Category Archives: Fault Lines

The Forest, Amy Way

It’s just after 10am when I’m standing at the head of the road. Behind me and to the left are golden paddocks with fat cows and dams sparkling with reflected sunlight. In front and to the right is the forest. The pine trees stand like soldiers in their state assigned grids. Tall, regimented, plain. Yet in their shadows is something sinister that’s hard to distinguish. Is it the tangy smell of sawdust that burns the nostrils? The way the wind makes a muffled roar through the pine needles? Or the light that flickers in the corner of my eyes?

Back on the road, I shift my feet on the finely ground gravel. The sun is warm on my back but I feel cold as I watch the road ahead disappear into the shadows of the forest. Beside me is the sign, parading its welcome and warning: ‘Welcome To Belanglo State Forest. Please Be Careful.’

2013-08-17 10.03.00The sign is almost scarier than the forest itself. From a distance it’s impressive and dominant, but up close you can see etched into the enamel the myriad of messages that make up its power. Names followed by dates, and ‘Tim loves Jess’, ‘Lackey was here.’ Then there’s the more ominous: ‘ANT (DENGY) NOW RULES THESE WOODS! BEWARE!’ and ‘IVAN WAS HERE.’ Beside this last message, some cunning visitor has written, ‘No shit.’

I can’t remember exactly when I first heard the stories of Ivan Milat and the ‘Backpacker Murders’, but like most Australians, the killer’s name and the place of his crimes has long lurked my consciousness. It was a story so unbelievable that it existed for me only in the realm of fiction. That was, until November 2010, when 17-year-old Matthew Milat brutally murdered his friend in the same forest as his notorious great-uncle. Lured with the promise of alcohol and marijuana to celebrate his 17th birthday, the victim, David Auchterlonie, was taken to the forest by Milat and two others. I couldn’t understand it. Why would someone go to Belanglo State Forest with Ivan Milat’s nephew? What did they think would happen?

It’s not exactly superstition, nor is it the workings of a cautionary tale. So what is this feeling of a dreadful knowledge inside me? Surely David Auchterlonie would have felt it too, knowing what had happened there. The forest is imbued with symbolism to the point of being tainted by it, and the more I think about it, the more places I can list whose connotations have been altered by some conflict or event.

Sometimes it’s a physical alteration, a mark on the landscape whose effect your eyes can comprehend in the instant it takes your heartbeat to quicken. In Pripyat, the ‘ghost city’ of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, time is suspended and the ground is littered with remnants of a former life. Its population of nearly 50,000, all nuclear plant workers and young families, were evacuated in 1986 after the explosion in Reactor 4. Resting within the 2,600 square kilometre Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the entire city is abandoned.

Six-storey apartment buildings stand silent in their decay, hidden among overgrown trees. Their interiors, along with those of the hotels, the fire station, schools and kindergartens, are full of dust and rubble. Most haunting, are the kindergartens. Once the playground of several hundred children they now resemble tombs. Dolls lay scattered among the debris, their eyes clicked shut, their hair and faces rotten. Others sit stoically on small, toddler-sized chairs, staring with a weary determination through the cobwebs that cloud their faces. Desks are overturned, the wallpaper peeling, and in the nursery rusty bunk beds and broken wooden cots lie awkwardly on a floor of shredded feather pillows and tiny shoes. On the wall hangs a list of names: children of Pripyat, and the allocated beds they once called their own.

Such places may never be anything more than large-scale memorials and museums. Suspended by past horrors, their function now is to educate and to mourn. Over time, they may lose some of their stigma. But for the foreseeable future at least, their scars are too visible. Sometimes, the effect is more subtle. You may see slight changes in the landscape or perhaps no noticeable marks at all. Everything about it will look unimpressive and benign. It’s only for people privy to the stories and the whispers that something else emerges.

When I was ten years old, my grandmother tripped on an uneven bit of a footpath in Castle Cove. The offending piece of concrete, protruding almost invisibly on the corner of Kendall Road and Holly Street, had been part of her daily walk to the shops for over fifteen years. Nothing much had changed, but that day she just went down. Split her head open and needed four stitches. For months, years afterwards, her blood stained the concrete with spectacular ferocity. For a while it was a source of pride and amusement. Walking hand in hand every weekend, we’d pass the spot and I’d laugh and marvel: ‘Look Gran! Your blood’s still there!’ And sometimes with friends or visitors: ‘See that? That’s where my Gran fell that time. She’s a trooper.’
She died less than a year ago. Quite unexpectedly. Now, whenever I pass that spot, I can’t bring myself to look at the faded black stain. As I avert my eyes it whispers to me of past happiness and future evils. Like a glob of slick paint it withstood the storms and the sun and has marked that place forever.

As my car crawls along the gravel road I look from window to window at the lines of trees, scanning the needled undergrowth for something out of the ordinary. But life seems to continue as normal in the forest. As I pass a crossroads, loggers in high-vis vests and hardhats lumber between the green shadows of the trees and a dusty Ute. In another hundred metres I see a women walking two dogs.

‘What the…’

I follow her with my gaze. She’s sporting sunnies and a nonchalant expression as she clambers over branches on the side of the road.

I shake my head and continue following the main road into the trees. It skirts along the southern side of the forest and before long I come out the western edge into more paddocks of private property. I do a U-turn in the first driveway I see. From the porch of a small house, a dark haired woman and an aging Labrador regard me with squinted eyes.

Back beneath the gaze of the trees I spend ten minutes driving around the gridded roads before pulling off onto a patch of grass. This area of the forest looks the same as all the others: sparse, dull. I can look down the lines of the skinny trees and the gaps between, but I can’t see through to the other side and the road I know is there.

‘Well,’ I say to no one. ‘Nothing left for it.’

I have no plan, I have no map, I have no phone reception. For a moment I am still. In my head is a soft memory, a warning echoed by a girl in a red hood.

Don’t wander from the forest path.

2013-08-17 11.10.19But like I’ve told myself before, this is not the working of a cautionary tale. Trying not to look too wistfully back at my car, I walk slowly off the road and into the trees. I’ve gone about five or six metres when I allow myself to look back. I let out a gasp when I can’t see the road at all. The deceptively skinny trees have closed in at an alarming speed.

‘Right. Well…’
If I just stick to the grassy rivet between the tree-rows, I’m sure to come out the other side. I glance up at the sun snaking down through the branches of the pines. There are a few clouds in the sky but overall it’s a beautiful day. I bring myself back to earth and start to examine the trees and forest floor as I move gently across it. Pinecones dapple the ground just as regularly as shadows. Everything is a mixture of dull shades of green, brown, grey and white. Nothing shines, nothing glimmers, but still, there is lightness.

It’s very quiet. Almost peaceful, until I realise why: there are absolutely no animals. Only several minute spiders, strung undisturbed between grass blades. Once or twice I see the flitting of grey birds. They don’t chirp or sing, and their wings are swift and silent. At that moment a cloud swallows the sun. I pull my jumper tighter around my shoulders and head deeper into the trees.
Somewhere near the centre of my chosen grid I come across a clearing. There are different types of plants here. Shrubs that look almost tropical with their straight shining leaves and sharper shades of green. Every metre or so sits a severed stump, old and flaking. I smile at the unexpected change but it disappears when I recall old news stories. The remains of many of Milat’s victims were found in small clearings. So too were nearby campsites, evidence that the killer spent considerable time with his victims both before and after their deaths.

I don’t cross the clearing. Instead, I turn sideways and shuffle around its border, heading back into the trees more quickly than before. As I’m hurrying away from the clearing I start to hear noises. Thuds, thumps, something clunking nearby. My whole body shudders with the sound and I can think of nothing but getting out of the trees. As abruptly as I left it I find myself stumbling out onto the road again. It isn’t the road I started from, but the section that stretches away to my left ends in a T-intersection. On the corner I can just make out the nose of my car.

The thuds return, this time accompanied by the murmur of voices. I spin to my right, breathing fast. At the end of the road I can see the beginning of another clearing, this one much larger. Slowly, I walk towards it. The closer I get the more familiar the thudding becomes. As the trees start to thin, I can see it but I don’t believe it.

It’s a camping area. And it’s full.

The campground is surprisingly big, almost the size of a football oval. On the right, 4WDs, station wagons and trailers with motorbikes are slotted tightly into a grassy car park. Closest to the car park is a huddle of eight tents. They circle a makeshift communal area with a fire, several dogs, and parents who watch their kids play from the comfort of foldout chairs. To the left of the tents stretches a expanse of mowed grass. On the far left of it, nestled in some trees, are a few swags and a dome tent. A man methodically pegs his swag to the ground. The background to the camping area is a small brown lake. The campers laugh together and pat their dogs, but I don’t cross this clearing either. I stick to the road and make my way to the next intersection. A few of the campers look my way, and for an instant I wonder if they’re startled to see a lone stranger stalking through the trees. But I wager if they’re brave enough to camp here then they wouldn’t be fazed by me.

I’ve reached the intersection and I’m about to turn right, away from the campsite, when something catches my eye. Down at the very back of the campground, there’s a tiny green toilet block and a State Forest noticeboard. Moving closer, I can see it’s covered with pamphlets and posters. I’m expecting some information on the Backpacker Murders: dates, names, a memorial perhaps. But instead the noticeboard is bursting with State approved advice on how best to explore the forest, particularly its two main activities, motorbike riding and mushroom picking.

In the mushroom foraging community, Belanglo Forest exists as a place filled to the brim with desirable fungi. You don’t need a permit, and as long as you don’t pilfer any timber, mushrooming is a popular hobby in all of NSW’s State forests. In late 2011, a group of foragers went to Belanglo to harvest mushrooms. I’ve tracked them down through an organic forager’s online forum, and despite enjoying the day, group leader Elizabeth Perez-Meza explains to me that the trip was structured and business-like.
‘We knew that we would have to get there by about 11am and leave by 4pm, way before sunset. Definitely go in a group of 4-5 people, bring walkie-talkies, make sure everyone is wearing boots or gumboots, plus gloves. And leave way before sunset.’ Just like me the sign at the entrance to the forest made a lasting impression for her, but what is most evident when Liz speaks of her time in the forest are its silence and baleful conformity.

‘I wasn’t scared but you just know that something bad has happened there,’ she says. ‘I understand why the Milats went there to kill: it’s dead quiet and everywhere looks the same. It’s so easy to get lost and if you were to scream out for help, your calls may go unanswered.’

The sun vanishes as I’m examining the noticeboard. When I look up, the entire blue sky is doused with grey. The wind is picking up and the muffled roar of it through the pines is starting to irk me. I pull my jumper tighter around me but it yields no extra warmth. Head down, I walk back past the campsite in the direction of my car. The man has finished pegging his swag, and the voices of the campers are lost in the wind.Belanglo Forest 3

Climbing into the warm air of my car, I expect instant relief. Instead I find myself desperately trying to look anywhere but at the trees. An impossible feat: I am surrounded. Some relief comes when my car starts on the first try. I buckle up and drive, weaving my way through the dirt roads towards the entrance. I’m almost on the main road when around a corner there emerges a log cabin. Thin white curtains veil every window of the squat brown building. I slow down slightly until I see a maroon commodore parked on the other side of the house. It’s just a park ranger, I tell myself as I speed up again. But this doesn’t stop my fantasy of owning a hidden log cabin from being quashed somewhat.

Finally, I’m back on the main road. Ahead of me are the entrance and the silver back of the sign. As I pass it I can’t help but look back. The paddocks of the surrounding farmland are still golden despite the clouds. Perhaps they will shine forever, always in contrast to their silent neighbour.

Later, I’ll find out that there was a visible reminder to the past. Hidden at the other end of the forest is a rock memorial to Ivan Milat’s victims. The boulder would blend into the background of shrubbery if it weren’t for the dark plaque. In brassy letters, it commemorates the memory of the seven backpackers and the efforts of the state services’ members who aided the investigation into their deaths. A bible quote reminds the reader: ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Looking at photos, safe in the comfort of my lounge room, it strikes me just how ordinary the forest is. Unlike Pripyat, there is nothing to suggest that this was, or ever will be, anything more than a lonely pine forest. Only being there, once you’ve heard the stories and you can stand listening to the sound of nothing, only then do you feel it.

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The Artist, Ashley Ward

 

1. INT. CLASSROOM – AFTERNOON

An American HIGH SCHOOL CLASSROOM occupies rows of small, vacant desks. A groomed TEACHER with a striped tie enters with two teenagers and a magazine under his arm. SIMON, a teenage lanky thing with large round glasses, heads to a desk at the back of the room. He sits, submissively. A high schooler with a ‘Go Bulls’ hat, JEREMY, attempts to follow, but is stopped by the teacher.

TEACHER

I don’t think so! I want you up the front.

Jeremy looks at Simon. Smirks.

TEACHER

I won’t condone interruptions during my lessons. Is that clear?

BEAT.

TEACHER

That goes for the both of you. I’ll be right back… If I hear anything coming from this room, you’ll both be back here tomorrow, same time after school.

The teacher leaves. Jeremy takes off his NIKE sneakers one by one. He throws them over his shoulder. One almost hits Simon. Flinches. He stands up and sits on top of a desk next to Simon. Jeremy begins to taunt him.

JEREMY

Pick it up.

Simon hesitates.

JEREMY

I said pick it up, faggot!

Simon doesn’t move.

JEREMY

Don’t make me hit you, aye!

