Category Archives: Fiction

Riot, Adele Sandercock

Sarah had spent much of the previous week in bed, rising only at night to make a piece of toast and smoke a cigarette. Cradling her phone in her hand, she would scroll through the news, bouncing between any online media outlets she could find. She had called in sick for each of the three days she had been rostered on.

On the days she woke to silence, she would move to the large computer in the study.  Her body was weak with an intolerable sadness she couldn’t articulate. The larger screen aided in her rumination and she spent hours searching and reading. The photographs on a larger screen hit her harder. Faces reached out to her, bloody and weeping with a sorrow that grabbed at her chest, pulling her down lower and lower. Was this what the crushing of a soul felt like? If she, on the other side of the world, in no way affected aside from measly words on a page and photographs on a screen, if she could feel this dread, this pain, then what about them? What must they feel? Her guilt compounded the feeling of losing little bits of herself, fragments of innocence were being chipped away.

Still, she looked on. Images of masked men stalking cobblestoned streets, carrying knives bigger than she knew possible. Wailing mothers and press conference promises.  Later, in the comfort of her darkened room, she wondered what they did with the bloodstains. Perhaps a lone council worker with a wet broom and bucket slowly scraped it away, his hope and faith swirling dejectedly alongside the diluting blood.

She had not dreamt last week.

Sarah ate her muesli, unblinking as images of steel barriers and riot squad police flickered across the television screen.

‘Members of The United Patriots Front are now arriving on Stafford Street with police already here to…’

A note sat on the kitchen bench:

Will be home late. Please do your washing and make something for dinner. Being productive will make you feel better. Mum xx

‘..composed of Neo-Nazis and fundamentalist Christians and led by convicted criminal Blair Cottrell.’

Her spoon hovered over the breakfast bowl as she watched steely faces pace across the screen. Black eyes matched leather jackets embroidered with words of menacing fear.

Sarah slipped on her thongs, wincing as the rubber grazed at the blister between her toes. She was sick of thinking. Her fingers tingled with the urge to check her phone. She stood quickly, before her thoughts tangled themselves. Pulling her bag over her shoulder, she walked out the front door.

Sarah’s usual seat on the bus was taken by two teenagers, not much younger than her but exuding a confidence she lusted for. She sat a few seats behind them and put her headphones on. Both girls had long hair that fell thick and heavy across the neon blue seats.

Sarah could hear their voices over her music. One was loud, the other had a pitch that would bring dogs to their knees.

‘Noooo, don’t draw the M like that, there needs to be space for three more words, remember!’

The girl shrieked to her friend.

Sarah pulled one headphone from her ear.

A piece of black cardboard stretched across the girls’ knees, a thick white pen hovered over an M. They continued to argue over letter placement and size – they too must be heading to the rally.

The bus ride to Stafford Street was usually short, but the road closures meant frustrated drivers were taking detours. With every swaying stop of the bus, Sarah felt familiar, dizzying nausea. She gripped onto the seat in front and looked out the window. Crowds of people stood ahead, holding angry placards. She had arrived. As she stepped off the bus, the cool fresh air instantly releasing the knot in her stomach.

The girls got off behind her, one holding their sign, the other carrying a shared backpack. Sarah turned, curiously squinting against the mid-morning sun. The girl holding the sign noticed Sarah’s interest and raised it.

‘NAZI SCUM NOT WELCOME HERE’

Her eyes widened.

‘It’s great isn’t it?’ the girl beamed.

‘Yeah, it’s.. it’s great – amazing. I wish I had one.’

The girls continued walking alongside her.

‘Don’t worry, you can come with us, we can take turns holding it. I’m Celeste.’

The girl with the backpack held her hand out and Sarah was again struck by their self-assurance, their ability to just be.

‘Thanks, I’m Sarah.’

‘Olivia,’ The girl with the sign strode on, smiling back.

‘Let’s go!’

More people had arrived since they had left the bus and a clear separation of groups had occurred. Some wore mostly black with the Australian flag either draped across shoulders or sitting high on carried poles. Others carried placards, some just pieces of paper with illegibly scribbled messages, others professionally printed with screaming red letters.

PROTECT OUR PEOPLE SECURE OUR BORDERS!

A quiet fell over the three girls as the crowd swept them in. Sarah looked around and was surprised by how far they’d moved.

It was like getting caught in a rip, she thought, the waves might be small, but they were strong.

The vigorous chatting between Olivia and Celeste was replaced by tentative whispers, then they stopped walking. They were on the wrong side, only by a few  metres, but they were now surrounded by large, bulky men, many of whose faces were covered by bandanas, only their eyes visible. And angry. They reminded Sarah of the men she had seen on the news carrying machetes. Dizzying, she grasped Olivia’s shoulder to steady herself, but quickly let go, embarrassed at the intimacy of the touch. Despite Olivia’s reassuring glance, Sarah was reminded of how long it had been since she’d let someone hug her, how foreign the pushing of bodies against her felt. Skin against skin.

After tentative whispers and silent instructional head-jerks, the three slowly pushed their way towards the line of police separating the two groups. The crowd was surging forward. The air felt heavy with anticipation, like watching the lighting of fireworks, the nervous trepidation before the sparks caught and flew into the air. Sarah held her breath against the acrid odour of bodies mingled with stale tobacco. Celeste led the way, the poster secured under her arm. They moved quickly, sidestepping and hopping until a man stepped straight into Sarah’s path, separating her from the girls. He was tall; she was at eye level with the FUCK ISLAM emblazoned across his thick, dirty jumper. He smirked, his teeth bleached white in perfect symmetry. Sweat beaded upon his lips, threatening to run into his open mouth.

‘Excuse me,’ Sarah said. She looked down and stepped to his left.

He moved to block her.

‘You’re not excused Lefty,’ he responded to a few pitiful cheers around him.

Sarah flexed her fingers, teeth clenched, a tingling in her stomach. She searched the crowd for the girls, but they were lost in a sea of national flags and the pulsing collective rage.

She looked up, steely eyed.

‘Aren’t you hot?’

His smile gave way to a frown.

‘What?’

‘I said aren’t you hot? In that jumper. Aren’t you hot? It’s 30 degrees.’

‘The fuck? No. I’m not hot.’

Sweat dripped from his eyebrows and cascaded down hollow cheekbones.

Sarah caught sight of Olivia a few metres away, her elbows locked behind her by a man twice her size. He laughed as she kicked and screamed, looking at Sarah with a determination, a conviction that refused to be squashed.

Sarah liked making herself small, especially when the weight of the days became too much. Knees pulled to chest and blankets up to earlobes, she was almost undetectable when her mum would come to check on her. A small mound on the bed like a pile of unfolded washing. An insignificant presence. Olivia’s eyes, fierce with purpose, reminded her that there was more than blackened bedroom windows and bad news.

Sarah raised her voice, ‘You’re really sweating. I think you need to take your jumper off. You might overheat.’

Her voice, although loud and demanding was patronisingly sweet, hiding a gurgling swell of emotions. She stared into his furious blue eyes. The man puffed out his chest, pushing it towards her. Unmoving, she laughed at him loudly, heartily but without the familiar rush of warmth. She continued to laugh despite the sneer and gritted teeth that hovered inches from her face.

With a sharp kick in the shin and a flurry of angry words, Celeste had pulled Olivia from the clutches of the still-laughing protesters and they pushed their way towards Sarah, quickly pulling at her arms to leave.

‘Stupid bitch,’ the man yelled.

‘Far out girls! What were you doing?’ Celeste yelled once they had escaped the throng of thick necked nationalists.

‘He was a piece of shit,’ Sarah replied.

Olivia was quiet.

‘Well, yeah of course but the police were so far away and wouldn’t have seen any of that,’ Celeste said. She and Olivia looked concerned.

‘I’m sorry,’ Sarah said, confused. Hadn’t they met only an hour before? It had been a long time since she’d seen her friends. There was only so many times she could lie or make excuses about going out before she stopped responding and they stopped asking.  She was happy with her room and the television. But she appreciated the company of these strangers today. They began moving towards the sea of colourful banners.

ONE RACE = HUMAN

A chant was beginning just as they connected with the counter protesters; a group that now seemed much larger than the other side.

‘DON’T GIVE IN TO RACIST FEAR, MUSLIMS ARE WELCOME HERE, RACIST, SEXIST, ANTI GAY, FACIST BIGOTS GO AWAY!’

The volume rose with each round and Celeste held her banner high.

Sarah yelled and sang until her voice cracked. Olivia slung her arm around Sarah’s shoulders as they swayed back and forth, the crowd moving as one.

Sarah’s feet hurt; new blisters had emerged between each toe. The United Patriots Front had shrunk considerably in size as the afternoon wore on. Their catalogue of ‘war cries’ was limited, and their voices barely heard over the much larger crowd of counter protesters. Many had slunk away as the sky turned an orange pink and the shadows grew longer. Her phone buzzed in her back pocket. Her mother: Are you ok? Please come home now. But I am glad you got out of the house and I am hoping it was productive.

Sarah smiled. She didn’t want to think about tomorrow. Deciding whether she would stay in bed for the day sapped more energy than she had left. Today, the holes inside her had shrunk somewhat, and that was enough for now.

Darkness began to settle upon the city street. The air lost its spark, and a quiet calm fell as the police dismantled the steel barriers.

The three girls, weary but content, slowly walked back to the bus stop.

Download PDF

Tagged , ,

The Wave that Breaks, Tanya Davies

The beach curves away from us, limber and inviting. But you don’t want to walk.

If I was alone now, I would wander and remember the times of beaches. The people. Their scents slotted into the salt, the crushed shells and tea trees.

‘Let’s make a pattern,’ you say. ‘Then we can look at it from up there.’

You try to engineer wavy lines, like sets of sound waves that surge and cross, but the sand spills, gets chopped up, and you give up. You ask what we can play.

The first time we came here you were five months old – you slept for a full half an hour and I felt a shard of myself, my old self, cut through. And I loved you; soft, pink, breathing so deeply. The rest of us, the three of us, tried to be a family, but the shoreline was garlanded with a slew of bluebottles, a string of whimsical blue, and your sister refused to swim and your dad sulked in his usual humid cloud of anger.

He proposed to me on a beach in Cornwall, which sounds just as I would like my life to sound, but it was only the location that was right. I had told him I didn’t love him, and he had cried, and held me more tightly, refused to let me go. So I said I would be proud to be his wife, which was true.

