Hunter nodded towards Lily, ‘knows what’s going on. Didn’t you two do any research into the place that you were given a scholarship before coming? For two supposed ‘geniuses’, his fingers twitched in the air around that last word, ‘you’re working the ‘Dumb and Dumber’ angle pretty well. I’m really looking forward to seeing the pair of you get to grips with this.’ Still chuckling, he unfolded his lean frame and slipped casually out into the departing. Scout sat, dumbstruck. Did he really just say that?

‘Man, I thought I had problems, but that guy has some serious social issues,’ Conor said. ‘What’s with him anyway?’ Lily patted him on the shoulder.

‘Who knows?’ she said, dismissively. ‘Don’t listen to him, okay? He gets his kicks out of being an asshole.’ Scout and Conor burst out laughing, both shocked that something so crude could come out of someone who looked so perfect. Conor looked over at Lily, still smiling at her assessment of Hunter.

‘So, Lil, help out an imbecile. What’s Alpha One?’ he asked.

Lily sighed.

‘Please don’t call me ‘Lil.’ It makes me sound like I work in an East End chip shop,’ but Conor just shrugged.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘I think it kind of suits you.’ Lily grimaced.

‘I’ll explain what I know as we head back. But could we please not be there late and get shamed again by the mentors?’ Her plea was interrupted by Scout’s stomach rumbling loudly.

‘I’m going to need some breakfast if I’m going to get through these next few hours,’ Scout looked pleadingly at Lily.

‘Yeah, me too,’ Conor nodded vigorously.

‘Fine,’ Lily sighed, ‘but if we’re late, then you two can explain why to Chewy.’ Conor snorted in disgust.

‘We’ve been here three months and the guy still hates me,’ he said.

‘Yeah, might have something to do with the fact that you give him shit every time you see him,’ Scout said wryly.

Conor launched into his best Star Wars impression and the girls cracked up.  Scout realized that Conor wasn’t bad looking, once he relaxed a bit. Catching Lily’s eye, she blushed and shook her head. Lily laughed and stood up.

‘Enough drama for one morning, please! Come on.’ She pushed Conor to get him moving. ‘Let’s get out of here. You two are making me more nervous by the minute.’ They left the almost empty hall in search of something to eat, Scout heaving a sigh of relief. She didn’t think that she’d have a very good answer if Lily asked her about Conor. Come to think of it, she didn’t have a great one for herself, either.

 

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Enshrouded, Madeline Falovic

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…The orange and pink strawflowers sitting brightly in Nan’s front garden reminded Lorna of when Christine and she were children, and they’d pick the papery bracts and stick pieces of wire through them so they could display them inside without them perishing…

 

Auntie Beth is Chapter Two in a novel called Enshrouded, about a young woman who embarks on an emotional journey, to uncover the reasons for the brooding hostility between her mother and grandmother.

 

A taxi dropped Lorna at Hills Road on a mild Saturday afternoon in spring, home to Nan, otherwise known as May Chastain, and Auntie Beth. The orange and pink strawflowers sitting brightly in Nan’s front garden reminded Lorna of when Christine and she were children, and they’d pick the papery bracts and stick pieces of wire through them so they could display them inside without them perishing. Nan’s house was opposite a park with a river and an otherworldly green lawn. Lorna and Christine used to pretend there were fairies living beside the river bank. They would spend hours as children, frolicking in the sunlight, in their own fantastical world.

Through the wall of citrus trees and sweet-smelling wisteria facing the road, Lorna detected movement; shoes shuffled on the pavement.

‘Miffy!’ Nan made a sharp whistling sound whenever she spoke so that nearly every word she uttered pierced the ear drum like a phonic drill. Lorna wondered how long it would take to irritate her.

She appeared. Her face was soft and creasy and her grey ponytail was tied up into an old clasp. Wisps of hair sprang out around her face like the fine protrusions of a Venus flytrap. She held out her weathered gloves, motioning for an embrace. Traces of plant clippings and potting mix clung to the droopy lumps beneath her skivvy. Lorna nuzzled into her neck and smelt Nan: old clothes and tea leaves.

They walked down the garden path, avoiding the scatterings of wilted weeds and clumps of soil; the aftermath of Nan’s gardening frenzy. Lorna was impressed with her stamina, especially at seventy. Her mother was the same. She could garden for hours and still get up the next day and do it all again.

‘How long did it take you to get here from the airport, Miffy?’ Nan held open the screen door.

‘Only half an hour.’

The lounge room was dark and cool. Lorna set her bags down next to the couch draped with a patchwork quilt. There were boxes piled up against the coffee table and the other couch. She had forgotten about the hoarding. Everyone always did until they stepped through the door.

‘Did your mother give you some money?’

‘I work Nan, Mum doesn’t need to give me money.’

‘What are you studying again, darling?’

‘Journalism.’

‘…Oh yeah, that’s right.’

They headed into the kitchen. Lorna looked down the hallway where three rooms jutted off to the side. One used to be Auntie Eliza’s. On the wall hung sketched portraits, painted in the early seventies, of all eight of Nan’s children. In order of youngest to eldest, there was: Eliza, Jeffrey, Amelia, Jennifer, Paul, Roger, Beth and Brian. Élan’s name was Jennifer back then. She changed it when she married because it reminded her of being teased as a child.

‘So will you write for a paper, or be on TV, Miffy?’

Lorna sat down at the kitchen table, where out of six chairs only two were available because the other four were blocked by more boxes or piles of clothes.

‘I’m not too sure yet, Nan. I’ll see when I get closer to finishing.’

‘You must have a lot of homework?’ Nan asked, concernedly. ‘It must have been difficult getting time off?’

‘I’m on a break from uni, and the restaurant gave me three weeks off… Where’s Auntie Beth?’

‘We are so happy to have you here. When your mother told me you were coming, I couldn’t believe it. I was just so happy… would you like a cup of tea?’

Before Lorna answered, Nan was filling the kettle with water. She set the kettle on the stove and pushed in the ignition switch until it sparked.

‘Where’s Auntie Beth, Nan?’ Lorna raised her voice a little louder in case she hadn’t heard the first time.

‘Sleeping.’

‘She’ll be up for her pills soon.’

‘How is your mother, Miffy? Good?’

Beth could hear her mother shuffling about the kitchen. The anti-psychotics made her sleep a lot but her body automatically woke up three times a day. Once at 5am, another at 11:30am and lastly, at 6pm. These were her pill times. Every day for the last thirty-five years her routine had been the status quo and it was likely to stay that way until the day she died. Sleep, eat, take pills, and occasionally go to the shop with her mother to get her essentials, like ice-cream and chocolate sauce. Beth loved ice-cream. Her mother used to yell at her for eating it. She even tried to get Beth to walk up and down their street once a day but her mother gave up because Beth always resisted.

‘What’s the point,’ she’d heard her mother say on the telephone to her brother Jeffrey one night.

‘She doesn’t have anything to live for. I may as well let her do what she wants.’

It had hurt Beth, but her mother had been right. When she really thought about it she didn’t feel so bad, partly, probably, because she was permanently drugged up but also because she had come to terms with her lot in life. Of course, some days were harder than others. She would write her poetry when she was alert enough. Each line carried her sadness of knowing she would never have children, never have someone to love her and never be able to lead a normal life. Lorna had liked her poetry when she had read it on one of Beth’s trips to Melbourne. She had packed it hoping that someone would want to read it. And Lorna was the only one who asked to see it. She had called it ‘poignant’.

‘Tell me,’ Lorna had said one day whilst reading one of her Auntie’s poems, ‘about the man you write about here. You obviously were in love, Auntie Beth. Who was he?’ Beth had clammed up instantly. She had never expected to be asked about the subject of her poems, especially not by her niece. She had asked for her poem back immediately and lied that she needed to go and rest. She wasn’t really tired at that moment; how could she be when she was asked to explain a poem that embodied everything she felt for the man who had so abruptly removed himself from her life nearly thirty years ago?

She could hear the birds welcoming twilight outside her window. A red breasted rosella perched on the paperbark caught her eye. Its rigid movements mesmerised Beth. How busy it was going about its day. Beth remembered that her niece was coming to stay today. Maybe that’s why there was so much noise coming from the kitchen. She still felt groggy but decided to get up and see if Lorna had arrived. The sun blushed through the curtains, creating a dusky glow. Her mother had put new floral wallpaper up in her room last year. Nearly everything in her room was pink. It had been that way since she was a girl. Even when she and her mother and Eliza had moved from Marpon when she was twenty-three, she had kept all of her childhood toys and ornaments. She sat on the bed, using her feet to tap her slippers on the floor into position. She closed up the buttons on the flannelette shirt her mother had bought from Target during the men’s clothing sale and heaved herself up from the bed. The head spins were common, especially after lying down for so long. Beth shuffled her feet towards the door and headed out to the kitchen.