Simon bends down and slowly picks up the shoe. Hands it to Jeremy.

JEREMY

That’s what I thought.

 CUT TO:

2. EXT. SUBURBAN STREET – NIGHT

Stars hide in the evening fog. Lampposts illuminate an EMPTY STREET beside a high school. We see Simon leaving the school. He drifts down the street, breaking stride to adjust his backpack every now and then. Jeremy lurks close behind. Simon, oblivious to him, cuts around a corner street and arrives at home.

3. INT. SIMON’S HOUSE – Moments later

A large front door cracks open, catching on a folded towel. An excited PUPPY bounds towards Simon as he pushes the door open.

SIMON

Helloo?

VOICE (O.S)

Simon? Careful of the towel! Maxi’s peed again!

Simon shuffles into the living room where SIMON’S MOTHER, a forty-something brunette woman, slurps noodles in front of a T.V screen. The house is comfortably messy.

SIMON

Sorry I’m late. I had swim club practice.

MOTHER

…On a Tuesday?

BEAT.

SIMON

Is there a plate for me?

MOTHER (jokingly)

In the dungeon, where you belong!

The two share a smile.

4. INT. CLASSROOM – DAY

The sun shines through a cracked classroom window. Inside, the room is stuffy with teenage angst. Tapping feet, shifting eyes, and creaking desks. At the front of the room, a middle-aged high school ITALIAN TEACHER stands slouched near a chalkboard. Her skin is cinnamon coloured, toughened by the sun. Written on the chalkboard is the word “I BREAK” underlined. The teacher addresses the class.

ITALIAN TEACHER

Can anyone give me the Italian translation for this?

Jeremy chimes in to answer. He gives the wrong answer accompanied with a ridiculous Italian accent. A symphony of laughter from the class follows. Lucy sits at a desk in the back of the class, drawing. Definitely not laughing. Simon cuts in.

SIMON

It’s Rompere

BEAT.

SIMON

… You then have to conjugate it from the infinitive ‘to break’ to the first person… So, ‘I break’ would be io rompo.

Jeremy slouches back in his chair. Shamed and angered. His knees bounce anxiously together. He places a textbook on his lap. Simon glances to the back of the room at Lucy. Their eyes meet – his more eager than hers – and she adjusts her skirt. You can see his heart beat through his neck. School bell rings.

5. INT. BATHROOM – LATER

Simon washes his hands, and pauses. The tap continues to flow. He gazes at his reflection with somewhat needy eyes.

SIMON

Hey Lucy… That notebook new? …. What’s up Lucy? You have nice breasts… Wanna go out with me?

 

The bathroom door flings open. In an instant, we see Jeremy’s fist forcefully swoop in to punch Simon.  Clutches his stomach.

JEREMY

Not so smart now aye, faggot!

 He grabs Simon by the shoulder of his jacket and hauls him out of the bathroom.

 6. EXT. SCHOOLYARD – CONTINUOUS

Jeremy steers Simon to a seedy schoolyard behind the classrooms. He pushes Simon against a wall covered in graffiti. A small gang of TEENAGE BOYS skulk around the corner. Some of them have matching white beanies. Others have more style. On a NEIGHBORING STREET, Lucy meanders towards home. She stops and watches for a moment. Jeremy and the bullies torment Simon. One of the bullies snatches Simon’s backpack. He unzips it and shakes it upside down.

BULLY

Aw sorry bro, was that yours?

SIMON

Common, man… Cut it out.

JEREMY (to Simon)

What are you gonna do?

Lucy continues home at a slight quicker pace. One of the bullies shoves Simon into a nearby dumpster. He falls to his side. Cheek to cement. Some scattered rubbish and a blue SPRAY PAINT CAN lay close to his face. Especially the spray can.

 

7. INT. SCHOOL LOCKERS – DAY

Students are herding through a box-sized hallway. School bells RINGS. Lucy idles at her locker shuffling her books. Background conversations fill the hallway. Two girls talk behind her amongst the herd of students.

GIRL 1

Did you see what they painted behind the school? ..A sky mural or something?

Lucy pauses to listen.

GIRL 2

I heard that geek from Italian did it!

GIRL 1

Oh my god what a loser. Cry for attention much?

Girl 2′s giant handbag scuffs Lucy’s shoulder. She looks at Lucy in disgust.

GIRL 2

Excuse me!

Lucy’s gaze falls down and she apologizes.  She grinds her teeth, dressing her anger with a half smile.

 

8. EXT. BUS STOP- NIGHT

Simon waits at a bus stop near the side of the school. In the distant foreground, we see the same wall he was pushed against. A painting of a BLUE SKY with MELTING DIAMONDS covers the wall.  Simon looks at a sign with a bus timetable. He glances at his watch. Sighs.

9. EXT. STREET PAY PHONE – MOMENTS LATER

Simon feeds the machine some coins and dials. Ringing. A soft voice answers.

V.O

Hello?

SIMON

Mom! The buses have stopped running. Can you pick… -

A hand reaches behind Simon and ends the call. Simon turns around, where Jeremy stands with his unfashionable gang. His eyes widen.

JEREMY

Did you do that painting?

BEAT.

SIMON

Why?… Did you… like it?

Jeremy nods in thought.

JEREMY (CONT.)

You ever tag anything before?

Simon’s fingers brush his bluish purple chin.

SIMON

Here and there…

Simon breaks eye contact in anxious spurts. Jeremy holds out a spray paint can to Simon.

 

10. INT. CAR – NIGHT (DAYS LATER)

A white van occupies an empty street by the high school. Inside, Jeremy, the thugs, and Simon all cluster in a circle. A heavy bass blares through speakers in the background. Jeremy exhales perfect circular smoke rings. His eyes tango between his burning joint and Simon. He holds out the joint to Simon.

SIMON

Oh, I don’t smoke…

The group laughs.

SIMON

I mean… I don’t like it spun…

There’s a BEAT before Simon takes the joint. He takes a deep draw.

VOICE (O.S)

So we ready for tonight?

Jeremy looks at Simon, who’s coughing smoke.

SIMON

Y…yeah!

11. INT. LIBRARY – NIGHT

Books line the shelves of an empty library. At a large white study table, sketchbooks are sprawled messily. Lucy’s hand moves fast, scribbling and erasing in a frantic rhythm.

 

12. EXT. SCHOOLYARD – NIGHT

Outside a familiar schoolyard, a wire fence rattles. Simon climbs up and over the fence. He peers back through the diamond-shaped wire gaps. Jeremy and his gang merge into the darkness behind the fence. Tosses a can of spray paint over to Simon. Simon drops the can, and fumbles nervously. He arrives at a familiar blue wall with painted stars and melting diamonds.

 

13. INT. LIBRARY – CONTINUOUS – NIGHT

Lucy continues to scribble. A round-bellied LIBRARIAN at the help desk assists an ELDERLY WOMAN with a large book. They talk about this and that. And probably Dancing With the Stars. Lucy’s pencil punctures through her drawing paper. ZOOM IN on a perfect replica of the diamond painting on the school wall. Except Jeremy is in it, holding Lucy’s hand under the melting sky. She tears the paper in half.

14. EXT. SCHOOLYARD – CONTINUOUS – NIGHT

Simon smiles at the sky painting on the wall. Sirens sound, WHOOPING closer and closer to the schoolyard. Jeremy and his gang disperse. Flashlights shine on Simon and his spray can. An OFFICER holding a flashlight approaches him.

OFFICER

Hi there.

Simon squints, frozen in panic.

SIMON

Hi…

 

OFFICER

Do you realize this is school property?

C.U. on Simon nodding and smiling simultaneously.

 

15. INT. SCHOOL OFFICE – NEXT MORNING

A neatly arranged office with the occasional potted plant detains a row of students. Simon fidgets amongst them on the end chair. Biting his nails to the skin. Jeremy sits at the end of the row, glancing over at Simon periodically. Lucy enters, rushed. It’s apparent she’s late. Her handful of books and loose sketches fall scattered along the floor. A sketch falls near Simon’s shoe. He fumbles nervously.

SIMON

Uhh… Here let me!

Simon picks up the drawing of Lucy and Jeremy. Stares at it. Shocked. Hands Lucy the sketch.

LUCY

A…actually… this is for him.

Lucy motions to Jeremy. Biting her lip seductively. Simon glares at Jeremy through the corner of one eye. Stands up to confront him. Tight clenching fist. And then…WHAP! The boys fight.

CUT TO:

16. INT. CLASSROOM – AFTERNOON

C.U on Jeremy’s bruised cheek. ZOOM OUT to see rows of small empty desks. Except two. And a teacher reading a magazine at the front of the room. Jeremy sits at the back. Head down. Simon’s at a desk in the front row. He takes a blood stained tissue out of one nostril. Examining his busted knuckle with pride. There’s a crack in the glass that splits the penetrating afternoon sun on separate parts of his face. Simon continues to look forward despite the sun in his eyes. He doesn’t flinch. Not even once.

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SCARS, Jacob Harrison

There is a documentary series called History Cold Case; a team of forensic anthropologists adapt techniques used for identifying murder victims to examine the bones of the long dead – Celtic bog sacrifices, Elizabethan pikemen, that sort of thing. They determine the cause of death and offer a glimpse into how these ordinary people lived but the most interesting and affecting part of the program comes when they reveal a lifelike mould of the person’s face. I can’t help thinking about what my bones might look like to a TV archaeologist, digging me up in a thousand years time. I definitely wouldn’t be a textbook specimen of a 21st Century human; I’ve had many more cracks and dents than most individuals of our era. A dent above the right eye and an untreated broken jaw makes for an atypical skull; these injuries, combined with several cracked ribs and a fractured wrist, might suggest the skeleton of a warrior, or perhaps a stuntman.

Whatever the conclusion of this future cold case, they are unlikely to pick up on the soft tissue injuries that have shaped the landscape of my body. Like the geographical landscape, these fleshly ridges, ranges and valleys are constantly changing as a result of both exterior trauma and the internal movement of forces only partially understood and eroded by time. There is no need for carbon dating; my parade of various bandages, flints, slings and stitches in my photo record would prove to be a more accurate way to measure the passing of time.

Being an Elizabethan pikemen was clearly an unsafe working environment, Celtic bog sacrifice even more so, but being a media student comes with its own unique set of occupational challenges, especially for someone with a few body issues. Take this scene from an average day:

1 INT. STUDIO. DAY.

Light floods JACOB’s eyes as shadowy figures lurk behind tripods. The figures discuss where Jacob should place his left hand in relation to his right, which is holding a small box of toothpicks at chest height. A bead of sweat runs down the bridge of Jacob’s nose, hesitates, then DRIP.

DIRECTOR

Sound! Left… lef- sorry right, your right…chin up… open your mouth. Ok that’s good. Just wipe your for- yeah that’s better.

CAMERA OPERATOR

Rolling!

DIRECTOR

Why is there so much light on his neck? No, Jack lower that red and bring it around so we can highlight his hands.

Jacob wipes more sweat off his forehead, making sure that the scars on his inner fore-arms remain angled away from the camera. The intense beams of the studio lights are not kind to those with things to hide.

It’s tiring, but this scene plays out most days – maybe not a textbook example like this one, but I’m generally conscious of the scars on my right hand and forearms and waste too much energy on trying to hide them. Truth be told, clumsiness and drunkenness have taken a higher toll than any self-inflicted scar. Still they look scary, and now and then I notice an eye briefly trace the jagged landscape of my arms before we both quickly look away. I understand the interest; in the sanitised and safety conscious first world, scars are an exotic, archaic curiosity. Scars – nasty, visible, gnarly scars – are an obsolete malady, like smallpox or polio. Other forms of body modification like tattoos and piercings are increasingly more visible and acceptable but scars remain taboo.

It’s easy to make up stories about my scars that people want to believe, that I want to believe. My biggest issue is that no matter which narrative I choose, these damn scars will be a part of it. Future partners will hound me about them; if or when I have children they will no doubt ask about the marks on Daddy’s arms, and they won’t believe he got them fighting jungle cats forever. I’m of the opinion that identity is fluid and multifaceted. I like being aloof, impermanent and conflicting, a living embodiment of cognitive dissonance. But I’m no flake, I’m no emo, and I’m not the person that made those marks anymore. This is why I like the idea of body modification. I could take charge of my body’s narrative and do something about it. Somehow, could all my scars be put together to tell a cohesive story?

If I held up my right forearm for you, you would see the first part of the story in big ugly type – my largest scar. About twenty centimetres long and almost a centimetre wide in places, its colour fluctuates from white to pink to purple. How brave are you? If you take your finger and trace along the knobbly fire-bolt, you would feel how smooth it is to the touch, how it changes from a wide valley in places to a narrow ridge in others. Because the nerve damage runs deep in some places and shallow in others, I can’t feel parts of the surface tissue but I can feel the muscle contract and release around the bone – it feels like there’s a metal implant in my arm. Scars are rich with abstract sensory information but lack the detail to communicate their origin story.

It was after my flatmate’s birthday and we were pretty drunk. A few weeks beforehand, my flatmate slipped over in the bathroom, falling onto the soap dish and leaving a jagged piece of porcelain jutting from the wall. I was in the bathroom, the floor was slippery – I fell into the bathtub cutting my arm open on the way down and knocking myself out. The next thing I remember I was in hospital, attached to an oxygen mask and various tubes. I had lost a lot of blood and I needed a transfusion. The police told my flatmate they hadn’t seen so much blood outside of a murder scene – he had been questioned after the event, to rule out foul play. The scars on my wrists were much less life threatening or painful; however faded, they cause me the most concern. On both my forearms, there are probably a dozen or so tiny horizontal lines. These little slices were not done on one occasion but represent a long and drawn out war of attrition; my large scar acts as a neon sign directing visiting eyes towards the battlefield.