I grew up beside the beach – a world-away beach in a town of wind and rain, an ancient town that’s now spoiled and shamed by its crumbled stone and muddy tides. Cold walks on the promenade on Sundays. Water lashing the sea wall every November, throwing bricks into the road.

It was a beach for windy walks with dogs, tangled hair, gloves and woolly hats; a muddy ocean with a tide that receded right out to France, or hurled itself at the sea wall, spraying onto the road. In all those years we only sat on the sand twice, in swimsuits, sun on our pale skin. Some friends came to visit from London, and we ran down to the shoreline where my brother flung a scoop of wet sand at me, plastering my eyes shut with sodden grit, and I howled as my mum hauled me to the first aid tent, ashamed that he had embarrassed us once again.

When I was older I lay beneath the pier, on that hard sand and fucked a man I thought I loved, desperately digging for my identity and coming up empty.

On the honeymoon we went back to Cornwall. I had forgotten my shoes and had to course the cliff side in your dad’s too-large slippers and I forced myself to laugh as I slipped and slid. I thought of falling, the marital metaphor of not knowing where I would land, and the wind bit into my cheeks. But no man had taken me away before, even to a freezing windswept shoreline. I’d only been to Brighton with a boyfriend, which of course I had paid for. And only then a day trip on the train. Fish and chips, and making your sister into a sand mermaid, then back on the train into Hackney – to the kitchen sink drama and window envelopes – before bedtime.

Apparently, some people like the mountains or the rainforest or lakes. I suppose that must be fair, true, though I can’t think what pulls them there. Perhaps it’s the peaks that reach closer to the sky, or the canopy closing in like a blanket that protects them from people.

I could say I like to stand at the intersection of land and sea but I think I just like the noise, the hard vibrations, the infinite shine of mirrors on the water, or, like now, the noiseless crackle of raindrops pricking the blue skin.

We weave along beside the water. The weather is awful but I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s only September.

‘You know, Christian and I used to watch a TV show when we were really young. Grandma would always sleep in late on Saturdays, and we’d watch these weird Saturday morning programmes. There was one about beachcombers. They collected driftwood and shells and bones and things off the beach, and then I think they sold them or something. I can’t really remember.’

It was some American thing at the end of the seventies. A schmaltzy theme tune, probably. I dreamed of picture book idylls, strips of colour torn from paradise, bone-coloured beaches, peridot bays. I would be a beachcomber, collecting washed up treasures.

You are just months from puberty. You smile at me, still interested in my stories. ‘Did you want to be a beachcomber?’

‘I did.’

‘What did Dad want to be?’ Although you’ve asked before, of course.

‘He wanted to be a superhero. Fighting baddies.’ I can’t say that he wanted to be a bank robber and an assassin. This is why I tell you about me, because I have to lie about him. Sorts of lies, anyway.

‘We can walk a bit more if you want to,’ you say.

But I know you’re not impressed with the rhythmic and relentless pushing and breaking of the waves, the wait and watch for the swell, the small disappointment of the feint, the satisfaction of the grand roaring break, collapse.

You’re not impressed by the scale, the depth, the improbable way the land drops away and is filled with a bowl of salted water that urges, clamours, crammed with the odd and uncanny, in colours whose names cry out to be stated: cerulean, cyan, bioluminescent.

The rain is coming down harder, and the wind sloshes my breath about in my throat. Your dad would have loved it today, with the flat grey sky bottling above us and the rain crackling. He’d say it reminded him of Cornwall, when we ran into the sea and ran out frozen-numb and grinning.

Your friends are growing taller, their voices scraping and gravelling, and their skin becoming shiny.

‘No, I’m okay. I can walk anytime. What do you want to play?’ I get the soccer ball out and begin creating a set of rules, trying to just talk rather than think. If you hit my legs I have to run to the steps, if you hit my torso I have to run to the steps and up and down them twice, and if you hit me above the neck you get tickled, so you’d better run! This seems to please you, so we begin. I’ll add in new things as the fears, memories, regrets, fade. As I run, with the cold salt air in my throat. As I hit upon another thing that might make you laugh, keep you talking to me, keep you looking at me, before you grow another inch or two, shifting, moving, and I lose you too.

Download PDF

Tagged , , , ,

Along Enemy Lines, Jacqueline Greig

The sullen heat woke Emile, pressing against him as he became aware of the birds squawking outside.  He sat up, pulled the heavy window shades back, and the morning light streamed into his room. Walking through swirling motes of dust, he felt the tiles, cool and reassuring against his feet as he padded down the corridor. Then he remembered that yesterday, everything had changed.

At the end of the darkened hallway he thrust open the door and stepped into the humidity. The two tall palms still reached skywards from the front garden and Rama, the street-sweeper, was pushing his cart and brushing away leaves with his twig broom. His familiar smile crinkled his eyes as paused to wave at Emile.

Where were they? The soldiers Emile had expected to be marching down the street with guns and bayonets. Was too it early? Hadn’t they finished eating breakfast yet?

Down the road, a desultory, horse-drawn wagon progressed passed Toko Okumura, the shop where he and Wim had bought ice creams yesterday. Now, tacked to the wall was a poster, its corners lifting in the lazy breeze.

Were Mr and Mrs Okumura his enemies now?

He scampered across the road, its surface already hot enough to bite his feet, and stood before the poster.

CITIZENS OF BATAVIA

Strategic necessity has led to the surrender of Batavia. The Japanese occupation army will arrive shortly.

Please avoid walking and travelling about unnecessarily.  Abstain from any hostility, or demonstrations of anger, against the occupiers. Fighting the enemy is the role of the army not of civilians.

Maintain peace and order, and trust that the local authorities will do their utmost to protect your civilian rights.

Food and water are readily available at present.

God give you strength.

 

‘There’s a notice on Mr Okumura’s shop,’ Emile announced as he slid into his seat at the breakfast table. Through a mouthful of porridge, he continued, ‘It says we’re not to fight the Japanese.’

His mother looked up from the breakfast she and Alya were preparing.

‘You are not to walk down the street on your own!’ Mama admonished, her voice sterner than he’d ever heard before.

‘Where’s Wim?’ Emile demanded. There was no bowl at his older brother’s seat.

‘He’s gone to Tjimahi to find Papa. He’s bringing important things from us, clothes and letters. Remember, you wrote a letter too?’

‘Why? Why didn’t he take me with?’ Emile protested, blinking furious tears from his eyes.

Ag, Mieltje…you know it’s dangerous. I can’t risk you going,’ Mama replied.

‘Where’s Tjimahi?’

‘Very far Emile. Too far for you. And I need you here to help me. You and Cahya have to do all the men’s jobs now.’

He spooned brown sugar onto the porridge and watched a sweet, aromatic pool form before he stirred it into the depths. Many years later he would recall how quotidian each mouthful had been, but now he said nothing, ate slowly, and waited until Mama and Alya had left. Then, heart pounding, he grabbed a bamboo steamer from the cupboard and carefully placed two slices of bread with jam and several left-over dumplings in it. He checked the lid was tightly sealed.

He recalled his aunt, Tante Snet, had talked about a Japanese prisoner camp at the harbour, Tanjong Priok. Yes, he thought, they had taken Papa there!

‘What’ye doing?’ Cahya asked, materialising as quietly as a cat. He leaned against the doorframe, scratching his bare foot along his shin.

‘I’m going to Tanjong Priok to look for Tjimahi camp. I’m going to find Papa.’

Cahya’s eyes, shiny brown as lychee pips, widened. ‘How d’ye know the camp’s there?’

‘I just know.’

‘Tjimahi means ‘lots of water’ – maybe that’s because it’s at the harbour?’ said Cahya.

‘P’rhaps,’ Emile replied

‘Can I come too?’

‘No. They’ll notice if we both go.’

‘I could help.’

Emile considered this for a moment, wishing Cahya could come along, but he shook his head.

‘Stay here and don’t tell anyone where I’ve gone. Promise!’

‘Okay,’ Cahya said, slumping against the doorframe.

Emile called out to his mother, ‘Cahya and I are going out to the garden.’

‘Be sure to come back in if it gets too hot, and stay under the trees,’ she replied, her voice drifting from the sewing room where the women had already gathered for the day’s work.

Emile slipped out the gate feeling Cahya’s wistful gaze follow him as he started down the road. A few soldiers lounged in the shade of the roadside palms; he avoided their eyes and hurried across the bridge. The women below waved at him as they spread their washing on the river rocks and slapped it in rhythmic waves against the canal wall.  Wim had once told him if you followed the canal, Kali Sunter, it would take you to the harbour. He set off along the edge of the deep, green waters.

The heat rose around Emile, making his clothes cling to his body and his feet clumsy in their boots. Mama never let him walk barefoot like Cahya. He imagined himself a desert adventurer arriving at a river oasis. Such a hero would drink from the water and cool his tired body in its freshness. Emile perched at the edge of the swiftly flowing canal and took off his shoes. His feet swung into the current and the water swirled and eddied in turquoise rills around them. How deliciously cool it felt. He knotted his laces and slung the shoes around his neck before continuing on, now walking in the shade and avoiding the stones. Already he could not avoid the hunger gnawing at him, and the thoughts of the dumplings he carried.

‘No, they are for Papa!’ he said fiercely.

The path stretched, an endless white before him, and he counted his progress in groups of ten steps. The waters of the canal were becoming sluggish and brown, above which sunlight glanced from a viridescent haze of midges and mosquitos.

 What would Wim and Papa say when he arrived? Papa and Wim would be happy to see him.

In the distance a dirty, faded dog appeared, trotting towards him with her tail and rump swinging and her ears laid back.

It can smell dumplings, Emile thought.  I must not touch the dog. Mama said that dogs could be dol, mad, and they bit you for no reason. Then you become dol too.

Emile stared ahead, ignoring the dog. Nose to the ground, she followed him hopefully and soon he got used to her small, brown presence. Cahya had told him that dead people could come back to earth as animals. The dog must be a friend, come back to protect him. He clutched the thought, holding it tight.

Without warning, the dog whined and flattened her body, thin and quivering, on the path. Before them stretched a grey wall, high intimidating with its spiked wire slung along the top.

There it is, thought Emile, excitement filling him. The prison where I’ll find Papa. I’ve walked so long. It’s here!