‘Auntie Beth!’ yelled Lorna gleefully. She leapt up and dived towards her Aunt, nearly knocking her back against the fridge. She liked to make a fuss of her Aunt whenever she greeted her. She knew her mother’s siblings saw Auntie Beth as a burden, especially on Nan. Their eyes conveyed their disdain and her worsening condition was a hot topic of conversation at family gatherings.

‘And I’ll be the one left with her,’ Uncle Jeffrey had muttered at a Christmas Party when Lorna was a child.

‘Lorna, how are you?’ Auntie Beth’s voice was soft and delicate. She had a malleable, flawless complexion like ivory coloured play-dough and her eyes were the colour of walnut shells.

‘I’m good, how have you been?’ Lorna gulped and worried that she seemed insincere. Everyone knows how Auntie Beth is, BAD! Clearly, she hadn’t been good.

‘Okay,’ said Auntie Beth again. This time her voice was softer and she looked down when she spoke. She walked over to the freezer and pulled out a tub of Caramello Swirl ice cream.

‘Be- eth,’ Nan said reproachfully.

‘Mum!’ Auntie Beth turned towards her mother and stared at her with furrowed eyebrows. She placed the tub petulantly on the bench, gaze fixed to the floor.

‘I’m only having a little bit now,’ she said quietly.

‘Don’t you remember what the doctor said?’

Auntie Beth ignored her mother. Great, three weeks of them fighting Lorna thought. She was taken aback by how much Auntie Beth seemed to regress each time she saw her. She felt her heart ache again and realised that there was probably more of a chance of Auntie Beth passing sooner than her grandmother.

‘Look what I found at that new Salvos store,’ Nan cried blissfully.

Good, a change of tone, thought Lorna. Nan was holding up a knitted electric blue jumper with black beads sewn in the shape of flowers on the shoulders.

‘I love it!’ cried Lorna. ‘It’s so eighties. You know that’s all in now, Nan.’

Lorna felt a strong urge to embrace her Nan. But then she couldn’t. She could see her mother’s tormented face and the memory of her crying on the phone. She tried to push it back and ignore it, and for a moment it worked, but then the thick burden of her mother’s gloom seeped in through every pore, until Lorna felt weighed down in sickly guilt.

‘Aww, Miffy, I have tonnes of this stuff out the back.’

‘In bags?’ asked Lorna, thinking that she should at least try and feign eagerness. But she didn’t have to, because she loved retro clothing. Spending weekends rummaging through op-shops with Alanna was her favourite past time. There was nothing wrong with sorting through Nan’s old clothes. Surely her mother wouldn’t be put out by this. Anyway, Alanna would be so jealous when she’d see all the cool clothes. It would be worth it.

‘It’s all in the shed, Miffy.’

‘How do we get in there? Hasn’t that been locked for donkey’s years?’

Lorna played up the old expressions when she was around elderly people. She didn’t know where they came from. It was like they were locked up in a file inside her head and whenever she was around particular people these idiomatic words would filter down and spurt out of her mouth. She would never use that expression with Alanna. For her it would be more like, ‘Hasn’t that been locked for ages,’ or ‘For eva’- that’s how she’d send it in a text. But Nan and Auntie Beth wouldn’t even know what a text was, in the phone context, anyway.

‘Yes, but I do need to clean it out, and it would be nice while you’re here. An extra pair of hands would be great. You know Auntie Beth can’t help.’

Auntie Beth had planted herself on a chair next to Lorna and was now looking at her mother accusingly.

‘Now Beth, you know you can’t help. You’ll get out there and turn straight back inside. It’ll wear you out… and anyways, there’s all those huntsman’s in there. They all fell off the door when I tried to open it last month. They’ll scare the beeswax out of you.’

‘How bad are these spiders Nan?’ Lorna’s face tensed.

‘No, you’ll be right Miffy; we’ll cover you from head to toe.’

Auntie Beth picked up the box of bottled pills sitting in a container on the oak cabinet by the table, and with listless resignation, tipped out her evening dose. She didn’t want to help. She hated her mother’s hoarding but she wished she wouldn’t always point out how hopeless she was. Sometimes she’d daydream that robbers would come and take all of her mother’s rubbish, but then she knew that no one in their right mind would want to steal the junk hogging up all the space and making it impossible to move around the house.

 

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Tom, Hannah Macauley-Gierhart

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…It’s like a jar cracked open. I pour the perfume over your feet. It runs over my alabaster hands and makes your skin slick with the fragrance of it. This story is a sound. It comes from my lips as I kneel on the hard ground. It is a sob and a groan and a joy, all at once…

 

This is the beginnings of a memoir about my younger brother, Tom, now 25 years of age, who suffers from autism. In my effort to capture and process the beauty and the pain of his life, this work started pouring out of me. This is my attempt to explore the debilitating disability he suffers from and offer an insight into a world that is so often misunderstood.

 

Dear Reader,

It’s like a jar cracked open. I pour the perfume over your feet. It runs over my alabaster hands and makes your skin slick with the fragrance of it.
This story is a sound. It comes from my lips as I kneel on the hard ground. It is a sob and a groan and a joy, all at once.

So it’s a story I’ve been wanting to share with you.

I always have plans of how I’m going to say it. I’ve woken up in the night reworking words, writing scrawl in the notepad next to my bed, half asleep and blinded by the dark. It never has that same glow-sound when I read it the next morning. I scribble it out and wait for the next dream.

No matter, it’s time I share it, eloquent or not.

It’s in the evening that I commence this, I’m tired and my brain is heavy from a long day. I’ve thrown off my shoes and taken out the garbage and the windows are open. It’s pretty quiet, but I hear singing in an unknown language from the apartment below me – I think they’re in their garden watering their plants in this pink twilight. I wish I had a garden.

I want you to see my apartment. It is all white-walls and cheap paintings. I have that magnetic poetry on my fridge and on eluding-sleep-nights I make new musings with the words. I think they’re pretty funny.

There are about a million teacups in the cupboards of my kitchen. I pick one depending on my mood or the type of tea I’m having. If someone comes over I get out my great-grandmother’s china ones. They are white with sweet blue periwinkles painted on them.

I could procrastinate and read the book that’s sitting on my lounge right now. Perhaps. But I know I can’t do that tonight. I need to start this. I have many books on my shelves. You’d be impressed.

I love the way that this place gets an amber warmth from the lights on these winter nights. I might light a candle that smells like French pear and close all the blinds and pretend like the world stops when I close it out. I do know it doesn’t. It’s right back whirring when I wake for work the next morning. It is a nice thing to dream, though.

I’m sorry for my tangents. I just want you to imagine you’re here too. Smell the candle, feel the slight chill to the night air. Go pick a cup if you want, I’ll brew some tea. And then I reckon I’ll begin.

* * *

Tom was born on a Tuesday. It was full of light. And I remember sitting on the sidewalk outside the hospital with ice-cream slithering down my arms – it was hot for September. My grandmother was sitting with my older brother and I and I remember trying to count the concrete cracks around my feet but I couldn’t count very high. My grandmother was telling me stories as the sun stretched my skin. I laughed at the way she animated her voice to play characters.
And when I saw him for the first time everything around us faded. He lay there, pink and staring at the ceiling, and I was in love. His name rolled around my mouth as I pressed my fingers into his plasticine skin. Beautiful.
There are pictures of us with my arm around his neck, his eyes bulging in my headlock. I am smiling at the camera showing my tiny teeth and squeezing with all my might. I loved him ‘til it hurt. I would sing to him over his cot, come sliding up the floorboards as soon as the sun broke the nights and sing through the bars. He would turn his head in my direction as he listened to my sound.
In the afternoons, we would lie on the floor and I would crawl over to him and press the top of my head to his. I would tell him the stories our grandmother had told me and he’d wave his arms in the air. I would copy him.

He didn’t talk for years and his lack of eye contact was an alarm. He would wander into the kitchen and point at a pictures in a Woolworths catalogue and then point to the pantry. That’s how we knew what he wanted. He would make sounds and I would translate. It was like I knew his thoughts. We would play our secret games in the family room and I could understand him fully – I am thankful for that gift.

He was three years old when I remember my mother weeping as she cleaned the shower. I was too young to understand then.

He’s silent a lot these days. He has words now but does not use them too much.
I hear him walk around the house and his socks make a shuffling sound on the tiles. Sometimes he hums. It’s a faint sound, like a breeze through the windows. I like to hear him talk to himself – he does this when he’s watering the garden. He talks about the football and the weather and I wish I was on the other side of that conversation.

* * *

It was the beach up the road that called us. Spoon Bay. It was magnificent: arched sand that stretched from cliffs to rock-pools to endless, endless ocean. And oh in the summers Mum would pack up a picnic and our towels and spades and buckets and hats and sunscreen and we would tumble to the beach and then into the water and my older brother and I would float and somersault and grab at slithery legs, pretending to be sharks. Tom would stand at the edge, afraid of the waves. He would cling to our mother and back slowly away from the noise. The sound, it seemed, echoed in his ears and rumbled in his head. It was a groan, a warning, and he feared it.