I spoke to Psychologist Flora Vashinsky, who works in Community Mental Health, helping people with a variety of conditions and histories to find useful strategies to navigate life – myself included. Flora explained to me that people self-harm for lots of reasons. Some harm in attempted suicide. Others harm as a coping behaviour, as a release of the painful emotions they experience. Some harm to feel emotion; unable to feel in the here and now, they can only feel emotion by cutting or hurting themselves. For some it’s a one-time extreme behaviour; for others it could be a routine, a learnt way of coping with stress and emotions they can’t deal with.

‘There’s an emotion behind the behaviour, then there’s the thinking about how you do it, and for some it’ll be extremely, extremely subconscious. The thing is with the cut, that’s kind of the final result. Behind the cut we have emotions, we have thinking, and we have other events that have led up to the actual cut.’

For me, it was probably a combination of factors. Being unable to deal with unpleasant emotions and being unable to demonstrate those emotions was a big part of it – to save others worry and because I’m a big manly-man. Why I kept on coming back to cutting as a release valve was because it took so long to ask for help. I did talk to a professional to find out where those emotions are coming from and I’m learning better ways to deal with those emotions rather than harming myself. Which brings me back to why I want to do something about them.

‘So what do you think about body modification? Tattoos, or deliberate scarification for example?’

‘It depends on where it starts and stops. Is it just an addiction in the end, to the process of having the pain and endorphins and the rest of it fly? Is it something significant and there’s reason behind it? Is it cultural? I’m sure if you asked someone in their late 80’s who’s a holocaust survivor about what their tattoo means to them, it’s going to be different to somebody who has a butterfly on their ass.’

Humans have been using various techniques to mark their own skin and others’ skin for as long as we have been humans. In ancient times people used branding to mark criminals; in more recent times criminals tattooed serial numbers to mark people. In some cultures marks are used to show the caste identity or set of skills possessed; for some it is to mark an initiation into adulthood. In the last half century, counter-cultural movements in the west have adopted many forms of body modification from traditional societies, including scarification. With the advent of the Internet, disperse ‘bod-mod’ communities can now interact with each other, learning new techniques and methods, garnering inspiration from images posted by others. In the miscellaneous alternative scene of today, scarification is a mode of artistic self-expression, a collaboration between the scarification artist and body canvas. Likewise, the ritual of scarification might be deeply personal, the physical pain representing a personal threshold broken, or proof that they can endure.

The Internet can only teach so much about something so physical. To learn more I visited Polymorph Body Piercing Studio in Enmore. I spoke to co-owner Rob Valenti, himself a proud owner of many a tattoo, piercing and scar, Rob’s been a scarification artist for twelve years. I found that scarification is meaningful to both the body modification artist and the person having their body modified.

Over the past five years scarification has become more popular, through mainstream media and communities on the Internet. ‘Five years ago I would say I had one or two, maybe three customers a year; this year I’ve already done about fifteen people.’

‘Some people think it’s quite barbaric, when it’s not really as full-on as it seems. I think scarification is quite similar to tattooing in regard to sensation – it’s not overly painful. When people hear the words ‘scalpel’, ‘cutting’ and ‘scaring’, their head instantly goes to this place of ‘Holy fuck, that’s really got to hurt.’

The interior of Polymorph is quite attractive, with nice hard wood floor and high ceilings. The walls are covered with contemporary art – Polymorph is also a gallery – and behind Rob’s shoulder was the studio itself, where the magic happens, so to speak. ‘What’s it like performing scarification?’ I asked.

‘How do you verbalise it? Because you’re doing something for someone that they really want to do, there’s always that satisfaction when you’re finished the work. People come in here shit scared ninety per cent of the time; by the time that they leave they’re laughing, they’re smiling and they’re happy, and it makes me feel good because they’re taking a piece of me away with them.’

I showed Rob my own scar, told him the story of how I got it. ‘Do you reckon much could be done about that?’

Rob leaned in and had a good look at my forearm, with the analytical eye of a sculptor viewing a newly cut stone. ‘I’m sure we could work something out. It would take a bit of drawing but yeah definitely. I’ve done it for people with facial scars from being in a fights or being glassed, I’ve added little bits and pieces to make it look a little more like a design than just a kind of messy scar. I’m sure if you wanted to, I could take a photo and draw something up?’ Rob took a photo and I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with and what new stories my scars may yet tell.

I wondered what others lived experience of scarification was like. You’re probably curious too. Then type, if you will, ‘scarification’ into Google and one of the first links that appears is to a video on YouTube by Gina and Keveen Gabet, documenting Keveen’s scarification. It’s quite a poignant video, perhaps not for the squeamish. Keveen and Gina live their philosophy of ‘Korakor’, a tribal/rural life in the hills of Oaxaca, Mexico, so I was very lucky to catch him via email.

Keveen replied, ‘Using my own flesh as a canvas is a beautiful act in itself. I do not believe I’m harming it or denaturing it. Quite the opposite; I’m writing my autobiography on it. I seem to collect scars the same way some collect clothes or cars. I love to remember scars, they each have a story… It has always been a great ice breaker and that is also how I fell in love with Gina. We compared scars when we met in India.’

I asked if he had any regret, Keveen answered, ‘When people ask me if I regret it, I can happily answer that it’s part of who I was back then…and fully respect and honour that! I don’t think I will do more extreme scarification though… Now, being an isolated farmer in the hills of Mexico, I collect new scars daily. From hammers, nails, bites…

Scaringly yours,
Keveen.

Maybe I am too concerned with how people see me and the stories they build from what they can see. Although, with the increased convergence of identities thanks to Facebook and other technologies, identity formation or ‘personal brand management’ is increasingly important and is played out in the public square. In this neoliberal context, being an active agent in the creation of one’s identity through the choices an individual makes is the greatest good; the inability to construct one’s own identity due to self-inflicted limitations is the ultimate failure, aside from death. Why should I not take charge of the story my body portrays? I may have unwittingly become the ultimate Randian hero.

But I doubt it, thankfully. We really have a limited capacity to shape how we are perceived by others; people make sense of the world based on their past experiences and pop culture mostly. It’s more important what stories my scars tell me. On bad days, they tell stories of fear – fear of hospitals, of being locked up, my version of reality being discounted, being discriminated against, of being thought of as a flake, a risk, undateable, a broken thing. Other days I wear my scars as medals of honour, symbols of battles won. But it all happened so long ago. I look at them now and think, ‘Well, I could have handled that better’. So, am I going to go through with the Scarification? Truthfully, I am leaning towards yes. If I do, it won’t be to tell a story to other people. It will be just for me.

 

Download a pdf of ‘SCARS’

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A Deeper Shade of Baby Blue, Monique Burns

I could hear every beat, every laugh every foul, drunken, slurred word through the paper thin walls of the bedroom. All I wanted was sleep and to be any where but here, my head was pounding and the feeling of nausea was overwhelming. I was stuck in a dank horrible caravan park for the annual family reunion with a bunch of strangers that I would apparently be related to soon; and something inside told me it was going to get a lot worse before it got better. In between the brutal small talk and fake smiles through gritted teeth I found out I was pregnant; and it could not have been at a worse time.

Fault′ line` n. a boundary between incompatible or irreconcilable beliefs, feelings, or the like.

In the first few weeks of pregnancy it wasn’t the nausea, sore breasts or headaches that were giving me the most grief; instead it was the sense of discord between what the magazines said I should be feeling and the emotions running through my head. I had been with my partner for almost four years and we had been engaged for six months so there was no problem with commitment or the thought of ‘going it alone’ but I still couldn’t shake this feeling of dread. How would I break the news to my parents and what were we going to do about the wedding that was planned for later that year or my dress which had already been purchased? How was I going to finish the year of my uni course and fit in my work experience, what would my job say and how would I feel walking around my parents house with a baby bump?

Each website I visited to find out about pregnancy brought up pictures of smiling mothers to be caressing their inflated tummies and staring lovingly at their partner…it made me want to cry and quite often I did. Then I felt bad for not being over-joyed and I would cry more, but only when no-one could see or hear me because of the shame I felt. I realised that I was meant to be happy and in a way I was but the worry that swept over me when I realised the task ahead overshadowed any feeling of pleasure that I could fathom…I had this massive crack down the middle of my heart with one side trying to remind me that this was a blessing and such an exciting time for us, and the other side saying that I’d never be able to do this and everything was going to fall apart.

In my quest to feel better I enlisted the help of a psychologist from the hospital that would handle the birth. Her name was Maria Perkins and she had been working with the midwives clinic for years helping women cope with the changes faced before, during and after pregnancy. She says that although the feelings I was experiencing are rarely plastered over the cover of pregnancy magazines they are increasingly normal.

‘The reality of pregnancy and impending parenthood is that it can have a lot of ups and downs. Although it is thought of as a blissful and exciting time in a woman’s life it also heralds a multitude of changes, not just with the body but also relationships and lifestyle.’

Perkins also points out that any big event in a person’s life can cause a lot of stress. That goes for weddings, new jobs, moving house, winning lotto or having babies. Stress can make you feel down and it’s not unusual for women and men to feel down sometimes in both pregnancy and after the birth.

Suddenly it was making sense to me; I was in the middle of planning a wedding while moving out of home for the first time in my life and then boom! I’m pregnant on top of it all. Of course I was feeling down; I was stressed beyond recognition. But something was still eating at me, pervading my consciousness with every bad feeling that passed through my head…if I’m feeling blue now then what happens when the baby arrives, will it get better or worse? Statistics show that perinatal depression (which is depression that occurs during pregnancy or the postnatal period) affects 15–20 per cent of women in Australia and around 14 per cent of women will experience Post Natal Depression (PND). The staggering fact is that for around 40 per cent of the women that are diagnosed with PND the symptoms began in pregnancy.

Maria Perkins explains to me that when you are depressed it can be hard for you to tell how serious your feelings are. ‘ The best thing for a woman to do when she thinks she may be experiencing perinatal depression is to get help early; tell your doctor or midwife about your feelings so they can help you decide if your just feeling down, or if it’s something more serious’.

If the signs of perinatal depression are addressed early they can be treated very successfully and it is better to seek help early rather than risk postnatal depression later on states Perkins. ‘It is more strenuous on the family once PND comes into play and if this is not diagnosed it can lead to postpartum psychosis, very rarely but I have seen cases of it and it takes a huge toll on everyone involved’.

This statistic haunted me; not just because I was stressed, studying and completely unprepared for this but because as a teenager I witnessed my aunt suffer with postnatal depression which evolved into puerperal psychosis because it went undiagnosed.

I was only about thirteen at the time so the full story is a little vague but what is etched into my memory is the time I joined the women in the family for a weekend break down at my Nan’s holiday house. My Aunt had just given birth to her first child; a blue eyed little angel of a daughter. The baby was having trouble sleeping and was suffering from jaundice so getting sleep in a small cabin was almost impossible for everyone. One particular night the baby was screaming and my Nan went to help out; all of a sudden the baby wasn’t the only one screaming. My aunt was screaming at her mother in-law to back off and let her do what was right for the baby, to stop interfering in her life and judging her for not being a good enough mother.

I think it was then that someone should have recognised the signs of postnatal depression; the mood swings and feeling of inadequacy were right there but no one in my family knew enough about it to help or even suggest help. I remember my aunt disappearing from family functions and the distance between her and my uncle increasing. Most of all I remember my own parents going to visit her week after week when she was admitted to the psychiatric ward. I remember overhearing them speak about her treatments and the sadness that permeated the air when they spoke to my uncle and muttered words like electroconvulsive therapy. I was never allowed to visit her at the hospital, my parents refused to let us come along because, ‘She’s not the same person now.’

It took a long time for her to resemble ‘that person’ again. The even sadder thing is that by the time she came back everything in her world had changed. Her marriage had crumbled, the home she was building with her husband and daughter had to be sold and her child was being cared for by the mother-in-law she had been so adamant to keep a distance from.

This story is sad and terrifying and with the experience of motherhood just around the corner it makes it all the more real to me. Whether we like to admit it or not the reality is that 1 in 7 Australian women will suffer from some form of postnatal depression and for these women the expectations of how they should feel about motherhood and the actual experience of it is a major fault line that is breaking their worlds apart.

This was the case for Abigail, a 31 year old teacher from Sydney who suffered with severe postnatal depression for several months after the birth of her son Jai.

‘At the time I just couldn’t believe how terrible I felt, especially as I had been so elated when I found out I was pregnant. My husband and I had been planning this for so long and we were in the best stage of our lives to welcome a new addition with secure but flexible jobs, enough savings and a good support team around us.’
Abigail said that things started to change about a week after bringing Jai home from the hospital.

‘ One day I could not stop crying, I moped around the house like an extra from a zombie movie and I felt so awful just as though my body was weighed down by this incredible feeling of guilt and shame. I had nothing to be crying over and that made me feel even worse.’

Abigail’s husband Jacob was a big support during the weeks that followed but even that wasn’t enough to change Abigail’s frame of mind. She says that looking back she remembers one particular night sleep deprived and desperate she yelled at him to leave her alone and was sick of him and the baby.