Three soldiers leaned against a gate set in the concrete; their cigarettes glowing as they talked in low accents. The boy and his ragged dog were merely the landscape of this strange place where they found themselves.

Emile walked up to them while the dog slunk back in the shadows.

Sayonara,’ he said, using the word Mama had taught him. ‘Papa?’ he added, pointing at the walled enclosure.

The youngest of the soldiers waved him away, turning an impatient back on this intrusion and lighting another cigarette.

Perhaps they understand English, Emile thought.

‘Sayonara…. Daddy?’

The young soldier lunged at him and Emile saw his disdainful eyes before ducking the blow that whooshed past his ear. Another of the men bent over Emile and pointed to the camp. ‘Daddy?’ he asked, his tone rough and strange to Emile’s ears.

Emile nodded, his heart galloping in his chest.

The soldier extended his white-gloved hand and Emile felt his tight grip. He looked up at the man’s dark eyes, the stern hair combed from his forehead, and the blemished cheek that glared at Emile. Unsmiling and silent, the man led him along a scrub path which lay shadowed by the wall and up an embankment of loose stones and scree that slipped and crunched beneath their feet. The man bent down, and Emile smelled cigarettes and sweat. Firm hands gripped his body and he swung wildly through the air, his breath snatched from him.

Then he stood on a ledge overlooking the wall. Below stretched a parade ground where Dutch men, some in KNIL uniforms, marched under the shouting scrutiny of Japanese soldiers. He strained to identify his father. His fingers tightened, gripping the wall as he scanned the distant men. There was a man marching in an officer’s uniform. His back was straight and tall. His hair short and dark.

Papa?

No… no it wasn’t him. He wasn’t there. Emile recognised no one and, feeling his throat tighten, he blinked away the burning in his eyes.

The black-eyed man looked up at Emile in expectation.  The small boy shook his head and let the strong arms lift him down. They walked back along the path, separate and still.

The steamer! He had forgotten the steamer. Mama would be angry. Emile raced back up the path. The soldier, arms hanging limp, watched the child’s run and return. His mouth hinted a smile when Emile offered him a dumpling, but he shook his head and joined his companions at the gate.

The younger soldier picked up a stone and aimed it at the dog. He was rewarded with a dull thud as it hit her side and she ran off yelping.

Emile watched the dog disappear. She had not been his friend for long, but he was alone without her. He didn’t look back as he walked along the canal through the cicada-buzzing heat. The monotonous, insistent koo-eel of a cuckoo mocked him from trees that threw long shadows across the path.

Evening dark was flowing up from the river when he finally crossed the bridge and turned into his street. In the distance he saw Mama. He broke into a run.

 

My recollection may no longer be precise; it’s been so long since I was told this story. I believe my father’s eyes held mine and, given to rumination as he was, he concluded, ‘I have no idea why the soldier tried to help me that day. Perhaps because I was only six years old or maybe we stood together at the edge of a world in which neither of us knew the rules.’

 

Download PDF

Tagged , , ,

Crazy Norm, Teresa Peni

 

‘Can I have a word?’ Olive asked Norm.

‘Sure,’ he said, shuffling outside.

Norman stood six-foot tall between Olive and the café, blocking her from her own business. The sooner this was dealt with, the better, she thought.

‘Norman, you can’t come in and drink the water anymore.’ Olive smiled as she said this; she was too nice, even whilst booting him out.

‘You can’t talk to Sophie either, not unless you’re ordering a coffee–don’t tell her she’s beautiful, don’t bring her wine–’

‘Why not?’ he implored.

‘Because it’s not appropriate. You can order food or drinks, but stop pestering her.’

‘Can I wait for the bus, inside? You’ve let me do that…’

He was trying to salvage some of it–any of it–he didn’t have enough money to buy coffee every day, didn’t even like coffee… But he liked Sophie. Oh, she was a pretty one.

‘But Olive…’ The boss lady was shaking her head.

That’s it. Another place he wasn’t allowed to go. He looked down at his scuffed shoes and a good idea popped into his head: he would stand (and smoke) at the bus stop and watch Sophie from the street! He liked her little jeans that were shorts, she wore them with thick black stockings. A hole was beginning to wear out near her bottom, she needed to buy new ones. He wondered if that was something he could bring her.

‘And no smoking near the door either–you can’t smoke within four meters of the café.’

How big was four metres? Probably all the way to the bus stop.

Olive had reached her limit. He’d already been in twice today, standing at the water jugs pouring himself endless cups, staring at Soph, then sitting and shuffling the magazines. He was bothering the customers. Sweet Norm, but not right in the head. Yeah, she felt sorry for him, but he was stalking Soph, who was too young to handle it. This is my café, Olive thought, and I must deal with the weirdos.

Norm wandered off toward the chicken shop, where he liked to watch raunchy video clips; at least he would be out of her hair.

 

Norm was absent the following day. And the next. He must be catching the bus at a different stop, thought Olive, and she felt relieved; she had tons on her ‘to do’ list before her cruise holiday. This would be her first proper break in five years since she started the café. She finally trusted her staff to keep things rolling, it was time for a recharge. The night before her departure, Olive sweated in the dark and stared at the ceiling. But whatever worries that bothered her, she pushed them away with her plans: sleep-in every day, pretty cocktails, spa treatments, yoga at dawn looking out to sea… It will be alright, she whispered to her pillow.

 

On Monday morning Norman stood outside the café, smoking and admiring the pink clouds blanketing the horizon. He was serene and looked a little bit stylish. Wearing a wide-lapel, baggy brown suit and an old trilby felt hat, he’d traded his cruddy old Reeboks for leather brogues that were buffed to shine. Neither was he carrying the Coles bag that usually accompanied him everywhere. He sat on his bench, puffing away.

This was how Soph discovered him as she trotted up to the café door. She gave Norm a polite wave, but he barely noticed her; he was off with the pixies. Soph felt nervous. This was an important day, being trusted to manage the café. The pavement was riddled with puddles, the wind messed her hair, and her legs were cold. Autumn’s coming, she thought, fumbling with the keys; it was always a struggle to open the café door… that’s right, the square key first, then the oval one.

‘Can I help you, Dear?’ Norman was standing right behind her. Sophie flinched, the key found the sweet spot, the lock sprung open.

‘No thanks, Norm,’ she blurted without turning around, thrusting the door shut behind her. He stared through the glass. She couldn’t lock the door–that would be admitting he’d spooked her–but she avoided looking in his direction, even though he was just standing there. He could read the ‘closed’ sign. Sophie began the usual routine: warm up the coffee machine, slice the breakfast fruit. She put music on and checked her watch: Paz, their morning chef, would arrive in twenty minutes.

The rain began to pitter-patter. Norman sat back down on the bench, opening a collapsible umbrella he’d stowed in one of the generous pockets of the suit. In the other pocket was an old tin–carefully packed and extremely precious. Today was a special day and he must be bold, face his fears and reach his objective. He had been awake most of the night, plotting.

The café began to warm up. Sophie made herself a strong cappuccino and stirred the muffin mixture: apple, coconut and white choc chips. She washed the salad greens. A new album was playing because everyone had got bored of Jarryd James, now it was Lana del Rey. She lowered each chair down from the table tops as if they were dance partners, to Lana’s purry voice.

Olive’s cruise ship was probably departing the Sydney Heads this very moment. Shame about the weather, thought Soph, although it would no doubt be perfect in the Pacific Islands. She decided she would fish out her black jeans from the bottom drawer when she got home. Paz finally bowled up; his cheeky Peruvian grin beamed from under a beanie. He sniffed the air, perfumed with baked muffins, then darted back out of the kitchen, ‘I gotta get some tomatoes,’ and headed for the greengrocer down the road.

Laying out date and banana bread slices, her head buried deep in the cake cabinet, Soph realised a figure was standing on the other side of the glass–a man in a brown suit. Still holding the metal cake-slice, she stood up, her face blank as a round plate.

‘What would you like, Norman?’ It was in fact opening time.

Norman stood as erect as his old back could bear. ‘How are you Sophie?’

She scanned him for clues: hair swept back into a damp mat under a hat, saggy face scrapped of the usual grey stubble, cheeks faintly pock-marked with acne scars probably from decades ago. His eyes were shimmering in their watery sockets, dull yet sane green points trained on her like gunsights. He was waiting for her answer, not shuffling his bag or feet for once.

‘I’m well, thank you Norm,’ she replied, and suddenly, Soph meant it. She was twenty-two and in charge of the most popular café in the street, and not afraid of Crazy Norm. Today he seemed less… imbecile… more a clean, quiet soul… albeit still bothering for her attention. She could handle him.

Paz bounced back into the cafe, ‘Forgot the money.’ His chirpiness vanished when he realised who was standing there. He moved slowly behind the cash register, flicking his eyes to Sophie in a bid to gauge her reaction.

‘Just grab that twenty bucks under the sugar,’ she said, pointing to a note she’d stashed earlier for such errands.

Paz considered staying, to make sure Norman was not going to get weird; but Sophie was acting confident, so he figured she had it covered. ‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ he declared, hoping Norman would get the hint and not hang around.

‘Okay–oh–get some salt, too, will ya?’ added Sophie.

She decided to show Norm who was boss now.

‘Norm, I’m very busy. Is there anything I can get you… otherwise I’m going to have to ask you to wait outside for your bus.’

Simples.

‘As a matter of fact, I would like to buy a cup of tea,’ he said, ‘Take-away.’

She wondered why he was ordering a drink–he never buys anything.

‘You realise it’s three-dollars-eighty?’

‘I realise that, my dear, and I have money.’ He plucked a fifty dollar note out of his pocket and lay it reverently on the counter. It looked as though it had been ironed.

She arched one eyebrow and delicately placed the cake-slice down, picking up the note, rang up the tea, then counted out his change. His large puffy palm caught the money as he watched her fingers with obvious fascination. Her body amazed him, the way young skin clung to muscle and bone underneath.

Soph turned to make tea, slightly worried he might start raving. He sometimes mumbled to himself or read the paper out loud.

He watched her flick her hair out the way. She was so much like an African mammal, like the zebras he’d once seen at Taronga Zoo–taut, exotic–he remembered how their buttocks quivered when flies bothered them, they’d flick their bushy black tails. His father had taken him to Taronga for his fourteenth birthday.

‘My father died last week,’ he said.

