Category Archives: Issue #6

The Tree, Catherine Hughes

The words seemed so casual. Slipped so easily into Mum’s stream of consciousness that I almost missed them. She’d been talking for an hour or more, filling me in on the news of the last few months. The family was gathering tomorrow for Dad’s eightieth birthday party. Phil and the girls were arriving tonight and I’d come early to help Mum with the food, although she never really let me do much. So far I’d picked some herbs, peeled the potatoes and made the morning coffee.

One of our rituals on my visits home was for Mum to catch me up; about Fred from the post office and his bad knee, Hazel’s recent pilgrimage, and Mum’s latest community choir concert. Who had left and who had arrived in our tiny town.

I sat at the kitchen table, warm and drowsy, lulled by the sun on my back, the flow of Mum’s voice and the thick, muddy coffee that warmed my hands and coated my throat.

I almost missed his name. A slight break in the narrative and a softening in her tone pulled me back to the words.

‘You heard about Rick’s accident? I thought you must have, although I was surprised you didn’t come back for the memorial service. I assumed someone would have told you. We didn’t find out until we got home a couple of days after. I did wonder that you didn’t seem to have been here.’

An almost imperceptible pause and then the stream flowed on. ‘I saw Aunty Pat up the street the other day and she said they were surprised you hadn’t come, or phoned, or something. So I wondered whether maybe you didn’t hear. But you did, didn’t you? I know he hadn’t been back for a while, but I assumed that word would have got to you somehow. Unless they thought we would tell you. But we weren’t here.’

Another pause…

‘You did know, didn’t you?’

When the flow finally stopped I found I had shut my eyes, resisting the words and the story they inferred. It made no sense. An accident meant one thing. Rick had an accident when he fell out of the tree.

 

******

 

‘Don’t be idiots,’ they shouted after us. We’d been in the pub all afternoon and decided to celebrate the end of school by climbing the tree, right to the top, higher than ever before.

‘You can’t climb trees in a storm. Rick, mate, if you want to be stupid don’t take Katie with you.’ The barman, I think it was Stan, followed us out to our bikes, leaning on the edge of the verandah.

Rick looked at me and shrugged. ‘You better stay here then,’ he laughed before taking off and shouting over his shoulder. ‘Last one to the top has to buy the first round tonight.’

Of course I went with Rick. Always with Rick. We got to the top. To the fine, small branches, balancing in the fork of the trunk, as far up as it was possible to go.

Too much beer to let us think. Not enough to make us too clumsy to try.

 

******

 

Don’t think about Mum’s words. What they might mean. What they can’t mean.

Stay in the tree. That’s much safer. Well it wasn’t really, but it might be, set against what Mum had said. Accident. Memorial. Safer than that. The tree could have killed him. Could have killed us both. But it didn’t, not that day, not any day, through all the years we lived alongside it.

That afternoon, the last time we climbed, the noise was immense. We clung to each other, scratched to billyo, whipped by branches cracking against each other and beating against our skin, exhilarated beyond words. Right at the top, looking over the town, pummelled by the wind.

The chair beside me creaked as Mum sat down. Her hands covered mine, still clutching my cooling coffee. ‘I’m sorry pet. I was sure you would know. Can I tell you what happened?’

If I didn’t open my eyes, if she didn’t say the words, maybe there wouldn’t be a tale to tell. Except for the one about Rick and me and the tree, on the day of our last exam.

The sun was still warm on my back. I uncurled my fingers and carefully placed my hands palm down on the uneven tabletop.

I shook my head.

Just stay in the tree. I can hear the wind thrashing on that wild afternoon. And now it was thrashing through my belly, just as it did on the day that he fell.

 

******

 

I thought he’d died, but it was only a broken arm and a concussion. The branch that snapped and took him to the ground was like a gun going off beside my head. Suddenly his grinning face, so close to mine, was gone, disappearing in the midst of twigs and bark and shards of branch. He could so easily have been killed, probably should have been. He looked so fragile, his flannelette shirt a splash of red in the grey and brown debris far below.

My trip to the ground took forever; the tree an enemy for the first time, gripping and clutching, trying to stop me getting down. There was no one to call, no mobile phones. Just the two of us off on our own. When there was something silly to be done, it would just be us. Enough beer and adrenalin and we thought we could do anything. Until that day anyway.

Rather than killing him the tree actually kept Rick alive. So much stuff fell with him that it cushioned his landing. He was bruised all over and one arm hung at a very strange angle but by the time I reached the ground he was conscious, groaning and laughing.

‘It was first to the top not the bottom who had to buy the next round. There was no need to push.’

I was so relieved that I threw up in the middle of the mess, which made him laugh, and groan all the more. Somehow, I got him out from under the branches and twigs. There were so many jagged edges that could have gone straight through his body if any one piece had been in a slightly different place. I threw up again. And again when I thought about it later that night and over the next few days when I dreamt about it.

 

******

 

I still have that dream. Looking down from a great height at a body, tiny and still far below. Sometimes it’s Rick, sometimes my children, occasionally it’s me I’m looking at. And then, the desperate scrabble to reach the ground, before it’s too late.

My own personal recurring nightmare.

But the tree didn’t kill him. That was Rick’s accident. It had to be. The only one.

Mum stroked the back of my hands. My eyes stayed resolutely shut. If I didn’t look at anything maybe that would work. The tree – that was the accident. He was alright after that.

We left home and went to uni; Rick to become an engineer, me a physiotherapist. We shared houses and friends and watched each other’s backs for years, inseparable, until Susie came along. Rick fell for Susie like he’d fallen from the tree, suddenly and without warning.

Just after they got together Rick came home one night, subdued and nervous, completely unlike him.

‘Susie doesn’t think it’s a good idea for us to live together or see so much of each other. She thinks you distract me and don’t let me concentrate on things I should be concentrating on.’

‘What, like her?’ I snapped.

For hours I raged, argued and ridiculed, but I lost him that night. Susie was strong and beautiful and completely overwhelmed him and our friendship. In a month he had moved in with her. Six months later they moved to Western Australia and then they were married. I was invited to the wedding but it was too far, too expensive and just too hard to think about. Although we were never a couple, he was still my other half and it was a long time before I really forgave him for letting her shut me out of his life.

We met up over the years when our visits home coincided but it was always awkward with Susie. Occasionally Rick came to Sydney for work. Without Susie, he would always leave a night free so we could catch up. A couple of times he stayed with us and Phil and Rick had a great time bonding over my strange quirks and idiosyncrasies. I went to bed and left them comparing notes and drinking whisky.

‘He’s a male version of you.’ Phil whispered gently through his hangover, the morning after one of these long nights. ‘You obviously spent way too much time together when you were kids. How can you finish each other’s sentences when you’ve only seen each other half a dozen times in the last ten years?’

Usually though, we went out. Phil didn’t mind that every now and then I would get a phone call that made me sing around the house before I disappeared for a very, very late night with another man.

The chair beside me creaked again as Mum pushed herself to her feet with a heavy sigh. A hand on my shoulder, a kiss on the top of my head and she retreated back around the benchtop to continue her work.

No matter how tightly I clamped my eyes and clenched my teeth she kept intruding.

The last time I saw Rick was very different.

It was about five years ago. Phil and I had been steadily drifting apart. We were both tired; tired of mindless work, the endless stress of trying to live well, desperate not to make mistakes with our kids, and always to be on top and in control. We had stopped talking, stopped communicating at all.

I was feeling pretty miserable when Rick called.

‘Hey Kit. I’m going to Canberra for a couple of days next week. Any chance you could come down? I won’t be back for a while and I’d really like to see you.’

‘You’re coming on your own? What’s the matter, babe? You sound awful. Are you sick?’

‘I’ll tell you next week.’ He cut me off abruptly. ‘Please come.’

Phil nodded vaguely, and I was off.

Rick had been offered a job in a diamond mine in South Africa and was in Canberra to organise an urgent visa.

‘Why Africa?’ I asked over dinner the first night. ‘And why so urgent?’

‘It’s more why not Africa than why,’ he replied quietly.

Susie had left him for one of their closest friends. They didn’t have children and after nearly 20 years of marriage his life was suddenly a vast and empty ocean.

We spent the next two days talking; about what was going on in our lives, how sorry we were that we had lost each other, and how bitter and disappointed we were in so many ways.

After dinner on the last night we traded memories of all the stupid things we’d done, including the day Rick fell out of the tree. Many hours and much wine later, our laughter dissolved into tears. I hadn’t seen Rick cry since his dog got run over in front of his house when we were about ten. When I returned to my husband and daughters I left my best friend with much sadness and many tears.

Funnily enough, those few days with Rick were a catalyst for me and Phil to sort ourselves out. I told him Rick’s news and said I was scared we were going to end up in the same place. We began to talk about the disappointment and frustrations we felt towards each other and our life, and gradually began to find each other again.

We’d heard from him occasionally during the intervening years. In the last email, about a month ago, he said he had a girlfriend that he knew we’d like and that they would be home for Christmas.

I hadn’t got around to replying.

‘I’m going for a walk Mum. No…on my own. I won’t be long. Please…just don’t fuss me.’

Head down, eyes open but my mind still doggedly closed, I strode towards the centre of town. A goods train stopped me at the level crossing. Unconsciously I began to count the carriages, beating my fist against the barrier. With every beat, another memory.

 

******

 

‘What are you doing?’

Rick was looking up, staring intently into the traffic safety mirror that guarded the crossing.

I was about four. Kristie in her stroller, and me and Mum had just collected the mail. Mum and Rick’s mum were talking. I stood alongside Rick and looked up. It was so funny; we were completely squished out of shape. Rick was like a giant ginger head with no body, freckles swimming across his face.

‘What are you doing?’ I repeated, giggling. ‘You look like a munchkin.’

Without moving Rick replied solemnly, ‘How do you reckon the cars get their shape back before they get here?’

Our first proper conversation.

 

******

 

‘Please Tam, come look, you’ll see what I mean.’

The time he tried to convince Tam Rowland, the Rural Fire Service chief, that the fire that burnt the post office down was started by a spark between the mirror, some rubbish and the afternoon coal train. The reflection of the setting sun in the gaps between the carriages was so blinding.

 

******

 

‘Rick, Rick, don’t be a dick

If you keep me waiting

I’ll give you the flick.’

As I swung around the pole, aged fourteen, waiting, always waiting for him to arrive.

 

******

 

Rick and Phil’s first meeting, unexpectedly one weekend when we were home. While I jumped about excitedly, sure they’d get on, Susie stood, looking away, impatient to leave.

 

******

 

The train passed. I crossed the track, ducked under the mirror and headed up the hill.

When we were kids the tree rose above the town, an ancient gum, vast in the middle of a paddock. A pine wind break ran along the boundary line, protecting the farm house further round the hill from hot westerlies and storms from the south, but the gum stood aloof.

As I got older and the population grew, chunks of properties were carved off and subdivisions appeared. Smart houses behind pristine hedges replaced the cows on the hill behind the town. But for many years the tree had remained, just beyond the edge of development.

I saw the shiny new gate as soon as I turned the corner, shut against the field where the tree stood. That shouldn’t be there. This day was just full of things that shouldn’t be.

The tree was still there. I could see it in the clearing, powerful in its isolation. The core of my life, as essential as my family, the home I grew up in, and Rick.

‘God help you if it ever came down,’ I muttered, slightly disgusted at my dependence.

But there shouldn’t be a gate. The tree belonged to us all; we always assumed it did anyway.

The sun was dappled, still warm but diffused by shadows from the wind break that remained on the boundary fence. The huge pines looked incongruous now, rough and ugly along one side of the avenue that was lined with elaborate topiaried hedges and architect designed mansions on the other. The wind high in the pines sounded like the sea pounding the shore and a heavy scent followed me as I headed towards the gate.

There shouldn’t be a gate. The tree was meant to help me, save me from the truth of the news I walked out on. Save Rick, save us all. How could it do that from behind a gate?

I didn’t lean on the gate. That would give it legitimacy. Instead I stood slightly back and pretended it wasn’t there. I was so weary of all the things I was pretending that day. It wasn’t in a paddock any more, just another block of land to be built on, with fences all around.

The thick knotted rope we had badgered Rick’s dad into hanging so we could get into the tree was still tied to the lowest branch. We were probably six or seven.

I couldn’t imagine letting my daughters out at that age on their own, knowing they were going to spend the day trying to climb a tree. Maybe we were older; I think our parents were just braver.

 

******

 

‘Dad, we need the rope. We really need it. Really, really need it. You wouldn’t want us to get hurt, would you? It’s so much safer with a rope.’

‘Come see Dad. Reckon we can jump down. Course we won’t be silly. Safe as…come tie it up for us and we’ll show you.’

 

******

 

I remembered the feel of the rough rope in my hands as I swung from knot to knot until I reached the smooth fork at the base of the climb.

Raging angrily at the barrier before me and at Mum’s news about Rick, I noticed a small clump of new leaves snared in the gate. Without actually touching the wire, I unhooked them and held them to my face.

And waited.

Waited until I could absorb the truth that Rick was dead.

Until I was brave enough to unclench my body and let that truth flood me.

Until I was ready to walk back home and let my mother hold me and to let myself mourn.

I crushed the leaves against my cheeks, the scent of the eucalypt gradually earthing me, while I desperately tried to ignore the truth that I wouldn’t see him, not at all, not ever again.

My other half, my tree dwelling friend.

 

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NiKKi, Hiroki Kosuge

18th April, 2014

Church

I went to church on Good Friday. A man standing by the lectern preached about the importance of choice in our lives. Then, we sang a hymn. Every single believer but me sang pretty well.

The preacher said, ‘Anyone interested, please come over here.’ The believers flooded to the lectern. They were asked to choose either a black bean or a white bean. Some took a black bean in a transparent plastic cup. Others took a white bean in an opaque plastic cup.

After having completed the countdown of three-two-one, they swallowed their own beans hastily.

At that moment, the floor underneath the believers who swallowed white beans cracked open and they fell into a deep pit. Those who chose black beans seemed to be relieved and returned to their seats contentedly. The preacher said, ‘You see? This is the importance of choice in our lives!’

Just before leaving the church, I looked into one of the deep pits by the lectern and heard a voice: ‘I should’ve chosen a black bean.’

28th April, 2014

No Woman No Cry

I saw a woman weeping in the train. Her face was reddish and slightly swollen with alcohol. Then her phone rang. While she was talking she only said, ‘Why?’ Hanging up, she started sobbing again. She cried like an animal. She opened the window, and threw the phone to the outside of the train.