‘The weeks after that were the worst, probably my lowest point and it was when I got so angry that I almost shook Jai that I realised there was something severely wrong with me. I was a hazard to myself and this beautiful little life that was relying on me, I needed help and quick so I rung my mum.’

Luckily for Abigail her mum was only a couple of hours down the coast and could drive up to be with her that afternoon. Abigail remembers crying uncontrollably when her mum walked in, after the baby was taken care of Abigail was taken to a GP who diagnosed severe postnatal depression and admitted her to hospital.
‘my mum moved in with us to look after Jai and my mother-in-law was a major help while I recovered, making meals and also supporting Jacob through the mess because he was so worried and still trying to work and support us through it all.’

Abigail responded to treatment well and within a month she was ready for a second chance at motherhood. Before she and Jacob settled back in to family life they attended some counselling sessions, this enabled them to understand that this wasn’t their fault or a reflection of their parenting skills but a natural part of life.
‘It was reassuring for us to realise that so many people experience postnatal depression, I think the figures were about one in seven which is much more common than I thought. To be told that most people who experience it get through without permanent damage to their relationship and family was a relief.’

Abigail and Jacob survived postnatal depression and were finally able to bond with Jai, with thanks to their support group of family, friends and medical professionals they weathered the storm and went on to have another baby with the knowledge that they could handle the rollercoaster ride.

After hearing Abigail’s story first hand I was feeling much better about the prospect of coping with motherhood and the changes it brings about.

Maria Perkins believes that all women should be educated about the changing feelings and emotions that occur during pregnancy and how this will affect them after their bundle of joy arrives. ‘The difference between postnatal depression that is recognised and treated and postnatal depression that is brushed off as the blues can be huge. With the correct support and treatment it can be just a minor stumbling block but without it these women and their families can be adversely affected and cause lasting damage.’

This is evident in the case of Abigail and my Aunt who both experienced the effects of postnatal depression but had to deal with it differently due to their knowledge and support teams.

My first antenatal visit included the basic weigh in and medical history questions that would be expected of any hospital visit, what I didn’t expect were the confidential questions about how I was feeling and whether I had any problems with abuse or anxiety. I was later told by the midwife that this was to check for early signs of depression that may lead on to problems later on. This is a great initiative which needs to be adopted by all health professionals in order to overcome the prevalence of postnatal depression and remove the stigma surrounding it.

Another positive influence on helping the fight against PND is the increasing number of high profile names admitting their battles with it. In an interview with Good Housekeeping magazine, Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow admitted she had suffered from post-natal depression after she had her son, Moses. She described feeling like a “zombie” which was similar to Abigail’s experience and said it made her feel she was “a terrible mother and a terrible person”. The interesting thing she added was that she thought postpartum depression meant you were sobbing every single day and incapable of looking after a child.

‘But there are different shades of it and depths of it, which is why I think it’s so important for women to talk about it. It was a trying time. You don’t want anybody to know that you’re depressed or crying all the time.
‘There’s this shame that we bring to it and it’s incredibly debilitating and scary and you just don’t feel like yourself.’

Despite a cultural stigma against discussing motherhood in less-than-glowing terms Paltrow has come forward and let women know that postnatal depression is real and doesn’t discriminate. There are also Australian celebrities such as newsreader Jessica Rowe who have battled with the disease and now help associations such as Beyond Blue and PANDA or Post and Antenatal Depression Association which are helping raise awareness through workshops, social media and community education.

But the most important thing for people to realise is that the person closest to you may be suffering in silence. Look out for the signs and if you think your sister, friend, cousin or wife is struggling then reach out because the difference between saying something and doing nothing could be vital.

Download a PDF of BabyBlue

References
• Agnes, M. 1999. Webster’s New World college dictionary. New York: Macmillan.
• Figo.org. 2013. Post-natal depression ‘still has stigma attached’ | International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics. [online] Available at: http://www.figo.org/news/post-natal-depression-still-has-stigma-attached-003171 [Accessed: 9 Oct 2013].
• Hochman, D. 2011. Gwyneth Lets Her Guard Down. Good Housekeeping.
• Lovestone, S. and Kumar, R. 1993. Postnatal psychiatric illness: the impact on partners.. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 163 (2), pp. 210–216.
• Prendergast, M. (2006). Understanding depression. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin Books.
• Robinson, J. (1965). Having a baby. Edinburgh: Livingstone.

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Identity, Fractured, Anna Van

It’s been almost eleven years since Ruth Tulloch was treated at the Royal Adelaide Hospital following a suicide attempt. Earlier in the year, Ruth had experienced a nervous breakdown and was treated at her local hospital for depression and chronic fatigue. She was discharged after two weeks in hospital, and started seeing a psychologist who noticed that instances of ‘child-like’ behaviour during their sessions. It was during this time that Ruth also began having strange ‘dreams’ at night, though she knew was still awake. She attempted suicide and was flown to the Royal Adelaide Hospital where the psychiatrists similarly noticed periods when Ruth didn’t seem ‘herself’. ‘Yes, she dissociates, but keep her in the here and now,’ they relayed to each other.

At the milder end of the spectrum, dissociation is a normal mental phenomenon that all of us will have experienced. Who hasn’t ‘spaced out’ during a boring lecture or meeting, or conversely, been so engrossed in a movie or book that we simply lose all self-consciousness? Another common form of everyday dissociation is known as ‘highway hypnosis’ where, as a driver, you travel a familiar route and arrive at your destination with no recollection of the journey just undertaken. It’s when the phenomenon defines our lives that it is no longer seen as normal, but a mental illness. This illness, known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), is probably better known by its old name, Multiple Personality Disorder.

Even via email, it’s clear Ruth gets upset recalling the attitude of the chief psychiatrist at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. He told her, ‘I don’t believe there is such a condition as Multiple Personality Disorder. You must have researched it on the internet. You’re just putting it on.’ This attitude is illustrative of the divide in psychiatric circles toward this illness. On the one hand, we have psychiatrists who think the disorder is a form of attention-seeking, built up by media popularisation and legitimised, even created, by credulous therapists. On the other, lies some who think the incidence of the disorder may be as high as one percent of the population.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), oftentimes billed as the ‘bible’ of psychiatry, devotes an entire chapter to dissociative disorders in its latest edition. DID is described as ‘the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of behaviour’. These states are called ‘alters’, which together form a ‘system’. A person with DID switches between alters with no conscious control. In many cases, each ‘alter’ performs a particular role for the person, for example, one may emerge to deal with fear, another with anger, and so on.

Sceptics point at the inordinate rise in cases of DID, calling it a medical ‘fad’ and likening the condition to the ‘fad’ of hysteria in the 1900’s. A 1995 study noted that there were only 200 cases of DID reported before 1980, but this had exploded by 20,000 by 1990. This leap in diagnosis, some say, is the direct result of works that popularised the condition. The most cited example is Sybil, a best-selling psychiatric biography about a woman with ‘16 personalities’ whose condition was traced to perverse childhood abuse. Sybil, the main presenting identity, had no memory of these terrible events. But her alters remembered, and Sybil could even love her mother, while some of her alters were full of hate.

Psychiatrist Frank Putnam hypothesises that we are born with and develop in infancy ‘discrete behaviour states’ that become linked over time. These states might be referred to as ‘alert activity’, ‘alert inactivity’, ‘crying’, ‘fussy’, and so on. Over time, these states become linked, leading us to believe that we are a unified self. This belief is what underpins the confidence we have to navigate our lives, by imagining that we are in control of our hearts and minds. However, DID may result when something continually interrupts this developmental process.

Dr. Doris McIlwain, a personality researcher at Macquarie University, explains that a repeated split in an ‘object’, such as a parent who alternates from being loving and abusive, may cause a split in the ‘subject’, that is, the child. The child survives by compartmentalising the intolerable aspects of the relationship, leading to two identity states that Dr. McIlwain refers to as ‘S1’ (Subject 1) and ‘S2’ (Subject 2). ‘In other words,’ she explains, ‘when I’m in my S1 state – my dissociative identity called S1 – all I can think about is my loving parents. If I went into therapy with you and I came in and was ‘S1’ today, you would say, ‘How’s your dad?’ and I would go, ‘He’s so loving, he’s amazing.’ And then the next day I might come in and I’m in ‘S2’ state and you go, ‘How’s your dad?’ and I go, ‘I don’t want to talk about him. He’s horrible.’ Because that part of my personality has a system of remembrance (as it’s called), which includes an exploitative, violent and abusive father who doesn’t protect. But my way of solving the problem, if I’m a dissociative person, is that I actually split within myself to keep separate the two fathers, as it were.’

While the DSM doesn’t specify the etiology of the mental disorders it classifies, most studies have found that patients report extremely high rates of childhood sexual or physical abuse. My four interviewees, who I find over the internet, are unanimous on this point: each of them experienced chronic trauma in childhood. Laurie et al., as she refers to herself, was sexually, physically and emotionally abused as the youngest child and only girl to an ‘alcoholic father, valium-addicted mother and four older brothers who were deeply addicted to drugs.’ In 1983 Laurie et al. was in her early twenties, and working at a local hospital. Working in the admissions department, she canvassed the patients to find the best doctor and sought his help for her depression as well as a lifetime of ‘‘blank’ spots that blotted my existence.’ The doctor performed regressive hypnosis on her but became frustrated because he seemed to be talking to several people during the hypnotic sessions. After some months, the doctor called in a consulting psychiatrist who specialised in DID, and she was given the formal diagnosis.

Hence lays another criticism of the sceptics. As Dr. Joel Paris writes, ‘the use of hypnosis, and the memories it creates, is a particularly worrying element. It has long been established that hypnotic trance is, in some ways, a form of socially constructed role play. He argues that patients may provide memories of trauma on demand and increase their number of alters over time ‘possibly because of a wish to keep therapists interested.’ It is noteworthy that Sybil and her psychiatrist became friends, went for long rides in the country, and even lived for a while in the same house. Her treatment added up to a staggering 2,534 office hours – her psychiatrist said it took so long because there was simply no knowledge about the disorder in the 1960’s. Paris says that transcripts of the therapy sessions ‘clearly show’ that Sybil’s therapist imposed the abusive childhood narrative on her, and that she may have been willing to go along with it because their relationship was the most important one in her life. This narrative of childhood abuse, in Paris’ view, is what catapulted the condition into the limelight. ThreeFacesOfEve

More than 15 years prior to Sybil, two psychiatrists treated a woman who seemed to have three personalities. They published a book about the case, The Three Faces of Eve, in 1957, but after Sybil came out, the woman reneged on her doctors. a book by the name of The Three Faces of Eve, was published. The book was written by two psychiatrists who treated a woman with three personality states. Only after Sybil did ‘Eve’ renege on her doctors and announce she had actually discovered more than 20 personalities as well as her own hidden history of abuse.

Whatever the truth about ‘Sybil’ and ‘Eve’, sexual abuse and therapy became public issues from the 1970’s onwards, culminating in some high profile U.S. lawsuits that rested on little else but memories of abuse that had resurfaced during treatment. The tide turned when some of these plaintiffs realised that their memories were false, launching a second wave of lawsuits against the therapists themselves. At the height of the furore, Elizabeth Loftus, an American cognitive psychologist and a pioneer in memory research, demonstrated that false memories could be created by exposure to cues such as misinformation. Loftus went on to become an advocate for those who were accused of child abuse by their adult children, accusations based solely on the retrieval of repressed memories.Sybil

There was no reported link between plaintiffs and DID, but the taint of these scandals seems to have travelled over due to the condition’s high association with childhood abuse. It also seems to have left a lasting impact on the way mental health professionals deal with these sorts of issues in their practice. ‘I do think it’s theoretically quite possible for people to have been sexually abused but not to remember it until something changes in therapy, which enables them to be strong enough to be able to face and bear the facts of the past,’ Dr. McIlwain says. ‘But I think therapists have to be very careful not to put suggestions into their client’s head…If the therapist picks up that the person coming into therapy has got a bit of confusion, they’re not sure of what’s real and what’s not real, that’s a kind of clinical marker (that they’re dissociative). And then you go very, very gently, you wouldn’t be suggesting things like, ‘Do you remember any inappropriate touching in your childhood?’ You wouldn’t ask that question because they might go, ‘Yes, I do’ and you wouldn’t be sure if it was the truly the case or if it was because you’d suggested it. I think if the therapist is incredibly careful and just waits till the person gains (strength in their self and certainty about their past and if he or she then) says, ‘Do you know what? I’ve just realised that a series of dreams that I always thought were nightmares about monsters, I’ve realised that the monster was an aspect of my father,’ and the therapist has been squeaky-clean in their technique, I would say ‘recovered memory’.’

Ruth was forty-eight when she experienced the harrowing dissociative symptoms that led to her hospitalisation and eventual diagnosis. Since then, she says, it has been a gradual and often painful experience of learning about an abusive past that she was previously completely unaware of. She says that one of the hardest things she has had to come to terms with is the fact that what she thought was a ‘happy, normal’ upbringing was suddenly like ‘one big lie’. ‘It is not an easy journey and not one you would ‘make up’ just to get ‘attention’ as I have been told at times.’ Lonnie Mason, who writes about her condition online, tells me, ‘I would give anything to not be DID. Every day is a challenge; I just want to get on with my life.’ Sarah K. Reece, another blogger with a dissociative disorder, emphasises that it is a patient’s history that contains the strongest rebuttal against the notion that the condition is manufactured during therapy. The most common evidence, she says on her blog, includes journals containing different handwriting, having different names in different social networks, chronic amnesia, and hearing internal voices.