‘Oh, oh that’s very sad. I’m sorry to hear it.’ She stopped dipping the teabag for a second.

‘Ah, he had a good innings. He was in the Navy, you know. I’m taking him to Coogee–some of his ashes, that is.’

Norm patted his father’s cigar tin in the pocket.

‘I think he’d be happier there, back with the ocean.’

It would be just Norman to do the scattering; he didn’t know how to contact Dad’s old Navy mates. ‘I have to catch the 373 from Circular Quay,’ he thought aloud.

‘Do you want some sugar in your tea, Norm?’

‘I’m not taking my medication anymore,’ she thought she heard him say. Today was so weird.

‘Oh,’ was all she replied, heaping two sugars in. Then noticing the time: the 7:10am to the city will be along any minute. She placed the tea in front of him.

‘There you go, Norm, and a complimentary muffin to help you on your mission.’ Oops, now she was encouraging him. ‘You’d better get moving if you want to catch the bus.’

‘Thank you love, you’re very kind,’ he said, squishing the warm paper bag into his pocket alongside the tin.

Norman picked up his tea carefully, like a large child. He thanked Sophie once more and left, passing Paz, who had returned with the tomatoes and salt. He stepped back into the damp street, glittering now from the morning sun that had worked its way free of the heavy cloud and was giving the early commuters something to be cheerful about.

 

Download PDF

Tagged ,

The Errand, Ramona Kennedy

 

‘Have you been speaking to the police?’

Amina stood in the foyer of the station house, holding the phone a few centimetres from her ear to compensate for the shouting. Around her, uniformed police officers came and went. Others sat across from ashamed individuals, filling out wide charge sheets in carbon papered triplicate. To her left was a short concrete corridor of closed wooden doors, decorated with green paint and metal spittoons and signs that read ‘No Spitting on the Floors’. The whole place smelt of men’s cigarette smoke and inaction.

‘I haven’t had a chance to get to the police station yet.’ Who did this defence lawyer think he was, trying to extort money out of her?

Five minutes ago, Amina had stood feet apart, mouth open, shock melting into fiery anger as the female desk officer had explained Public Defence lawyers are salaried by the government and should not be charging individual fees. Amina had watched the policewoman remove a scrap of paper from under the counter, write ten numerals on it and slide it across the wooden bench. She had stepped back, taken out her mobile phone and called the number. She’d recognised the corrupt lawyer’s voice, the same one who’d contacted her at home, and greeted him with a calm edge of politeness.

‘Tell me again, how much the fee is for the defence?’ The scoundrel had been all business.

‘Two thousand, and you need to get the money to me by Friday.’

‘I can do that.’

Amina took a slow breath and allowed the evil fellow an extra second to believe the money was coming. ‘Only, I have just heard the legal services your department provides are free, and in fact I should not have to pay you even one cent for what you are doing for my daughter. Is that correct?’

And then he was shouting. ‘Have you been speaking to the police? Do not tell them I have asked you for any money or there will be trouble.’

‘I haven’t said anything to anyone.’

The police officer’s eyes were averted down. She was dipping a long calligraphy brush into a glass gluepot, pasting forms together. Her lips were pursed lightly against a smile.

Time to seal the deal. ‘So then, you won’t be requiring any extra payment from me?’

‘No.’

The lawyer ended the call.

Amina put her phone back in her handbag. Right. That was the legal fee attended to. She approached the desk officer again, holding the package of bread, dried fruit, nuts and clothing.

‘I would like to see my daughter, Rahima Ibrahim.’

‘Oh yes.’ The officer looked through a thick logbook. ‘I’m sorry but she has been moved from this station to the detention facility outside of town.’

‘How do I get there?’

‘Prisoners are not allowed visitors until they are convicted.’

‘But I am her mother.’

‘Not even family.’

‘I was told to travel here so I could see my daughter.’ She had never travelled in an airplane before. She needed the cabin attendant to help her with her seatbelt.

‘If she were still here, I would allow you to see her. But un-convicted criminals are not allowed visitors at the main complex.’

One thing on the phone and another when you turn up in person. Who was to know these sorts of rules existed? Amina indicated the goods at her feet. ‘Can I get this package to her?’

The desk officer leaned over the bench. ‘Let me check the contents.’

Amina followed her to the wooden desks at the back of the room and lifted the bundle onto the desktop. ‘It’s just food and clothes.’

‘I need to check them.’ The police officer untied the string and unwrapped the brown paper. She removed each piece of clothing and bag of food and arranged them on the desktop. Then she reordered everything into two piles. The clothes were placed in a neat pile back on the brown wrapping paper.  The fruit, nuts and bread were left where they were on the table.

‘I can make sure the clothes get to her, but she is not allowed to receive food.’

‘I was told she wasn’t eating the prison food.’

‘Prisoners on remand are not permitted to receive food parcels.’

No food. No calls. No visits. No mothers. Amina’s eyes were hot. This middle-aged police officer would also be a mother to someone, of course she would be. Amina collected up the unwanted flatbread, nuts and dried fruit into a pile. The godless and the believer share the same struggle in this world, but the believer knows greater suffering. They are left to wonder why.

The policewoman wrapped and retied the smaller package of clothes using the same paper and string and set it aside on a metal filing cabinet. She looked directly at Amina.

‘Would you like to know the circumstances of your daughter’s arrest?’

‘Tell me whatever you can.’ The only information so far was from that crooked defence lawyer.

‘Wait a minute.’

Amina watched her disappear down the green corridor and into one of the smoky rooms, heels clicking on the bare floor. She can’t be planning to catch any criminals in those shoes. Amina looked down at her own feet. She was also wearing good shoes, the sort saved for an afternoon at the department store, fondling unaffordable clothes and bags. Shoes meant for temporary incursions into the better worlds of other people.

The police officer clicked her way back out of the corridor, carrying a brown envelope. At the desk she laid it down and unwound the string from the sealing eyelet. Opening the flap, she pushed her fingers into the envelope and brought out a pile of thin papers covered in blue handwritten characters and inked red with official stampings.

While she read silently through the docket, Amina strained to pick out a few things from the upside-down scratchings.

…7.35am train…

…520g…

…female restaurant owner…

The officer looked up. Amina snapped back in her chair. Was she too obvious in leaning forward? God. Now was the time to look as complacent as possible. This could be her only chance to hear the charges.

‘Rahima was stopped when alighting at the city station. Her bag was searched and almost 300g of heroin was found. Although Rahima had stated it was not her bag, she admitted she had been given money by the owner of the restaurant to travel with the bag. When officers went to find the restaurant owner, she had left town.’

The restaurant owner? Wearing her headscarf like a true Muslim and on the side running a heroin business! No doubt the whole time saying God this and God that. God on her tongue but not in her heart. Amina wanted to pull off the restaurant owner’s headscarf and wave it in the air yelling, ‘Shame!’ She had no doubt disappeared back into her home village by now. The local police officers would either be her old schoolmates, or her brother – one of the village elders.

The desk officer packed the case details back into the envelope and rewound the sealing string. Amina was shaking, watching her work. When she looked up the policewoman was taking in the details of her appearance. Headscarf, gold earrings, flowered shirt, diamante brooch in the shape of a pomegranate flower, three-quarter length skirt, stockings and department store shoes.

‘You’ve never been to this city before, have you?’

‘No.’

‘From here, go straight back to your hotel room. Tonight, don’t go walking anywhere. Keep inside the hotel and eat at the hotel restaurant. In the morning, get a taxi from the hotel straight to the train station. It is not safe in this city for people like you. You need to get back home as soon as possible.’

 

Download PDF

 

Tagged , , , , ,

Ketchup, Evangeline Hester

‘Did you know that a fifth of the world’s ketchup comes from Xinjiang?’

‘Mmph?’ Jonah’s mouth was full of hamburger.

‘Ketchup,’ Abigail repeated, ‘a fifth of it is from Xinjiang.’

Jonah swallowed. ‘Huh.’ He took another bite.

When she was thirteen, in the second term of her new school in Australia, Abigail wrote a play for Musical Theatre: Romeo & Juliet style. Lu Shan, a Han Chinese boy, (sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif), had fallen in love with Parida, a Uighur girl (my child, my child, my life, my life), but the riots of 2009 had their fate star-crossed yellow on red. Huang Hua, in unrequited love, gave her own life to save Lu Shan, but at the cost of Parida’s life when the riot police turned tear gas on the crowd.

Abigail paused for breath. ‘In hindsight, it’s more like Les Miserables.’

The class blinked slowly up at her. Dust twisted through the double-glazed windows and drizzled across the carpet.

A Fascinating Story, I’d love to see it in action! 14/15.

Jonah had never come to any of Abigail’s plays, even later when they were dating. For her final HSC piece, he had promised he would be there, then didn’t have any money for the train ticket down from the Central Coast and was too embarrassed to ask his parents. He got to the auditorium in time to watch her performance through the glass window that steamed his breath.

Her monologue was about a woman who fell in love with a dying man.

‘So little has changed.’ Abigail squinted at the sky of Smiles.

Abigail’s Dad flapped his arm over the road, sweat beading on his nose. Tuk-tuks rattled past, irritated by the pair’s much-too-accurate bargaining. Tourists were better fair. Although they were tourists now too.

Do you remember do you remember do you remember

This—this was the Yok where they shopped for groceries, for caramelised rice drizzled with palm sugar. And this was the road that was gravelled all the way up to the hotel and dust thereafter that flicked mud onto your calves as you shuffled in flipflops back from the pool. And this was how it felt to ride on the back of a cherry red Songtheaw—she had never been allowed to ride them as a child.

And this, oh, this was the Mekong Centre.

She ripped through the air-conditioned office corridors, kicking up memories with the dust. Here’s the kitchenette stacked with tea-stained ceramic mugs from too many afternoons of fika. Here’s a haphazard stack of post-it notes full of names embellished with asterisks. Here’s the dozens of posters on the walls—trailing borders around Central Asia, North-East Asia, and A-Muslim-Majority-Country-in-South-East-Asia.

Ever made up a secret code when you were a child?

Up and down humid flights of stairs and around and behind and over railings and up trees, playing freeze-tag with her past.

Abigail and her father slip into the meeting room on the wicker veranda above the resort’s pool. This is the reason they are here. It is Spring Conference, like they used to go to every year, back when they were one family.