The phone pinged, and was run over and killed. The louder she cried, the more brilliantly her tears dropped on her light-blue dress, and shone.

Finally, her body was completely covered with her tears. They looked scaly. She had become a large fish. After flopping on the seat several times, she leaped through the window and dived into the water under the Harbour Bridge. She left behind her tears, which were as hot as melted iron.

 

 11th May, 2014

Mother’s Day

From the bus, I saw a woman in the cemetery. She was polishing a tombstone, kneeling down on the ground. She was the only one in the cemetery. The tombstone was shining like a gray gem while other graves were deserted, or broken.

I arrived at the Shopping Centre. There was a huge arch of pink balloons and flowers for Mother’s Day. There were a lot of people carrying flowers in their arms. The petals of chrysanthemums in their arms were rigid as soldiers. I bought eggs and milk, and left, wondering how cruel Australians were, since chrysanthemums are only used in funerals in Japan.

On the way home, the bus passed by the cemetery again. Nobody was there, but a fresh bunch of flowers were left in front of the shining tombstone. The flowers were swaying like a giggling child, blown in the wind. I wondered how many mothers were lying in the cemetery. Then I remembered my own mother, Nanohana, who was named for a flower that blooms in spring, and was proud of that.

 

29th May, 2014

A Shovel

I happened to find a shovel at a museum shop, which was heavy and reminded me of my childhood. When I was a child, I was afraid of shovels. Every spring, without any good reason, the heavy lumps of iron were given to us, and we were forced to plant sweet potato seedlings. We dug, until the teacher told us to stop. The teacher said, ‘We’ll harvest in the autumn,’ although none of us asked when to harvest. I didn’t really want to harvest, because I knew I would have plenty of food in autumn even without sweet potatoes. I would rather have washed my hands as soon as possible, and have run away from the garden named after the manga character in which I was least interested. The hole I made looked like a grave for me. I didn’t like adults or children.

A museum attendant asked me if I would be interested in gardening. I smiled, looked at the shovel with a floral pattern and then asked her if I could make a grave with it. The staff was appalled and stepped back, but assured me, ‘If you want.’

30th June, 2014

An Over-Familiar Possum

I went to a swimming pool in the city. My goal was to be able to swim fifty metres. I managed to swim forty-five metres today. I am almost there. However, as I forgot to bring my goggles, my eyes became bloodshot and everything I saw became hazy. Even after I had left the sports centre, I couldn’t see things clearly.

Later, I went to a Turkish restaurant. The restaurant was filled with smoke. Rubbing my eyes, I ordered a kebab. A waiter asked if I needed a regular salad. I couldn’t read the menu but could only see his white teeth shining dimly. I left the restaurant, groping for a beacon outside.
The street lights were the strangest. I could see a dim ring around the light. It looked like a halo, and I regretted that I went to the church frequently these days despite the fact I was a Buddhist.

Walking at a snail’s pace to the station, I passed through Hyde Park. There was an extraordinarily huge possum. The possum looked at me as a beggar. I remembered that I had a Tim Tam and opened my bag. However, because of haziness, I couldn’t find it. The possum seemed to be really irritated. Finally, I found a Tim Tam and threw it to the possum. However, the possum rejected it and said, ‘Mate, can I have a durry?’ Then I finally found that it wasn’t a huge possum but a homeless person. I apologised to him and scurried back to my home.

 

13th July, 2014

An Accidental Indian Dance Instructor

As I make it a rule to write outside on a sunny day, I went to a park. When I was sitting on the bench and writing, I could see two girls dancing an Indian dance. One of them was Indian and another girl was Chinese. They seemed to be practicing for a performance. The Indian girl was teaching the Chinese girl. As they had danced for more than an hour in front of me, I realised that the Indian dance consisted of four patterns.

1. Make a loop with fingers

2. Bend knees

3. Shake hips

4. Tilt neck.

The Indian girl (I named her ‘A’) did two-four-three-one-three-four-four-two, while the Chinese girl (I named her ‘B’) did two-four-one-three-one-four-three-one. ‘A’ did two-four-three-one-three-four-four-two again, but ‘B’ did two-four-two-three-one- four-four-one. ‘A’ did two while ‘B’ did four. When ‘B’ did three, ‘A’ did four.

A: three-one-three-four-two-one-three-three-two-one-four.

B: three-one-three-four-two-one-three-three-two-one-one.

So close!

Then a strong wind blew my papers away. ‘B’ kindly picked them up, looked at the B4 sized papers on which numbers from one to four were scribbled and tilted her neck.

That’s it!

 

14th August, 2014

Lost

I took a wrong train. It was a night train to go to Melbourne. I had plenty of time and didn’t have anything to do but sleep. My face reflected in the window was as black as a portrait drawn in Indian ink. It wasn’t easy to sleep.

I looked at an obese man sitting on the other side of my seat. He had been talking to himself, while looking at his computer screen, ‘Crap…Crap…Crap…’ I looked into the screen and found he was watching a film. It was a film of his own life.

He was a child who was lovely, smart and vulnerable. He could get high marks in any subject, but wasn’t good at playing any sports. One day, he was chosen as a rugby team member by lots. It was obvious he was the poorest in the team. He didn’t practice and was absent on the day of the rugby match, because he didn’t want to show his poor rugby playing. Next day, nobody blamed him, but he blamed himself. He reckoned himself a loser. He graduated from school and got a job in a construction company, but soon quit. He stayed indoors and kept on eating. He believed he was always starving despite his body swelling like a balloon.

He clicked a rewind button and started watching the film again, murmuring, ‘Crap… Crap… Crap…’ Then, our eyes met. He said, ‘What are you looking at?’

After an awkward pause, I said, ‘I’m lost.’ He said, ‘So am I.’

 

 15th September, 2014

This Is No Longer A Bus Stop

When I got to the bus stop, there was a sign. It said this was no longer a bus stop due to the changed road conditions. I found an aged couple sitting on the bench. I said this was no longer a bus stop. They looked at each other, laughed and said that was why they were waiting here.

Again, I said this was no longer a bus stop and therefore the bus wouldn’t come no matter how long you would wait. The husband studied me and then whispered something into his wife’s ear. His wife slightly nodded and opened her bag. She fumbled her red enamel bag and took out a piece of a yellowish paper.

It was a timetable. However, I couldn’t read it because there were so many small holes in the paper. Again, I said the bus wouldn’t come, folding the paper. They burst into laughter. I was disgusted with them and started walking. After a while, however, I felt sorry for the couple. Both of them must be suffering from dementia.

After having walked for a couple of minutes, however, I heard a thundering sound. Looking back, I could see the bus stop flying across the sky, like a skyrocket. The couple in the rocket-like bus stop waved to me with big grins. Then, I realised they had been waiting for the moment the bus stop would no longer be a bus stop, literally.

 

16th October, 2014

Arsonist

She called me and said she wouldn’t be able to talk for more than ten minutes because she was now imprisoned. I was really surprised because she was my best friend and was unlikely to commit a crime. I asked what she had done. She said she set the woods on fire, which wasn’t intentional. I suggested that she should have claimed that she was innocent. She said she couldn’t because it was true that she had set fire to a palm tree in the woods. I asked her why she had set the fire on the palm tree. She answered she was falling in love with the tree and couldn’t forgive it for reaching its branch to another palm tree. She confessed that she was about to lose her marbles whenever the palm tree quivered its leaves in a blowing wind. When she was about to say something, the telephone was disconnected. I wondered if she had already become crazy.

Afterwards, I told this creepy story to my partner. ‘It’s crazy to fall in love with a palm tree, isn’t it?’

My partner, a eucalyptus, didn’t say anything as usual. I hugged him tightly, closed my eyes and then enjoyed his clean scent.

 

 4th November, 2014

Coy Carp

There lives a coy carp in the Sinobazu pond within Ueno Park in Tokyo. No one has seen it swimming. Hidden under waterweed, seemingly, it keeps still. It has a hobby, though.

The coy carp is into Twitter now:

 

#Shinobazu Pond

Water is lukewarm.

 

#Shinobazu Pond

Am afraid of Dengue fever.

 

#Shinobazu Pond

I wanna go to the beach someday.

 

There lives a coy carp in the Shinobazu pond within Ueno Park in Tokyo. No one has seen it swimming. Hidden under waterweed, seemingly, it keeps still. It is an ambitious carp, actually.

 

 16th December, 2014

Wednesday, the Day of Loneliness

Mr Sato our boss is now often absent on Wednesday. It’s quite okay because he is just taking his paid leaves. He’s within his rights.

One day, one of my colleagues, however, told me Mr Sato’s secret in a cafeteria at the company.

She said in a low voice, ‘A friend of mine saw Mr Sato in a park on Wednesday.’

After looking around carefully, she added, ‘He was on a swing there. Alone.’

I didn’t know if I should laugh in the moment like this. I just imagined a middle-aged man sitting on a swing by himself.

I thought it would be the ultimate loneliness.

 

 6th January, 2015

Beer & Beach

Mum would tell me when I was a child that life originated on the bottom of the ocean. Then I wondered if we would ascend into the sky like balloons when we died.

I had a friend called Jim. When I first met him, we were final-year students at the university. He was the kindest man I had ever met. We would often go to the beach on Sunday. Jim would tell me the names of birds floating in the clear sky. I would talk with him about my dream of becoming a poet. He would never laugh at my callowness. It may be just because both of us were intoxicated throughout the summer, though.

‘I must be strong to be a poet,’ I said.

‘Poets must be vulnerable,’ Jim said.

After we got drunk, we would exhaust ourselves swimming at the beach.

When the summer was over, Jim left the town in order to get a job in a city on the east coast. On the day he left, we promised to meet again. I haven’t seen him since then.

Some years later, I really became a poet.

Jim became an ornithologist, I heard, and died of lung cancer at twenty-seven.

I have forgotten his gentle voice, sunburnt skin and coy smile. We didn’t take any pictures in that summer. All I can remember now is the taste of bitter tides, and that we did believe we were immortal while we drank beer on the beach.

 

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From Shattering, Ally Bodnaruk

Shattering is a young adult science fiction novel set in a far-flung future-city of August, where tensions between the Patron ruling class and anti-technology activists are building. At the centre of the controversy is the Imprint program, a new method of prolonging life using synthetic bodies and downloadable ‘imprints’ of the human mind. Mallory Li and her best friend, butler, and Imprint Bligh find themselves drawn into the mess when Mallory’s inquisitiveness sets her down a complicated path.

 

Chapter One

For tonight’s evening of never-ending torture, Mallory is stuffed into a pale-yellow dress that swishes and flounces and does nothing to keep her warm. It’s the old-school kind, the type that doesn’t know how to change colour or flash sparkling, star-bright lights. To complete the look the family’s pseudo-Butler, Bligh, carefully pins her hair up; he’s the best at not poking her scalp with the sharp hair clips, so she always shoves the box at him before Mum has a chance to grab them.

‘Make sure you leave some strands out,’ Mum instructs Bligh. ‘It’s becoming quite uncouth to have it all slicked and pinned back. Make it look a little more natural.’

‘Of course Ms Li,’ comes the butler’s response as he teases some of Mallory’s thick, black hair out of the bun, ‘is this better?’

‘Oh yes, dear, that’s lovely. Don’t you look darling Mallory?’

With the number of pins still sticking out of her hair where Bligh has yet to secure them, Mallory thinks she looks more like the bushes in the park during winter, all sticks and tufts of sad leaves rather than anything darling. Maybe she can sneak out to the park and hide in the bushes. Blend in and stay there until everyone’s either sick with worry or forget about her altogether. Whichever comes first. She can live in the park and jump out at passers-by, all wild and spiky, and be one of those human interest stories on the news.

‘Thanks Mum, it’s perfect.’

‘Call me Mother at the party, dear,’ her mother softly scolds her as she adjusts the dress straps. ‘And don’t go copying Laurel Sandifer’s weasel of a child and call me by name. They may think they’re setting a new trend, but I guarantee they just look like fools.’

‘Of course I won’t, Mother.’

Her mum pats her cheek and gives her a brief, pleased smile. ‘You are a good girl Mallory, you do your father and I proud.’

Where Did She Come From? Who Is She Really? Is There A Family Out There Missing Her? Find Out Next Week On ‘Wild-Park-Girl’.

Mallory spends most of the shuttle-ride to the party thinking about the rest of the opening credits. She’s curled up in one of the window seats, tucked against glass, while her parents sit in front speaking quietly to each other. They’re being hosted this week by Patron Ama, a biotech engineer who runs the biggest augmented reality company out there — S-A Industries. Mallory’s dad started out working under Ama, but he’d left the company a few years before Mallory was born. He doesn’t talk about it much, Jeremiah Li isn’t a man of many words — he always has too much work to do. But when he does he speaks fondly of his time at S-A, and with a great deal of professional respect for Ama in spite of Everything That Happened. That’s how her parents refer to it, capitalisation and all. Everything That Happened. From the professional disagreements, to the firing, to the law suits, to even more law suits, to her father’s own Patronage and Ama’s refusal to let the bestowing of the title go unchallenged. Most of it had gone on when Mallory was still quite little so she doesn’t remember much of anything, but she can hear just how bad it had been in the way her father describes it as ‘a hard time’ with a tired frown or her mother’s description of Ama as a despicable woman.

None of that means they can skip the damn party when Ama hosts it though. Mallory has checked. If she hates the parties with their roundabout conversations, bright lights, and intense scrutiny, she feels an incandescent rage towards the parties at Ama’s. The stares increase tenfold as people peer at her parents and Ama, waiting to see if someone cracks. They always talk to her as well, something about it looking worse if they didn’t. At least Ama seems to despise the little act as much as they do. Mallory thinks she does at least; it’s hard to get a read on her.

They have to travel through Mid-City to get to Ama’s mansion so their shuttle is gliding through the high-rises and densely packed apartment buildings. It fills Mallory with a lingering claustrophobia, so different to the meandering estates and sprawling corporate headquarters that make up the Upper-Echelon. Concrete walls rush by as the shuttle speeds along; beads of light spilling out of windows, the only thing breaking the monotony. As the shuttle line traces the buildings and edges closer to ground level, Mallory begins to notice bursts of red writing spattered against the walls.