It has always been noise for Tom. He can hear decibels unknown to me and cringe at the pain they cause. Off-key instruments frighten him. Children screaming. Sirens. Animals. He is worried by brown pianos because they are apparently much more likely to be out of tune. He can tell you the key of any sound. He’s brilliant.

He slowly learned the ocean after a while. The feel of the sand on his feet was still unpleasant and the noise was a roar in the shell of his head but he touched it. He would be a peanut in my father’s arms, slowly conquering the waves as my father jumped over them – small Tom against the sea.

I drove past another beach this morning on my way to work and amongst the traffic lights and changing lanes I caught a glimpse of a grey ocean. I was thinking of the sadness of empty waves when the winter comes, how they curl in on themselves to no admiring eyes. The memories of us all at the beach years ago are eternally bright. I can still smell the sunblock and feel the salt-sting of my skin. Yet it is always the fight in him that stands out the most, that tiny child facing those fears so much he swam through them.

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The Officeworks Footy, Ellen A. Williams

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Newcastle, 2012

‘Reckon we should chuck that footy out?’

Red, waterlogged emu egg. More a garden ornament than a toy. It’s quite a good imitation of an Aussie Rules Sherrin football and I feel a little guilty for having never kicked it, hoping the kid it belonged to didn’t go back looking for it in Throsby Creek where we found it long before footy season had even started.

‘Yeah’– James’s confirmation after he carefully finishes the last of his hamburger. I’m already onto my next train of thought, of how you don’t usually get all the salads on a chicken schnitzel burger. I thread back to my question. James licks the redness dripping down his fingers. I know with that kind of certainty that comes after five years that he won’t wipe the glob on his chin. I smile to myself. I’ll give him two minutes.

The footy waits in a triangular patch of sun, its orbit around our little square of backyard decided by an arbitrary toss during mowing. The brilliant red foam and blue Officeworks logo are foreign beneath the cavernous trees, lurid against the native honeysuckle’s white brush of spikes. Flick, kick, thwack. Rainwater shoots out against the sun chair’s mesh. James wipes his bare feet on the grass and grins.

 

Sydney, 2008-9

Two years of weekends in Sydney. James travels south from The Coast to visit me instead of north to Newcastle. Two years of parks. The names will be lost but the images will remain. Luscious greens against the exciting sparkles of the harbour or leafy Inner West substitute backyards. A picnic blanket and Triple J on the transistor radio. Canoodling like tiny plasticine park-goers in a Jeannie Baker book. And a footy, always a footy. James practises handballing, I fail miserably at drop kicking. We take more of an interest in each other’s code of footy.

Two years of parks; moments of relaxation in the busyness of the city and life as a beginning teacher. But it will never be home.

‘You’ve got sauce on your chin.’

 ‘Of course I do. I’m such a loser.’ The usual self-deprecation.

 ‘You’re such a victim,’ I continue the joke.

HOOOOG. You could easily forget that the harbour is just four hundred odd metres away. Not me, not when you’ve grown up in the western suburbs.

Two long horn blasts followed by one short. ‘What’s that mean?’

‘It’s overtaking on the starboard side,’ James answers, self-conscious pride in his recent maritime education flashed in his direct look. I recall the same look, the one that listened intently above the pre-band din of the Northern Star five years earlier; the look that stuck around despite months of my refusal to have a boyfriend; my refusal to have someone to miss wherever post-university 2008 took me.

 I think of James coming home to this cosy inner-city suburb, to the house we own, not borrow, hints of salt and grease in his tousled curls from a day skippering tugboats. But for now, we continue to mull over a working holiday in Canada– a ‘Got to do it before it’s too late’. Thirty lingers unreasonably close with a sense of foreboding; that it is more than just the cut-off age for youth work permits. We are in the twilight of backpacking years, Settling Down is knocking. We know the horror of starting again, living at home broke and unemployed still sharp in our memory. On this day though, burgers in the backyard, we are unaware that ‘our’ house is to be sold. The Canada possibility will become a reality.

 

Salzburg, Austria, 2010.

A Munich-sized hangover, one of only a handful we will suffer in our ambitious thirteen-week traverse of Europe, smothers our brains like the clouds that hide the mountains we came to see. In our hostel, Stella, fifteen years younger than she looks as a result of a horrific life, shouts us dinner, a ‘gift from the Victims of Crime agency’. Wiener schnitzel. We gratefully eat the veal, a nice change from salami and cheese sandwiches. Later, I’ll be glad to have eaten at least one local dish. And thankful for my safe childhood.

I collect the dropped toppings of my chicken schnitzel burger onto the white paper bag. ‘Sn’ distinguishes it from the hamburger. I laugh.

 ‘What?’

‘That’s not how you spell schnitzel.’ I recall the uptight Viennese we had encountered. No doubt they would be insulted by the misspelling. It occurs to me that the American hotdog franchise Wienerschnitzel is much more offensive than the phonetic spelling born of a takeaway shop on Hannell Street.

James pretends to hurl the footy at me quarterback style then tosses it underarm instead. The gigantic stress ball lands at my feet like a soggy Newcastle Herald. Ironically, it hadn’t been waterlogged the night we found it bobbing against the breakwall. The night of the storm. A Monday night. I was tingling with wine and appreciation of my life as a no-longer-permanent teacher. Dinner was moved onto the deck to escape the heat of a February kitchen. As the flashes behind the wattle screen intensified we grabbed the red and ran out into the electricity. The barnacled stairs leading into the harbour tributary provided a front seat to the lightning show. For awhile anyway, until our sense of adventure was swallowed by fear of electrocution on the metal stairs. We had left with a wine bottle and returned with a football.

I wonder where it came from. Had it washed across from the housing commission townhouses? Was its owner a kid escaping the recognisable uniformity of burnt brick and sick-coloured weatherboard? Or was it a casualty of the wind and a wayward kick on this side of Throsby Creek? A kick from a child on the opposite end of the socio-economic slide, their backyard the waterfront park skirting the artfully distinct terraces of the Linwood Precinct. Had the football come from Officeworks itself, or perhaps a junior Black Diamond Aussie Rules game? It had been a surprising find– any Sherrin, actual or imitated is uncommon in Newcastle, rugby league heartland.

 I squeeze the remaining wetness from the cheap foam and think about the children who were discovered hand-sewing Sherrin footballs in Indian slums. Blue flecks of the Officeworks logo catch under my nail. On the reverse side a maze of cracks widen as I squeeze. ‘Probably from sitting in the wet grass,’ James tips.

‘Got to be the sun,’ I argue. The irregular islands in the splitting foam are identical to those of blistered land in the far west. Down the cracks, the foam continues its same tomato sauce redness. Artists call it cadmium scarlet. I would call it fire engine red or postbox red. The colour schoolchildren use for my hair in drawings. The eye-burning guernsey of the Sydney Swans, or ‘Bloods’ as you call them if they’re having a good season and you want to pretend you followed them in their previous incarnation, South Melbourne.

 

Sydney Cricket Ground, 1997

A glorious Sunday afternoon in winter and a swollen crowd to watch last year’s grand finalists, the Sydney Swans. My brother, fourteen and myself, twelve. Mum or Dad, depending on whose weekend it is. My sister is older, eighteen and absent. She’s not a sports kind of person. We’ve caught the 6:30am train to nab the best seats in general admission. We still have to crane our heads though, to see the replays of Plugger’s marks. Later in the season we’ll be with Dad (luckily) when Plugger kicks his hundredth goal for the year. Dad will let us rush the field with everyone else. I’ll discover the Minties in my pocket gone when I am back on the spectator side of the advertising.

We’ve been enticed to the SCG with Swanslink tickets: return train travel and entry for a few dollars per child. My brother has been playing in the NAFL (Newcastle Australian Football League). Our family has jumped ship, burnt from the politics of Super League in the rugby league.

The V neck collar of my prized new Swans guernsey scratches around my neck. Beneath the leg of my jeans, a daringly large red love heart is drawn in permanent marker on newly shaved skin. It prickles into goosebumps as the ghostly ‘Syd-ney’ chant swims around the grandstands. Jarrod Simpson will never know of this adornment above my ankle. I have not and will not ever speak to my brother’s teammate.

The permanent marker will outlive the infatuation. Red Artline chisel point– the family ‘good texta’. Squashed but not destroyed under the sole of my sister’s Doc Martens in what became an unusual all-children-present activity– the construction of our own goalposts in the backyard. Two long, two short. Narrow treated pine from BBC Hardware, before it was swallowed by the all-consuming Wesfarmers in the guise of Bunnings Warehouse. The goalposts will be a short-lived enjoyment for me as the two-year age gap between brother and sister becomes a merciless outmatching of strength and patience.

 

Sydney Cricket Ground, 1999.

We are on the waiting list to become Sydney Swans members. We’ll be accepted next year then leave in disgust nine years later after a hundred dollar price hike. For now, we make the most of the failed attempt to relocate North Melbourne Kangaroos to Sydney. My brother is a heated North Melbourne fan and infamous bad sport. I’m glad they’re not playing Sydney.