But now a large agency had pulled out of the Mekong organisation, sparking a chain of withdrawals, and now a gathering Abigail remembered being 300 was down to 30. The organisation was closing, and this was the very last Spring Conference. This was why alumni were invited. Abigail is the only alumni child present.

The Kashgar markets, like in most desert cities, were a maelstrom of colour and noise, scent and sound. Guttural cries advertised coarse bundles of work-shift coverings and silken chains bearing silver talismans. Anointing oils bearing various spicy scents mingled with the sharp odour of camel dung and dusty sweat. Melons brushed with gleaming oil leaned against plucked carrion feathers, strewn beneath hanging carcasses of scavenger birds and their prey, wrapped in dirty cloth to deter flies or perhaps to conceal the age of the flesh. Women wandering through the throng boasted baskets of desert flowers and cacti needles. One stall displayed dozens of jars each filled with a different hue and texture of sand, another claimed medicinal mushrooms of richer spirit than the standard fare. A man with no beard and a breathy accent advertised sea shells all the way from Calsorme—a popular stall for men attempting to impress their jaded wives, or perhaps longing for a world of translucent waves that moved with the moon rather than the wind.

So went the tales of Momas to their grandchildren, wrapped in grey school-coats with scarves of red tied round their throats.

 

‘And now, an old favourite of Spring Conference—Storytime with Jean!’

Smiles blossom across the room as a woman, creaking with age and good humour, settles in the wicker chair, calling the children to her.

‘Now, this is the story of a Little Princess who lived in Nepal.’ Her voice quivers with smoky enthusiasm. ‘Now, do you know why she was a princess?’

The children chortle in agreement.

‘That’s right, because her father was the King!’ Jean points to the sky with one crooked finger.

And everyone followed that finger as it drew our protagonist down steep crags, up swirled tree houses, and, most riveting, across a flooded glacial river during the monsoon.

‘So the wind was rearing up! Like a tiger! And the rain was coming down in sheets! Crash, crash! And then I said- I mean, the Little Princess said—’

The adults chuckle. This is how it was every year. Jean would always start off intending to be clandestine about the source of her story, but in all the excitement (I mean, it was a monsoon) she would forget herself, and then forget that she had forgotten herself, and then, just in time for the finale:

‘And that is the story of how I—oh!—I mean the Little Princess, got to church in time for m—her friend’s baptism.’

‘Hey Jean,’ Abigail asks her later.

‘What, chicken?’

‘Why don’t you tell any stories from Tibet?’

‘Oh, well, I’m still working with those people you know. Perhaps one day when I leave. Stories about Nepal are, you know safer because they were, oh, twenty, twenty-five years ago!’ Jean winks. ‘I’m showing my age!’

The Exodus was brief and sharp, the edge of a knife held to the throat of a culture.

The first people to leave were the foreigners. The ‘m’s and the ‘mk’s, diplomats and diplomat’s wives.

We didn’t understand that we were the lucky ones. That this was only the beginning of Tibet 2.0.

Don’t tell the Party I said that.

 

The compressed air leaking out of the plane in a soft whoosh felt familiar, but it was one of the last times Abigail would feel it in her childhood.

She doesn’t remember much about that time. Was Dad seated somewhere else on the same plane, or did he take the next flight? Did we check overweight luggage, like we always did? What was the name of the woman we gave our dog away to?

The tails of planes on the taxiway shimmer like corners of a flag.

On the last night of the last Spring Conference Abigail catches David Penrose following the timeline of photographs across the walls. His first OC was all the way back in 1983, grainy in cutting-edge colour technology, and with a full head of hair.

‘Will you stay in Xi’an indefinitely?’ she asks. Abigail thinks ‘until you die’ would be a bit brusque.

‘God, no. I don’t want to retire in China. I’ll go back to England.’

‘Do you have connections there?’

Daniel nods. ‘Some.’
Abigail’s mother got into creative writing a lot before Abigail. Not because she was interested first, but rather because she was older, she flounced straight into a masters while Abigail was ‘stuck in drama queen year 9’.

‘What is your book about, Mother?’

‘It’s about… the… It’s about the response of a extended family to childhood sexual abuse. It’s about XinJiang… It’s about Uighurs… It’s about Muslims…’ Mum turns to Ray for help, ‘What else is it about?’

‘It’s about the impact of the political power over a culture,’ he says.

‘It’s a survival story, as well, focusing on one matriarch and her family,’ she says.

‘It’s a story of loss.’

‘Loss and survival.’

‘Drugs. The impact of drugs.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Powerlessness, of being… help me…’

‘Well just, family life.’

‘Control.’

‘Isn’t it? Yeah.’

The room is decorated with framed tapestries from XinJiang that have survived half a dozen cities. Pride of place is a Dutar. Abigail knows one song on the Dutar, but she doesn’t know the words because she never learned Uighur.

Abigail’s house has three Uighur items. A skirt (too small), a tiny model dutar (from Spring Conference in Chiang Mai), and the family carpet (won in an argument). Only the skirt was ever truly hers. It hasn’t fit for years.

I—I mean Abigail—used to write poems on stormy nights two years after her father remarried, three years after her mother remarried, five years after leaving Thailand and seven years after leaving China.

She had never spent more than two years in XinJiang; she had never spent more than two years anywhere. But everyone needed a home, right? A place to long for, to miss, to call heritage to, to boast about, my child, my child, my life my life—she whispered a Uighur proverb, but she did not remember it from XinJiang, no, she had asked her mother for a Uighur proverb to spice up her story, to give it authentic flavour.

Oh, don’t tell her I told you.

‘Did you know that a fifth of the world’s ketchup comes from Xinjiang?’

‘Mmph?’ Jonah’s mouth was full of hamburger.

‘Ketchup,’ Abigail repeated, ‘a fifth of it is from Xinjiang.’

The man I am calling Jonah swallowed.

‘Huh.’ He took another bite.

‘It’s one of the reasons that China values XinJiang so much. It’s full of coal and oil and natural gas, and a fifth of the world’s ketchup.’

He nods considerately. He’s always open to learning more about my home culture.

I don’t tell him that I learned that fact this morning from a Facebook video.

 

Download PDF

Tagged , , , ,

Mornings with Doves, Judith Mendoza-White

When José María opened his eyes to the new morning, he knew this would not be an ordinary day. Apprehension tightened his eyelids as he snoozed the alarm, struggling to face the dim light of the early autumn sun and dismiss the irrational foreboding that kept him curled up under the blankets.

The ominous feeling tightened the pit of his stomach into a knot while he stood in the shower, lathering his body with soap and water to wash away the vague sensation of discomfort and fear. The dream came back to him with the sudden sting of the after-shave lotion: a dark, uncanny dream, as real as the water running down the sink. A dream in which he, José María, knew he was dead.

During breakfast, he tuned in to loud music on the radio and chatted to his wife and daughter, who were getting ready for work and school and only contributed absent-minded answers to his incessant, unusual small talk.  Eventually, alone with his thoughts in the overcrowded suburban train, he was forced to face the idea. He knew this was the last day of his life. The feeling, which had started as a mere aftertaste of last night’s dream, had now become an absolute certainty.

He walked the first of the three blocks that separated the underground stop from the insurance company where he worked, but stopped before reaching the busy intersection ahead. It was stupid to continue plodding along the noisy downtown street as if this was yet another ordinary weekday, avoiding the hurried passers-by who elbowed their way past him, the offending odour from last night’s garbage bins climbing to his nostrils. Wasting the last day of his life in front of the paper-crowded desk, just like every weekday of the last twenty-five years, would be even more absurd.

Retracing his steps, he turned the corner and walked to the nearby park where he often ate his lunch on warm, sunny days like this.  In what felt like a split second he found himself sitting on a sunny park bench, a large pot of chocolate ice-cream on his lap. Half a dozen doves cooed and picked at the gravel around him. José María stared at the half-eaten ice-cream. He did not remember buying it; it might as well have materialised in his hands by magic. The eerie sensation increased. How did he even get to this park? It did not look at all like the one where he usually sat during lunch breaks away from the office.

This dream has been playing up with my head, he concluded. With a sigh of exasperation, he pushed the ice-cream carton away.

He felt unusually tired. Leaning back on the bench, he thought of his wife and daughter. If this was indeed the last day of his life, shouldn’t he be spending these last hours in their company? Cecilia was doing a Math test that morning; she had mentioned it during breakfast. He imagined her eagerly jotting down figures at the school desk, the unbecoming uniform creased, her thick brown hair tied back in the usual careless ponytail. He smiled at the vision, which appeared so vivid that his fingers moved as if he could reach his daughter’s worried frown. At this point his daughter looked up and smiled at him, as if she could feel his eyes on her.

The image soon faded, and José María stretched his legs under the warm autumn sun that bathed the park, empty and still at that early morning hour. With a start he realised someone else was sitting at the opposite side of the bench.

‘Rodríguez?’ José María gasped, ‘Rodríguez, from General Villegas High School?’

The newly arrived nodded and smiled. The world was indeed a small place; what with running into an old high school friend in a small hidden park, lost in the hustle of downtown Buenos Aires. He had not seen his classmate, or thought of him, since the day his family moved away from the small country town almost thirty years ago. As he went to say this out loud, Rodríguez opened his briefcase and took out a crumpled paper; a page torn out of a school copybook. It was an unusual briefcase; it reminded José María of the school bags they both used to take to class. Rodriguez pointed at the figures on the paper.

‘The Math exam, do you remember? We both failed, like your daughter Cecilia’.

Irritated, José María thought that Rodríguez could not possibly know his daughter’s name, even less the result of the test she’d be doing this very minute. He went to say this, but instead heard himself telling his old school friend about last night’s dream.

Rodriguez listened in silence and then replied in a calm, matter-of-fact tone: ‘We are brought up in the fear of death; that’s the problem. Yet it is nothing but another form of life. A crossing… A transition, that’s all.’

A white dove fluttered its wings over José María’s shoulders, distracting him from the conversation. He threw his arms up in the air to scare it away. When he turned to his school friend, he found that he had left without a word of goodbye.

Shaking his head at Rodriguez’s lack of manners, José María thought that since the bench was now empty, he might as well lie down for a while and enjoy the sun before starting the walk home; perhaps even put a hint of tan on his white-collar, middle-aged skin.