ELITISM KILLS

PATRONAGE = MURDER

WE ARE THE OPPRESSED

The walls of August turned a canvas for those that call themselves revolutionary.

‘Pay them no mind, dear,’ her mum calls back to her. ‘All great societies must have their dissenters.’

Mallory hears her dad mutter, ‘Though why ours must be so pointlessly annoying,’ before her mum frowns him into silence.

When the revolutionaries first started becoming more active a few years back it had sent a frisson of excitement through the Upper-Echelons. It had sounded daring and brave and like their world was expanding into some great Epic. They did small things at first; graffiti and hacking jobs, a few labs got broken into. Nothing too disruptive. But then there’d been an attack in the Factories, one of the largest computerised production lines was put out of business for a week and the Patrons had sent in the Guard. There hasn’t been any revolutionary activity outside of Mid-City for over a year.

Secretly, Mallory has been a little disappointed at the lack of excitement.

As their shuttle pulls up outside Patron Ama’s house, Mallory’s stomach tightens. Ama’s house is almost a palace. It’s gargantuan. Pillars of marble and gold rise from the ground and line the entrance drive, like path markers to a temple they exclaim ‘I am here, I am grand, and you will worship me’. The house itself is a testament to technological and architectural wonders, but built in the old-time style everyone knows Ama favours. It looks like it’s made out of golden sandstone, edged in the same marble as the pillars, and decorated in elaborate gold-leaf and swirling carved patterns. But each brick is actually made of durable poly-synthetic-plastic and contains a computer processor linked back to a central server. Mallory loves it as much as she hates it. She loves the complication, the sheer brilliance of having a house built out of a computer, but she hates the arrogance it exudes. It screams power and status, a snarling beast that demands respect from all who pass through. Mallory has wondered in the past how hard it would be to hack; she’s considered getting Bligh to reprogram it to display childish images and insulting words. But actions like that would be enough to have her thrown in jail, no matter her parents’ status, so she leaves her plans as a fantasy.

Mallory imagines the house covered in sparkling butterflies and love hearts as they walk up to it just so she looks less impressed.

‘Why are you smirking? Stop it,’ her mum murmurs. ‘You have to stay in control, dear.’

‘Yes Mother, of course Mother,’ Mallory intones, pulling her face back to neutral. It’s possible, Mallory thinks, that Mum will only be pleased when Mallory successfully learns to replace her face with a blank piece of paper. Then whatever emotion she’s expected to have can just be drawn on.

Her mother gives her a cautionary look as they walk up the grand staircase and into Patron Ama’s party; Mother, Father, and Daughter — picture perfect family.

 

The ballroom is lit like gold. Opulence spills out of every corner of the ballroom, delicate flowers hang from baskets (the real thing!) while little bots flutter and flit like iridescent butterflies over their heads. But all Mallory can focus on is her shoe pinching her left heel; rubbing in a sharp, stinging way that heralds a blister. She tries to shift her weight to her right to relieve the pressure, but the movement only causes another stab of pain and a wince that she doesn’t manage to conceal. Her mum squeezes her elbow, though the conversation she’s holding with Patron Ama doesn’t falter. Mallory can tell that she’s going to get another lecture on poise and proprietary when they’re back at home. The reprimand makes her palms itch. She grits her teeth to keep the frustrated words down inside of her where they coil in her stomach like electric wires; sharp and shocking.

She’s never enjoyed the Patron Parties, endless parades of only the most powerful, the most influential. Her parents force her to attend because they think it will instil a greater understanding of August City’s politics. But the parties are boring in a way that goes beyond a lack of something to do. It’s people either ignoring her or talking down to her. We think of you as a mere speck if we think of you at all, their eyes tell Mallory as they look at her with disdain.

Mallory is not allowed to speak. Her parents are too afraid she’ll say the wrong thing to the wrong person. She’s just here for her parents to show her off while she studies the delicate balance of civility and cut-throat politics that keeps August running. She’d been fascinated by it when she was younger, the way the Patrons would circle each other with their words, talking round and round about everything except what they really wanted to say. Yet somehow they still understood each other. Her mum says it’s all about listening to the things they don’t say, the gaps in the conversation, and learning to leave those spaces in your own sentences. It had seemed kind of mystical up until her parents decided she needed to learn to do it herself.

Now it just seems stupid.

Twice a week she has to sit down with her mum and Bligh and work on her Politicking. She hates it. But Mum insists it’s what she needs to know to manage the world.

‘This is important Mallory,’ she says whenever questioned. ‘This is your future.’

Even Bligh thinks it’s important that she learns, which is saying something. Normally he agrees with her when she complains about all the dumb little things that constitute life in the Upper-Echelons. So she goes to the lessons and she tries to remember it all. She can’t help it if her inner-monologue, the one Mum is always telling her to rely on, is more interested in just screaming than in passive-aggressive implying insults.

‘Let them point out their own flaws themselves, if you can. Ask them if they’re going for a vintage style if their clothes are out of season. Wonder where their partner is if you know they called it quits,’ her mum recites. Mallory imagines punching them in the face instead.

Whatever. She swallows the thoughts down and watches old Street Fighters repeats on her QScreen in her room after every lesson. Her parents don’t like her watching ‘those kinds of shows’, the ones that are meant for the unsophisticated and uncivilised masses of Mid-City and the Factories, in no way for the daughter of a Patron. But Bligh is the only one who ever comes into her room anyway and he doesn’t care.

That’s not the complete truth. He does care, just not about what she watches. He just knows she only likes watching the fights when she’s feeling particularly angry. He even stood up for her and asked her parents if she should learn self-defence (they completely dismissed the idea, but she loves him for trying). That’s how it goes with Bligh, he just seems to get her. Ever since Dad brought him home from the lab it’s felt a little bit like it’s her and Bligh against the world. Sometimes she imagines they’re in one of the ancient cop shows Aunt Emmy studies, all well-timed jokes and a complete understanding of one-another’s psychology. Mallory and Bligh. Bligh and Mallory. They’d have pithy nicknames for each other like Robo-cop or Terrier and Mallory would always turn up late to crime scenes with a grin and two coffees while Bligh cracked jokes about crime waiting for no one.

She went through a phase when she was fourteen of asking Bligh, ‘what’ve we got,’ every time she saw him.

Breakfast Scene. Enter Mallory. Eyes crusted with sleep, dressing gown falling off one shoulder. Bligh stands at the counter, apron covering his blue button-down, a plate of eggs in one hand and a piece of toast in the other.

Mallory: What’ve we got. (It’s a statement and not a question). Serious voice.

Bligh blinks.

Bligh: ‘Breakfast?’

Yeah, it always worked better in the old shows. Bligh’s not as witty as she sometimes likes to think he is anyway.

 

Her shoe is still hurting. Damn thing. Bligh had told her to make sure to wear them in before the party tonight but she hadn’t listened. Well, she had listened; she’d just decided she had better things to do. Now her heels are burning, practically on fire, and all Mallory wants to do is take them off and sit down in a corner somewhere and douse her feet in ice.

‘And how are you doing in school, Mallory?’ Ama turns to speak to her just as Mallory is gearing up for another pain-relieving shuffle.

Mallory nearly falls over. It probably just comes across as a slight waver, a rocking movement as though Ama’s words have lashed out like a punch and tried to knock her over. Ama doesn’t speak to Mallory. No one speaks to Mallory. It’s an established fact of the world. Like gravity. Or that Bligh can always tell when Mallory is lying.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Her mother’s eyes are drilling into her. Do not disappoint! Telepathy is not needed for Mallory to know what her mum is thinking.

‘It’s going well.’ More detail, don’t freeze up. ‘We’ve begun studying the Theory of Synthetic Intelligence.’ Something else, something else. Oh. ‘Carrie might have mentioned it?’

Perfect. Ama’s niece is Mallory’s age, but is absolutely hopeless at biotech. She works in the class below Mallory for Tech Lab.

‘No, I don’t think Carrie’s class has begun that unit yet,’ Ama says pleasantly enough, but the way Mallory can see her mother smile in her peripheral vision means Ama is at least a little put off.

‘Oh, well it’s a very interesting topic.’ Neutral, keep your face neutral, she thinks. Show no fear.

Mallory thinks it’s working. She’s about to give Ama a politely snide smile, lift one corner of her mouth and duck her chin just like she’s practiced —

The ballroom is suddenly filled with darkness as the lights go out. Everything goes quiet as conversations grind to sudden halt. The lights at a Patron Party don’t just go out.

Mallory freezes in shock like everyone else. She wants to reach for her mum’s hand but doesn’t dare move because what is happening? Harsh breaths and trembling fingers. Is the room really filled with darkness or is it just empty of light? she thinks, somewhat hysterically.

Quiet voices begin to fill the void of dark silence that surrounds them.

‘What’s going on?’

‘Did Ama plan this?’

‘Why did the lights go out?’

The lights come back on as suddenly as they went out and nothing has changed. Except. No one is moving, wide-eyed as they look about the room trying to determine if this is something they need to be concerned about. No one wants to be the first one to panic.

‘Nothing to worry about!’ Patron Ama shouts suddenly to the crowd, ‘I told maintenance they had to wait till tomorrow for the tests, but clearly I need new employees.’

There’s a titter from the crowd as they pretend to relax, but Mallory can see the Guardsmen on duty racing out of the room as Ama glances around with a tight expression. A flash of red from above catches Mallory’s eye. Instead of the soft gold from before, the bots are twinkling blood red.

‘Oh dear,’ her mum says from beside her as she too looks at the ceiling. ‘We’d better go find your father.’

 

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Badu Mangrove Morning, Willo Drummond

When the sun hits

the surface of the Badu

morning do you know

what must be done?

 

When the sun hits

the surface of what must be done

fish wake to feed

river and ocean

 

river fish feed

shore birds training

ironic eyes to

assess the day

 

shore birds assess

the Badu morning

while grey limbs write

shadows across the silt

 

shadows lace the surface

of the Badu morning

of everything here

as good as breathing

 

of everything here

as sure as hope, where

the sun lights the

surface of the living

 

where the sun hits

the hope of the shivering

rippling sensation

of understanding

 

when the sun glints

off the living morning

there is a rippling

of intention

 

when the sun glints off

the morning badu

when thought is no more

and only time will do

 

when everything

breathing is alive

to sensation, alert

to morning glance

 

when the sun glances

off the thought

of no more, rising

waters turn to milk

 

when the rising

milky badu

thoughts breathe

under-surface secrets

 

secrets surface then

to cool their heels

with detritus

in white water

 

when thought hits

the surface of the badu

morning the sky

glimmers at your feet

 

when the surface of

trees go under

when the sky rises up

we hold our breath

 

we hold our breath

with each root

that we’ll make

one more day

 

under the surface

of this sky, under the

hope we hold for one

more chance of breathing

 

when the breathing

sun skims roots

as the sky rises up

everything sways

 

everything sways

and shivers everything

slips just out of grasp

 

when the shivering

sun breathes badu

do you recognise

your intention?

 

When you meet your

breath by the sliding sun

when the light hits

the surface of the shadow lace

 

when the sun hits

the surface of the Badu

morning do you know

what it is you must do?

 

Notes

The Badu Mangroves are located at Homebush Bay, Sydney. Badu is the Dharug word for water: “Dharug Dalang. A Collaborative Tool for Language Teaching”, http://dharug.dalang.com.au/Dharug/plugin_wiki/wordlist [Accessed 17 August 2014].

 

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A Void Dance, Suzanne Strong

Drunk on the adulation of the humming crowd beyond the blinding white, and the tequila shot he had downed, he staggered, then leaned into his characteristic seductive sway, exaggerating each step.

‘Wish you, wish you were mine…’ His voice was deep and textured and his mouth touched the microphone intimately; his breath was loud and heavy as he examined the faces of the thousands of hungry people before him. A void, an emptiness was present in this stadium, masses of humanity, seething and moving, arms up, around and reaching out to touch him in some way. Their need as great as his; it was an unspoken exchange between them, a brief affair, a salacious ‘one night stand.’ Thousands of women and men’s faces, adoring, some crumbling under their emotion, ravenous for his gaze or acknowledgement even if for a second, like lions pacing waiting for their sinewy carcass at the zoo, a tinge of desperation mingled with violent objectification. The exchange was mutual.

He fixed his gaze on one tall blonde woman; her slender arms and fine shoulders excited him, her eyes looked back at him unflinching, strong and seductive. He wondered if they would meet later. Inside he felt this familiar falling feeling, like in his dreams very often, this sinking sensation in his gut he used to have when hurling himself off a cliff into the river of Ku-ring-gai National Park. Though that had been exhilarating, this however, was not. It was more like an ache, an abyss, an anxiety and an imperceptible void. It was usually only momentary.

Until he turned his back on the crowd and faced his band, catching the eye of Tim who was beating his skins with characteristic ease and flair, like he was himself dancing on top of each of them. He shot Dylan a satisfied grin. The song climaxed and they strummed the last remaining chords. Silence only for a moment, then the band resumed the next song, the drums lead and Jai came in with deep, driving bass. The crowd roared, thousands of people he would never know.

On this expanse of wood, with lighting, erected amplifiers, electric guitars and bass, a mass of drums, lights and images streamed across the audience, he felt he could exist here forever. His body was robotic in its sensuality. His missed his long dark hair that used to cover his eyes, now he ran his fingers over the shiny wetness of his bald head. He was neither conscious of his body nor acting deliberately, as if he left his body when he performed, occupying a space above himself hovering over the circus below and perceiving himself from the outside.

His father used to line up all of his children and demand one by one they stated what they had achieved that week, made to justify their worth. Dylan remembered his father’s closed fist slamming into his face; full and hard like a plank of wood that reverberated sheer pain through his sinuses and nasal cavities. These memories were fierce but it was his father’s words that haunted him more; no one will ever want you, look at you. Dylan knew his wife, Sophie, loved him and Zac and Angel…but there were the women…always an insatiable desire for this. Sophie understood mostly; he always made sure she knew that he loved her and never would leave, but you know, he was who he was, ‘Dylan Johnson.’ Flashes of their more vehement fights recently, unsettled him now, but he reassured himself of her loyalty and love.

Sweet guitar chords, deep bass and the driving of the drums reverberated around him as a tangible landscape and delivered him away. As the song faded Dylan turned to Jai, Tim and Michael who all stood next to him now and they all linked hands and bowed.