Wet weather and apathy for the relocation has left the illuminated SCG largely empty. This thrilling clash against St Kilda will become famous in our family’s lexicon for our appearances on the VHS recording. After two Quarters of rain, Mum stays under cover while my brother and I venture to the boundary. His giant foam hand, all but the middle finger tucked down, will be easily spotted by Channel 7 cameras in the rain-abandoned concourse.

A tackle in the wet grass transfers the fifty-metre line to the seat of a player’s white shorts. ‘Stick a plug in it, ya girl!’ a peer-influenced shout comes from behind us. My fourteen year-old ears burn scarlet in embarrassment, shame, indignation. I don’t dare look at my brother. I try to forget my inability to use tampons.

‘Wanna go and kick the footy?’ James handpasses the ball to himself, striking the base with his fist.

‘I don’t think my back’s up to it.’ I try not to feel sorry for myself or unfairly young to have back problems.

‘How about a walk then?’ he asks without disappointment.

 We walk against the one-way traffic of our street, smiling politely at the resident longneck drinker leaning over his low fence. His intense stare makes him look creepy. He’s probably just lonely. And short-sighted.

We wait for the lights at Hannell Street. The busy dual-lane entry into Newcastle is set to incorporate the aptly named Industrial Drive under a new name, James Hannell Drive, to celebrate one hundred and fifty years of local government. We cross the divide into rich Maryville. ‘Rich’ would suggest the other side is conversely poor. Many of the blocks are small and the miner’s cottages peeling but the renovators are well on their way to gentrifying this mixed zoned suburb. Perhaps we have crossed into ‘richer’ Maryville. James Hannell, philanthropist and Newcastle’s first mayor, would be appalled that his namesake now splits his beloved Maryville into two distinct classes.

 

1944

Woolsheds instead of terraced houses along Woolshed Place. Wool, five bales high, sits patiently, waiting for the war to end. The grounds of James Hannell’s Mary Ville are a fraction of its former twenty-one acres. The once dominant Moreton Bay Figs are long since demolished, for the sake of the tramline. The trams will be gone in a few years, along with the grand two-storey Hannell residence; generations of memories reduced to a pile of bricks that will be used as foundations for the new petrol station.

We consider stopping for a Slurpee at the 7-Eleven. Maybe on the way home. Instead we cross through the landscaped terraces and onto the cycleway that follows decontaminated Throsby Creek to the marina. The afternoon breeze creases corrugations in the gentle water. Salty air settles in the back of my throat.

A tinny rattle of mudguards approaches from behind. A retro fixie bike ridden by a suitably retro woman overtakes us. Somewhere along the row of terraces a screen door quivers open and snaps shut. The rider approaches the bridge to Carrington. Climp-clomp, climp-clomp. Her tyres pucker over the wooden underpass. Below, barnacles cling to the support stumps like a rock caught in an emu’s throat. She weaves through the maze of fishing lines and their beer-toting owners and disappears towards town.

Historical information signs dot the waterfront. We stop to reread one a few metres from where we found the Officeworks footy. I’ve never seen anyone read them. Perhaps they already have, or don’t want to break their run. Maybe they just aren’t interested in the history of the place they use so often.

 

The Coquun, less than 250 years ago.

Awabakal people dive for lobster and gather shellfish. Along the sandy shore, possums and wallabies are hunted amongst the honeysuckle. Not too far from the river mouth, Yohaaba, this sheltered position brings Awabakal and Worimi people together for corroborees.

 Shattering events are yet to unfold for the unsuspecting groups. In three generations many will have died, the rest living out marginal lives subjected to assault and discrimination under strict government controls. But before that, Muloobinba is to be claimed as King’s Town and used as a second penal colony for reoffending convicts. Many will try to escape. Some will live with Worimi people who believe them to be reincarnations of deceased family. Others will be caught and traded for blankets and tobacco.

Later, Muloobinba will be reclaimed as Newcastle in a hopeful bid to discover coal like its namesake in England. Much later, Australia’s largest KFC will sit, gratuitously red, over evidence of the oldest human settlement in Newcastle.

I look to the retaining rock wall where we’d found the football and imagine it washed up on the sandy bank prior to 1804; a precisely shaped emu egg, soft but firm. A colour brighter than the reddest ochre traded from the Kimberley, deeper than any flickered watja light. Would it have been kicked and played with? Perhaps the Awabakal people too sewed possum skins into egg shapes to play Marn-Grook like in the south.

We wander further to the thin strip of sand (and shells, shoes, beer cans) exposed by the low tide. A couple sit on the edge of the path and watch their dog dig in the sand.

‘If we were back in the Manc, they’d be sunbaking.’

 James laughs. There’s a sniff of warmth in the air; the perfect temperature for bare-chested Mancunians who, in Piccadilly Gardens, laid deathly still as though if they moved, the sun would miss their pasty skin. ‘The Pod’, our space-age apartment in Manchester was the first place we lived together. I check myself for the homesickness I felt for it on our return home. A whiff of fish guts floats over from the boat ramp. In the distance, twin white cranes straddle the Forgacs floating dock, my symbol of Newcastle. Home.

 

 

A summer’s night

The cycleway is all but empty. Schhhhh. Tyres grip and turn over the pebblecrete. Televisions glow behind glass. A plop from an unseen fish echoes across the still black. Beyond the twisting mangroves, orange lights outline the coal loaders. They glow in the salt air; friendly, mysterious.

We streak through the night; patches of yellow, patches of shadow, patches of yellow, patches of shadow. The dim lighting could be dangerous on foot. But we are pedalling fast, not our leisurely daytime pace. It’s not spoken between us, we just know– in the dark, we own the night.

Bright red taillight flashes are left in our wake. We have helmets and the necessary lights but schooners of Old fuel our adrenalin. The cycleway is our path home– from the bowling club over the bridge that sent hand-written letters begging for patronage; or from a harbour side pub at the other end of the Honeysuckle redevelopment.

My faint headlight projects enlarged diamonds of my basket mesh. James’s LED is much brighter; he should be in front. But that’s not how it ever ends up. Later, when we make it to our empty, darkened street, I’ll stand up like a kid on a bike with no gears, riding as fast as I can to our miner’s cottage. The real threat of a car from a side street will be lost in the rhythm of tyres. Puffing, exhilarated in the disco blink of taillights, I’ll apologise for taking off. James will grin. ‘That’s OK, I was riding in your slipstream.’

 

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Plastic flowers don’t die, Judith Jaffe

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December 31, 2011. Squeals, tinged with tipsy bravado. ‘Jump!’ She hesitates.  Strips off to her lacy g-string, takes a few shy running steps and splash. She’s in the harbour surrounded by midnight, not far from the ferry wharf. She’s my daughter, but I’m not there.

April 30, 2008, around midnight. Near the same Balmain East Ferry Wharf other sons and daughters gather, continuing celebrations. Celebrations singed with slight regret. The Manager, Gene Robson, some friends and Commercial Hotel staff, are finishing with private drinks, displacing disappointment with party-mode brashness. Tomorrow there will be new management and all new staff. Gene needs to go to Watsons Bay to hand over the keys. Wanting to avoid the police booze bus that often patrols down at White Bay, he asks his mate Matthew Reynolds if he can take him by boat. Meanwhile, word of the party spreads and some friends gather at Pondy’s place.

Michael, Lizzie, Gene, Jessica, Percy, Savanna and two Alex’s are there. The carefree group wanders off to the wharf. Chloe, Jarad, Edmund, and Thanawat – ‘Ice’, join them. Matthew and his girlfriend, Ashlie will be there soon. They are borrowing a relative’s workboat. Stacey finishes her shift at The Unity Hall Hotel. She is twenty-one and has moved to Balmain from the Wollongong district. With her infectious laughter, Facebook-confessed burps, and sense of fun she is adopted into the Balmain Peninsula community. Down Darling Street she skips, feet tripping to a tipsy tune, on the footpath, on the road, don’t step on an ugly toad … a gnome on its swing nods as she passes by. She hears the bus behind her. Quick, better get off the road. She sniffs in fishy, sea-y salt air, reminiscing the ’Gong. Probably there’s oil as well. A ferry is coming into the wharf. She hears the reverse moan of the motor. She ambles down the last section of steep road towards Gene and the others as she hears the clank! Down comes the plank. People get off. She won’t get on. No, she and her friends have a private boat to ferry them across the harbour.

Stacey stands slightly apart from her group. She waits excitedly. No reason to be excited. Just is. The harbour is mesmerising on this moonless night. She looks down into the green verging on black. Stillness is contained, waiting for passing boats or the ferry, to set the surface in motion. She looks out. Bobbings. Blinkings. Busy boats. Night boats. The bridge. That beacon tower. Luna Park, a mass of white light with a fun-filled mouth, is grinning wider than the Cheshire cat’s. She holds her face out to the soft, cool, salt tinged air. She is brushed by an invisible lover’s gentle breath.