When he tried to lie down though, he found the park bench was no longer a bench but a narrow, uncomfortable bed. No, it was a stretcher, a hospital stretcher; and the doves around him had turned into men and women dressed in white who leaned over him, placed weird gadgets on his mouth and his bare chest.  His wife’s teary face flashed amongst the others; José María tried to call her name, but the words refused to leave his dry, sandy throat. Cecilia stormed in, still wearing the ugly dark-green uniform. She pushed her way through the figures clad in white that surrounded him, trying to reach him, her voice breaking into sobs.

‘Dad! Daddy!’

Her mother put her arms around Cecilia, pulled her away from the scene. A sudden pain, sharp as the tip of a knife, stabbed José María’s chest as the voices and the faces around him faded in the distance.

He opened his eyes to Rodríguez’s soothing voice in his ears.

‘Nothing wrong with a good cry, my friend.’ Rodríguez’s hands were on his shoulders; an incorporeal, yet comforting gesture. ‘I used to cry my eyes out as well; at the beginning, that is. You miss them all so much, it’s only natural to see them in your dreams. You’ll get used to it soon enough, though. Sooner or later they’ll all cross the border and end up here, anyway. It’s only a matter of time. And time on this side, let me tell you, goes by real fast…’

Wiping away his tears, José María looked into Rodríguez’s eyes. They were the same eyes that used to smile at him in class, decades ago. It was then he realised he was staring at Rodríguez’s teenage face; smooth, unlined, unchanged.

Leaning back on the park bench, José María closed his eyes and allowed the white doves and the new knowledge to descend upon him. In this way he learned, while his eyes dried out and the last tears disappeared down his throat, that the dead dream too.

Download PDF

 

Tagged , , , ,

Fenced In, Mykayla Castle

The phone call shouldn’t be such a damn struggle.

Your mobile sits on table, placid as anything, open to your contacts and waiting for a single tap. Earlier this morning, you climbed onto your kitchen counter to reach a glass on the top shelf. Right now, you aren’t sure you can bring yourself to raise an arm in your phone’s direction.

The bright screen fades a little, greyed out but not yet off.

You stand up and tread the familiar path from the dining room to the kitchen. Three steps forward and two steps left; you open up the fridge and stare at the half-eaten yoghurt and the glad-wrapped ham, the sticky brown layer on the second shelf.

What’s the worst that could happen? You are, at heart, a catastrophiser. Your mother says sometimes you need to get over yourself, and she’s not exactly wrong. This is one of those times.

You close the fridge.

She could be busy, you think, or her business could have shut down, or maybe she has one of those accents you really, really can’t understand and feel so incredibly terrible about—

Somewhere in the past, that kid you used to be is laughing, jumping out from behind doors and giving your poor mother a heart attack. That kid probably wouldn’t recognise the you behind your eyes. The tenth circle of hell is standing in your Mum’s kitchen, arguing with your own self-confidence.

Or, what’s left of the kid says, she will answer and ask you if you are ringing about a haircut, and what kind you want, and when you’re available, and if this time would work for you, to which you would say ‘Yes, a trim, Fridays, and yes’.

You stare, this time at the condensation ring left on the kitchen bench by your morning juice. Alright, but it’s not that simple.

It is, in fact, that simple.

And yet your phone screen has locked, and the blank, blackness of it feels like the inside of your head. A little cracked, a little useless, a lot like Nietzsche’s void.

Just do it, you tell yourself, exasperated.

You go sit on the couch instead. Ten steps forward from the kitchen. your laptop is on the coffee table. You scoop it up, speed through the password and switch screens from the hairdresser’s Facebook to the one that is halfway through YouTube’s instant regret playlist.

The leaden feeling in the pit of your stomach stays, shifts to a crackle of kinetic energy. Though you hold yourself still and utterly immovable, it shivers through your fingers until you clench them closed.

You make it through about twenty weird memes before you crack and pause it.

‘I really do need a haircut,’ you say out loud, as if that will speak it into being. You haven’t had one in about six months, and your cute little bob has started to look more like a mullet. You had to swap hairdressers when you moved, but they didn’t do a great job.  You still took the loyalty card when they offered it, though.

Your sister recommended this salon to your mother, and then to you. It isn’t that you’re afraid of the actual cut itself; if it turned out a disaster, it’d grow. That’s what hair does. You aren’t scared of making a fool of yourself on the phone, you do that pretty frequently and at worst, you’d just never contact the hairdresser again.

Sometimes, you aren’t precisely sure what holds you back.  You can do each of these individual things: tap a number, make a phone call, schedule a meeting, maintain a polite conversation, tap the red ‘end call’ circle. You’re very certain on this point: you’ve done harder things in life. This should not be a stumbling block.

And yet. And yet.

You think of it like this: there is a fence in front of you — invisible, but you know it’s there, pickets and all. You know, because whenever you come near it there is the tectonic tremble and the fault lines in your veins. Others step around it, or over it, or through it, but you stop and stare, trying to convince yourself that with every step forward you won’t trip, your toe won’t stub on air. Sometimes you walk away from the fence, and when you return, it isn’t there. Often, you are stuck at the same patch of dirt that you were before. Immobile.

Mobile. The phone. It strikes you, as it does every time, that the fence might not actually exist. You picture, clear as the sky outside, that in one of the planes of the multiverse there is a version of you that has stood in the kitchen with a phone pressed to their ear and smiled as they asked for a trim.

You go and take a shower. De-greasing your hair is a chore, but it makes you feel more human. You’re reluctant to leave the water, but your skin gets itchy from the hot water and your fingers are hollowed with canyons, like a strange second fingerprint, from being under for too long. Your clothes stick slightly to your skin in the humid air.

The phone is still where you left it.

Sometimes, it is that easy. Outfit and artifice go hand in hand and pull you along. It looks, it speaks, it sounds like a person, it must be a person. This is the sort of fence you try to trick, wander up with a fake moustache and a silly hat and bluff through it, as if it’s more of a gate.

It is not that kind of fence today.

 

She picks you up on Friday, and she tells you all about her tattoo— pink and pretty, she says she’s been wanting it for years You believe her, but you remember when you were both in Year Nine at school and she wore flannel and had an attitude on the weekend. Did she want a pink tattoo then? It was a lot of petals for someone who liked the colour black.

Her car is too stuffy, the aircon on low (God knows neither of you can afford more petrol), the windows a little bit broken. It’s too hot outside. Off the water, the breeze is cooler. She picks up a pane of glass for her father,  you go get lunch, then she drops you home.

You had taken your phone with you of course, but somehow it feels like it never left that table.

 

Afternoon light leaks into your room one drop at a time, greenhouse warm and wholly taken advantage of by the cat. The rush of cars and the blaring horn of a train echo distantly. Swaddled in sunshine and cotton, on the verge of a nap, it’s pure chance that you hear anything at all, let alone the dull vibration of your phone.

 

hey

Squinting at the screen, brain soft and tired and floppy, you feel your heart scrunch up into a smile.

howdy aha

what’s up

not much tbh just like. Life

ahhhh yes like it has been for the last 20 years

why are you like this

anyway wanna come over? i have donuts

lol sure

 

It’s warm inside the blanket burrito, and you’re about as functional as melted cheese. It’s hard to overthink. You hesitate a bit, but you punch in the number you’d saved weeks ago. And, just like you knew they could, your thumbs move. A compromise.

Hey is this jacey? I was wondering if i could book in a trim, thanks!

Send.

You haul yourself out of bed. The cat complains. You shove errant feet into jeans and then socks and then shoes, check the water bowls and lock the door when you leave. You hook your phone to the car, choose the playlist you want, turn it up. You leave the street.

And the world doesn’t end.

 

Download PDF

Tagged , ,

The Rider, Sonia Lal

Anya could hear the stars ringing in her ears. It had started the day the sun had disappeared, and the world became cloaked by the night. In the shadow of darkness Anya was alone and she witnessed as the world crumbled around her. Fear of running out of electricity, food, and water had driven the populace to madness. In the dark people changed and evil found them. Chaos erupted. It oozed through the streets.

With the sun gone the temperature had dropped drastically and snow and rain became the common climate. Plants had begun to wither, and the tress began to sigh. The squirrels that used to scurry across Central Park, had all but disappeared. They, like the birds and the butterflies, were unable to survive the eternal winter that had descended upon the earth.

Anya had become a membership desk assistant at The Frick Museum shortly after moving to New York. However, three months after the sun had disappeared people had stopped coming to see the artworks in the museum. Slowly the other staff began to disappear as well. A month later Anya’s apartment had been broken into and she decided to move in to the museum.

Anya adjusted. She didn’t have another choice. She let herself succumb to the ravenous city and its darkness. No one had wanted her skills as an artist. Art itself ceased to have any meaning as everyone in the city became consumed with themselves. So, Anya’s fingers were used in other ways, for other forms of satisfaction. And the stars. They never let her forget it. They screamed in her ears from the moment she awoke, to the moment she slept. Constant reminders that everything had changed.

One night a disheveled man arrived at the doorstep. He was drunk and had mistaken her for a woman that he had paid to sleep with a few days before. Anya profusely explained to him that he had her mistaken for someone else and eventually he left her alone. Yet the encounter remained stuck in her mind. As Anya’s money dwindled and her food supply became minimal the wad of money the man had held in his hand flashed constantly before her eyes.

A few weeks later Anya was out at the store again and had caught a man staring at her. She left the store and could sense him behind her. Anya stopped abruptly and spun around to face him. She demanded to know what he wanted. The man was taken aback. His golden hair fell across his face like tendrils and his blue eyes were bloodshot. He wanted to spend the night with her. The same anger that had filled Anya during the encounter with the man that had followed her rifled through her body again. But when he pulled out a stack of notes the anger slowly seemed to diminish. All Anya saw was the notes. She wasn’t the kind of person that chased after money, but a little voice in the back of her mind reminded her that all she had left was a ten-dollar bill, and three cans of beans and a quarter of a loaf of bread. She had to survive. No matter how much she wanted things to be different, this was the world she lived in now, but it hadn’t always been this way.

*

The field of orange tulips swayed in the sultry Portland four o’clock sunlight as Anya and Noah lay watching the clouds play in the sky. Anya hadn’t known Noah for long, but in the four months since she had met him Anya knew nothing else.

‘It’s clearly a dragon,’ said Noah pointing to a large white cloud. ‘See its even breathing fire.’