His ears rang as he walked off stage. Even though he had worn earplugs, it never seemed to totally block out the wall of sound that remained. Back stage there was an ecstatic vibe, people sipping champagne, chatting with band members, leaning against the wall, women playing with long strands of their dyed red hair as they focused on every word that Jai, Tim and Michael were saying and laughed in shrill tones.

Dylan laughed. ‘Ahhh boys,’ he thought. Images of those three from the past, flashed brief footage across his mind, everything they had been through, the births of both his children, Michael’s recovery from drug addiction and subsequent divorce and the death of Jai’s sister.

‘Great show.’ He patted Jai and Tim on the shoulder as he passed.

‘Fuck yeah.’ Jai embraced Dylan in a magnanimous hug.

‘As always,’ Tim answered with a cheeky expression.

Dylan smiled at both of them, that expansive, enigmatic grin curling at its edges that had appeared on many magazine covers, newspaper articles, online and television talk shows.

Their manager David tapped Dylan on the back.

‘Hey man, Sophie gave me this to give to you.’

‘Weird, thanks mate.’

‘No worries. Pretty old school, old school love,’ David said chuckling.

Hearing her name shot a painful sensation through him that he couldn’t explain. The sight of her handwriting on the envelope unnerved him, he didn’t know why. Smiling briefly at a brunette and blonde on the way, Dylan went to his dressing room. He could party soon. Sitting down before his mirror, he poured himself a scotch and opened Sophie’s letter. He sipped the scotch relieved there was a momentary break from everything. Opening it, he heard her voice as he read:

 

Hi Luke,

I can’t do this anymore. You treat me like shit, your behaviour with women after shows is disgusting and you tell me I should be okay with it, your drinking, the pills, parties, your mood swings, irritability and rage. I’m exhausted in every way. You treat the kids badly and you’re competitive with them, especially Zac. I thought I could handle the women and sometimes I hoped you would change, but clearly you don’t want to. You always say you can’t do ‘normal.’ What you mean is you want to do whatever you want, and fuck what I need. When you say you love me, it passes right through me as if I’m a ghost. You don’t seem to know what love is. None of this fame shit is real, Luke. It used to be just us facing everything. When we met years ago, you chased me, wanted to prove your worth to me, doing things to please me, telling me you’d make it . I never understood this. I loved you already, Luke Johnson, quiet, shy and gentle. You were always Luke to me. Now I don’t seem to know you at all. You’re not the man I loved 10 years ago. I miss him. Was this ever you? I don’t even know. I’ve been so alone for years now. You act as if I’m lucky to be with you. You’re so arrogant. Your personality changes — Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at times and it scares me when you yell and throw things. It’s the same look you get when you see a new woman you want to chase. I don’t want Zac to think this is how he should be or Angel to put up with this. You really don’t care about me or anyone else, especially your kids. Whenever I raised your behaviour and tried to leave in the past, you’d argue, yell and blame me. I have to leave, for myself and the kids. Don’t try to find us. It’s best we don’t see each other for a while. I’ll ring you so you can talk to the kids.

Sophie.

 

Dylan threw his glass smashing it completely on the wall; golden brown liquid drew crooked lines down its whiteness. Tim and Jai appeared at the door. Dylan covered his face with his hands.

‘What the fuck, Dylan?’ Jai said.

Dylan didn’t raise his head. After a pause he said, ‘She’s left.’

‘What? That can’t be true, she’s left before man, don’t worry she’ll come back again,’ Jai said putting his hand on Dylan’s shoulder.

‘Sorry, man.’ Tim said.

Dylan didn’t say anything and picked up his phone. Dialling Sophie’s number he knew it would go straight to message bank. When it did, hearing her voice was painful. He sought to veil his heightened adrenalin and the familiar inflection of aggression in his voice.

‘Come on Sophe, you know everything is not as simple as this…Just speak to me, I can come to where you are, we can talk about it.’

He slammed the phone down sending items on the dressing table flying.

‘She won’t talk to me,’ he yelled at Jai. ‘I need to find her, I’ve gotta go…’ He made for the door staggering past Jai, who grabbed him.

‘You won’t be able to find her, man.’ Dylan struggled to free himself. Jai held him.

‘I will. I have to…’ He pushed Jai against the wall.

‘If she doesn’t want to be found she won’t be,’ Tim said.

‘You have no idea what I’m going through. Stay out of it.’

‘She’s come back,’ Tim said with concern.

‘This time is different, she’s determined,’ Dylan said walking out the door. Jai followed Dylan onto the street.

Dylan stood on the sidewalk of Kent Street, inner city Sydney. The din of traffic, people’s voices and laughter from nearby restaurants and clubs provided a cacophony of sound, in the cool evening air. Dylan bent over and nearly threw up. Jai approached him.

‘What the fuck am I going to do?’ He looked up from his hunched over position.

‘Don’t know mate, but I’m here for you.’

‘I feel safe with Sophie. What if she really does leave me?’ His eyes were wide and his face crooked with fear.

‘I don’t know Dylan, but maybe you should think about how she felt with you.’

Dylan and Jai walked to a bar on George Street. Dylan rang Sophie’s phone repeatedly, with no reply. After many drinks they found their way back to their hotel in Elizabeth Bay. Jai stayed with Dylan, downing more shots of vodka in his room and listened to Dylan’s bleary-eyed ramblings about Sophie and their fights recently and how it couldn’t be over. Eventually, Jai went to his own room to sleep.

Sitting on the end of his bed, Dylan blinked through the haze of copious amounts of scotch and vodka. He did take cocaine on occasions but not this evening. He wept lying face down on the bed. Everything seemed to be caving in on him. He felt like he couldn’t breathe. He took out the picture of Sophie and Zac and Angel in his wallet and traced their faces with his fingers. Tears obscured everything before him.

Images of his mother’s peaceful features, her green eyes when the essence of her life left them and she breathed her last, overwhelmed him now. His mother, his only safety was gone. Now this overwhelming grief swept over him, as if it had happened again. An insurmountable emptiness, pain and abandonment seemed to cave him from within – only this time he didn’t think he could survive it.

He went to the drawer next to his bed where he kept his pills, sleeping pills mainly, though he had others for anxiety and depression as well. He examined the bottle. Opening his mouth, he swallowed a large handful of the small white pills with a shot of vodka, and laid down on his bed. Closing his eyes, he imagined his mother in her floral dress that played in the wind, hanging washing in their backyard and smiling at him in their swimming pool. Picturing Sophie or his kids was too painful. He surrendered now; the fight was over.

 

‘He’s tortured, Jaz,’ Sophie said to Jasmine sitting in her living room late that evening. ‘Do you still love him?’

‘Love him? I think love became fucked up a long time ago, Jaz. I feel numb, nothing. There were times he was humble and pleaded with me and for a while he would be different, and then it would go back to how it was, switched sometimes in a moment, like a split personality. He doesn’t seem to have a conscience. I’ve realised something though, Luke’s addicted to the fame, attention, women and can’t feel good about himself without it. Me? I’ve been addicted to him.’

‘Sweetheart, you’ll be ok. I’m here for you.’ She touched Sophie’s hand.

Jasmine got a call on her phone, ‘What? Luke? In hospital? What for?’ Jasmine listened to her husband David on the phone and turned to Sophie whose face was distraught.

‘He’s in hospital, Sophe.’

‘What? What do you mean?’ Sophie said, rising to her feet from the couch as if it was an involuntary action.

‘He overdosed on sleeping pills.’

‘I can’t breathe Jaz…’ Jasmine took Sophie in her arms. ‘Is he ok?’

‘He’s ok, Sophe, it’s not your fault.’

Sophie cried into Jasmine’s shoulder.

 

He opened his eyes as the scent of her perfume permeated the room, embracing him. She looked smaller, frailer in a way he couldn’t define as she walked towards his bed. Like a flower separated from its source; browned at the edges and with petals precariously threatening to fall. Her shoulders seemed more exposed, the bones in her neck protruded from her green singlet, her body so familiar and beautiful, had always provided a sharp pain inside, bitter sweet like something he longed to possess mixed with dark regret, and inner unworthiness. Her hair was down, barely brushed, she had no make up on, and her green eyes regarded him with a weariness he had not seen in her before. Darkness framed her eyes. Dylan could barely look into them they seemed to blink away tangible pain. Tears traced her cheeks.

‘Oh, Dylan,’ she said barely audible. She took his hand.

‘You never call me that,’ Dylan said, looking down at her fingers in his.

‘I’m so glad you’re okay.’

‘Sophe.’

‘Are you ok?’ she asked.

‘I’m ok,’ Dylan said, forcing a smile.

‘You need help.’

‘I know,’ he said.

Dylan was pale, the lines in his face looked like crevasses, deep, chasms concealing underlying truth. Apparatus was attached to his chest, small round circles with winding chords, an IV in his wrist and a machine monitoring his heartbeat displayed green lines of security. He looked at Sophie as if he was a child craving his mother.

‘Please get help. Think of Ange and Zac. We can’t lose you.’

‘I know. I’ll try.’ He glanced into her face. She said nothing. ‘I know you’ve heard it before, sometimes we all need a wake-up call. I’ve always been doing my best, Sophe you know that.’

She looked down and let go of his hand.

‘What about us?’ Dylan didn’t like the sound his voice made uttering these words.

‘I don’t know. It’s more important you think of the kids. I should let you rest. I’m so glad you’re ok. I was so worried when I heard. I’ll bring the kids in tomorrow, okay? They really want to see you.’ She kissed her hand and placed it on his. ‘So glad you’re okay.’

‘Thanks Sophe. I love you.’

Sophie smiled slightly, though she did not look into his eyes. Her lips formed a straight line and her gaze became vacant like seeing an abandoned house on the inside when all human inhabitants had left. Dylan had not seen this in her features before. She stood up and left, leaving only the scent of her presence. He closed his eyes—he did not want to see, anymore.

 

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From Young Warrior, Jacqueline Brown

Young Warrior is an adventure novel for middle school children. Eleven year old Kevin Jones stumbles on a strange and mysterious dojang, from where he is transported to a fantastical realm to train with Master Cheng, and to be taught the ancient secrets of the monks, martial art and combat. But when the magic force that keeps peace in the realm begins to fade and Master Cheng goes missing, Kevin will need to use everything he has learned, as well as a few tricks that only a modern kid would know, to save Master Cheng and his world.

 

Chapter One: The Strange Shop on Orchard Street

Today wasn’t the first day Kevin Jones had stood outside the strange shop that was tucked in the corner of Orchard Street. Its narrow red door had a brass knob no bigger than a brussels sprout. Its little square windows were dirty and grey. Hanging from the roof on rusty chains was a small wooden sign that might once have been colourful and grand, but was now tired and faded.

The sign read:

J.Brown_image1

For a long time Kevin hadn’t even known about Orchard Street. Kevin’s quickest route from his school to home was to turn right out of the front gates, pedal all the way down the main road, then turn left, right and left again. In a hurry, with his school bag over his shoulder and a jumbo juice-box in his hand, he could make it home in four minutes and fifty-two seconds, if he threw his bike down on the lawn and his mum had left the front door unlocked.

J.Brown_image2

But it hadn’t been fast enough. Not after Levi Baxter transferred to the school. Not after Levi Baxter, who was two years older and twice the size of Kevin, took a special disliking to him. Not after Levi Baxter started waiting for Kevin at the school gates, chasing him down on his pushbike that was bigger and fancier than Kevin’s (whose bike had been bought in a ‘Bargain Sale’ of unpopular stock the shop was desperate to get rid of). Four minutes and fifty-two seconds was no longer fast enough for Kevin to make it home without his tie missing, a dead arm and his grubby school shirt pulled over his head.

The last time Kevin cycled the main road home was on the Thursday before Easter. His class had been let out early for the school holidays, and he was flying down the street, his skinny legs pumping on the pedals, a giddy grin on his face. ‘In your face, Levi Baxter!’ he shouted. ‘Let’s see you catch me today!’ Then as Kevin rounded the corner…

Levi Baxter stepped out in front of him. Kevin turned the front wheel sharply to the left and tried to ride straight past him, but Levi grabbed the strap of his school bag as he went past, and yanked. Kevin yelped as his bike slid out from underneath him, and he dropped to the ground. Levi’s meaty face stood over him, grinning. ‘Caught you, Jones!’ Then he wrestled Kevin into a headlock until he couldn’t breathe.

That was also the last time Kevin saw his school bag. By Easter Monday, Kevin heard that his exercise books were seen strewn around the local oval — lodged between tree branches, hanging over the goal posts. One was even stuffed up a down-pipe. Levi Baxter had been busy.

Kevin Jones had spent his Easter holidays devising a new route home from school.

 

Kevin’s New Plan To Ride Home

  • Do NOT go near the front gate! Exit by back gate instead.
  • Go down the concrete steps (twenty-two of them, must stand up and use legs as shock absorbers or Owww!)
  • Zig-zag through the back streets (practise my wheelies!)
  • Peddle down Mrs Mac’s driveway and across her yard (get a good speed first so I won’t get caught)
  • Go through Mrs Mac’s back fence where the palings are missing
  • Go across the oval
  • Then under the trees on the far side (duck for branches)
  • Peddle up the dirt jump and over the creek (Whooooooo!)
  • And cut through the very end of the odd little street to HOME!

 

The ‘odd little street’ was, in fact, Orchard Street, a street which Kevin had only just discovered. The quiet dead end street seemed forgotten by the whole neighbourhood. At the very end was a narrow path between two fences (just wide enough for Kevin’s handlebars to fit) which popped out onto Kevin’s street. From there he could make it safely through his back gate and home. Kevin wasn’t as big and his bike wasn’t as fast as Levi’s, but he was nimble, he could weave in and out between trees and land small jumps easily. He was certain if Levi tried to follow him home on this route, he wouldn’t get caught.

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On his last day of school holidays Kevin had timed it on his stopwatch. In a hurry, with his new school bag worn like a backpack and with both hands on the handlebars, he could make it home twelve minutes and ten seconds.

But he never did. Because at eleven minutes and thirteen seconds each afternoon since that day, Kevin stopped outside the strange shop that was tucked in the corner of Orchard Street, and pressed his nose to the dirty glass.

Can you see it on the map? It’s the little rectangle in red.