Indeed, Lonnie first realised she was different when she discovered that not everyone could hear voices. She initially joined a support group for voice hearers, but most of them had schizophrenia, whose voices affected them differently to her own. She found some information on the internet about her specific symptoms and sought professional help. Lonnie says that with the help of a psychiatrist and psychologist, her alters have started to feel safe enough to gradually reveal some of the memories they have kept at bay. Sarah’s experience has been somewhat different in that she her alters share what’s known as ‘high co-consciousness’. She is never shocked by a memory because information is shared across all of her alters, but the significance and emotion attached to certain memories are kept by different alters.

At first, the idea that a person’s identity might be splintered into parts seems like a foreign concept, but the more I mull over it, the more I realise perhaps it’s not so unfamiliar. For instance, we tend to wrestle with ourselves over key decisions in our lives, where a part of us thinks we should do something versus another part that simply wants to do something else. Sometimes we might not even be aware of why we do certain things, but we continue to do them. Peter, a middle-aged man who I meet at an informal group discussion on DID, says that he has always had an inexplicable fear of travelling over water. Several years ago, he told his sister about his phobia, who said, ‘Well, I expect that’s because of the time when our father threw you into the water and you couldn’t swim.’ Peter can’t recall this childhood incident, and his father isn’t alive to verify the story. But the story suggests that young minds are more than capable of storing away trauma. The question remains, how much more so when the trauma is chronic?

Note: The names of some interviewees are pseudonyms.

Download a PDF of Identity, Fractured

References
• Howell, Elizabeth F: The Dissociative Mind, The Analytic Press, Hillsdale, NJ, 2005.
• James Randi Educational Foundation Forum, http://forums.randi.org/showthread/php?t=230111, retrieved 20 September 2013.
• Mental Health Information NSW Fact Sheet, Dissociative Identity Disorder, July 2010.
• Merskey, H: “Multiple Personality Disorder and False Memory Syndrome” in The British Journal of Psychiatry: the Journal of Mental Science 166 (3), 1995, 281-283.
• Paris, Joel: ‘The Rise and Fall of Dissociative Identity Disorder’ in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 2012; 200: 1076-1079. Quoted from p1077.
• Reece, Sarah K: Is DID Iatrogenic? http://skreece.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/is-did-iatrogenic, retrieved 07 October 2013.
• Spanos, Nicholas P: Multiple Identities and False Memories, American Psychological Association, Washington, 1996.

 

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Fault Lines & Other Poetry, Charlie Bridger

Fault Lines
Among the clouds lie
A collection of Titans
Waiting watching… us
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Shifting and Changing
Dictating the creation
Separating all
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Imperfection mars
Such is a beautiful face
Mother Nature’s work
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Cracks on a rock face
Revealing the ages past
Take note for present
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Innocence stands still
Disaster lies from beneath
We pray for mercy

 

Dissent
Clacton street is where she lives,
Green trees, white two-storey houses,
Clean footpaths meet freshly cut grass,
The yellow bus stop that glows under the street lamp at night,
She slams the door, she will be home soon,
The keys reach the ignition, the fourth attempt,
Don’t be startled, she’s well experienced,
Speeding away from the dull voices by lively friends,
The colours that rule the road bare no meaning,
The signs that rule the road no longer exist,
The dashboard all but glows, Limitless is her speed,
Blurry is her vision, but it is not raining,
She escapes the urban jungle,
Frees herself on the highway,
Bisecting the white lines as she sways,
Rushing into the silence of her neighbourhood,
Clacton street is where she lives,
Green trees, white two-storey houses,
Clean footpaths meet freshly cut grass,
The yellow bus stop that glows under the street lamp at night,
There, she is eternally waiting.

 

Maul
To stop, to stare, ones gaze defines everything,
They stand glittering, flesh exposed, do you see,
Flowing hair, their heels tall, their dresses tight,
To watch the onlookers is quite entertaining,
But upon reflection a thought crosses my mind,
One that is neither positive or fair but sad,
Perhaps jealousy takes reign, or is it lust?

Behaviour defines a character, does it not?
The frown of displeasure speaks a thousand words,
Shocking to them as they are shocking to me,
You need not say much, behaviour can be quiet,
For silence echoes the loudest words
A treatment by the irrational, the blind, the weak,
You will learn your lesson when you recognise,
That the eye burns the deepest hole.

 

Chinamons
Sheltered by the hills and the wealthy houses that dwell on them,
It begins with a field of grass,
Soft on your feet, you walk across it

A collection of trees, offering protection on a hot day,
A hut – housing bathrooms for the futuristic,
And a playground where the kids frenzy,
When the grass gives way to the sand, your feet must be bare,
A trail in which your sight is limited,
The weeds snaking their way through the dunes,
Emerging into the openness, A beach,
Quiet, enclosed within the harbour,
Its breeze passing you in a rush
The water, perfect for standing.

 

Milo
Young we both were, old we grew together,

You aged faster than I did, it’s easy to forget,

As your face depicts timelessness,

I thought we would never end,

The banging of the food bowl,

Against the wall,

When you ate your meal,

                              In less than 30 seconds

The temper you had when we played FIFA,

     Howling at us to be quiet as you sat in front of the TV,

          The swift exit to the garden you would make,

When one of us pushed the button to start the console

 

To walk with you – there was no greater company:

         A park sheltered at the bottom of the bay,

             Where the land sloped down to greet the still water

                           Around we would go, side by side at evenings end,

I thought I heard you this morning when I returned home,

             And for a moment I was expecting you to be waiting for me,

         Your empty bed lying in the corner,

 

A joke in which I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

 

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Fault Lines Behind Fashion, Laura Somerville

Like many women in the Western world obsession with body image is part of my life. It began with puberty and will probably follow me, in some way, for the rest of my life. I am young, healthy and exercise regularly. I am an Australian size 8-10 and understand on a rational level that I have nothing to be concerned about. I am far from overweight and lucky enough to have genetics that means I probably won’t ever be. Yet I am not satisfied with my body, I feel guilty about my love of baked goods, I dislike the size of my thighs, bum and upper arms and wish my stomach was flatter. I am happiest with my body when I wake up in the morning – an empty digestive system means a stomach flat as a board. This will sadly disappear after the morning’s coffee and toast.

I am not alone. This is a constant topic of conversation between my friends and I, who are all as slim as me if not more so. It should be mystifying that beautiful young women feel this way, but unfortunately the obsession with thin is now part of Western culture. While it is part of our broader culture, it is impossible not to recognize the fashion industry’s instrumental role in the fetishism of the ultra-skinny. The body image and beauty standard set by the fashion industry is based in fiction, not reality. Fashion magazines create elaborate editorials where all the model’s flaws are airbrushed away and healthy, glowing skin is photo-shopped in. We are left with a picture perfect image that young women the world over will measure themselves against.

The industry has set an impossible standard that the majority of real women, with their curves and their blemishes, will never be able to achieve, at least not through healthy methods. The fashion industry’s don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy means a blind eye has been turned to the condition and health of models used in photo shoots and on the runway. While there has been a recent shift against promoting models that are known to be suffering from eating disorders, how can this really be policed? And how can you ensure that everyone in the industry is onboard? Whether it is continuing or not, the reality is fashion magazines were promoting models who were suffering from an emotional and physical illness. These models lose weight to fit into the impossibly small sample sizes and are then praised for how good they look. They are booked for shoots in high profile magazines such as Vogue and their behavior is rewarded. In light of this it is no surprise that eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, have trickled through the pages of the glossy magazines and into the real world.

Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia stem from the desire to look different and fix something about oneself. This may be physical or emotional – while eating disorders manifest in a physical form this doesn’t mean the cause is also purely physical. For most sufferers, the root of the problem is deeper than food and weight related issues. Things like depression, insecurity and the pressure to be perfect or feeling out of control are masked by their ability to control what food goes in and out of their body. Once a sufferer is deep into their eating disorder it becomes hard for them to distinguish between reality and fiction – their own body image is highly distorted.

Someone with a healthy body image will be saddened or even repulsed when they see an image of someone who is severely underweight, while someone suffering from anorexia will only feel worse about their own body and set their weight loss goal even higher. The illusive supermodel becomes a muse as opposed to an unrealistic image of what the female form should look like.

Growing up I felt these pressures, as did most women I know. In year eight I dabbled in bulimia, knowing I could never commit to the drastic measures needed to become anorexic as I loved food too much. This sentiment pinpoints how harmless my ‘eating disorder’ really was. After recess and lunch I would go to the staff toilet and stick my fingers down my throat. This went on for a few weeks until my concerned friends took me to the school counselor and she phoned my mum. I am now ashamed to say this was more attention seeking, a desperate bid to fit in rather than a desire to be ridiculously thin or disgust in my body. If it appears that I’m making light of eating disorders I assure you this is not my intention. However, I can see now how trivial my experience was compared to real victims of this disease. It consumes their lives in a way it never did mine.

Over the years there have been numerous cases of young models dying due to the prolonged effects caused by anorexia. Particularly notorious is the death of French model Isabelle Caro, who spoke openly about her battle with anorexia in a hope to educate young women and men. Caro struggled with anorexia from the tender age of 13, caused by what she referred to as a ‘troubled childhood’. She then went on to work as a model rocketing to fame in 2007 after teaming up with Italian fashion brand Nolita to shoot an anti-anorexia advertisement in which she posed nude. This was the first time the public saw Caro as she really was – a skeletal body with protruding vertebrae and facial bones. The image shocked viewers worldwide. For Caro the campaign seemed to have the opposite effect, the images made her famous, the face of anorexia and a media darling. Caro’s condition didn’t improve and sadly she died 3 years later from the effects of being so weakened by anorexia. Caro appeared to be trapped in a vicious cycle – the very images that were meant to send a strong anti-anorexia message kick started her career. While her anorexia was not brought on by the pressures of modeling it isn’t a huge stretch to suggest that her prolonged battle with the disease correlated with her modeling career.

In some cases Caro’s advertisement with Nolita had the opposite of the desired effect. Images of Caro can often be found on ‘pro-ana’ blogs highlighted as a source of ‘thinspiration’ rather than a cautionary tale. The back alleys of the internet are littered with pro-ana blogs which have been created, for the most part, by young women suffering from anorexia and/or bulimia. The blogs walk a fine line between support groups for sufferers and a celebration of the disease.

There are numerous photos of painfully thin celebrities and models all captioned by aspirations such as ‘so thin, love it, love her’. Meal plans and nutrition guides are posted followed by exercise plans. There are diary style entries ranging from an outline of the days ‘meals’, tips on skipping meals without drawing unwanted attention and confessions on relapse. When I discovered the pro-ana sites it felt as though I had stumbled into a secret society, one where I certainly didn’t belong. Reading the personal struggles these women were having with anorexia was horrifying. It was painstakingly clear I could never relate to the depth of their insecurities. I wanted to write an angry letter demanding they be removed, but who would I write to and who am I to decide I have the right? These are all personal blogs, forms of self-expression. How could I be so judgmental and presume I knew what was best for them?

Kirstie Clements worked at Vogue for 27 years, 13 of those spent in the editor’s chair. Clements is now an international name thanks to her recent tell-all book about her Vogue years. A candid Clements reveals the seedier side of the fashion industry, describing models as ‘one of the most controversial aspects of fashion magazines and the fashion industry’. The conundrum of who should be blamed for the portrayal of overly thin models is complex. Magazine editors are generally in the direct line of fire but as Clements explains the problem begins long before reaching the glossies. Designers use skeletal fit models (an in-house body the clothes are designed around). The collections are then sent to the runway and worn by equally tall, pin-thin models, as that’s how the designer wants to see the clothes fall. Runway samples are sent to magazine stylists who must cast a model who will fit these tiny sizes.

Clements relays various horrifying accounts of models she had worked with over the years whose bodies were depleted as they openly starved themselves. While Clements admits she was complicit this appears to be an admission she is only comfortable making now. During her time as editor she was in a position where she could have pushed for real change. There were minor attempts such as instigating a policy that Vogue would not employ models under the age of 16. While a good start this wasn’t exactly the platform for ground breaking change. From her account it appears Clements was caught in a constant tension between what the fashion office wanted, what the readers wanted, and her own morals.

In 2011 Clements caused a ripple in the fashion world featuring a ‘plus’ size model in the pages of Vogue. The issue was a resounding success with readers yet a plus size model has not been featured since. Clements sums up the heart of the problem – ‘the high fashion world has a deep vein of callousness. For every woman who related to the lovely photographs of a curvaceous Robyn, there is a stylist in Paris eating iceberg lettuce hearts sprayed with Evian for lunch and telling the hopeful young models they are too fat to get into the jacket’. What Clements doesn’t say is that she sat somewhere in between the editor who featured a plus size model and this stylist, meaning she remained part of the problem. This is the dilemma of the fashion industry, one I will no doubt face myself one day.