Anya screwed up her nose the way she always did when she was concentrating and gazed at the clouds. The sunlight had sprouted freckles on her nose. Noah looked at her and smiled.

‘No,’ she asserted. ‘It’s a phoenix.’

Anya shifted closer to Noah until their knees kissed. ‘See its wings are flapping as it flies towards the sun. It’s so beautiful.’

‘You’re beautiful,’ Noah whispered into Anya’s ears, like it was a secret he had kept buried in his chest. A secret she now knew. Anya’s eyes blinked away from the clouds and fixated on Noah’s. She saw the sky reflected in them. The phoenix touched the sun, but Anya only saw Noah’s eyes. She could see herself in them.

‘When I look at you…I would rather look at you than all the clouds in the sky. I would rather look at you than the stars perched next to the crescent moon, and the fluorescent tides at twilight. I would rather look at you than the bees buzzing around the trees, or the fireflies sneaking around the tendrils. When I look at you, I catch myself forgetting to look away.’

*

Anya watched as the man stood in his doorway and fumbled around for the money, he owed her. Like confetti rain fell from the sky and drizzled as she waited. Anya didn’t mind, because the sound of the rain hitting the corrugated roof above her mildly drowned out the ringing in her ears. He finally retrieved the sum required and handed it to Anya. Without a word he closed the door, and Anya turned back towards home.

She was tired. Anya had had a few clients that day. Even though she wasn’t far from the gallery her legs were sore from being pressed up against her chest. The backs of her knees ached. Anya walked across the front lawn. Pools of mud and water had formed in the dead grass. It swam beneath her feet, it lapped at them. The door seemed so far away, but Anya trudged along. Her body sagged, and so did the sky.

Anya’s footsteps became smaller and her eyes began to groggily close shut. Suddenly, Anya felt something prod at her funny bone. The sensation jerked her awake. The brittle branch of the magnolia tree had stretched as far as it could until it touched the young woman. With all its strength the magnolia tree wrapped its branch around Anya like a blanket and lifted her until she was safely inside the gallery.

Once inside Anya collapsed onto her mattress in the West Gallery, like a puppet whose strings had been snipped. The emerald silk-velvet walls matched the carpet and wrapped around Anya, forming a comforting cocoon of green around her. The branch of the magnolia tree had slowly retreated into its trunk. The feat had left it breathless and the rain that currently fell upon it provided both the magnolia tree and Anya with relief. Anya’s sleepy mind could hear the rain become heavier outside. The thunder sang, and the lightening danced to the thunder’s boisterous voice. Through the cacophony the stars couldn’t yell at Anya as loudly. All she could hear were their distant shrieks. That would do, Anya thought as she lay her head down onto the pillow.

Anya had stopped counting the nights. The men didn’t mean anything to her, and she was nothing to them. Simply a bed to be slept in at night, when their wives weren’t watching, or their appetites had been filled from stealing and killing. In the darkness Anya had no one, except for her paintings. Yes, she thought as sleep was on the precipice of hoodwinking her, they are mine now, for no one else will be.

The hum of the paintings gently sang Anya to sleep. The red, greens, and blues twittered and whirled around her as she began to sleep, and The Polish Rider descended from its position above Anya’s mattress.

He removed his red fur lined kuczma from his head, letting his thick wavy brass hair flow as the mountain breathed behind him. His gaze remained dead ahead. His white tunic top had no crease despite the wind. The stallion his sat upon stood as still as statuary.

Anya sat staring. Her eyes were unable to remove themselves from him. Suddenly, his hand reached out. His palm was facing up and was pointed in her direction. Enthused by his arrival Anya’s fatigued body got up and closed the small distance between herself and the rider. She let her hand hover over his. His gaze never once broke, but his hand remained unmoving and outstretched. The life lines engraved on his palm were a deep burgundy. Anya stepped back. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t take his hand. She didn’t deserve to go with him. Suddenly, the rider’s arm snapped back into place and he spun his stallion around and galloped back through the frame.

Anya returned to the mattress and fell like crumpled autumn leaves into it. Even though Anya’s thoughts were consumed by the rider’s hands another thought entered her mind. When the rider had arrived, the ringing had stopped.

*

‘If you could go anywhere in the world where would you go?’

Anya leaned back into Noah’s chest. His arms wrapped around her.

‘The Frick.’

‘What is that?’

‘It’s an art gallery in New York.’

‘And why would you go there?’

Noah absentmindedly played with Anya’s hair. Like guitar strings he ran his fingers through her ebony strands.

‘To see The Polish Rider.’

‘You would travel all the way from Portland just to see a painting?’

‘Mmmhmm.’

‘What’s so special about this painting?’

‘It’s believed to be of a soldier that defended his country against invasion. He stands tall even though he faces an enormous faceless danger. He is completely unfazed by fear as he sits upon his white stallion. The mountains behind him are bare and barren, and there’s an esoteric building behind him. I’ve always thought it was a fortress. Somewhere he could go to escape whenever he did feel a little scared. There’s dark, deep water surrounding him, and off in the distance there is a fire that burns.’

‘It sounds like quite a painting.’

‘It is. Can I tell you something?’

Noah’s nose brushed up and down against Anya’s hair, so she knew he was nodding.

‘I’m so glad I haven’t been to The Frick yet.’

‘Why?’

Anya turned around so that her nose almost touched Noah’s.

‘Because it means we can go together for the first time. And then you’ll see that The Polish Rider wasn’t unknown at all. The faceless painting has just one face, and it’s yours.’

*

Bang.

Someone was knocking at the door.

Bang.

Anya walked to the front door of the gallery, uncertain of who was waiting on the other side.

Anya opened the heavily brandished oak door.

He stood in front of her. His once dark curly hair had been shaved so that there was only a thin layer   of hair left. His scalp was scratched and bruised. There were scars on his left cheek, as if someone had attempted to claw off his face. His thin frame was engulfed by the tattered and torn brown trench coat that trailed behind him on the floor—muddied at the hems. But his eyes. They were the same. An unchanged blue. The same blue that used to be the sky.

Anya was about to say his name when he reached into his trench coat pocket and pulled out a scrunched-up handful of bills. He shoved it towards her. He didn’t recognise her.

The rain had stopped.

Anya’s ears rang.

Anya took his outstretched hand and placed it back beside him, his fingers still gripping the money. She took his other arm and led him inside. She led him past the West Gallery and into an upstairs bedroom.

Noah looked at Anya. The fire in his eyes exploded into the room. His chest lit up in the places that her fingers touched. The colour reflected the orange of the fire. Noah began to kiss Anya and she let him. He began to unbutton her dress. She let him. The fire spread across the room. She could see the figures in the artworks running as the flames began to engulf the room.

The ringing in Anya’s ears transcended and deluged the room. It was as if a thousand alarms had gone off at once, and there was no switch she could flick to silence them. The ringing crescendoed. Anya barely registered Noah removing his shirt. All she could see was the stars that had descended upon the ceiling. The fire licking at them as they multiplied. Anya closed her eyes and lifted her hands to her ears. She pressed hard against them until it hurt.

Hours later Anya slipped out of the bed and sauntered down the staircase. She entered the West Gallery and stood in front of The Polish Rider. She thought of Noah’s limp body in the bed above her. She didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. Anya was buried under a weight she thought would keep her safe.

‘I’ve been sleeping for so long, but now I’m more awake than I have ever been before.’

Anya lifted her hand and reached for that of the rider’s. He leaned forward and took her hand, pulling her towards him.

There had always been a choice and she was choosing to leave. She wanted to be in the sunlight again, where she could be herself. Where her fingers could be used to paint again.

*

Anya was The Polish Rider. She unfroze from her stance upon the white stallion and removed her fur lined kuczma. Her long raven hair flowed as wildly as the wind that coursed through the dusty mountains behind her. The wind carried droplets of water from the lake through the air. Anya stuck her tongue out and let the droplets fall on her tongue. The subtle saltiness tanged on her tongue.

‘Go.’

The stallion galloped through the mountains towards the fortress on the hill. However, she didn’t stop to talk to the people gathered inside its sandstone walls. Instead

Anya urged the stallion to gallop even further, and even faster until the fortress and its people, until the mountains and the lake, and until the world cloaked in night, had transformed into little blots of paint in her periphery. Rembrandt’s brush strokes moved as Anya cantered towards the Village Among Trees.

White clouds danced above a brown cottage that was nestled in a clearing amongst green grass and variegated leaves of oak trees. The chirping of birds filled the air. Anya got down from the stallion and watched as it trotted away and started munching on some grass. Anya simply stood. She wiggled her toes, letting them feel the blades of grass rub in between them. The air she breathed in was fresh and smelt of roses. Anya looked up. The sun was blazing above her, and the cerulean sky gleamed down upon her. Anya smiled. The ringing in her ears had long gone.

 

Download the PDF of The Rider

Tagged ,

Drown Me Out, Salvatore Pedavoli

My thoughts, like smoke,

cloud my mind.

I cough and splutter.

It’s killing me.

 

I’m holding the rim of a steel sink, focusing on my reflection. My heart is almost in time with the muffled music outside. I can feel it pulsing in my throat.

Pull yourself together.

Someone staggers to the sink beside me and starts washing their hands. They spit up something and cough. I brace myself and leave the bathroom disgusted.

As soon as I’m back on the dance floor the beat reverberates through my entire body. My ears are screaming.

I work my way through the crowd of dancers. Escaping through a security door and down concrete stairs into a quieter room. The walls are thick, it’s as though the room upstairs doesn’t exist. The music is softer. The faint fog of the melody drifts through the space.

‘Welcome back,’ says Tony as I approach my small group, ‘I bought you another whisky.’

A glass of amber liquid sits on the table between him and his friend, Nicky. I thank him and take a sip.

‘You like Fireball, right?’ he asks.

I nod and sit down.

‘Sophie will be here soon,’ says Nicky.

Tony asks me how I’m feeling and I shrug my shoulders. I’m terrified, but he doesn’t need to know that.

‘All you need to know is that she went through a bad break up,’ Tony explains, ‘And she really loves fancy cheese – like you!’

Well, that’s wonderful. We can spend the night talking about cheese and her shitty ex boyfriend. Fantastic. I’m going to be the guy she vents to all night. I bet this is all just so Tony and Nicky could go out but not feel guilty about their sad friend. Figures.

You’re just some nice guy that girls talk to. Not a real man they want to hook up with.