The first time Kevin looked inside, the windows were so dirty that he couldn’t see in. He pulled the sleeve of his jumper over the heel of his hand and rubbed on the glass. It made a loud squeak. He jumped back. Had the people inside heard? He turned to pick up his bike to leave, but stopped. Who was inside? What did they do in there? Kevin pulled up his sleeve and rubbed again, this time a little more carefully so he didn’t make a noise. After a moment, the dirt began to come off and there was a small patch in the middle that he could see through. He pressed his nose firmly against the glass, cupped his hands around the side of his face to cut out the glare, and stared in.

The room was dingy and dim. There was no furniture and the grey walls were bare. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling on a long wire, giving off a pale light. In the centre of the room stood a squat looking man dressed in long robes of orange cloth, with large panels of gold embroidery around the collar, on the sleeves, and on the bottom hem which brushed his bare feet. The man was staring downwards, the bald crown of his head towards Kevin. His arms were outstretched, and between his hands was a gold bladed sword, its tip touching the stone floor in front of him. Suddenly in one swift motion (Kevin would swear from outside he heard a ‘whoosh!’ as the air parted) he lifted the sword high above his head and…

Kyup!’

Kevin leapt away from the window. What was that? He looked around. No-one else was on the street. No-one else was there to notice. He crept back up to the glass, and when he peered in again, he was astonished.

The little room he’d been looking in was utterly different. It was bright and modern. Lights were on, the walls were painted white and packed with photographs. There were mirrors at the far end, with two flags above them. Kevin recognised the Australian flag, its blue, red and white, with the Union Jack and Southern Cross. But the second flag was unlike anything Kevin had seen. It was square, on a turquoise background with a golden tower in each corner and a red flame in the middle. Through the glass it almost looked to Kevin as if the flame was flickering. There were blue mats across the floor, and a bald-headed man (who Kevin was certain he had seen a few moments ago wearing robes and holding a sword), was dressed in a black outfit with red edging. He was pacing along the front of the room, shouting instructions with a sound Kevin hadn’t heard before.

There were four students, lined up in two rows of two, each dressed in black pants and jackets, (‘dobok’, Kevin would later practise saying, enjoying the way the ‘bok’ burst from his lips). They had coloured belts around their waists. Every time the instructor shouted a different word, the four students punched, and gave a funny yell.

‘Hana!’             

‘Kyup!’

‘Tul!’                 

‘Kyup!’

‘Set!’                 

‘Kyup!’

‘Net!’                

‘Kyup!’

‘Tasot!’             

‘Kyup!’

Suddenly the instructor stopped shouting and looked through the clear patch in the window straight at Kevin. Kevin stepped back. He shouldn’t be peeking. But the instructor merely nodded slowly in acknowledgement of him, with a hint of a smile, then turned his attention back to his students.

‘Yossot!’            

‘Kyup!’

The four students threw another punch.

Kevin grabbed his bike and pedalled home, his heart beating fast. He felt a little scared, a little excited, and most of all, he couldn’t wait to look inside again tomorrow.

For two weeks each afternoon after school, Kevin stopped at the shopfront, pressed his nose against the window and watched the students on the blue mats. The tall student with a blue belt around his waist could somersault over a pommel horse and land back on his feet! The student wearing a green belt kicked quick and high. The other two children were small, and the legs and sleeves of their uniforms so long, that they had been rolled up. They were wrestling on one of the mats. Kevin watched the students curiously. If he could learn to do that, would he be better prepared against Levi Baxter? Then he pictured his mum. ‘Maybe next year,’ he saw her saying, as she always did when he asked about something that needed money. She would follow it with a quiet sigh. Plus, he was still in trouble for ‘losing’ his school bag (completely unfair as it wasn’t even his fault!) Besides, there was something else that bothered him. It was the instructor.

Only occasionally did Kevin try to get a peek at the instructor. Shorter than the student in the blue belt, his head was shiny and domed like the top of a brown egg. When he demonstrated kicks, his legs moved so fast Kevin only saw a blur, followed by a crisp thwack as his dobok pants snapped. But even out of the corner of his eye, Kevin couldn’t forget the image of the orange and gold robes, a glinting sword, the sound of a whoosh as it cut through the air…and it made him shiver.

 

Today, as Kevin was pedalling out of the school grounds, dark clouds blew over the sky. By the time he reached the oval, raindrops were falling. He stood up in his pedals and rode faster. Too wet to stop today, he thought. He jumped his bike over the creek, and turned onto Orchard Street when a fierce wall of wind howled down the road and hit Kevin from behind. Woomph! It blew through his woollen jumper and chilled him from his back to his elbows. Where did that come from? he thought. Kevin mounted the curb and cycled down the footpath, out of the rain. But the wind followed him. Wooooomph! It hit him again, this time whipping around his legs, and he wobbled on his bike, but he kept pedalling. He was almost at the shop when the hanging sign began to swing on its rusty chains, sending an eerie whine down the footpath. Kevin stared up at it as he cycled underneath and then WHAP! A piece of paper smacked him right in the face. It covered his eyes, he was cycling blind! Kevin snatched the paper away with one hand, just in time to see the shopfront directly in front of him. His bike slammed into the wall, and he tumbled to the ground.

Owwww!’

Kevin rolled over, and lay on his back for a moment, catching his breath. He rubbed the back of his head, a small nugget was already forming there. He examined the rest of himself. A few scratches on his knuckles and he’d have bruises tomorrow, not too bad. But his bike hadn’t been as lucky. The front wheel was bent and the tyre had burst open. The handlebars were scratched and the shiny bell dome was dented. Kevin pressed the thumb lever. Instead of a sprightly ‘briiiiingggg’ to announce itself, the bell made a disappointing ‘vvvvvvvvvvv. Kevin slumped. Replacing the bell would take the last of the ninth birthday money he had stashed in his piggy bank. The rain was getting heavier. And he would have to push his bike home. What a stupid day. He stepped forward to see if anyone from inside the shop had heard anything, when a dreadful sound boomed from the end of the street.

‘Jones. I SEE YOU!’

Levi Baxter!

‘This is how you’ve been getting away!’ he shouted.

Kevin stepped backwards, and reached down for his bike. ‘Stay away from me Levi, or I’ll…I’ll…do something!’ he said. He swung his leg over his bike and pushed on the pedal, but with the bent wheel it wouldn’t move. Levi started to laugh.

It must be explained here that Levi Baxter didn’t laugh like other eleven year olds. His laugh was slow and menacing, and his chin and throat puffed out like a bullfrog (Josh Sampson had passed a note around the class while they were watching a video about bullfrogs in science lesson — ‘Looks like Levi Baxter’s twin brother!!!’ it said. The note made it half-way around the class before their teacher Mr Hutchins spotted it, and Noah Samuels ate it on the spot). Now Levi was pacing, step by step, down Orchard Street towards Kevin. ‘What are you going to do?’ he said. He was close. Too close. Kevin pushed on the pedal again, but it wouldn’t budge. Levi had nearly reached him. Kevin threw down the bike and started to run. ‘You’ll never outrun me, Jones!’ And Levi leapt after him.

Without thinking, Kevin changed direction and threw himself at the red door. He grabbed and turned the brass brussels sprouts handle, threw the door open and jumped inside. Bang! There was an eerie echo as the red door slammed shut behind him. Kevin stared, terrified, as the door handle rattled and the red door shook, but it didn’t open. Levi banged on the outside. His voice was muffled through the door, but Kevin heard him. ‘You can’t hide in there forever! Next time, Jones. Next time I’ll get you, you wimp!’ He heard the sounds of his bicycle being stomped on. The crunch of metal. A final ‘vv v v v v v …’ from his bike bell. Then silence.

‘Phew.’ Kevin turned away from the door.

Standing in front of him was the bald-headed instructor.

The instructor looked calmly at Kevin. Then he slowly bowed his head. When he raised it again, Kevin noticed his face was older than he’d thought. His golden skin was wrinkled like a shrunken balloon and his eyes were little half-moons. His eyebrows were pale with flecks of gold. Unsure what was expected, Kevin awkwardly tried a bow.

‘Welcome,’ he said. ‘I am Master Cheng.’ His voice was gentle but confusing, an accent Kevin hadn’t heard before. ‘I am waiting. You are here for free lesson.’

Kevin looked blankly. Master Cheng nodded in the direction of Kevin’s hand. Kevin looked down. Clutched tightly in his fist was the small piece of paper that had hit him in the face as he had cycled down the road. He hadn’t realised he was still holding it. He smoothed it out and read what was on the paper.

J.Brown_image4‘And you are owner of paper, yes?’ said Master Cheng.

Kevin thought about it. If it flew into his face, did that make him the owner? The door behind him had stopped rattling, but he had no idea whether Levi was now waiting quietly in ambush outside. So he nodded. Master Cheng smiled.

‘Then your time has come, young jeonsa.’ My young student. And he pointed Kevin in the direction of the dojang.

 

Download a pdf of Chapter One of Young Warrior

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Brave New World, Rebecca Fraser

(Winter)

My breath plumes and swirls in front of me as I tread the wooden boardwalk though the wetlands. The path I follow gives way to a muddy track. Like a serpent from the Dreamtime of the Boonwurrung people that hunted and gathered here for tens of thousands of years, it snakes its way up into the woodland. My hands are deep in my pockets, refugees from the burning cold, so foreign from the sub tropical warmth of Queensland’s winter. Has it only been two weeks since we moved?

I walk. I feel alone in this new world. I crest a steep hill and between the naked trunks of Swamp Gum glimpse the Homestead to the south. It stands proudly restored, looking down through its iron lace fittings at the vineyard-swathed hills below. Did Emma Balcombe feel alone, I wonder? She who lived a farming life in the Homestead until 1876. She too had moved to a new world with a young child. Perhaps she stood where I am now, shivering with cold and conflicted emotions. Do the soles of my new model sneakers tread the same path that her laced boots once explored? And, in turn, did her footprints fill the furrows left by the indigenous people before her?

220 hectares to explore, the Ranger at the Visitor’s Centre informs me. ‘All sorts of wildlife about, even this time of year.’ He taps a finger on the photographic chart of flora and fauna taped to the wall. ‘Wallabies, echidnas, birds — all kinds of birds, parrots. Might even see a koala or two if you’re lucky.’ I select a map of bushwalks from the brochure stand and study the hand drawn dotted lines. I decide to start with the Woodland Walk. It’s a manageable two kilometres; a good starter.

Crunch. Crunch. Fallen leaves underfoot. I recall a line I once read in a novel whose title I no longer remember: From the ground, it looks as if leaves die, but to the leaf, freed from a useless stem, it feels like flying. I love that quote. I plunge my hands deeper into my pockets and adjust my beanie. It was a goodbye gift from my girlfriends. ‘You’ll need it in Victoria,’ they said as we drank champagne in short sleeves under a Gold Coast sky.

They were right. I do need it. I also need to find a job, settle my son into a kindergarten, make new friends, and adjust to the cold. But that’s okay. For now I am content to close out the anxious din in my head and replace it with the sounds of winter; wind song that tickles the boughs of banksia and wattle trees; the call of birds indigenous to the Mornington Peninsula, and the strangely comforting sound of my solitary footsteps as I walk between Jurassic-sized ferns and bracken under a shroud of mist.

 

(Spring)

My son’s sturdy legs pump as he charges ahead. ‘I’m the leader,’ he cries to the Manna Gum that stands tall and dominant amid the open grassy woodland. ‘I’m the leader.’ He pelts down the path that heads to Balcombe Creek and a chorus of frogs, hidden among the reed swamps, takes up his cry. Bra-arrk, bra-arrk, bra-arrk. It’s no surprise the traditional owners called this area Tji’tjin’garook — the voice of frogs.

‘Wait for me, Thomas.’ The creek is swollen with its cargo of seasonal rain, and rushes busily towards its final destination. It will eventually empty into Port Phillip Bay, the last unspoilt waterway entering the eastern side.

I hasten to catch up. Thomas is seated on one of the numbered benches that we use as our landmarks. We come here often now to walk, my son and I. He likes it as much as I do and I sense that it appeals to him on a more spiritual level as well. I start our usual routine: ‘what do you see, Thomas? What do you hear?’

As always, I marvel at his answers. His four year old mind coupled with sensory and neurological challenges from the fringe of the autistic spectrum brings forth a riot of colour and noise. They are the sounds and shades of spring. The scarlet breast of an Eastern Rosella. The canola yellow burst of wattle. The clamour of the creek as it surges over stone and sediment. A dart of cobalt plumage from a male blue wren. A bumble bee’s weighty drone. Buds and blossoms, berries and blooms. And underpinning it all, the faint hum of distant traffic as it snakes its way along the Nepean Highway that carves the Mornington Peninsula’s bay side.

I cry a little as Thomas swings his legs on the bench. It won’t be long before the toes of his shoes are scuffing the sandy soil below. My tears are not born from sadness, but rather the relentless march of time. It has been three months now since we arrived in Victoria. But for the change of season, it could have been yesterday.

I have sourced a kindergarten for Thomas. He trembled in my arms as I carried him into the brightly chaotic room filled with unfamiliar faces. He clung to me with beseeching, wet eyes as I lowered him to sit with the other children for story time. I watched from the back of the room and cried silently with empathy and guilt as my son bravely tried to interact in his new world.

We all enter new worlds at different stages of our lives. Spring time in The Briars is a new world again to the experience of winter. She is filled with an energy that promises forward motion, rebirth and development. The buds on trees and bushes are filled with their unfurled promise of beauty; nature’s harbingers of change.

And as Thomas and I cross the fire trail and head back through the woodland towards the car park, a gentle wind probes the canopy to give voice to the ancient language of trees, and they whisper their encouragement to me as I pass.

 

(Summer)

I check my watch; one hour until my shift starts. I’ve scored a job at the local Woolworths delicatessen. I don’t like it much, but I’m thrilled to be working. There is limited employment in this regional area to suit my skill set, but I’m happy to be contributing to the household income again; feeling productive and interacting with people.

Summer in Victoria has teeth. Sharp teeth that bring forth rivulets of sweat that trickle between my breasts as I walk now familiar paths. I can complete the Kur-ber-Rer Walk at The Briars and be home in time for a shower before it’s time to pull on the ugly hair net and weigh out silverside, salami and strassburg. Today, though, it will actually be a blessing to step into the air conditioned chill of the supermarket after the day’s oppressive heat. Thirty-two degrees in Victoria is different to the moist humidity of Queensland. It is dry and relentless, and maintains its ferocity well into the evening hours.