Based on Clements book it would appear thin culture in the fashion industry isn’t changing anytime soon. However, Clements account shouldn’t be taken as gospel. There are many in the fashion industry who believe there has been a definite shift, particularly here in Australia. Fashion designer Krystel Davis asserts the industry’s attitude towards the use of ‘sickly thin’ models has changed dramatically in the last five years. As a designer and creative director of her own label IXIAH, Krystel works across all areas of the industry. She isn’t just sitting in a studio sketching out new trends – Krystel hand picks the models that will showcase her designs, accompanies them on shoots and puts look books together. There’s a certain aesthetic Krystel’s clients are after and according to her it isn’t models who are unnaturally thin. ‘I think you find these days everyone is more health conscious and has more of an understanding. The consumer at the end of the day doesn’t like that look, they feel intimidated and that it’s not real and it’s unhealthy’.

The shift in model culture has largely been driven by the consumer. The days of the 90’s supermodel who maintained her figure on a cocktail of alcohol, cigarettes and cocaine is definitely behind us. Krystel believes this shift is due to a general increase in education about diet, health and wellbeing. Consumers want to see toned healthy bodies something they can aspire too rather than something completely unobtainable. However, you can’t escape the fact that clothes fall better on a tall, thin body and while the models are staying thin the healthy way, they are still often a size 6 – something the average Australian woman is not. This poses a dilemma for the designer. They need slight figures to showcase their product while also meeting the desires of the consumer. I ask Krystel if she has received backlash from consumers in regards to models she has used for campaigns.

‘I have previously. About five years ago we used a girl who was just naturally skinny but did look quite thin in the clothes. We had a few comments from people, things like “that girl’s too thin”, “she needs to eat”, “you shouldn’t use girls like that, you shouldn’t encourage this”. It can backfire and consumers don’t feel like that’s a real person wearing those clothes. If the model doesn’t fill them out the skirt won’t look as good, because it’s made for a real person not someone so thin. But in recent times I haven’t used girls who are too thin. I use girls that look the part of the collection’.

When it comes to eating disorders within the industry it’s hard to know for certain if the culture still exists and if models continue to use extreme methods to stay current in such a cut throat world. Krystel says she isn’t trying to deny their existence or claim the culture is no longer there but in her experience it is certainly on the decline. ‘All of the models I’ve ever worked with have eaten so much. I think they watch their weight and they’re careful with what they eat but I think a lot of the ones that do have the eating disorder or do take it that bit too seriously, their performance lacks. A lot of the time you really need someone who can move and pose and you need that personality to represent your clothing and I couldn’t imagine they’d be able to work properly. For our recent spring collection we used Caroline and she was so skinny but so toned. So she looks healthy enough because she’s got so much shape. She ate really well but she was a naturally skinny girl and when she was in our pieces you can tell she was really toned. You could see that she would just exercise rather than not eat’.

So is this the new breed of model or are they simply better at hiding their eating disorders? When it comes to the glamorous sylphs lounging across the glossy pages of fashion magazines, it’s hard to know. All of anorexia’s tell-tale signs can be photo shopped away. However, when you send a model down the runway these signs are harder to disguise, and I would agree with Krystel, the sickly thin trend appears over. Natural or not, our society continues to celebrate the culture of thin and women are presented with an unachievable standard of beauty. The industry is giving itself a pat on the back for refusing to use models known to be suffering from an eating disorder and promoting models that stay svelte the ‘healthy’ way. But more often than not these models are not an accurate reflection of the shape and size of most ‘real’ women and this is the biggest fault line of all.

 

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Please Leave a Message, Eva Lo

 Hey, this is Oliver. I’m not here right now but leave a message and I’ll get back to you.

BEEP

Guess what? The product launch went really well last night. Vivian was really happy with it. Isn’t that great? Love you.  

Jazz gripped her earpiece, making sure that those connected could hear her voice. ‘Five, four, three, two, one, go.’

She bit her lip as the lights dimmed. This second always seemed to drag. There were so many things that could go wrong at this crucial point; the performers weren’t in place, the lights wouldn’t work. She’s dealt with these issues before but it’s better if she doesn’t have to.

She’s rewarded as a hush fell over the crowd. Soft lighting slowly lit up the stage and the silhouettes of the six dancers on stage entranced the audience. Their movements were smooth, flowing from pointed toes to stretched arms, the dance choreographed to fit the ‘graceful’ requirement of the brief. She counted the seconds until they pulled off the cloth covering the pedestal in the middle of the stage, smiling when their timing was precise. There sat a new line of perfume.

She relaxed. She’d helped start the product launch. Now it was up to the company to sell it.  As an event manager, her part of the job was done.

‘They liked that.’ Kelly, her best friend and co-worker, came sauntering in. ‘I didn’t think, with Oliver gone, you’d be able to do it. Glad I didn’t bet on it. Maybe the rumour was true.’

‘What rumour?’

‘That Vivian likes your work. And that she might be getting promoted soon.’

Jazz blinked. Their boss only made backhanded compliments, not direct ones. ‘You think she would?’

‘Only if you keep up this standard.’ Vivian said as she passed behind them, making them jump.

There was a pause as the friends glanced at each other. Kelly buried her face into her shoulder to muffle her laughter as Jazz bit her fist to stop herself from squealing in excitement.

You’ve just tried calling Jazz. I can’t get to my phone right now so leave a message and I’ll get back to you!

BEEP

Sorry if I sound funny. I’m not feeling well. I guess…I wanted to say I miss you. I wish you were here.

As Oliver reached for another tissue, he cursed his love for the medieval period that had brought him to Wales. He sneezed violently before huddling further into the blanket wrapped around him. He glared at his window where rain spattered against the glass. His ears were filled with the soft hum from his heater, the dullness sending him into a stupor.

Back home, whenever he or Jazz got sick, they’d huddle together in front of the telly and watch trashy movie sequels. He’d tried one earlier but turned it off ten minutes in, reminding him that his girlfriend was halfway across the world. It simply made his heart ache, as well as his head.

Oliver could hear her response. She’d tease him about being a secret poet. She would say he was suffering from man flu, and she’d argue back when he pointed out that she was just as bad when she was sick.

The doorbell rang and he stumbled to the door, wondering who it could be. He’d only been here a week and hadn’t really made any friends yet.

Natalie, his fellow intern, stood there. ‘You sounded terrible yesterday so I brought you this.’ She held up a small pot. ‘It’s chicken soup, my mum’s old recipe.’

Oliver stared at the pot. She shook it lightly. ‘Can I come in?’

Chicken soup wasn’t trashy movie sequels but perhaps it would do. He stepped aside to let her in.

 

Hey, this is Oliver. I’m not here right now but leave a message and I’ll get back to you.

BEEP

Why do people think roses are such a great gift idea?  

Jazz looked at some daisies as she waited for the florist, Peter, to finish with his current customer. She tried not to breathe in too deeply. While a bouquet of flowers could smell nice, she found that a whole shop was overwhelming.

‘And what event are you planning today, Jasmine?’

‘It’s a dinner-trivia night between several publishing houses.’

‘And you need table pieces, of course.’ He nodded. ‘What’s the theme?’

‘I’m thinking sunrise. Something light. I was thinking some daises as part of the pieces. What do you think?’ She valued his opinion; she had been coming to him for flowers for years.

They debated for a while until they had agreed on a setting. As she filled in the paper work he looked at her curiously. ‘How are things between you and Oliver?’

She smiled. ‘Fine. He’s still struggling to settle in but work’s keeping him busy.’

‘But how are you?’

‘I’m good. I miss him sometimes, but that’s natural.’ Jazz paused in her writing. ‘What’s with the questions?’

‘I’m just worried. I’ve been in a long distance relationship before Jasmine. I thought I could handle it.’ Peter ran a hand through his hair. ‘It ended three months in.’

She crossed her arms. ‘Well, Oliver and I are different.’

‘Of course, of course.’

She frowned at him and the rest of the order form was filled out in thick silence. As she turned to leave, Peter called for her to wait. ‘If you ever need to talk, well, just call.’ He handed her a white rose.

Jazz walked out of the store, slowly twirling the flower in her hands. She’d never liked roses; people tended to like their smell but she always found it too pungent. She tried to think of what was next on the agenda but the scent seemed to be infecting her nose. It was why her eyes were watering, not because of Peter’s words. She took a deep breath, swiped at her eyes and at the next bin, threw out the flower, hopefully throwing out any doubt with it.

 

You’ve just tried calling Jazz. I can’t get to my phone right now so leave a message and I’ll get back to you!

BEEP

This site is amazing! Not just the ruins but surrounding countryside. You would love it. Wish you were here. Missing you.

Oliver admired the view as he waited for the site’s head archaeologist to give him instructions, fiddling with his watch as he stood there. The flowing hillsides and green fields were dotted with old sandstone buildings. It was the sort of picturesque scene that Jazz loved.

‘Could you hold the watch still?’ Nat’s voice broke his reverie. Her head was tilted as she tried to read the time.

He covered the face for a moment, suddenly reluctant to let her see it. It had been a gift from Jazz, before he had left. He gritted his teeth and made himself hold out his wrist.

‘Oliver? Are you alright?’

He forced a smile at Nat. She squeezed his hand in comfort, eyes filled with concern.

‘I’m fine. Really.’ He looked up and saw the archaeologist coming back. ‘Time to get to work.’ He stepped away, determined not to focus on Jazz anymore.

 

Hey, this is Oliver. I’m not here right now but leave a message and I’ll get back to you.

BEEP

Horrible day at work. Call me when you get this. Love you. 

She was not hiding.

The fact that she was sitting in a toilet cubicle without actually using the toilet did not mean she was hiding. Sure, it was embarrassing that she’d forgotten the meeting with the client but everyone made mistakes. The fact that it had never happened before meant it was bound to happen sooner or later.

She was angry at herself for forgetting. She’d been brooding over what Oliver was doing and had lost track of time. She slapped herself on the cheeks. Right, she just needed to focus again.

Jazz went back to her desk, determined to make up for her earlier mistake. As she sat down, she glanced at the photo sitting to the side. It was of her and Oliver on their first anniversary. Their third anniversary was coming up in a month, meaning Oliver had been in Britain for five months.

‘Jazz!’

She jumped and glared at Kelly. ‘What?’

Kelly was frowning. ‘Is everything ok between you and Oliver?’

‘What? Yes. Everything’s fine. Why wouldn’t it be?’ Jazz snapped.

‘You’ve been jittery and spacey all day. And you were zoning out while staring at the photo.’ She hesitated. ‘You do know you can tell me anything, right?’

‘Well, there’s nothing to tell. Now, what did you need me for?’

Kelly sighed, handing her a slip of paper. ‘Well, here are the options for venues…’

 

You’ve just tried calling Jazz. I can’t get to my phone right now so leave a message and I’ll get back to you!

BEEP

Sorry I missed your call before. It was Nat’s birthday so I took her out. I’ll call you again later. Love you.

Oliver waited for the computer to turn off, watching as it slowly turned black. He and Nat had been cataloguing pottery all day and he couldn’t wait to get away from the screen. The soft whirring hum of the computer finally went silent.

Nat stretched. ‘Well that’s everything.’

As she turned to leave her wallet fell on the floor. Oliver picked it up, raising his eyebrows when he saw her I.D. ‘Nat?’

‘Yes?’

‘Is it your birthday today?’

She turned in confusion. Seeing him holding her wallet, she took it back. ‘It’s not important.’

He rolled his eyes. ‘Of course it is. Did you have any plans?’ When she didn’t answer he clapped his hands together. ‘Right, well, I’m taking you out for dinner then. My treat.’

After much protesting, she finally relented. It wasn’t until the next day that Oliver realised it had been the first day that he hadn’t thought about Jazz. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

 

Hey, this is Oliver. I’m not here right now but leave a message and I’ll get back to you.

BEEP

I miss you

Jazz stared at the ceiling. She lay in bed, unable to sleep. She was stressed out from her job; her mistakes had increased in the last few months.

She didn’t realise how hard this would be, how much she was would miss him. She hoped it would get easier in the future; as Oliver was studying to be an archaeologist, his work would take him away for months at a time. It was why, when the internship came up, she had pushed him to take it. He had always been a little dependent on her and they had to learn to be apart. And from the phone calls, she could tell the trip had been good for him.

For her, it was a slap in the face. She had always thought of herself as the more independent one in the relationship but here she was, unravelling as the year passed.

And who was Nat? The way Oliver told it, she was just his friend but she couldn’t be entirely sure. Which was stupid. Oliver was the last person in the world she could think of who would cheat. But then again, she thought she would be the last person to be breaking down over a long distance relationship. She hated this suspicious, clingy person she’d become but she couldn’t push it out of her mind.

Jazz sighed, turning over, hoping to get some sleep in the knowledge he’d be back in three months.

 

You’ve just tried calling Jazz. I can’t get to my phone right now so leave a message and I’ll get back to you!

BEEP

Just calling to say I love you. I’m going to miss Britain when I leave but I can’t wait to see you again. We should come together next time.

They were on the floor of Nat’s apartment, playing the board game Pandemic and laughing their heads off. In fact, they were laughing so hard he hadn’t heard the doorbell, though she had. She was chortling as she went to answer it. He stretched out, lying on his back, grinning to himself until he heard Nat shriek then cut off. Leaping up, he turned to the door expecting to see thieves or murderers. Instead, he saw her wrapped around a guy, kissing him as if her life depended on it.

Nat pulled back. ‘I can’t believe you’re here!’

The man laughed. ‘Well, I did want to surprise you.’ He looked at Oliver. ‘I see you’ve got company.’