My knee bounces out of time with the music and I glance around the room as though she’d suddenly appear. I don’t even know what she looks like, I don’t understand why I even bother.

Nicky jumps up suddenly, tapping furiously on her phone. She announces that Sophie has arrived and whisks away to go find her.

I take a deep breath. Tony asks me if I’m alright.

‘I really didn’t need to be set up,’ I say, ‘I can find a girl on my own.’ I smile. He’ll think it’s a joke if I smile.

Tony gives me one of his impish grins. ‘Yeah, I know – but you’ve been busy with work, and kinda stressed out lately. Plus, Sophie said she wanted to come out, and you guys’ll get along really well. Trust me, you’ll like her.’

That doesn’t mean she’ll like me.

 

A person worth being,

I wish I was worth knowing.

If only pretending to be someone else,

was as easy as wearing their clothes.

 

In the moments leading up to Nicky returning with Sophie, my stomach had rung out all its acids and my heart started violently beating within my throat. I’d rehearsed nine different ways of saying ‘hello’ without settling on which one I’d use.

In the end it didn’t matter because, when they arrived, I was looking down at my knees and didn’t notice them approach.

‘Sophie, this is Erik.’

I look up just as Sophie says hello. She’s a small girl with a veil of blond hair that falls gracefully over her shoulders. Her blue eyes rival the bright lights of the dance floor.

Oh, those eyes.

I manage to say hi.

Sophie looks at me with a soft expression, and for a few seconds we’re in silence. She fidgets with the straw in her drink. I should think of something to say, but in that moment all I can think about is how much she actually knows about me.

How blind is this date to her?

Erik,’ says Nicky, pulling me out of my head, ‘Sophie likes blue vein cheese – tell her she’s nuts.’

‘But… I like blue vein?’

She lets out an exasperated sigh and tells us we’re both crazy. She and Tony decide it’s time for a cigarette. They bolt for one of the smoker’s rooms without inviting us.

Sophie sinks down into one of the chairs.

‘She says the cheese thing every time I meet someone. You’re the second person who’s been on my side.’ She sips her drink and cringes.

‘Strong?’ I ask.

‘It’s basically vodka with a shot of orange juice.’ She inhales sharply, ‘Not the worst Vodka Sunrise I’ve had, though.’ She nods in my direction, ‘What’ve you got?’

‘Fireball Whisky.’

‘That’s the one with cinnamon, right?’

My heart begins to calm as we settle into a discussion about alcohol. Conversation with Sophie moves fluidly. I’m struck by how easy it is. She asks questions, and gives answers that I can respond to. She doesn’t seem nervous at all and that puts my mind at ease.

I look down into my near empty glass and wonder if it’s time for another drink. There’s a soft tingling in my head. It’s muffled the intrusive voice that’s been whispering unkind words. In its place is a tipsy friend who wants to have fun.

Sophie starts to ask about where I work when she’s interrupted by Nicky. She and Tony have returned, shrouded in the smell of cigarette smoke. They command us to scull our drinks because it’s time to dance.

We gaze at each other and, without thinking, I wink at Sophie. She smiles as I consume what’s left in my glass and follows suit. Her face scrunches and she exclaims that it was too much vodka.

Tony urges us onto our feet. Eventually we make our way down to the dance floor. Everyone seems to be packed in tightly; I wonder how we’re expected to dance. Tony takes hold of Nicky and together they disappear into the throng.

Sophie leans toward me, ’I need another drink.’

We fight our way to the group of people lining up at the bar. I buy rum and coke for both of us. We drink slowly, sticking to the edge of the room. I’m bracing myself for the inevitable discomfort of being within the dancing crowd.

‘I can’t dance,’ Sophie admits.

I look at her and shrug, ‘Same.’

Sophie downs her drink and waits for me to do the same. We ditch our glasses. I’m surprised when she takes my hand and pulls me. She leads me through the fray to a less dense corner of the room. We stand at arms length and move awkwardly to the music.

I want her closer to me.

She isn’t moving her hands much. I take hold of them and wave them around. This makes her laugh so I pull her towards me. She doesn’t object. Her hands crawl around my shoulders. I hold onto her hips. We’re moving with the music, bodies pressed against each other.

I become aware of every limb she’d be able to feel and a voice inside my head whispers:

Can she tell?

The voice dissipates when she looks at me. Those bright blue eyes take hold. We’re so close I can feel the warmth of her breath. I could kiss her. Should I kiss her? Would she let me?

 

I dreamt about a beautiful girl

with eyes as hard as stone.

She told me I wasn’t enough.

What woman could love half a man?

 

It’s almost three in the morning. Sophie and I are sitting on the balcony of a hotel room playing Snap as quietly as possible. Tony and Nicky have taken up the bed. We were letting fate decide who gets the couch.

Sophie is very competitive.

‘I don’t think it matters,’ she says, her eyes are trained on the pile between us, ‘I probably won’t sleep anyway.’

‘Why not?’ I move a card towards the pile, her hand twitches and I laugh.

She doesn’t answer until I place the card down. She swats my hand. It wasn’t a matching pair.

‘I usually sleep with a noise machine, like one of those white noise things.’

I watch her hand pull a card from her deck.

‘What’s that do?’

‘It’s supposed to, like, block out negative sounds…’ she puts the card down and smacks it almost instantly, ‘Haha! Suck it!’

‘You cheated, your hand was hovering.’

Sophie laughs and scoops the pile towards her.

‘So, why do you need to block out negative sounds?’ I ask.

‘Ah, it’s like…just something I read ages ago. So, I tried it and now I don’t sleep easily without it. But I have, like, mild anxiety and it’s been helping with that.’

A gentle curtain of rain begins to fall. I stand and walk to the edge of the balcony, extending my hand to catch a few drops. There’s a lingering haze in my mind. The intrusive voice is quietly murmuring in the background. It asks me to find out how much she knows.

If she’s gonna reject you, you may as well find out now.

You done with Snap?’ Sophie asks, ‘Do I get the couch? Did I win?’

I turn around and lean on the balcony, ‘Nah, you cheated.’

Sophie stands and points at me, ‘I won.’

I call her a cheater again. She moves towards me, sticking her head out under the rain for a moment. Again, I question how much she knows about me. Is she waiting for me to bring it up? Does it even need to be brought up? Maybe this night won’t go any further than drinking, dancing and playing snap on a balcony.

After a prolonged silence, she leans back and looks at me.

What is she thinking when she looks at me? If she doesn’t know, does she just see a man? What kind of man does she think I am? What was her ex like? Does she wonder if I’m better than him? Does she wonder what secrets I’m hiding?

Would a real man have tried to kiss her by now? Was she waiting for that? Does she think something’s wrong with me because I haven’t?

My heartbeat quickens because she’s still looking at me. She’s expecting something from me. I can feel it. I look down at my shoes.

Real men are in control.

Erik,’ she says.

Real men aren’t afraid.

I look at her.

Real men don’t have secrets like this.

Sophie moves in front of me. She cups my cheeks with her hands. They’re soft against my skin. I look at her. She closes the gap between us; kisses me very gently. I feel it surge through my body, but only for a short moment.

I pull away from her.

 

half

inauthentic

fake

liar

 

Sophie steps back and apologises. She blames it on alcohol and suggests it might be time for bed. Her voice is shaky. I’ve upset her. Why did I pull away?

‘It’s not you,’ I say quietly.

She laughs and warns me not to use that line. There’s a bitterness in her voice and she turns to the balcony door. I move to stop her, grabbing her shoulders. She pulls away from me.

‘Did they even tell you?’ I say curtly.

She turns, ‘Tell me what?’

They didn’t tell her? No, they did – she’s just pretending not to know. Or, maybe not.

I don’t know!

Idiot. Should have kept kissing her.

I back away from her and return to the balcony. I’ll have to tell her now. You can’t just drop a line like that and pretend it was nothing.

‘Tell me what?’ she repeats, she moves beside me.

I shake my head. Maybe she’ll back off.

She lets out and exasperated sigh, ‘I know…enough about you. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have kissed you. It’s too sudden, I’m just…’

I look at her. She’s leaning on the balcony again, gazing out into the rain.

You’ve upset her.

‘If it’s too quiet I start thinking,” she says, “and if I start thinking too much I’ll make myself cry.’

‘So, you kissed me to stop yourself from thinking too much?’

After a few seconds she smiles, laughs slightly and looks at me, ‘It sounds stupid when you say it out loud, but yeah,’ she turns with her back to the rain. ‘I just…need something to block out the…’ She waves her arms around her head for a moment, ‘Voice.’

‘You sound psycho. I just use alcohol…or music.’

‘We all have our ways of dealing with shit.’

‘So you make out with random guys?’

Don’t say that!

She frowns, ‘I hang out with people, yeah…’

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘I shouldn’t have implied…I mean…’ I shrug, ‘I’m a dumbass.’

‘You are.’ She’s smiling again.

I glance at her. Has she been feeling like this all night? Has this all just been her way of covering her anxieties? Was she just trying to block out an intrusive voice?

Isn’t that exactly what I was doing?

‘You hide it very well.’ I say.

She bursts out laughing, covering her mouth. She shakes her head, ‘Hide what? My crippling anxiety?’

I nod.

‘Well,’ she turns and taps me on the chest lightly, ‘Now you know it’s all just a facade.’

 

I’ve made a suit of armour,

with the skin of men I’ve known.

I’m Frankenstein and his monster,

a Mister Hyde that I’ve sewn.

 

I hold the rim of the porcelain sink, focusing on my reflection. It’s quiet enough that I can hear the steady ticking of my heart. I breathe slowly. I’m going to tell her my secret.

It’s almost four in the morning. Neither of us believes we’ll get any sleep. We’ve decided to share the couch, but we’ve pulled the cushions off and manufactured a bed on the floor. We’re going to talk until one of us falls asleep.

I breathe in deeply.

When I come out of the bathroom she’s lying on the bed, curled up on her side with her back to me. There’s a blue blanket thrown over her legs; it might be big enough for the both of us.

I lay down beside her.

‘Sorry I took so long.’

No response. I prop myself up and lean over her. Her eyes are closed and her hand is hanging over the edge of the couch cushion. Her phone lies just below it, there’s a video playing.

I nudge her gently but there’s no response.

She’s fallen asleep.

There’s always next time.

 

Download the PDF of ‘Drown Me Out’

Tagged , ,