It has turned the tall grasses along the Kur-ber-Rer Walk the colour of old bone. They rustle as I pass and unseen things (snakes? lizards?) flee at my tread causing the grass to ripple and sway. This walk of approximately four kilometres is named after the Boonwurrung name for the koala. I am yet to see a koala, but photographic evidence on display at the Visitors Centre confirms their tenancy. I wonder what the koalas are making of the heat, and can’t help but glance up periodically. Maybe there is some truth to the drop bear mythology.

My brother, Karl, comes from Brisbane for a visit. He arrives on New Year’s Eve, hot and sticky.  I pick him up from Frankston Train Station. He is toting what he laughingly refers to as his ‘man bag’. Inside is an impressive looking Canon camera with various lens attachments. The new hobby. He has recently finished a photography course in landscapes and wildlife. ‘I know just the place to take you.’ I say as we wash down wedges of camembert with crisp, cold beer while we await the arrival of midnight, and my husband’s return from the bar gig he’s taken to boost our income until his business picks up. Steve arrives before midnight and we toast 2013 together; eat cheese and talk of cabbages and kings. Karl comments how happy we seem. I smile around the neck of my beer. Yes, we are happy. This new world is starting to make sense.

The second day of January, I take Karl to The Briars. It is thirty-seven degrees. The strap of his man bag leaves a wet mark across his shoulder, and we haven’t even left the house yet. In the car, I turn the air conditioning dial as far as it will go to the right and prattle on about the different walks we can do for the best photographic opportunities. A Ranger greets us at the entrance to the car park. ‘No access today, sorry.’  Dark patches spread from his underarms. ‘Closed for total fire ban. See that?’ He points to the crescent shaped Fire Danger Rating sign attached to the front gates. The needle has been swung all the way to Code Red, the Country Fire Authority’s worst conditions for a bush or grass fire. I think of the grasslands turned to straw; and feel the heat in my nostrils and throat.

Mortified that Karl should miss my special place; my secret place, I decide that we shall instead walk the banks of Balcombe Creek that runs parallel to the long, winding driveway that leads back to the Nepean Highway. It is technically not part of The Briars, but the landscape and proprietary sense I have for it is comparable.

We set off. There is little shade away from the woodlands, and the sun’s rays seek out our exposed skin and turn it pink. The Balcombe Creek is limp and thirsty. It has changed from spring’s rambunctious surge to an obstinate trickle. Mosquito clouds hang thick above the shallows. Karl snaps off a few photographs here and there, but I know it is just so I don’t think he is disappointed with the world I have spoken of with such fervour. ‘It’s a pity we couldn’t have gone into The Briars itself,’ I say. ‘So different to this.’ I slap at something that has landed on the back of my neck. Ahead of me Karl shifts his man bag to the other shoulder and arms sweat from his forehead. He drains the last of his water bottle. It’s time to go. ‘Come on,’ I say. ‘Let’s turn —’

‘Whoa,’ Karl’s awestruck voice sounds from around the next bend. I catch up. He is fumbling with lens attachments. ‘Check it out.’ He points to a thicket of withered bull reeds. There amid the tall brown-yellow stems is an orb of purple brilliance atop a thick sinew of green. It rises from the parched earth as if in defiance of summer’s ferocity; it is a giant, alien amethyst-headed beast, standing over a meter high.

Karl works the shutter of his camera to capture every possible angle of the impossible Scottish Thistle. He excitedly explains how the heat has caused a natural shimmer to surround it; its own personal aura. We both marvel at its singularity; there is not another Scottish Thistle to be seen, and to this day since I have not seen one in or around The Briars.

I smile. Karl snaps. We both sweat.

 

(Autumn)

I’m on the Wetland Walk which commences at the gate on the Eastern side of the Visitor’s Centre. Once part of the farm the Balcombe family worked one hundred and fifty years ago, the area is now planted with indigenous species and incorporates several bird hides.

Autumn’s glory is manifest all across Victoria, and The Briars showcases her seasonal beauty in a manner that is almost surreal. At times I feel like I may be stepping into a postcard, or perhaps the image that fronts a jigsaw puzzle box. One of the challenging ones with hundreds of pieces and colours that all meld and blend together.

The smells of faraway ‘burning off’ mingle with the earthy richness of decomposing leaves, and suddenly a poem I wrote in my early teenage years leaps into my head:

When brown and golden were the days

The days of ochre hue

Memories were trimmed with scarlet

Memories of you.

But now the days are cold and icy

They’ll never be the same

As the ones of you, your golden warmth

And autumn was your name.

The sun’s golden warmth lays her hands on my shoulders and ochre hues surround me. I smile at the memory of my poem. I called it Nostalgia, I remember, as I cross the Balcombe Creek floodplains and begin the climb towards the Wetlands Viewpoint. Nostalgia.

Is nostalgia what I am feeling now? Is my brave new world no longer new, and I’m able to look at my Queensland years with sentimentality and affection, rather than a longing to return to the safety of familiarity?

I remember the day Steve and I decided that we would relocate to his native Victoria and start our lives afresh. We were on burn out. Rats on the Gold Coast corporate wheel, with a special young son who needed better from us than exhaustion and stress. We would become regional folk, relaxed and grounded; Steve would start a lawn mowing business and I would write a best seller. Thomas would continue with speech therapy and eventually settle into a school that understood him. We would keep chickens. We would grow vegetables. We would …

We will.

I decide to bring Thomas to The Briars tomorrow and show him autumn. I will recite Nostalgia as we walk.

 

(April, 2014)

Thomas flings his school bag and then himself into the car. It is 3.20pm and wave of green spills from the school gate as the children surge into the afternoon freedom.

‘Mummy! Mummy, we’re going on an excursion!’ It is his first excursion since starting Prep this year. ‘Guess where we’re going?’ I have no time to guess. ‘The Briars! The Briars!’ He is bouncing up and down. The car rocks with his excitement.

‘We’re going to our place, Mummy. Our place.’

 

 

Note

The Briars (Mount Martha, Mornington Peninsula) comprises 220 hectares of Wetlands, Woodlands, Bush Walking Tracks, and a historic National Trust listed Homestead that once belonged to the Balcombe Family who farmed the region of from 1846.

 

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You and Me, Asmono Truong

They say first impressions are indelible. The surpassing of decades has failed to mute my recollection of you, dear Francis. A murmur, a pause, then an outburst. You certainly knew how to make an entrance.

The pause frightened me. Were you okay? How is my baby? I asked. Before they could answer, you screamed your presence. Like an athlete who screams of success in penetrating an opposition’s goal, their pioneer and daring, you declared your entry, and overwhelming, into the world.

You cried, boy, could you cry! Such a talent in distress, my attention captured, instinctively and gladly were your needs above mine. Your pain is mine, and your cry I could identify amongst ten thousand. They carried your wail to the adjoining room as doctors surrounded me as if to redirect the spectacle.

My thoughts were only of you.

‘You are losing a little blood, my dear. The heparin is being troublesome but we have it under control,’ a doctor reassured. I had been on various anti-coagulants since I began to suffer clots in my legs several years ago. One day I awoke to a swollen ankle, and that was that. I was at risk. A life-threatening risk, a doctor would bluntly advise. A little mass of misguided platelets, doing as designed but risking the very life they sought to repair.

Nevertheless my thoughts were only of you. Welcome. How are you? It is very nice to meet you. Welcome. These were my last thoughts before I lost consciousness. The stage was not yet big enough for the both of us. The light was all yours.

 

I awoke to a darkened room, the bedside aglow with monitors whose font resembled advertising neon. The soft thrum of the air conditioning felt deceptive given the staleness of air and moderate temperature. Its empty sound was all I heard and within the dissatisfaction I was reminded of exactly where I was, and who I was missing. Your name I called as I searched for and pressed the buzzer by my side.

‘How are you?’ a nurse asked as she entered. She swept to the IV on my right, weighing its contents with one hand whilst tracing its tubing with the other. My wrist was soon in her gentle grip feeling for the glub glub of my blood measured against the sight of her watch. She smiled. Her question was rhetorical, she would know if anything were wrong.

‘When is it? Where is my baby?’ I asked.

‘It’s 11 pm. You’ve been out just over a day. It’s Tuesday now, you came in on Sunday. You are doing well now. Your baby is healthy across the hall. I think they’ll be letting you go tomorrow.’

‘Can I hold him?’ I asked.

‘Sure.’ The nurse departed to return with my desire. ‘What’s his name?’

‘Francis.’

‘Isn’t that a girl’s name?’

‘It can be for both. I gave him that name because I didn’t know if it was going to be a boy or a girl. My only preference was for a child. It’s Francesca, Fran, and Frances that’s girly.’

I lifted your hand Francis and it fell to rest in the centre of my palm, just where a magician holds their coin. I thought if we played rock-paper-scissors I could choose paper, and would always win. My giant paper envelope would nullify any configuration you chose. Life is not always fair and you would one day break my heart.

‘Francis, you are perfect,’ I declared.

The nurse smiled. ‘I’ll be checking in on you every couple of hours. If there’s anything you need, then please just press that buzzer by your bedside.’

You were asleep through it all Francis. Through my examination and whispers you were probably unaware. But I raise no complaint because it was only joy. You lay there asleep upon the rise and fall of my chest and I thought to join you as I allowed myself to drift and fade into the night.

 

The next morning I heard footsteps shuffle into my room.

‘Good morning sleepy head,’ a man said.

I was already awake and had heard him, but far more attractive was keeping my eyes closed and focusing on your presence in my arms.

‘Good morning!’ the man called again. Someone gave my big toe a squeeze for good measure.

‘Hi,’ I replied.

I opened my eyes to see Dr Shaun’s arched form standing by the end of the bed. He studied the chart in his hands without expression and then made eye contact over the rim of his glasses.

‘All appears in order and we’re happy with where you are. You are both ready to go home later today,’ he said.

I willingly misunderstood. I too was happy with our location, I liked that we were being cared for and our needs attended to.

‘Can we stay a little longer?’ I suggested.

The nurse detected my disappointment.

‘It is hard, there is a day devoted to mothers after all, but you’ll be fine,’ she attempted. ‘We’ll have your possessions ready, and can call you a cab.’

‘Thank you,’ I obliged.

‘My wife just had a baby, it is a wonderful time. Will your husband be home?’ the cab driver said, a few minutes into the journey.

‘Um, no. It will just be us.’

‘When is he coming home?’ he continued.

‘Um, no. It’s just me. Me and the baby, alone.’

‘Oh.’

His shoulders tightened and his gaze upon the road became more intent. It almost felt as if I should apologise for his embarrassment. The rest of the trip remained silent but for the voice of the GPS and the tick of the fare meter.

We pulled up outside my home. The driver, whose discomfort still lingered, could not seem to look me in the eye.

‘How much?’ I diverted.

‘Um, have it on the house, miss. It is the least I can do.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Positive,’ he said with greater footing.

‘Thank you.’

I carried you, Francis, for nine months without struggle. But now as I carried you to the front door, my, were you heavy! I realise now how weak I was then, such was the focus of my attention. I pushed open the door to a greeting of stillness and quiet. A stain at the centre of the lounge rug marked where my water broke. You began to cry.

I rested the bassinet on the dining table and lifted you out. I was struck again by how utterly unique you were. I imagined that even if I wanted to, you would be impossible to ignore. There would never be another like you given the infinite possibilities that added and wrestled their way into your creation.

‘Baby, what is it? This is home. Welcome to you. You and me. You and me now,’ I said, ‘You and me.’

Your cry eased, your face lost its creases. The bridge of you nose reminded me of a crinkle cut chip that decided to become one that was smooth. Do you remember the tune I hummed as I held you? We swayed with my knees as springs, our first dance.

‘Let me take you to your bedroom,’ I whispered. Your space I had prepared for so long! Clotted cream were the walls painted to the nine foot ceiling the colour of midnight. Galaxy patterned cornices of moons, planets, and stars surrounded the sky. You could always dream and would always be free. A cot, a rocker, table for changing, dresser, toys, mobile, dust bin, and lamp were at your service. I placed you sleeping Francis inside the cot, the faint expansion and compression of your chest told me I was no longer alone.

 

For the time we had together your father never came to visit. From the moment he knew that you were coming, a coldness was apparent in his touch. Contact was initiated more from my side, our conversations became increasingly brief, and messages were more typical than meetings. He never really even said goodbye, but just gradually disappeared.

There was common ground despite the thirty five year difference between the two of you. You were both confronted with the unfamiliar, and the expressions when each or you perceived distress or pleasure were undeniably similar. The comparison made him look infantile, and you, Francis, were imparted with a mature quality. You did far better than him. A light you shone where it was dark. An upswing you provided in a frightening descent. Hope and purpose you restored. A gift you were, but one that I could not keep.

 

It started with a peculiar morning. My alarm did not wake me, you did not wake me. The day instead arrived with a broadly lit room and the roar of a sports crowd from the neighbouring field, their cheers and groans rolled through the air. My intuition was the first to assert that this was not my life. I wake up earlier and differently, my thoughts gathered and became desperate for you. I immediately leapt from bed and made for your room.

I found you cold and silent. Without cravings, without curiosities. Lifeless you were, and in bottomless agony I realised that your company was gone forever. My Francis. There are not enough tears to wash this pain away. Everything that you were was taken by what they called a Sudden Infant Death. Each of these words speak with an increasing tragedy and grief, that without warning, you, were gone.

Was this your secret plan all along? Did you dislike the circumstances you were in? Could I have done better? Was it simply that I was not good enough? They said that being a mother would be a difficult and heavy burden, but the curse of once being a mother is terrifying. Maybe my mum could sense my crying. She called that day.

‘Laura?’

‘Mum,’ I sobbed.

‘Oh darling, what is it?’

‘Francis is gone mum. He is gone.’

 

You are gone Francis, but just as my memories and emotions can endure the passing of time, so too will I always remember you and me.

 

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From Slipstream, Kylie Nealon

Slipstream is a Young Adult novel, set in a parallel contemporary society, in which teenagers with ‘extra’ abilities are being recruited as part of an elite programme. At the d’Orsay Academy in central London, Scarlett, the protagonist, and her peers attend the corporation’s ‘school.’ We follow Scarlett and her three friends as they explore their new-found abilities within an organisation that is rigid about how their talents should be used. This leads to the questioning of what each of them knows about themselves, where their moral boundaries lie, and how far each of them will go to protect what is important to them. 

 

Chapter Five

‘Jeez,’ Scarlett shivered in her jacket as they gathered later that day in the courtyard, ‘this is summer?’