Nat pulled him in. ‘James, this is Oliver. Oliver, James.’

Oliver shook his hand. ‘The backpacking boyfriend, yes? Nat’s told me about you.’ Nat had mentioned that since she’d taken this internship, her boyfriend had taken the opportunity to travel through Europe.

James laughed. ‘That’s right. And you’re the fellow intern.’

He dumped the rucksack on the ground and stretched. Nat tugged at his wrinkled clothes as James wrapped an arm around her. She made a face at the stench of his sweat but didn’t pull away, even as he laughed at her.

Oliver headed towards the door. ‘I’ll give you two some privacy.’

‘Don’t be silly.’ Nat waved her hand. ‘You don’t have to leave.’

‘No, really…’

James clapped him on the back. ‘You should stay. You can tell me the stories Nat won’t.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Of course!’ Nat said.

Oliver had a great time talking with James and Nat, though he made a note to leave earlier than normal. Seeing the two reunited made him think of Jazz. He sneaked off to leave her a quick voicemail before coming back to share stories with his friends.

 

Hey, this is Oliver. I’m not here right now but leave a message and I’ll get back to you.

BEEP

Oliver, please pick up.

The loud throbbing music vibrated inside her bones. The club was dark and Jazz watched Kelly get picked up. She wasn’t in the partying mood, glaring at the drink sitting on the table in front of her. She had been given an official warning today; if she didn’t pick up her game she would be fired. Kelly had dragged her out, saying that it would help her relax. Instead, she stared blankly at the mass of gyrating bodies.

‘Hi there.’ She was startled out of her stewing as a man sat down next to her. She couldn’t help noticing he looked a little like Oliver and for a moment, it was her boyfriend smiling down at her. ‘I was wondering what a beautiful girl was doing sitting by herself.’

She should tell him she was taken. She should tell him to go away. She should turn this man down. She really should.

 

BEEP

You have one voicemail.

Oliver frowned as he listened to Jazz’s last message. He immediately called her, sighing in relief when she picked up. ‘Hey Jazz. What’s-are you crying?’

 

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Clarke’s Third Law, Hannah McNicholas

It started with a crack in the wall.

Avril noticed it when she moved in, a fine, hairline fissure in the plasterwork. It started high in the corner of the room, above the bookshelves she’d spent the past two hours assembling. The crack crept down from the ceiling and split into infinitesimal threads like tiny river deltas.

She could have sworn that it wasn’t there when she’d inspected the place. She’d checked the house over before she signed on it, every nook and cranny, and aside from a little water damage in the bathroom and some stained carpets, she hadn’t noticed anything wrong. But the crack was incredibly fine. Maybe it was only visible in the afternoon, the sun slanting rich and golden through the blinds. Maybe it had appeared sometime between the inspection and the move, the mark of lazy removalists. Summer had set in early this year; maybe the sudden heat had shrunk the plaster.

Maybe she’d just missed it.

Either way, there was a crack in her bedroom wall and it would need fixing, just like the leaking tap and the aging carpet she’d strategically placed her couches to hide. She’d have to pick up some putty and fill in the damage, some time after she finished unpacking boxes and assembling flat-packed furniture.

She made a mental note and went on sorting books.

Avril noticed it again on a Thursday, while she was struggling with her left heel. She was running late as usual, stockings twisted around her thighs, blouse half buttoned, wrestling with the tiny buckles on her shoes. She spotted it in the corner of her eye, the spider-web cracks, drawn like artists’ charcoal on the cream plasterwork.

She sighed. She’d forgotten about it, hidden it behind a collection of geology maps and oddly shaped rocks. The summer had been long and dry this year, it had probably caused the plaster to give, the crack splintering further down the wall. Its threads peeked out from behind the bookshelves like the crooked legs of a creeping insect. A shiver ran down the back of her neck.

She didn’t linger on it. She had a full day ahead and no time to worry about cracks in her walls. Avril tied up her hair, snatched up her handbag and hurried out the door. She didn’t think of it again all day.

She noticed it again the next week when she was creeping back in early Friday morning.

There had been another quake, a 6.9 this time. It struck a few hundred miles off the coast, too far and too deep to feel on land but enough to overturn a trawler or two and send heavy waves crashing to shore. She’d been working late, kept back checking and recording the readings.

They were getting stronger, and more frequent.

She stumbled, tired, pressed a hand to the wall, winced as it creaked under her palm, and remembered the crack she hadn’t fixed yet. It was a thin, spidery line splitting the paint and plaster. She could just fit her thumbnail in the crack and had to fight back the urge to pick off flakes of peeling paint. She followed the fracture with her fingers, feeling where it branched away into smaller cracks, until she couldn’t reach any higher.

It had grown longer since last week, splintering down to eye level like the scars of a lightning strike. It was just a fraction wider too. Her head was full of tectonics and Richter numbers, and she thought vaguely the crack looked a bit like the shaky seismograph readings she’d spent the day squinting at.

She would need to do something about it before it got any worse.

Her fingers tingled faintly and she blamed it on fatigue.

The crack was the first thing she noticed when she woke up. It had spread like splinters through shattering glass, sharp lines spiked across the paint. The fissures had crept out over the wall, a tangle of veins and threads of capillaries branching from the dark fracture in the corner. She thought of the hole torn in the ocean floor.

It was an old house, she told herself. Old houses had creaks and cracks and shadows in corners. It wasn’t anything to worry about.

It was very late, or maybe very early, when she woke to a long, deep rumbling and thought there was a storm overhead. She waited for the next lightening strike, waited to count the beats between flash and thunder but the flicker-flare of purple grey never came. She pulled back the curtains and found the white glow of a full moon casting deep blue shadows in the streets below, the pinpricks of stars glittering in the inky sky, not a cloud to be seen.

The not-thunder rolled again. It started low, like a growl trapped deep in a wolf’s throat, and built to a howl, a primal roar that snatched at her sternum and shook in her skull. Avril clutched her hands over her ears but it did nothing to block out the noise and a distant corner of her mind whispered; this was the sound of the earth tearing at its seams, of islands rising from the depths and mountains growing from rock and oceans freezing over and the surge of molten stone miles beneath his feet. This was the sound of all that had ever been or would be or could be. It was ancient and forever and it was inside her head and it was angry.

There was a great, final boom and a sound like steel shredding, like stone tearing and bone breaking.

And then it was gone.

When the sun rose, grey light filtered through the autumn fog, she couldn’t ignore the cracks anymore. It was as if the wall had been struck by a mallet. The fractures branched out across the plaster like the scattered bones of some slaughtered beast. They were dark and deep, and she couldn’t see where they might lead. She didn’t try to touch them again.

Avril wasn’t superstitious by nature. She didn’t believe in coincidence or accidents. She had been trained to believe in cause and effect, in numbers and figures, in observation and evidence, but this-
-this was out of her league.

‘There’s a crack in my wall.’

Zach looked up from his cafeteria lunch – dry turkey sandwich, fruit cup, and a slice of mass-produced blueberry crumble – and his brows furrowed.

‘So fill it in,’ he said around a mouthful of brie and cranberry sauce. ‘Or hire a handyman. I’m a physicist, Avril, not a repairman.’

Avril leaned close, pushing his tray aside and touching his wrist gently. Zach froze, his sandwich half way to his mouth, and met her earnest gaze. His face was set in its usual cantankerous scowl but his eyes were wide with concern.

‘There’s a crack in my wall,’ she said again, slowly, quietly. ‘I need you to look at it.’

He cast a longing glance as his crumble.

‘Please.’

Zach cursed under his breath and threw the remains of his sandwich aside.

Zach sat cross-legged on the floor of Avril’s bedroom, squinting against the bright afternoon sun. There was, indeed, a crack in her wall.

More than a crack, really. A web, maybe. A lattice of fissures, crawling and criss-crossing like bare winter branches. He had studied snowflakes once, back when he was very young. He had caught flakes the size of pennies on his fingertips and marvelled at their tiny clefts and flaws, the starbursts and spider legs of the ice, a minute sculpture of chance and cold. The cracks reminded him of the snowflakes, wild and random and lovely and utterly mystifying. He touched one of the faintest lines, tracing it across the paintwork. It grew wider and wider under his hand as he drew towards the epicentre, where the fissures branched out like veins pulsing around a knife wound.

His ring finger slipped into one of the wider cracks, expecting the scrape of ragged plaster, splinters of wood and old insulation.

‘What is it?’ Avril asked from her perch at the head of the bed, as far away from the wall as possible.

Zach drew his hand back. The tips of his fingers were tingling, the buzz reminiscent of static shock on a metal doorknob, but otherwise hale and whole.

‘Nothing,’ he said, frowning. ‘It’s nothing.’

He heard sheets rustling behind, and when she spoke next her voice was a little closer. ‘Nothing?’ she asked. ‘It can’t be nothing.’

‘It’s nothing,’ he said again, shifting back from the fractured wall. ‘There’s nothing there. No plaster, no wood. I can’t feel the other side. No light, no heat, no sound. There’s nothing.’

For a long moment the room was quiet. Avril half-thought she could hear something humming, like the low thrum of a plucked string. She stared unblinking at the wall until the lines seemed to move, shifting in and out of focus until she finally looked away.

‘That’s impossible,’ she said. ‘How is that possible?’

Zach shook his head faintly. He didn’t say a word.

Avril started looking for a new place to live.

The quakes kept coming in shudders and shakes, the numbers crept higher, the needles barely stilled, and she spent long days in the lab watching the earth shift. It was a terrible time to be looking to move, but there were cracks in her bedroom wall, cold, empty cracks leading to nothing and nowhere, cracks growing wider and darker by the day.

She spent a few nights sleeping on Zach’s couch but eventually a need for clean clothes drove her back to the abandoned room. Her shoulders were set tight as she slipped back into her house, something heavy settling in the spaces of her spine.

The fractures loomed dark and as faults, opening little canyons from floor to ceiling, lines crossing and branching like roads on a map. There were torn, jagged mountain ranges and smooth, curving rivers and the sharp corners of highways cutting through their midst.

She knew how the earth worked, shifting and grinding against itself, tearing down mountains, flattening cities, opening chasms and swallowing itself whole, spewing forth ash and stone and fire. If it could happen in her world, she thought, why not others? Why not both?

She had felt it, once, when she was younger, the tremors of an angry earth, shaking her down to her bones. She’d seen windows shatter and rock crumble and the ground split open beneath her feet. She’d hid under her school desk while dust and glass rained down. She’d never felt so afraid.

She thought of the darkness through the cracks and the tingle in her fingers when she touched the lines. She thought of Zach, his face bloodless, lips a thin, pale line as he examined the wall. She thought of watching houses half-torn down, their ruins set ablaze, of the beaten, bleeding earth, gashes dug deep in its skin and the thrill of fear as she stood on the edge and gazed down, down into the nothingness below. She thought of the shift and grind and tear, of the thunderous, furious roar that had woken her all those days ago.

‘An earthquake?’

Zach’s left eyebrow arched dangerously high.

‘Yes,’ said Avril. Then she frowned and shook her head. ‘No. I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter, what I’m saying is if our world can grind against itself and tear itself down the seams, why can’t it rub other worlds the wrong way?’

‘A grand cosmic earthquake,’ Zach corrected, no less sceptical. ‘I thought you didn’t believe in -?’

‘That was before my wall opened up for no reason,’ she said, waving her hand dismissively. ‘And not an earthquake, more like an aftershock. Pre-shock? Like the first cracks in weak points where worlds touch. The rumblings before the volcano goes off.’

‘And that always ends well,’ he muttered. ‘I know you want to explain this, but this –’

‘What would you call it then?’

Zach shrugged. His coffee had gone cold long ago but he swirled it around his mug like he still intended to drink it. ‘I don’t know,’ he said with a heavy sigh. ‘Magic?’

It was Avril’s turn to raise a dubious brow. ‘We’re scientists,’ she said. ‘We don’t believe in magic. Do we?’

‘That’s just it,’ Zach was muttering, like he didn’t want to hear what he was saying. ‘I thought we could figure it out but there’s nothing there. There’s no data, there’s nothing to read. There’s nothing but a crack in your wall that leads nowhere. Magic is starting to look like a strong candidate.’

Avril bit her lip and clenched her hands tight. ‘I saw a magician when I was little,’ she said. Her nails dug into the soft, cheap table-top. ‘He said he could make a canary disappear. And he did. He shoved it up his sleeve. The bird died. Crushed under his arm. I saw him shake its little body out after the show.’

Zach’s coffee stilled, forgotten. ‘Why are you telling me this?’

The table under her nails was a crosshatch of sharp lines, bleeding and branching out from the puncture-wound heart like twisted bony fingers.

‘Because I don’t believe in magic.’

It was late.

Avril had turned on every light in the house in the vain hope the artificial brightness would ward off the yawning darkness of the fractured wall.

It was spilling over, the emptiness leeching out into the room. A few days ago the cracks had been sharp and clear. Tonight they were…fuzzy. Out of focus, the edges blurred, like trying to read without glasses. Something cold settled in her chest and she shivered. The hairs on her arms stood up. Her skin tingled, and she wasn’t touching the wall. The low humming droned on.

The ground was shaking.

It was faint, barely more than a gentle tremor. She would not have felt it if she was not so utterly still, watching the wall, watching the cracks, watching the lines that seemed to shift and breathe and bleed. There was the shaking room and the broken wall and the nothingness beyond, and Avril had the eerie sensation of standing on some high ledge, gazing into an abyss, waiting for the ground to fall out from beneath her feet.