There are night fishermen on the wharf. Her friends are jubilant nearby but she stays apart like a lone boat sloshing in a reverie of imagined stories and stray Polynesian rhythms, wrested from her stepfather’s people. She has the whole night harbour for her daydreaming. Bump. She feels the jolt as it travels through the concrete. A friend has plonked the box of beer and some spirits beside her. Splat, the seawater dumps itself onto the concrete steps, preceded by a rushing sound, an undercurrent. Whoosh, then crashing and splashing up the steps. This body of water is filled with purpose as it spills upon the wharf. It doesn’t hold back. Part of the harbour encroaches upon the wharf, overriding the constant gentle lapping. Plop. Backflow, then the lapping returns, laced with night black and a few refracted lights. Distant motors, distant sounds. ‘Ah, our boat’s coming. Here’s our boat’.

Today, I sit by the Plastic Flowers Memorial. I am lulled by the kerplap, plap, plapping. Splat, crash! I’m startled, like Stacey, at the sudden rush, as water dashes against the wharf and wall. I have been away from Balmain, away from Australia, but still I am puzzled that this is the first time I have seen the plastic flowers riveted to the waterfront rail. I frown, aware of their significance. Four years ago, that long ago, a group of young fun-lovers jumped into a small workboat, eager to reach their destination, intoxicated with alcohol and youthful exuberance. The scene now before my eyes is like an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Shot in black and white. Symbols strewn.

Today, I am conscious of the blacks and greys. Everything is dark except the plastic flowers – a relief of colour wafting on the penumbra of my vision. The sea pulsates in crosshatched mercury-green batches, slinking in random repeat patterns. The sky leers down steely-grey. Clusters of clouds rumble, too distant to be heard. Flashes of spume spray and fall backwards whenever a ferry or a boat sends a current of waves rushing towards the stone, sea wall. A pure Hitchcock moment forms. A glimmer edges out from a central tower of high, dark clouds – a cream spotlight beams on the plastic flowers. They are from the two-dollar shop, plastic yet poignant.  Too perfect to be real; too real to be plastic.

Time is suspended in Hitchcock sequences. Death is not delicate. It stretches across the screen. You are confronted with a long, agonising scream, a slow trickle of blood. Red oozes out of a black and white film.

Down here, beside the East Balmain Ferry Wharf, the plastic flowers remind me of roadside memorials I have seen lovingly constructed in country Spain, in gypsy Serbia, in forgotten Macedonia. Roads curving towards snow-capped mountains, buttercups in fields, then a white cross and bunches of plastic flowers leap out from the picture postcard scene. Death jumped out just as unexpectedly as a summer squall, to a son or a daughter on such a road. Sometimes, the roadside plastic flowers are planted in an urn.

I am saddened by thoughts of carefree young people meeting death suddenly. Darling Street itself comes to an abrupt end. It runs down the spine of the Peninsula. The road and the buses terminate at the harbour’s edge. Sandstone buildings are on one side, a small park with English rose garden in manicured lawn, is on the other. A terrace step down and the iconic view of Sydney Harbour and the city is laid out before you. You can hop on a ferry and be in the city, Darling Harbour or Milson’s Point in ten minutes. The plastic flowers, though small, grow large and out of proportion in this panorama. On this grey day I am drawn to the blur of colour.

A surprise. They are not plastic, but silk. Not really silk, but known as silk. Up close, tucked in amongst flowers I see a small plaque – In loving memory of The Sydney Harbour Crash Victims – black lettering on a white background. The flowers are mostly budded roses with white baby’s breath. On one double bunch someone has pegged a photograph of the plastic flowers scene shot with this harbour background. Odd, and I wonder why. All except one bunch of full-bloomed apricot azaleas that is tied on with tape are riveted to the rails. The rivets are rusty but look to be firmly in place. The plaque and six small photos form the shape of a cross.

The marine blue rails are faded to greyish blue now. White shows under peeling paint. Patches of rust are dotted along one section. Up the hill workmen are beautifying the footpath, laying granite and concrete pavers. Painters may be here soon.  If so, I hope they will be considerate of the plastic flowers memorial.

I breathe in my silent salute to the non-existent sun. I should go. I hear the gulls gwark. ‘Don’t go,’ I would have said. Fishermen warned them from the wharf, ‘Your boat’s too small. Don’t.’

They clambered into the boat. Fourteen. They brought more wine, more beer, a bong, some cannabis and cocaine. They made it across the harbour to Watsons Bay. Gene handed over the keys. The girls on the boat asked if they could use the facilities at the house. The boys went to the park, nearby. The celebratory atmosphere still prevailed as they re-embarked. They sped through the water and stopped at a bright marker light, named in honour of its shape, the wedding cake. Some climbed it in frivolity. Matthew sprayed the structure in a ‘rooster tail’ effect with the powered, raised propeller. Once back on board they decided they would not have any more stops. They would go straight back to Balmain. The boat headed towards the turn at Bradleys Head. Percy took over the helm and saw a fishing cruiser, Jordans, ‘lit up like a Christmas tree.’ He didn’t see that the two boats were headed towards each other. He didn’t know that at such times, boats should pass each other ‘port to port’. The sturdy fishing cruiser was chugging through the water at 8 knots an hour, while the smaller twenty three foot, blue-hulled workboat planed through the mirror smooth sea, three times faster, with its bow raised and stern low.

May 1, 2008, approximately 2.00 a.m. BANG. ‘An isolated very loud sound,’ a Bondi resident from miles away reported. Metal crunches. On impact, the port side of the small workboat’s stern is sheared off without any significant damage to the fishing cruiser, Jordans. Blackness. Black inside. Black outside: velvet shroud of liquid black. Groans caught in the ripping process. Why that crack, thought Stacey, when the wham’s enough to plunge everyone into pitch black?

May 1, 2008, about 2.30 a.m. Voices call. She’s frightened. Cold. Wet. Why wasn’t it a splash? A frolic splash, without the red? Voices drifting above and below through the wet and the black. What’s that? She swims though the shaft of light. Like a dancer swirling, twirling, lighter than substance. A dream sequence flashing, filtering forever up into the light. Away from the black. Breathe in fishy, sea-y gulps. She smells the oil but the night has become darker, way past midnight, another time. She didn’t want to jump in the water. But she’s in.

Three fishermen in other small boats come quickly to the carnage. They pull people from the water. Someone screams, ‘She’s not moving.’ They need mouth to mouth but blood and vomit obscure the detail.

May 1, 2008, around 3.00 a.m. Helicopters dispel the quiet that covers the Balmain village. Emergency rescuer workers transform the chaos at the foot of Taronga Zoo into an organised scene of temporary triage. ‘I can’t feel my arms, I can’t feel my legs,’ a girl screams to the ambulance officer. More people have been hauled from the water. ‘It’s pretty grisly having to step over dead bodies,’ reported a rescuer.

 

May 2, 2008. ‘We are crying a river of tears,’ says her uncle. Then he and her step-dad, raise the white coffin. A Maori haka is danced in honour of Stacey, a much-adopted daughter. ‘Died on the 1st of May, buried on the 2nd of May, my Stacey, my daughter would have been twenty-two tomorrow. Next week is Mothers’ Day. My heart will always be broken,’ says her mother. On birthdays she visits Stacey’s gravesite. ‘Sometimes I call her voicemail, just to hear her.’

In Balmain, we have the plastic flowers memorial; we have gatherings in the pubs. We don’t have a cemetery to visit.

Over one hundred years ago the Balmain Cemetery existed. Between 1868 and 1912 ten thousand souls were laid to rest in it. Mysteriously, the Balmain Cemetery was not in Balmain, however, all that is left of it today is in Balmain as a low wall of re-hewn sandstone blocks along Birchgrove Oval and Snail’s Bay. The cemetery was bulldozed in 1948 and eventually the space became Pioneer Memorial Park, Leichhardt, without a trace of its past evident. The rest of the rubble was carted to nearby Lilyfield. It became a grassed-over mound beside Leichhardt Oval, once home for the Balmain Tigers. Only eleven headstones were moved to different memorial sites, just one belonging to Captain Rowntree, went to Balmain.

Until last month, I had never seen inside the solid Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney. I had passed along Elizabeth and College Streets countless times and not realised that the Art Deco monument was the Anzac Memorial. It’s a soft blush of pink, a blur as you drive by.

November 1934 it is unveiled and causes a sensation, mainly because of the oversized sculpture of a nude Anzac soldier held aloft, supported by mother, wife, sister, and child. Bruce Dellit, the Anzac Memorial Architect, in defense of his controversial work, said:

The main intention of the design is to perpetuate for all time the memory of those in whose honour the Memorial has been erected.

There was no grand expression associated with the Plastic Flowers Memorial.  No gratitude, symbolism or sacrifice intended. No unveiling. Friends placed the plastic flowers beside the ferry wharf, a departure point, in a gesture of farewell and remembrance. I visit, I reminisce, I blink hello. A battered plastic windmill pokes above the flowers. In the breeze, its sails spin a greeting back to me.