Conor looked a little insulted. ‘Do I look like I’m controlling the weather here? This is England, not the Outback. If you want someone to direct your complaints to, I’d suggest you blame global warming.’

He made it sound like global warming was a company with a customer services department, and she was amused by the thought. Mike interrupted them, clearly impatient to get going.

‘Why are we talking about the weather? Let’s go already,’ he said, shoving his hands into his pockets. ‘You’ve got the picture, right?’

Scarlett nodded and pulled out the folded up image of the Manhattan comic store. She’d spent the afternoon studying the picture, ignoring the algebraic equations she was meant to be doing.

‘Okay,’ she said, ignoring the niggling voice that was telling her that this was a really bad idea. ‘Take my hand,’ she told them and Conor grabbed Lena’s hand. Scarlett bit back a smile. Mike let out a dramatic sigh and took her hand. His fingers felt a little clammy wrapped around hers and Scarlett tried to ignore the dampness. Other than that, he gave no outward sign of nerves, and for a brief second, she envied him.

‘Don’t let go, no matter what.’ Scarlett took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Letting her mind relax, she recalled Mike’s picture. She saw the store with its canvas awning and battered trim take shape in her head as the sound of cars, pedestrians and faint music drifted in. So far, so good, she told herself. No sign of anything out of the ordinary. The ground shifted, and the smells of a city that ran on smoke and gasoline brought the image in her head to life. Cracking one eye open, Scarlett peered out. The other three seemed to be holding their breaths, and Mike’s grip was becoming uncomfortable.

‘Yes!’ she said, more than a little pleased with herself. ‘You guys can open your eyes.’

The other three opened their eyes, and Mike dropped his hands, breaking their circle as soon as he spotted the store. The looks on their faces confirmed they hadn’t really believed that she could pull it off. As she stood there, smug in her achievement, the others broke away, wandering off to check out their surroundings.

‘Stay connected!’ Scarlett said, sounding sharper than she intended. Even to her, her voice sounded like it was coming from somebody else. She softened it a little. ‘At least until we get to the door, okay?’

‘Don’t you think that’s going to look a little weird? I mean, I’m fine with the holding hands thing now,’ Mike said, briefly scowling at Conor as if daring him to contradict him, and then turned back to Scarlett to continue. ‘I mean, we can’t walk in there together holding hands.’

Scarlett bit her lip. ‘We have to stay together. What happens if someone wanders off and gets caught?’

He raised an eyebrow, as if to say something, but changed his mind, and nodded his reluctant consent. He grabbed Lena’s hand and shuffled over to the store’s window. A fleeting look of jealousy crossed Conor’s face. Scarlett saw the stiffness in Lena’s body as she stood there with Mike, which loosened just a smidgeon as she let out a small giggle at something Mike said. Walking over to them, Conor unwound his scarf and handed it to Mike. ‘Here, wear this. If you’ve got something of mine, you should be okay.’ Mike looked at him, surveying him, as if waiting for the sarcastic comment to follow. Lena dropped her hand, a faint blush staining her cheeks.

‘Thanks, man.’ He shrugged and wound the scarf around his neck. The biting wind was finding its way in to the nooks and crannies, and Scarlett envied the warmth he had around his neck.

‘That was nice of you,’ she said to Conor, her voice low.

He shrugged. “Nice’ wasn’t why I did it,’ he said, giving her a sly, knowing smile.

‘Um, maybe we could go inside now?’ Mike asked them, his tone plaintive.

‘Yeah, sorry. Let’s go,’ Scarlett said as Mike, finally given permission, almost took the door off its hinges in his haste to get inside. Mike headed over to the ‘new release’ section, and, having found what he was looking for, was making strangled noises of rapturous pleasure that set Lena off in a flood of giggles. Looking around, Scarlett saw that every available space of the shop was crammed with comics, posters and young guys, hanging out, flicking through the vast selection. To her relief, nobody had given them or their appearances a second glance, and she felt her shoulders sink away from her ears a few millimeters.

‘This is seriously boring,’ Conor announced. ‘What are we meant to do now? Wait for him to finish his private moment? I’m out.’ He looked at Scarlett, as if waiting for her to disagree, given her earlier warning about staying together. She said nothing, and he smiled. ‘Let’s check out next door. Some kind of music shop, I think.’

‘Yeah, but only next door,’ Scarlett warned. They made their way over to Mike, who was poring over each page in a reverential manner that Scarlett found a little uncomfortable.

‘Hey,’ Scarlett said, keeping her voice down. They’d pretty much gotten away with being here, and the last thing she needed was her accent being picked up on. ‘We’re going next door, but we’ll be back in ten minutes, okay?’ He nodded, only half hearing her and she gestured to Lena.

‘Thank you,’ she said to Scarlett as they left. ‘I’m not sure how much longer I would have lasted in there.’

‘Me neither,’ Scarlett replied, ‘so not my thing.’

The record shop was next door, and they stood aside to let someone come out, an old-school LP tucked under his arm.

‘Wow, this is totally retro,’ Scarlett said to Conor. This was more like it, she thought.

‘Tell me about it,’ Conor replied. They headed over to the ‘new music’ section and began flicking through the new releases, laughing over the photos on the covers, filled with people in lurid clothing and big hair. The look of the day seemed to be girls working bows in their hair and massive skirts, with the boys rocking gelled hair and knitted cardigans. Scarlett picked up an LP of Bobby Rydel’s Greatest Hits, looking like he’d stepped out of the movie, Grease.

Dropping it back in to its slot, she picked up a smaller 45 record and scrutinised the label. ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight),’she read out loud. ‘Oh, come on. That can’t be real.’

Conor leaned over her shoulder and sniggered. ‘Where did they come up with these titles?’

Lena leaned in. ‘What do you reckon our kids will think of the stuff we listen to now?’

Scarlett shoved the LP back into the section she’d pulled it out of and pulled another one out. ‘It can’t be any worse than these,’ she told her. ‘I’m Gonna Knock On Your Door,she read. Conor joined in.

You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, he told Lena, who blushed.

They traded titles back and forth for a few minutes until they were interrupted by the arrival of Mike, who looked more than a little flustered.

‘We have to go,’ he said. His eyes were glittery and red patches had stained his cheeks. He looked like he’d run five miles, not from next door.

‘Why?’ asked Scarlett, ‘where’s the fire?’ She slid the record she’d been holding back in to its slot, a small frisson of alarm shooting up from her stomach.

He glanced around. ‘We have to go, like, now, okay? I’ll explain when we get back.’

Lena and Conor had come over to see what the fuss was about. ‘What’s the deal?’ Conor said. ‘Annoy the crap out of someone else with your comic-book back-stories?’

Mike looked a little annoyed. ‘No, I didn’t, but thanks for asking. It wasn’t my fault,’ he began to elaborate but Scarlett cut him off with a wave of her hand.

‘Just stop talking now, okay?’ She saw the scowl cross his face and knew he’d stuffed up — big time. ‘You’re an idiot,’ she stated. ‘No,’ she held up one finger, ‘that’s not up for debate. I guess we need to get out of here pretty quick, then?’

‘Yeah, like now, okay?’ He glanced over to the window and they all turned to see a few of the boys from the comic shop, peering through the glass to see if he was in there.

‘Why did we go with this choice again?’ Scarlett asked nobody in particular. ‘Come on,’ she told the other two, ignoring Mike. She nodded at Conor, and as he pushed open the door, he reached behind him and linked hands with Scarlett, who grabbed Lena. Mike was lurking at the back of them all and seemed hesitant to go back out. Lena grabbed his hand and they walked out, primary-school style, onto the sidewalk. Conor’s scarf, still around Mike’s neck, snagged on the doorframe, and tugged itself free.

The boys looked down, stunned, before picking it up and talking in excited tones that didn’t sound good at all.

‘Leave it,’ Scarlett told him, ‘just keep moving.’

‘But-’ he tried to say.

‘Well, we’re stuffed now,’ Conor said, his voice sounding a little sick. ‘I think we’re going to have to make a quick exit. And we can’t do it stuck together. When I count to three, we’re going to run for that alley, okay?’ He indicated a small opening about a hundred meters ahead of them to the left.

‘Why?’ asked Mike. ‘Why can’t you just get us back from here?’ he said to Scarlett.

‘Because I can’t just stand in the middle of a sidewalk with people walking into me, can I?’ she said. ‘I need some space. And Lena’s not up to lifting all four of us just yet. So we head for the alley.’

‘Yep,’ Lena agreed. ‘Let’s just get out of here.’ She glanced back at the boys. ‘Like now.’

‘Agreed,’ Mike said, his voice high with tension. Scarlett was seething. Angry with Mike, she was mostly annoyed with herself. So stupid, she thought. Conor broke the link and the four of them became visible again. Not the most discreet exit, Scarlett thought, looking around at the startled looks from the pedestrians who were disconcerted to find human-shaped roadblocks appearing in their paths. The group of boys spotted Mike on the sidewalk and began walking towards him as if he were some kind of Messiah. One of them was holding Conor’s scarf.

‘Jeez,’ Mike said, nervous. ‘This is not what I had in mind.’

‘Yeah?’ said Conor, ‘And what did you have in mind, exactly? Drop a few hints, look like the big man?’ They were moving along the sidewalk, trying not to run but not far from it. The boys were dodging pedestrians, their pace picking up.

‘Shut up, okay?’ Mike said, a little out of breath. ‘Maybe if you’d stayed in the shop with me instead of wanting to spend a little more time with your girlfriend, none of this would’ve happened and we wouldn’t be running along the street like criminals.’

Scarlett reached the alley and pulled Lena in, giving Mike an extra shove for his stupidity as he came past her. He stumbled, but didn’t say anything as he shot her a dirty look. They took a few seconds to get their breath back along a dirty brick wall, the entrance of which was partially concealed by large rubbish bins. It looked like the gods of time travel had come through for them, Scarlett thought. Nobody would think to come down here, surely. The first to recover, Mike ducked back to the entrance and peered around the corner, scanning the sidewalk. ‘I think they’re gone,’ he announced, a confident tone evident.

‘Not so fast,’ Conor said, pointing. The boys were beginning to gather, and they could hear the excited babble of noise and shouting as they tried to get Mike’s attention.

As the group advanced, Scarlett grabbed Conor’s hand. ‘Join hands,’ she instructed them all, ‘and stay quiet. This is going to be hard enough.’ They nodded and she shut her eyes, but couldn’t block out the sound of the strangled sounds of concern from around her. Focusing harder than she ever had before, she pictured her room at d’Orsay, and the world around them began to dissolve. The shouts from the boys began to fade and the ground disappeared and reappeared underneath her feet. She caught the lingering smell of her perfume and the wet towel she’d tossed over her desk chair earlier that morning. She opened her eyes with a sigh of relief.

‘We’re here,’ she told them, as the others opened their eyes, mirroring her relief. Mike looked around.

‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Tidiness is not your strong point, is it?’ as he took in her scattered belongings.

‘How about you keep your mouth shut?’ she countered. ‘You’re not exactly in my good books right now.’

He sat down on the edge of the bed, tossing a few clothes on to the floor as he did so. Lena took the desk chair and Conor sat on the floor, cross-legged. All three of them sat, waiting.

‘Well, that was exciting,’ Conor said, breaking the silence, sarcasm dripping from every word. ‘What’d you do to get them so wound up?’

Mike cleared his throat. ‘Nothing. I mean, I got talking to one of the guys in there and I kind of forgot they don’t know what’s going to happen. And maybe I got a bit carried away. But it’s not like I did it deliberately,’ he said to Scarlett, indignant.

‘Yeah, that makes it all okay, then,’ she told him. ‘Look, Maggie told me that if I started playing around with anything when I went time-travelling, then things here would change. So I don’t know what this means, but it can’t be good.’

‘Weeeelll,’ Mike began, ‘I guess this isn’t good, either.’ He drew out the first edition of The Fantastic Four a little crumpled, from inside his jacket. For a minute, nobody spoke. Lena let out a strangled sound, and Scarlett caught her look, as though afraid of an explosion.

But Scarlett felt like someone had zapped every last bit of energy from her. All she wanted to do was throw up. Taking a few deep breaths, the others waited to see what she’d do. Lena eventually got up to sit next to her, clearly concerned at her silence, but Scarlett held up her hand to stop her, and the other girl stopped and sat down again.

‘Did I not tell you to just go and read it and then we’d come back?’ she asked Mike. ‘Why would you do that?’ All of a sudden, she felt incredibly tired. ‘That’s it for me. I’m so out of here.’ Why am I so surprised at him? He’s only doing what I knew he would. Tom would be so disappointed in her, she knew.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, sounding a little contrite. ‘I didn’t think it’d make that much of a difference. I thought that you were exaggerating.’ His voice trailed off as he finally grasped the enormity of his error.

Conor shook his head. ‘Man, for a smart guy, you are seriously slow on the uptake. Why couldn’t you just leave it there?’

Mike looked miserable. ‘I couldn’t. It’s a first edition. Does this mean that I’ll have to give it back?’

Give it back? That’s what you’re worried about? Yeah, you could say that!’ Scarlett leaned over and snatched it out of his hands. ‘Give me that!’ The comic felt like it was pulsing with some kind of energy between her hands.

A knock sounded at the door, startling them.

Scarlett swallowed and opened the door. Gil was standing there, with a look that seemed to go beyond ordinary anger. He scanned over the rest of them before coming back to rest his attention on Scarlett.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back. Scarlett, I’d like a word, please?’ The formality of his words belied the bristly body language, arms crossed, and a mottled pattern creeping up his neck as he bit back on elaborating.

‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘There’s no point delaying the inevitable. And you three,’ he said, directing his attention to the others who were now hovering in the hallway, ‘go and wait in the common room. Your Mentors are looking for you as we speak. And I’ll take that, too,’ he said, reaching for the comic. He glanced at the cover. ‘I’d have been disappointed if it’d been a DC one.’ Mike looked surprised, but closed his mouth as he saw the expression on Gil’s face. The older man sighed, as if suppressing some other emotion. ‘You just couldn’t leave it alone, could you?’ he asked them, his voice holding a thread of fear in it. He looked up at her. ‘What have you done, Scarlett?’