She emptied her dresser, tore clothes from their hangers and packed haphazardly, her bags a mess of clothes and books and tangled jewellery. She was sure she’d forgotten things. She didn’t care. She’d buy new things and sleep on Zach’s threadbare couch until she found a new place to live, a long way away from here.

She’d seen what happened when two sides of cracked earth got too close. She wasn’t staying around to see it happen again.

 

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Bad Blood, Nicola Moriarty

19th May 2007

This isn’t what I thought I’d be doing for my 21st birthday. But then I guess there were no plans to fuck up anyway. I don’t have friends. But that’s okay, I’ll wear that, I know that’s my deal. Still though, a visit to the hospital? Fuck. I’ve never liked hospitals. It’s a combination of things I suppose. It’s the smell. It’s the atmosphere – the lighting, the muted colours, the obnoxiously shiny floor.

Dad’s driving. Mum’s navigating. Vicki is sitting next to me – right next to me, because the other seat is taken up by Dad’s skis, poking through the folded down seat from the boot. They’ve been in the car now for three months – he keeps meaning to take them into Rebel Sport to have the bindings fixed. He never will. Vicki is pinching me. Continuously. Viciously.

It’s because she’s mad with me. I kissed her boyfriend last night. That’s why I don’t have any friends by the way. I’ve kissed a lot of other people’s boyfriends over the years. It’s not intentional. Kidding. Of course it’s intentional. I do it for a laugh. I do it because it turns me on. I do it because I can. It’s all in the eyes you know. If a man sees that you have fuck-me eyes, you can make him hard with just one look. And I have fuck-me eyes.

But does she have to pinch me so fucking hard? I’m going to have bruises all up and down my left arm. And a few on my thigh. And every time she does it, I want to slap her.

We’re going to visit my other sister Nicki by the way. My name is Ricki. Short for Richelle. But no one ever calls me Richelle. I could have been Erica for all my parents cared. Just as long as I rhymed with my sisters. According to Urban Dictionary, Ricki is ‘an overweight white girl who wears too much eye liner, puts too much product in her hair and sleeps with black men.’

I’m pretty curvy in case you were wondering. But I never used to wear too much eyeliner. Or use too much hair product. Not until I read about myself on Urban Dictionary. I guess you could call it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I looked myself up and there it was. My life laid out on the page. So then I started overusing eyeliner and hair spray. I had already slept with black men.

We’re visiting Nicki because she just had a baby girl. Mum asked her if she would continue the rhyming names tradition. Nicki just giggled.

Here’s what Nicki doesn’t know. I slept with her husband two months ago. I’m wondering if I’ll whisper the truth to her while I’m nursing her new baby girl. Just for a laugh.

 

19th May 2007

This isn’t what I thought I’d be doing for my 21st birthday. But then I guess there were no plans to fuck up anyway. I have two best friends – but they’re both overseas just now. They did invite me, but they’re an item. A holiday as the third wheel? How fucking depressing! I’m like Harry Potter to their Hermione fucking Granger and Ron fucking Weasley. One day I might screw Ron Weasley, just to see what it does to Hermione. I’m twisted like that.

Still though, a visit to the hospital. Fuck. I’ve never liked hospitals. It’s a combination of things I suppose. It’s the smell. It’s the atmosphere – the lighting, the garish colours, the grating squeak of sandshoes on linoleum.

Dad’s driving. Mum’s crying. Vicki is sitting next to me – right next to me, because the other seat is taken up by Dad’s skis. They’ve been in the car now for three months. He put them in there when they were supposed to take that trip to Canada in February. The tickets were booked. The bags were packed. They were supposed to drive to the airport at five in the morning. But then the call came through.

Nicki is sick. Nicki needs treatment. Nicki will be in and out of hospital. Nicki might not get better. Nicki is going to need her family.

They couldn’t get a refund on their plane tickets. Dad keeps meaning to take the skis back into the house.

He never will.

Vicki is pinching me. Continuously. Viciously. I kissed her boyfriend last night. I did it because it turns me on. I did it because I hate myself.

I’m glad that she’s pinching me hard though. The bruises will ease the pain. I sort of want to hug her. Bullshit. I don’t.

We’re going to visit Nicki. She’s taken a turn for the worst. I know that I should care – but guess what I’m thinking about? I’m thinking about the fact that no one’s even realised that today is my birthday. And it’s an important one isn’t it? My 21st – that’s fucking special. My sister is dying but all I care about is that no one sang happy birthday to me or gave me some new eyeliner and hairspray. I seem awful to you, don’t I? At least I own it. At least I know who I am.

I did have love once you know. For Harry, my pet rabbit. I used to sit for hours in the backyard with Harry on my lap, stroking his white fur. But then one day Harry squeezed under the fence into the neighbour’s backyard. The neighbour had a dog. I cried for two days straight.

Vicki, Nicki and Ricki. Hilarious. Ricki is short for Erica by the way. Boring. Last night Mum asked us if we would continue the rhyming names tradition when we had kids. She was all teary, so Vicki told her yes, of course we would. I laughed in her face and said she’s got to be fucking kidding. Then I went out to meet up with Vicki’s boyfriend.

Vicki knew because her boyfriend confessed straight after. Here’s what Nicki doesn’t know though. I slept with her fiancé two months ago. I’m wondering if I’ll whisper the truth to her while she sleeps. Just for a laugh.

 

19th May 2007

This isn’t what I thought I’d be doing for my 21st birthday. But then I guess there were no plans to fuck up anyway. I have a great group of friends. And I know they would have wanted to organise something. Maybe a big party. Maybe dinner at the Italian place on Carrington Road. Maybe drinks at the pub. I’ve never really been sure why I have so many friends. Deep down, I’m not the nicest person. But I guess they don’t know that. They don’t know that I often fantasise about sleeping with their boyfriends or their dads. They don’t know how close I’ve come to acting on those fantasies.

Once, when I was fifteen, I almost screwed my best friend’s dad at a sleepover. I crept into his bedroom while he slept. I stood by the bed and I stared at him until he opened his eyes and stared back at me. He knew what I wanted. And he wanted it too. I started to touch myself in front of him and I saw him get hard under the sheets.

Something made me stop though. And I turned around and crept back down the hallway and climbed into my sleeping bag. Sometimes I feel like there is a different person inside of me. A different person that’s screaming to get out.

I’ve always hated hospitals. It’s a combination of things I suppose. It’s the smell. It’s the atmosphere. Bullshit. It’s none of that. It’s what happens to me when I go there. It’s where we’re going now.

Dad’s driving. Mum’s dead. Vicki is sitting in the front. She’s in charge of navigating. Today it’s a new hospital. A new treatment. A new hope. Isn’t that the name of some fucked up movie as part of some fucked up movie franchise? Star Wars? Or Twilight?

Next to me are Dad’s skis. They’ve been in the car now for three months. You would think he would want to get rid of them. Who would want that? A constant reminder every time you hop in the car to drive somewhere. A constant reminder of how your wife died.

They went to Canada in the summer. Our summer. Canada’s winter. Mum died in a skiing accident. How glamorous of her. The holiday was supposed to be a break. A break from me. Nicki called one of those commercial radio stations and fed them our sob story. My sister’s sick. My sister’s dying. My parents have been carting her to and from appointments for years and it’s only delaying the inevitable. We can’t afford a holiday because of the medical bills. The radio announcers gushed over my family. Nicki was a hero for calling. Mum and Dad were heroes because they’d taken care of me for so long.

Fuck off. What about me? I’m the one who’s sick. They’re my parents; they’re supposed to look after me, that’s their job. I would never say that out loud.

Anyway, it backfired. Mum skied into a tree. Came home in a box. The radio station distanced themselves from us after that. Took down the smiling photographs of Mum and Dad standing at the airport with their skis. Big cheesy smiles. Holding a sign that said ‘Thank you Chance FM!’

Dad keeps meaning to take the skis back into the house.

He never will.

Vicki is ignoring me. I told her I didn’t like her boyfriend last night. I did it because I can’t handle having him round the house anymore. I did it because if he keeps coming round I’ll end up kissing him and I know he’ll kiss me back.

Sometimes I hate myself. I hate the person I think I could be. I hate the person I think I would be, if it weren’t for this disease. This disease that holds me back.

Nicki’s going to meet us at the hospital. She’s bringing cake. I know that I should appreciate that – but do you know what I’m thinking about? I’m thinking about the fact that I’m spending my birthday in hospital. And it’s an important one isn’t it? My 21st – that’s fucking special. I’m dying but all I care about is that they’ll be singing happy birthday to me in a hospital room. That I’ll unwrap my new eyeliner and hairspray while I’m sitting cross-legged on a trundle bed.

Do you want to know what I want to be when I grow up? I want to be a vet. I like the idea of wearing the white coat. Of looking into an animal’s eyes as I care for it. I don’t care that it means sticking my fingers up an animal’s bum or getting scratched to pieces by a cat. But I guess I’m never going to grow up, am I?

Ricki is short for Frederique by the way. Fancy. Last night Nicki called to ask if we would continue the rhyming names tradition when we had kids. A way to honour Mum. Vicki told her yes, of course we would. I was shitty though. It’s not like I’ll ever get the chance to have children, will I?

Here’s what Nicki doesn’t know though. I’ve been toying with the idea of sleeping with her boyfriend for two months now. I’m wondering if I’ll tell her this while the medication is being pumped into my veins. Just for a laugh. Just because I can. Just because I need to do something.

 

19th May 2007

This isn’t what I thought I’d be doing for my 21st birthday. But then I guess there were no plans to fuck up anyway. My friends are all dead. No. Not really. They may as well be though – they all hate me. But that’s okay, I’ll wear that, I know that’s my deal. I slept with half the people in our group. Broke up couples. Made girls cry. Made things messy.

Still though, a visit to the hospital. Fuck. I’ve never liked hospitals. It’s a combination of things I suppose. It’s the smell. It makes bile creep up my throat. It’s the atmosphere – the soft colours, the sticky floor. It’s the fact that we’ve been in and out of hospitals since I was little. Since Mum was diagnosed.

Dad’s driving. Mum’s sleeping. At least I think she’s asleep. Could be she’s dead and no one’s noticed. I lean forward and pinch her arm, just to check. Her shoulders jump and Vicki slaps me. ‘What? I was just checking.’ Vicki is sitting next to me – right next to me, because the other seat is taken up by Dad’s skis. They’ve been in the car now for three years. He put them in there when they were supposed to take that trip to Canada. Mum was supposedly ‘in remission.’ The tickets were booked. The bags were packed. And then the doctor called.

Dad refuses to take the skis back into the house. He says they’ll still take that trip one day. One day when mum is better again.

They never will.

If Vicki knew what I’d done last night with her boyfriend, she would have slapped me harder. I’ll probably tell her later. That I sucked him off. Why would I tell her? Because that’s what I do. I always tell. I always kiss and tell. Or suck and tell.

I do it because I hate myself. I’ve always hated myself. Always. But I’ve never been able to change. And I doubt I ever will.

We’re taking Mum into the hospital for a long-term stay. Nicki switched wards so that she can be one of the nurses looking after Mum. Such a sweet, perfect daughter. It’s not likely that Mum will ever come back home. And I know that I should care – but do you know what I’m thinking about? I’m thinking about the fact that today is my birthday. And it’s an important one isn’t it? My 21st – that’s fucking special. My Mum is dying but all I care about is the fact that when they sang happy birthday to me this morning, Mum was so out of breath that she had to sit down half way through and then Vicki’s voice faltered and Dad rushed to Mum’s side. Not very upbeat. At least Vicki gave me some new eyeliner and hairspray.

Lately I’ve been thinking about something. It’s this memory I have, from when I was really little. I think I’d forgotten about it, and to be honest I don’t know what it is that’s brought it back… but I guess something triggered it and now I keep getting flashes. Flashes of my uncle and me, in a bedroom together. Pictures of him… doing things. But there’s another memory there too. It’s the memory of me telling Mum about it. Of her not believing me. Of her face reflected in the mirror behind me, her mouth twisted as she chewed on her bottom lip, her hands moving quickly as she wound the scrunchie around my pony-tail.

My mother never did trust me.

Ricki is short for America by the way. Ridiculous. Last night Mum asked us if we would continue the rhyming names tradition when we had kids. She was all gaunt and weepy, so Vicki told her yes, of course we would. I laughed in her face and said she’s got to be fucking kidding. It’s not that I don’t love her. It’s just who I am. I’m rotten inside.

And then I went out to meet up with Vicki’s boyfriend.

Here’s what Nicki doesn’t know though. I slept with her ex-boyfriend two months ago. She doesn’t know that’s why they split. I’m wondering if I’ll tell her the truth while she tucks Mum into her new bed. Just for a laugh.

Sometimes I think about what could have been. This disease is passed down through the women in our family. Passed on through our bloodlines. Grandma had it before Mum. And our Great-Grandmother before her. But it’s completely hit and miss. You never know who’s going to get it. It could have leap-frogged over Mum and hit one of us. It could have hit all three of us. Vicki, Nicki and Ricki, all lined up in hospital beds. Three headstones in a row. And if any of us have daughters, they’d be at risk too. Or we could have all been okay. Mum, me, my sisters. We could have all been fine. Healthy.

And I wonder if things had been different, would it have changed me?

 

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