Last month, 2012. A late Balmain, Sunday afternoon. My daughter and I face a sunset that slides into a deep horizon. Day over and streetlights on, we trek home from a Woolworth’s shop. My twenty something daughter has yo-yoed back ‘to save’ she says, but no doubt she also missed the washing, the cooking, and the cleaning. Laden with shopping-filled plastic bags we make our way along Darling Street, towards The Unity Hall Hotel. Music, and the fringe of the crowd flow onto the footpath. Down go our bags. We watch the swing dancers and sway to the sounds of a fourteen-piece orchestra and vocals. My daughter is eyeing off the dancers. She’s chosen the best, well almost the best, definitely the cutest. She wriggles out of her boots and just in time for the band to strike up again, she’s with him, on the tiny dance floor incorporating a salsa step with the jazzy jive. I am a doting admirer. It’s hard not to feel fantastic in this atmosphere. Stacey worked here, loved by locals here. I smile with the thought of her. Stacey was just the girl to smile with the drinkers, the lookers, the dancers. I bet she’d join in with them when her shift finished, if it finished in time. This time, another, my daughter takes a turn. Sometimes I feel Stacey – just a flimsy, fleeting moment when a pretty girl with ponytail and a flower pinned behind one ear, moves into my peripheral vision.


Notes: Anzac Memorial, Hyde Park Sydney, Trustees of the Anzac Memorial, 2009; Bruce Dellit quoted from The Book of the Anzac Memorial, Beacon Press, Sydney, 1934

 

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The Perfect Nine Months, Susan Baxter

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‘You have an increased risk of having a child with Down syndrome,’ the technician told us flatly. When Graeme and I first decided to grow our family, we were determined to have one low impact child. That was just the way it was going to be. Our lives were packed full of sailing, scuba diving, camping and four-wheel-driving adventures, and we didn’t want to give up any of that. So we simply wouldn’t.

Over a coffee that couldn’t melt the lump in my throat, we discussed our options. Do nothing, and let nature takes its course. Or I could undergo a diagnostic procedure: either an amniocentesis which could not happen until I was several weeks further into the pregnancy, or a CVS which could happen much sooner. Our decision was easy: CVS. It could be done within a week, and the risk of complications (miscarriage) was less than the risk of having a child with a chromosome abnormality. What about the results? Well, that was easy too. A child with Down syndrome would not be low impact. Frankly, the thought was alien and terrifying.

A chorionic villus sampling (CVS) involves passing a fine needle through the abdomen into the developing placenta and withdrawing a few tiny fragments of the tissue into a syringe. The placental tissue contains the baby’s complete genetic information. The sample is then sent off to a laboratory for testing and initial results are available within two days.

The day of my CVS test is a bit of a blur. I remember driving myself to the clinic and feeling very conspicuous as the only pregnant woman in the waiting room without a ‘significant other’. I recall a nurse asking me if my husband was going to be driving me home as I might feel woozy after the procedure. When it was my turn, I was scared they were going to hit the baby with the needle, or hit something else, or take too much placental tissue. I can still remember the pulling ache as the needle went through the deep layers.

Afterwards, as I drove myself home, I cried that Graeme hadn’t been there with me.

The CVS came back clear. No genetic abnormalities detected. We congratulated ourselves and prepared for our low impact child.

My pregnancy couldn’t have been rosier. No morning sickness. Life went on as normal, with all the adventures we could squeeze in outside our demanding jobs. I kept my pregnancy a secret at work for as long as possible, and followed an online calendar that told me how my baby was growing. I felt my body changing. We started taking photos of my bump, which didn’t appear until about 17 weeks. From early on I was convinced I was having a boy.

At twenty-three weeks my blood pressure shot up. Immediate hospitalisation. (‘No, you don’t have time to go back to work. Go straight home, pack a bag, and admit yourself’, said my specialist.) I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia – it seemed my body was rioting against the alien thing inside me. I was given blood pressure medications that gave me screaming headaches and forced the contents of my stomach halfway across the room. I underwent blood tests and scans and ultrasounds. Surely I would be discharged once they sorted my medication – after the weekend at least? I had so much to do!

Pre-eclampsia is a condition which occurs only in pregnancy. The illness is quite common and occurs in about ten percent of pregnancies, but usually it is easily managed. It causes elevated blood pressure, swelling, and disturbed kidney functioning. In about one percent of pregnancies, pre-eclampsia can become so severe that it can threaten the life of the mother and the unborn baby. The illness starts to affect the mother’s other organs, such as the liver, heart, lungs, brain and blood clotting system, and as the illness progresses, the placenta stops working properly and the baby starts to stress. The only cure is for the baby to be delivered, regardless of the stage of the pregnancy. I knew none of this. In my ignorance, I believed they would find the right medication and send me home.

 I lay in a private room in the maternity ward of the San Hospital, listening to babies cry and families gathering in nearby rooms, delivering baskets of pink/blue flowers, teddy bears and balloons, celebrating new life. Later, I was wheeled upstairs to a birthing room where they hooked me up intravenously to a blood pressure drug, and I listened to a woman in the throes of labour as I watched milky liquid dripping from a clear bag into my vein.

My obstetrician, Dr Paul, came and gravely told me that I couldn’t have my baby here. They didn’t have the facilities to deal with premature babies. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I couldn’t have my baby yet, I was only in my twenty third week. I was going home soon, right? There were people I worked with, played with, that didn’t even know I was pregnant! ‘Your baby is going to come early,’ he told me. ‘I want to move you to North Shore.’

My perfect pregnancy was over. My dreams/illusions of the perfect nine months, the perfect birth, and the low-impact baby, were like flower petals (pink/blue) crushed under heavy shoes.

Ten years is a long time to avoid something. For ten years I have avoided revisiting the birth of my son. That rollercoaster ride was something I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to relive. I’d recounted the story probably a hundred times – and managed to stay on top of my emotions with more strength at each telling, but re-reading my journals, the letters to my son, the records of everything that happened to him (and us) through his disaster-fraught journey – that wasn’t something I could do. They stayed on my bookshelf, three unassuming little books, firmly closed and easily evaded as life wrapped its inevitable tendrils about us and carried us along and away from that dark and traumatic time. Those journals stayed on my bookshelf until November, 2012.

            Before I had you, before there was any fear, I had a dream. I dreamt I’d given birth to you and I was wandering through a hospital, searching for you. I found myself in a room where everyone was dressed in finery as if for a ball, while I was in a hospital gown. I kept asking people where I could find you, but nobody knew; they just kept shaking their heads at me. I ran through rooms in a panic, screaming out ‘Where’s my baby?’ Does every pregnant woman have dreams about losing her baby? Or was I dreaming the future? When you were born, I didn’t even get to see you until the next day. They brought a couple of Polaroids to my room. What was in those photos didn’t match up with anything in my mind. The images showed something that looked like a skinned rabbit – all shiny and raw pink, face obscured by breathing apparatus, leads and tapes and probes everywhere. They told me that was my baby. Who cleaned you? Who whispered gentle words to you? Who held you that first time?

Every morning a troupe of medical staff would crowd into my room and discuss my condition as if I wasn’t there. I was confined to a private room in the high-risk section of the maternity ward; the goal to keep my baby inside for as long as possible. They trialled me on different medications, checked my blood pressure every couple of hours, and did regular scans on my belly. I held a small device, and each time I felt the baby move I had to click the button. They took blood until the inside of my elbows was pricked raw. My thighs were covered in green bruises from the daily injection of heparin. Each day, I would be allowed out of my room for the short walk down the hallway to the scales. I couldn’t see the fluid under my skin when I looked in the mirror, but when I got out of bed it would seep down my legs, and my feet would swell and spread out sideways like a frog’s. It was only later, in photos, that I could see how puffed up I was, how sick I looked.

During the long nights, I turned to my mother’s God. My journal at this time is full of prayers, pleading and promises. I thought that if I prayed hard enough, everything would work out fine. On the phone, my mother would talk about her prayer circle and assure me that God had a special plan for us. I didn’t care about a special plan. All I wanted was to carry my baby as long as possible.

Family and friends came and went. I was given flowers and gifts. The flowers gave me headaches and had to be sent away. Graeme was with me as often as possible, trying to keep my spirits up, trying to keep my mind off the ‘what ifs’. Others weren’t really sure how to deal with me, being unfamiliar with such an illness. The days slowly went past in a haze of anxiety and tedium. Was I being punished for ordering a low impact baby, the perfect nine months?

One Monday night, Graeme and I were taken on a special guided tour of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. My journal reports no more than, ‘Tiny babies! I found it difficult to breath,’ but I remember the shock of the machinery, the noises, the medical paraphernalia, and amongst all that, the tiniest, most helpless babies I had ever seen.