 

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Grace’s Room, Emma Dorreen

The edges of the house are indistinct — no matter how hard I look. It seems American though: solid, large, old. Not what we’re used to. It has two storeys, plus an attic. Stone stairs ascend to a deep porch. Large windows front generous rooms. I can see no context to the house — no neighbours, street, or garden even. Inside, a long hallway — hardwood boards — leads to a substantial timber staircase.

Other details are vague, colourless. I’m uneasy in the house. I know there is a room here that I dread. Above. It is on the attic floor, under the eaves. This room and the stairs to it are clear and precise. Inevitable. My skin creeps with the knowledge of the room. I gather all my courage, on an intake of breath, and look up the stairs: the long flight to the first floor landing, the shorter one leading only to the small door. There it is. It repels me.

I convince myself to climb. I don’t want to. But I make it up the first flight. Then pause. Then a few more stairs. Almost all the way, just four steps shy of the top. I don’t want to look. But I have to. Look into the room. It is empty, except for one small metal chair. There’s no window. The low ceiling slopes to the right. The carpet is stained in gruesome patches and bears the marks of long-gone furniture. I want to be sick. The wallpaper is old, nasty, peeling, a faded figure of a daisy repeats itself; to the left then right, over and over. The print register is slightly off. The whole effect makes the room seem even smaller. Airless. Suffocating. The room is empty, bland, yet I sense crushing hands at my throat and the worst horror I can imagine.

All the time I am in the house, I feel the threat of this room above me. I visit in my dreams, often.

 

‘You never want to hear about the dream.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘You say that it’s not important.’

‘Well… is it?’

She saw a flash of impatience disturb his carefully composed face. Kate was not going to answer. She wanted to win one. She listened to a single car glide past, down on the wet street below. The ticking clock on the wall grew louder to fill the silence. He tapped the rubber end of the pencil on the edge of the desk. Eventually, he began.

‘Why don’t you tell me about the dog?’

A win then, though Kate did not want to remember the dog.

‘I’ll tell you about Jodie Metzler.’

The pencil grew still, poised and ready. ‘You never liked her.’

‘No I did not.’

‘You thought she was a bad influence. A threat.’

‘At the beginning, I was pleased that Grace had a friend.’

‘That was Britney.’

‘Yes, Britney. Metzler. The daughter. Nice enough kid. But so perfect, you know? Perfect hair, and teeth and skin and perfect little bosoms she liked to show off.’ Kate was on surer ground.

‘Anyway, Jodie. The first time I met her, was through the window of my car when I picked up Grace from school. She — Grace, I mean — had been asking to visit her new friend. I was reluctant. Hadn’t met the family. But then, this woman thrust her head through the car window and introduced herself. Shook my hand actually. Pushy. I thought she looked like a TV evangelist’s wife.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘You know, lacquered hair, too much makeup, glue-on fingernails. Perfect, but everything fake.’

‘You let her go,’ he prompted.

‘Yes, I let Grace go. She was so excited. We’d been in town for six weeks and this was her first friend. It’s my fault; I’ll admit I am a bit of a hermit. Grace is much more outgoing. And I knew she’d been staying home so much on my account, to keep me happy.’ Kate paused. She pushed her thumb up deep into her right eye socket, under the brow, to stem the coming ache. Surely that was enough for now, but he would, as always, keep pushing.

‘Can I get you something for that?’

‘How about a taxi to the airport?’ He didn’t even smile at the joke.

‘It was hard for you,’ he continued. The pencil was on its side, being rolled slowly back and forth with slender fingers.

‘Yes.’

‘To let her go.’

‘Yes.’

He was sitting to the side of the desk, close to the pencils in their perfect white cup. Every pencil sharp and new. Sitting with an ankle crossed over a knee, carefully casual. She often wondered what he thought of her. Crazy? Paranoid? A hopeless old wreck of a once-attractive woman? Did she care?

‘Hard for you. But it went well?’

‘I suppose. I waited for her by the window. I didn’t know quite what to do with myself — that sounds funny doesn’t it? Silly, overprotective mother. Eventually Jodie dropped her home and Grace spent the rest of the evening talking about Britney and her house and all the cool things they had.’

‘Did James ever meet her?’

‘No. As you know, he is away a lot. And flying long haul is tiring work. When he comes home, he likes everything to be peaceful. So we have lovely dinners at home. Just us. Lovely family time.

‘So it didn’t matter so much about New York. It had sounded like an adventure when James first suggested it. I’d thought it would be like being 25 again, visiting galleries, restaurants, all that thrilling noise and activity. In reality, though, Montville was much better for us. Good schools, quiet, handy for James for Newark. And I could always do a day trip to Manhattan. If I felt like it.’

‘Did you? Did you go?’

‘I did go. I didn’t stay. Too many people.’

He stopped fiddling with the pencil and wrote a note in his book. He didn’t do that very often any more.

‘You enjoyed the move?’

‘I… It’s very different to home. The seasons are opposite. They drive on the other side of the road. All the sounds are different. Like, in the morning, the birds, the garbage trucks…’

Kate turned and looked out the window, as if to confirm her idea of this difference. Grey, prematurely dark, the occasional passing car made a too-quiet swish as it cruised the wet road. Her whole new world a mystery behind fog and drizzle and unknown strangers behind closed front doors.

‘Do you want to talk about Grace?’

‘What’s the time? Do we have time?’ Kate stood straight up from her chair. ‘I need to go collect her.’

‘You forget. Relax. There’s no rush.’

‘Okay then,’ Kate smiled, sat. ‘You know I like to talk about Grace. She is properly beautiful, you know. Naturally. She doesn’t need to paint herself up, though her skin is going through that difficult time just now. She’s incredibly bright, “conscientious” — all her teachers say that. She can be a bit of a dork; I mean what sort of a girl still tells terrible corny jokes at 14? Just… the other day, for example, she said to me “What’s brown and sticky?” Do you know the answer?’

‘You tell me.’

‘A stick! I laughed so hard I choked on my cereal. A stick! Still makes me laugh. I know parents who look forward to their children leaving them but I never would. We do everything together. We even share a bed sometimes when James is away. I really have to go though. Can I see you tomorrow?’

‘Can we talk about the dog then?’

Kate would not reply.

‘Come tomorrow,’ he said. ‘I’ll be waiting for you.’

 

I climb the long staircase. Slowly. My feet are leaden and the effort of each difficult step makes me want to retch. Sometimes I stop, breathe slowly. In, out. I distract myself by picking some lint from the stair, or examining my fingernails, as I take one more sickening step. Finally, I make it all the way to the top. I surprise myself. I am standing just a few paces from the open door of the room. The busy wallpaper seems to twitch, in time with the beating of my pulse. There’s a ringing in my ears. The carpet stains are grotesque. Suggestive. Animated — did they reach for me? Something very bad has happened here.

 

‘You had a good night?’ He was looking at her, but the computer screen reflected blue in his glasses and she couldn’t see his eyes.

‘Yes, I slept well.’ Liar.

‘No bad dreams?’

‘You don’t want to hear about that.’

‘As you say.’ He smiled… reassuringly, Kate supposed. ‘Let’s pick up where we left off then. Grace was spending more time with the Metzlers.’

‘Yes, more time…’ The room was quite dark, apart from the glow of the computer. Outside, the grey sky was thickening to black with impending rain, making an early dusk. Kate felt, foolishly, that she was attracting the gloomy weather. But she must try, must give him something today.

‘Jodie,’ she began. ‘She’d do anything for us. Always a bit pushy, she’d break down all my excuses. You know, “Grace can do her homework here”, “we can give her dinner”, that kind of thing. The girls went bowling, to the movies. Jodie would drop Grace home. Very occasionally I was in the Metzler house — one of those big old timber places on Horseneck Road. I’d always be taken to the “parlour”, given a cold drink. I could look at all their happy family photographs and china collectibles, but I never saw much of the rest of the place. Jodie was always “super nice” though. Much too nice. That’s always suspicious, isn’t it? Being too nice? Like people who always say “I’d never lie to you”. Don’t you think?’

‘I wouldn’t know.’

‘You must have some opinion on that, some educated view?’

He only smiled. The blue light reflected off his glasses, so the eyes didn’t join in. ‘Please carry on.’

‘I’d like to. I’ll try. So. All Grace could talk about was the Metzlers. You know — how great they were. All the things in their lives that were so different to ours. I was losing. Then, one day, she asked if she could go to “service” with them — they’re into some born-again Christian outfit that sounds like a cult. I really didn’t like the sound of that. I said “no”.’

‘Until?’

‘I never said “yes”. But that’s enough.’ That was as far as she could go, in this miserable weather. Outside, the streetlights reflected off wet black asphalt. Her arms were folded, eyes far away.

‘So short today?’ He may have been annoyed but Kate couldn’t tell, couldn’t see his eyes. ‘Can we talk longer tomorrow? Can we talk about the dog?’

 

It is a dreadful effort, climbing all the long stairs to the room. Crossing the threshold is hardest of all. It requires incredible strength. There is a force pushing me back, a force I can’t see. Like heading into a wind strong enough to knock you down. The air is solid, pushing at me. I force my body sideways to make progress through the mass. There’s a screaming in my ears, terrifying. I cover my ears. I cower. The wallpaper swirls and throbs. Dirty brown daisies won’t stay still. There is nothing here, yet something. Something evil. I want to flee. Run. The force of the room finally pushes me back out the door, invisible hands pushing and shoving. Out, headlong, I stumble down stairs, through the hallway, outside into bright day. I don’t look back.

 

‘Do you believe some people can see the future? Psychics, that stuff?’ She sat straighter in the chair today.

‘That’s an interesting question; what makes you ask?’ He had returned to his pencils, holding one midway, between index and middle fingers, flipping it left/right/left/right. It was still raining outside. So much moisture: the air itself a solid thing after all the rain.

‘Forget it. Forget I said anything.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I do.’

‘Okay then. Can we talk about the dog?’

‘I’ll start with Jodie.’

‘Whatever makes you comfortable.’

‘I’m trying to do a good job, you know.’

‘Yes, I can see that.’

‘I’m trying to get things straight. I don’t sleep right. I dream. Which I know is irrelevant. But I know there was something bad about that room…’ Kate took a moment. She looked at her hands in her lap. She had a tissue already, balled up tight in her fist. She exhaled.

‘That Saturday, then, Grace was over with the Metzlers. I knew something wasn’t right. Grace had been excited about this visit, but trying not to show it. Jodie picked her up — my car was having some work done on it. She, Jodie, looked like she was hiding something.’

‘Was that important?’

‘Yes, it was fucking important.’ The pencil tapping grew stronger. He was unimpressed.

‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the bad language. Anyway, late in the afternoon, when I was expecting Grace, I got a call from Jodie. One of those “Face Time” calls, so I could see her shiny, fake face on my phone. She wants to know if Grace can stay overnight. They’ll look after her. They’re at a special retreat with their church. You know, that huge, weird Christian place out near the football club? Jodie said there was going to be barbecue and a movie and that the girls really wanted to stay.’ Kate’s attention drifted out to the wet street past the window. He drew her back in.

‘And then?’

‘And then — I noticed the wallpaper.’

‘What wallpaper?’

‘You know, from my dream. From the room. The daisy wallpaper I told you all about.’

‘You could see wallpaper pattern on a smart phone?’

‘You don’t believe me.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

Kate had had enough of this. No one ever heard her. So she would be silent. Arms folded again.

‘I apologise,’ he said. Kate was unmoved. ‘Please continue. I’m really very sorry.’

‘You’re so smart. Tell me,’ she put her hands on his desk, ‘if the room with the wallpaper is not important, why do I dream about it every goddamn night?’

‘I guess it must be important then.’ He was rolling his pencil again, with his piano-player fingers.

‘You don’t believe me. No one believes me. No one ever listens.’

‘That’s not true. I am listening. Please continue.’

‘Someone needs to find the room. Please.’ Kate un-balled her tissue and blew her nose gently.

‘If we could just put the issue of the room to one side,’ he said, ‘could we continue? I know you’re doing your best. We will work it out, you’ll see.’

‘All right. Yes. My best. I’ll try.’ A deep breath. It would be a heroic effort. ‘Well, behind Jodie was that wallpaper I hated and I knew right away that Grace was in danger. I was terrified. I tried to ask very calmly to speak to Grace. Jodie made excuses, but I said she wouldn’t be allowed to stay unless I spoke to her. Eventually, she did put her on. I told Grace to get out — to escape. She was in danger from these people. I’d always known it. I needed her home with me. Just “get out, get out, get out of that place and come home and I’ll explain later.” She told me not to worry.

‘I went to get my keys then remembered my car wasn’t there. I panicked. I tried ringing three taxi companies before finding one that would take me — it was a busy Saturday evening. I couldn’t bear the wait. I just wanted to run the five miles and get my daughter out of that place. But if I ran, the taxi would turn up and I wouldn’t be there and it would take even longer.

‘Finally, the taxi arrived. I practically screamed at the driver to hurry. It was dark by then and the roads were wet, with all the lights reflecting off the black asphalt. We had to go down residential streets to get out to the Metzler’s church and they’re not well lit. I kept urging the driver to hurry.

‘That’s when the dog ran out in front of the taxi. We hit it. We had to stop. I was desperate to carry on to Grace, but the driver insisted that we stop and take care of the damn dog. Even though it was already dead. So I went rushing from house to house, knocking on doors, shouting, screaming, tripping over hedges, trying to raise the alarm and find the dog owner. I had to get to Grace. No one answered their damn door. No one came to help. My daughter was in terrible danger. My knuckles were bleeding from knocking on doors. I didn’t know what to do.’

Kate had the back of her hand to her wet face, sucking the remembered blood.

‘Look at the dog.’

‘No.’

‘Look properly.’

‘It’s just a mutt. A stupid cross-bred mutt that had run out onto the wrong side of the road. You see, the traffic is all on the wrong side. Its bicycle was completely twisted and broken.’

 

Now the pencil was put away, back in its white cup. He had a reassuring hand on hers.

 

‘It’s in our house,’ Kate remembered.

‘Yes.’

‘The room.’

‘Yes.’

‘It’s our rented house. Of course. That room is there at the top of the stairs.’

‘You know it well.’ He smiled. She was doing a good job. He was pleased with her. She’d come back to the place she didn’t want to be.

‘Yes. I spent days and days in the attic room with the door locked, just looking at the wallpaper. She was coming home to me, you see. Borrowed a bike. She was a good girl. She knew I needed her home.

‘But she looked the wrong way — the cars are all on the wrong side of the road. I remember it straight this time.’

 

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