My journal deteriorates with my condition. Some entries are only a few lines long or end mid-sentence. I lost track of the days. I tried doing cross-stitch, writing letters. I had Graeme bring in my study materials, but the readings had become nonsensical and I soon gave up. The witches’ brew of drugs mesmerised me and dulled my thoughts.

And then everything changed. My test results showed that my kidneys and liver were shutting down, and the baby was showing signs of distress. Fourteen weeks before my due date, I was whisked away for an emergency caesarean, which was one of the most frightening and painful things I have undergone. It was decided I would have to go under general anaesthetic, but to reduce the risks they wouldn’t put me under until the last possible moment. I had a drip put in, and was made to drink some foul liquid while a nurse held her fingers on my throat so I wouldn’t vomit. I was lifted onto a hard table and a wedge was shoved under my hip. A nurse put in a catheter while a registrar butchered the job of inserting some sort of monitor into my wrist. (I bore a multi coloured bruise for months) Finally, they put me out.

 And Jamie was born.

            When I opened my eyes, your daddy was leaning over me. ‘We have a son, and he’s OK’, was all he said to me before I let darkness claim me again, but that’s all I had needed to know. It was sixteen hours before they let me see you. First I had to eat something, and get out of bed, and have a shower. Each thing I did was one step closer to our first visit. Your Aunty Ricki arrived on a very early flight, and Daddy came back too. Their presence gave me strength and courage. I remember the effort of just getting up, and in the shower I shook with pain and fatigue. They made me walk to you, although I know of other new mums who were wheeled into the NICU in their beds.

Later, Ricki and I stood by Jamie’s humidicrib. ‘He’s so sick,’ I remember saying to her.

‘He’s not sick,’ she responded, ‘he’s just small.’ But he was sick, dreadfully, heartbreakingly sick.

A few days after his birth, my journal entries suddenly cease for two months. These were the most frightening days. The days of not knowing. The days when we had to make impossible decisions. The days of preparing ourselves for the worst, only to suddenly be buoyed up by some tiny bubble of hope. It wasn’t just a rollercoaster. It was the rollercoaster, the ghost train and the house of horrors rolled into one, and we had unlimited rides.

I ‘surrendered to the terrible possibilities of loving too deeply’. Some mothers, when their babies are born prematurely, become detached and avoid bonding. They are so afraid of losing their tiny, fragile baby that they draw back and withhold their love. This wasn’t the case with me. From long before he was ever born, I loved him fiercely. And once he was born, I wore my heart on the outside of my body. I didn’t even know there was an option. And even though that tiny, silent creature looked like something that couldn’t possibly survive; I wore hope like a badge. I had to have hope, or my grief would overwhelm me.

I wasn’t expecting grief, but after love, it was the strongest emotion I knew. I grieved for my lost pregnancy and resented women getting about with bulging bellies and distended belly buttons. God forbid they complain about it. I grieved for my son’s horrifying start to life and the many months of sickness and discomfort he would suffer. I grieved that my body had let me down and I hadn’t been able to give my husband a healthy child. It is a phrase we hear often; ‘I don’t care what I have, as long as it’s healthy’. Even that was asking too much. When I hear that phrase now, I think of my tiny Jamie covered in splints and bandages and cannulas and monitor probes, his tiny hands scarred from pinprick blood tests, a tube down his nose and another in his mouth.

            All your visitors smile at you, at us, with their mouths, but their eyes are full of sorrow and confusion. Your grandparents are the worst. In the photos they all look shell shocked, like they’ve just seen the saddest thing and then had someone shove a camera in their face. They smile dutifully for photos with the new grandchild that they can’t even touch.

            I couldn’t hold you for a month, you were so fragile. When I finally did, they swathed you in flannelette until only your face was showing, and you were so light it seemed I was holding nothing but a bundle of rags. But to finally hold you! I was at the top of the rollercoaster, arms raised and screaming in exhilaration.

 I would never have the perfect nine months, but I cherish every perfect moment.

 

Notes

The quotation ‘I surrendered…’ is from Rachel Ward’s essay ‘Milk Fever’, published in Mother Love, edited by Debora Adelaide.  Random House Australia 2006

Works Cited

De Crespigny,L., and Chervenak, F.A. (2006) Prenatal Tests: The facts, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York
Stanfield-Porter, R. (2009) Small Miracles: coping with infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth, Hachette Australia.
Ward, R. (1996). Milk Fever. Mother Love. D. Adelaide. Milson’s Point, Random House, Australia: 97.
Whelan, M. (2008), The Other Country: A Father’s Journey with Autism, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, Australia
NSW Health Publication (2006): Outcomes for Premature Babies in NSW and ACT, NSW Pregnancy and Newborn Services Network (PSN).

 

Download a PDF of “The Perfect Nine Months”

 

 

 

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Leaving, Amanda Midlam

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…My stepfather is going to kill us. Of this I have become convinced. I do not remember when I first began to fear this; the violence has been going on too long and now has become a blur. I feel the threat of death when I wake up in the morning, get ready for school and scuttle as quickly as I can out of the house…

 

‘Leaving’ is a chapter from a work in progress, a memoir of childhood, called Good Girl. In this chapter I have just turned 14 and my sister, Allie, is nearly 16.

 

My stepfather is going to kill us. Of this I have become convinced. I do not remember when I first began to fear this; the violence has been going on too long and now has become a blur.

I feel the threat of death when I wake up in the morning, get ready for school and scuttle as quickly as I can out of the house. I feel the threat when I arrive at school at 7.30am for a spot of early morning vandalism. I feel the threat during days at school that aren’t nearly long enough, knowing that at the end I must go home. I feel the threat when I arrive home, change out of my uniform and escape the house again to the bushland at the end of the road or to Taronga Zoo, which lies on the other side of the bush.

My stepfather threatens constantly to kill us.

I feel the fear, then and now, especially at dusk. That was the time I had to be home and the time my stepfather returned from work. Now, decades later, dusk is still a dangerous time for me. Time folds in upon itself like the pleats in my school uniform, grey and drab, sucking the colour out of my skin, making me clammy and cold. I forget to breathe.

Most of all I feel the fear one cloudy day in July 1968. Allie and I are huddled next to a grey sandstone wall, peering around the corner into St Elmo Street, too scared to go any further. Our mouths are dry and we are dumb in our fear. In our silence we share feelings of shame, loss and betrayal but most of all intense fear.

My mind can’t grasp this, then or now. My mother wouldn’t go back to the house without a police escort but she sent Allie and me, by ourselves, to get changes of clothing. My memories of this time are a skeleton in the family closet; broken bones pierce my dreams and make me wake screaming in the night but the connective tissue is gone. How did we get to this corner? I have no memory of that at all. A tornado may well have dumped us there. Suddenly, ill-prepared, we were close to home but too scared to go there.

All that was familiar had been left behind at Wedgwood when we fled. My diary, the notebooks where I scribbled stories, my collection of bus ticket stubs, cicada shells, sea shells, china animal ornaments, a collection of dolls from around the world in various national attire, rocks and odds and ends that I kept in dusty shoe boxes under my bed, books of course, my blue bicycle and my clothes. What tugged most strongly though were the pets. They’d been left behind. Were they being fed? Was anyone giving them fresh water?

Homer and Luther had been a source of solace to me since we got them when I was 7, especially Homer who was my own. Luther, a tan dachshund, belonged to Hyacinth and was bigger than the black and tan Homer, but Homer was smarter. I talked to him a lot with his sausage shape cuddled on my lap, my tears dripping into his sleek black coat, my fears alleviated somewhat by his warmth. Allie’s cat, Plato, has also been left behind but he is more independent and I think he’ll be okay. The pull to see the pets is immense and the need for clothes that don’t smell is strong but my terror is paralyzing.

We need to go home but we also need to know it is safe and there is no way of knowing that.

I replay the argument with my mother. I remember the words but not the setting. Probably it was the flat rented by Hyacinth and Pedro. Mum was staying somewhere with her new love Denys, and Allie and I floated, spent a night or two in the apartment of a woman that someone knew, from somewhere, and spent time on the streets.

‘I don’t want to go. I’m frightened that Teddy will be there.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Mum scoffed. ‘It’s not you kids he wants to kill, it’s me. Besides he’ll be at work.’

Being a work day did not necessarily mean he’d be at work. Beyond abandonment I feel confusion. My sister and I have been taught to distrust our own perceptions. Perhaps our mother was right. Mum had copped more violence than we did, but I had seen with my own eyes my stepfather pick Allie up and throw her like a javelin at a wall and he had threatened to kill us all. Our fear meant nothing to her. Did she genuinely think we would be safe? Was she half-crazy from all that violence. Or was she prepared to sacrifice us for the future she wanted. There is no answer to those questions, but I never trusted her again. With a smile more enigmatic than the Mona Lisa’s she sent her children on this terrifying errand. We left home, we left everything behind; what we have left is our mother, and we hope, but do not trust, that she is right.

What we would do if Teddy is there, I wondered. No point in screaming. The neighbours never get involved. Would it be safer to run down to the bush at end of the road where we could hide, or run back up to Thompson Street, then to the busier Bradley’s Head Road in the hope that if he knew there were witnesses it might curb his murderous rage. But I knew there was no right answer, no safe place.

We stand frozen on the street corner. There seemed something inevitable to this journey, it was like a pilgrimage but we were reluctant pilgrims. I didn’t, and still don’t, understand why our mother would send us somewhere she was too scared to go.
Allie is ashen, moving almost robotically around the corner and, feeling like an automaton myself, I follow her. It is a few days since we left home. We are still in the same clothes. Those days are now a blur in my mind, but truth to be told they were a blur then too. We knew nothing about how or where we would be living and each day we did not know where we’d be spending the night.

I understand my mother’s fear but don’t understand why she ignores ours. Even if she genuinely thought there was no danger, how could she ignore our terror? Her lack of fear for her children was, and still is, breath-taking. Some time before she sent us on this dangerous quest I had witnessed Teddy try to kill her. I remember her running to the phone one evening and he chased her, wrapped the phone cord around her neck and pulled it tight but I don’t remember why he stopped strangling her. It’s a freeze frame and my memory goes no further.

Allie and I turn the corner and inch down the street past the mock Tudor home of the Gray family, wishing we were invisible or invincible instead. But we are just scared children.

Mum had been wanting to leave Teddy for a long time and Allie had been like a zombie for even longer but I took note of everything I could that happened around me. My vice was eavesdropping and whenever I heard the catch cry ‘not in front of the children’ I would go into sleuth mode. I was very good at sneaking into the lounge room. Crawling silently on all fours, I’d hide behind the couch listening in to conversations. I knew, from doing this, that my mother had seen a solicitor, but as she told her friend Inger on the couch, he had told her that the law said that each time she cooked her husband a meal or ironed his shirt after an act of violence she condoned it. What she had to do was wait until he was violent again then leave immediately.

That wait was terrifying especially as our mother provoked the mad man with more venom and vehemence. ‘You’re not a real man,’ she’d taunt. The violence was one of the secrets that happened in the house and we never breathed a word of it to anyone. I thought and hoped that when he was next violent we’d leave permanently, but it didn’t happen that way, my fear didn’t abate and despair set in. What was my mother waiting for?

One night my mother calls, ‘Come on kids. We’re leaving’. For the last two years I have kept an overnight case packed and ready to go but we always return. This time I am very ill and have gone to bed early, I have a terrible choking cough and a fever, can barely breathe and don’t want to get out of bed but I stumble out and pull on the clothes I wore that day, old pedal pushers and a jumper. I’d love to leave Teddy permanently before he kills us but Mum always goes back. Always.

I am so sick I feel delirious and this time I leave the little red suitcase that is kept with Allie’s little blue suitcase behind our bedroom door. One time these cases saved Allie. She tried to hide behind the door when Teddy was on one of his rampages but he knew she was there and, big man that he was, he kept slamming the door with all his might. Luckily the cases saved her and she wasn’t crushed between door and wall.

This time, the time I left my suitcase behind, we didn’t go back. We drove to a Chinese restaurant in Crows Nest, oddly enough across the road from the appliance store where Teddy used to work some years before and where we used to wait for him in the car. Teddy came into my life when I was five and now, a couple of months after my birthday, I was fourteen and in the bizarre garish setting of a Chinese restaurant when I should have been home sick in bed I began to consider that Teddy might be leaving my life. Or rather that we might be leaving him permanently his time. My mother showed none of usual distress and despair but instead sparkled with optimism and hope. Usually we just drove around before going home.

I had no idea what we were doing in a restaurant and felt so ill I just wanted to lie down. The room was cavernous and looked like a temple with red and gold wall-paper and lamps, the waiters wore black suits and the tables, mostly empty as it was getting late, were covered with stiffly starched white table cloths ready for the next day.

Right at the back of the restaurant Hyacinth sat at a table with her boyfriend Pedro and a stranger, a middle-aged man with a balding head. He and my mother greeted each other and she bubbled with excitement and happiness. I hadn’t known she had a boyfriend but obviously there was something between them. ‘This is Denys, your new father,’ she said. Denys and I looked stunned.

Most of the rest of that night is a blur. Hyacinth, Pedro and Mum celebrated getting away from Teddy, Denys continued being stunned but kept looking at my mother, entranced by her. Allie, as usual in that stage of her life was present but not present. She hadn’t spoken for a couple of years unless it was strictly necessary but no-one seemed to have noticed. The red walls of the restaurant made me feel like I was in the middle of a fire, my throat was so sore and swollen I could barely swallow. I didn’t have a change of clothes and didn’t know where I’d be spending the night.

Denys hadn’t considered taking on teenagers. Mum assured him that Allie, turning sixteen next month, was almost grown up. She had left school at fifteen and had for a while left home, working in a cousin’s vet practice in the country. That left me. Denys was dubious. He and his wife – another surprise for me discovering he had a wife – had had a teenage foster daughter and it was a difficult experience that he didn’t want to go through again. But nothing was going to ruin Mum’s dream. I realised that Mum and Denys hadn’t known each other long and didn’t know each other well but Mum laid out for him what a life of happiness they’d have together and assured him I would be good and no trouble.

Hyacinth, madly in love with Pedro, had moved in with him and was thrilled that her mother and sisters had also gotten away from Teddy and she shared Mum’s excitement and enthusiasm for a brighter, happier future. I sat still. In my head I could hear my mother’s constant refrain to her children, ‘Don’t rock the boat’. Allie had subsided into herself. Wherever she was, she wasn’t rocking the boat. I felt sea-sick, clammy and nauseous and the room was spinning. Thinking I might throw up, I went to the toilet and discovered my period had started and I was flooding blood. Mortified I returned to the table and tried to get Mum’s attention but she had eyes only for Denys and flirted with him persuasively. Finally, I think Hyacinth or Pedro must have engaged his attention, I whispered to her that I had a heavy period and didn’t have any pads. She looked crossly at me and hissed ‘stuff toilet paper in your pants’ then proceeded to ignore me while I tried as hard as I could, as sick as I was, to collude with my mother in giving this new man the impression that I was good and no trouble at all. That meant ignoring my own needs, so I sat, smothered in my own silence, somewhere between pretending my needs didn’t matter and believing it was true, as I bled into the nap of my blood-red upholstered chair.

A few lost days after that Allie and I slink towards our home. In silence we sidle by the beautiful Federation homes of the Holman’s and the Whelan’s. We are getting close now.

Leaving Teddy wasn’t supposed to be like this. Leaving Teddy was supposed to mean that we were together with Mum and were safe, and happy, and living without fear. It wasn’t supposed to mean this heart-in-mouth creeping down the road.

We are barely breathing although my lungs still rattle with bronchitis. St Elmo Street is quiet and empty. The sandstone walls give the impression of solidity and stability, the houses sedate behind them. The people who live in these houses have not given a sign that they ever heard or saw anything on the nights of screams and police visits at our house. The houses are rigid and durable, the lawns manicured, the flower beds professionally groomed by hired gardeners. There are no people in sight. Children, the only residents ever seen in the gardens, are in school.

The stillness and silence is eerie. Being winter there are no thrumming cicadas or buzzing of bees and the birds are absent. The sky is light grey and the road dark grey, and colour seems absent.

We inch down the road. I want to see the dogs, to pat them, to tell them how much I love them and miss them, I want to sob into Homer’s fur but the fear is overwhelming. Wedgwood seems malevolent, malignant and I want to run away but it is as if I’ve been programmed and have no mind or will of my own. Maybe Mum is right and if Teddy is there he won’t attack us.

The quietness of the street is disrupted as behind our backs a car turns the corner from Thompson Street. The sound has a deadly familiarity. It is Teddy in his green falcon. Allie and I break into a run as he accelerates. Time stops beating in its regular pattern and instead splits into two. On the one hand it takes half an eternity to try to think what to do. Do we run up a neighbours’ front path and bang on theír front door? What if they aren’t home? What if they are home but don’t let us in? Our thoughts are hectic and over-active and our feelings of horror are matched by feelings of the shame that has attached us to us, shame that follows us for decades like a shadow. Did we deserve to die?

The car is coming closer and on the other hand, in real time, the whole thing happens in seconds.

Then our stepfather swerves to aim the car at us. I don’t know how the hell we do it but we jump a shoulder-height sandstone wall as the car mounts the kerb. He had tried to ram us. We are next door to Wedgwood and that is as close as we get.

If there are any witnesses behind the windows of these expensive houses they stay silent. The fog of forgotten memory descends here. I don’t know how we get out of there. I think we stayed crouched behind the wall for a while. In a state of trauma I think our short term memories were not functioning any more. It is not so much that I have forgotten what happened next, but in my state of shock I think memories were simply not recorded for several days afterward. Not that anyone cared at the time.

I don’t know what happened next but I can tell you that I am writing this in my late fifties and part of me is still cowering behind a wall, terrified of what may happen next.

 

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