Category Archives: Long short story

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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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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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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Cold Current, Melissa Farrell

She still dreams of him. They are always at the beach house, the soundtrack of the ocean thundering in the distance. The light is unusually bright, creating a shimmering incandescence. When he comes to her, his hair is wet from the sea and she can taste the saltiness of him. He will hold her close and she once again feels that sense of place. As she slowly wakes, she will linger in the haze of him, in the feeling that all is right again, until that moment when cold clarity reaches in and sweeps him away and the incredible emptiness returns.

 

Anna is running late. She had set the alarm, but a silky slumber enfolded her, easing her back into a forgotten dream. Time is nagging as she rummages through the wardrobe for a blouse to wear. She pulls a black stretchy one with lacy sleeves from a hanger, unsuitable for a Saturday morning breakfast with her friends, but needing no ironing, it will do.

Twenty minutes later, Anna is on the monorail streaming towards the tall towers of the inner city. The latest news reports are flashing on the telly-screens, but she watches through the window as the suburbs slide by, at the movements of the people at ease in the world that surrounds them. A man glides a sudsy sponge across the bonnet of a car; a girl rides her bike through the flickering shadows of overhanging trees; an old couple sit close and cryptic on a park bench; children splash in the clear water of a backyard pool; a woman stretches to hang washing on a clothesline. As the images flash by, Anna knows it is more than a window that separates her from that world.

Her phone vibrates. It will be one of her friends checking in on her, making sure she is on her way. She wonders how much longer their patience will last. Surely there is a use-by-date for sympathy, a time where they will congregate together and shout ‘enough’. She hates that she has become a worry to her friends who are watching her closely, waiting for some sign that she has returned to a sense of the world. They try to coax her back with inclusions in the various events, the birthdays, the dinners, the get-togethers, but it is the very consistency of their lives that makes her more aware of the changes in hers, the fluidity of their connections that makes her isolation more acute.

Time is supposed to dilute pain, to diffuse its severe shape, to take you in its flow until the pain is just a whispery ghost left drifting in the current. Time is passing, but it is leaving her behind. The flux and surge of life is sweeping everyone along, while she treads water, just managing to stay afloat on the tides that surround her. Sometimes she is surprised that she is still bobbing about on the surface, that what lurks in the depths below has not pulled her down, or that she has not allowed herself to slide under, to simply slip away, just like Daniel. She still euphemises, still avoids some words. He died. Daniel is dead and he has been for a whole year today.

Was it only a little over a year ago that after all treatments had failed, she had pulled him from the tubes and the fluorescent world of doctors and chemicals that had claimed him? She had salvaged what was left of him, taking him home to the beach house for those last days. She held him at night and sat with him on the deck by day, looking out at the ocean, watching the deep green waves rise up before smashing into a white foam on the heavy rocks below. The movement of the ocean had energised him, connected him once again to the young man he was before illness rushed him prematurely to the end of his life to die at thirty-four years old.

What gets her up in the morning and dresses her and moves her through each day is a gossamer awareness of the potential for her own ending. The quiescence of this idea whispering its promise is what keeps her persevering even though the façade of the everyday, the routines people build around themselves as a barrier against the pure mystery of life, has worn away and she is only aware of the empty chasm left in its place. She maintains this holding pattern while she waits for something to align itself, or for an idea to shape itself into an action.

Once again Anna sees her mother reclined across the unmade bed. She had looked so tranquil, her face holding none of the usual harsh angles. Anna had stood over the bed, watching, not wanting to wake her, not wanting to disturb the peace her mother had found. It was only later that she discovered her mother had taken enough sleeping pills to ensure that she would never wake again. The idea that some sort of inherited flaw could lead her to the same end, could allow her to take the same facile way out, disturbs Anna. She wonders too if she would be able to readily discard the hallowed gist of life that she and Daniel had fought so hard to hold onto over the three long years of his illness.

The word ‘time’ draws Anna’s attention to the telly-screen. It is an advertisement for a cryogenic company. This service was once offered to the dying in the hope of recovery in some distant future, but in an increasingly overpopulated world, it is now only offered to the living, as a form of time travel, a means to begin again in some distant future. ‘Travel through time’ declares the voice-over as a row of sleeping capsules appears on the screen. ‘Sleep for up to one hundred years and awaken to a bright new future.’ Anna feels something shift, something tightens or loosens within her, she cannot tell which, but she feels the change as she considers the implications. To be taken into the flow of time again and be swept into the future, to sleep for a century and awaken to a world in which Daniel had never been born, was never a part of. Is this the solution she has been waiting for? Could this sharp-edged present be softened by the passing of one hundred years? When Anna looks back to the screen, images of the escalating war in Asia have taken over.

 

Lucy and Kate are sitting at an outdoor table leaning towards each other in conversation as Anna approaches. She knows why her friends have chosen an inner city café. They want to draw her in from her detached existence on the outer coastal fringes, to connect her to the energy that throbs through the inner city, as if feeling its pulsing heart will somehow defibrillate her life. But as she approaches the café, she feels partitioned from the motion around her, like a tourist observing another culture, a culture that operates on a semantic system she can no longer understand.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ Anna says as she takes a seat. The look of relief on each of their faces makes her feel guilty.

‘Where’ve you been?’ asks Lucy. ‘We’ve been trying to phone you.’

‘I’ve had my phone switched off.’

Anna notices the quick look of concern that flashes between them. She knows this breakfast is for her, even though nobody has said it. They know what today marks.

She smiles and tries to sound casual. ‘I’m starving, what’s on the menu?’ Sensing the tension loosen in her friends, she determines to be the Anna that they want her to be, at least for this morning.

The three of them have been friends since childhood. Now in their mid-thirties, they are still close, but as Lucy and Kate talk about their lives and share the latest gossip, Anna finds herself sitting outside the conversation. She laughs when required and nods occasionally, but she feels little inspiration. A shadow of uncanniness creeps in as she observes them. It is like viewing a scene that is both familiar and alien. In the light and focus of a changed perspective she no longer melds with this apparition from the past.

Lucy is looking very pregnant and as they discuss plans for a baby shower, Anna can feel their glances as they check for her reactions. She had been trying to fall pregnant before Daniel was diagnosed. Anna keeps smiling in an effort to reassure them. She could tell them that she feels no regret about not having created a life, only at not having saved one, but she does not want to talk about this today.

‘When are you going back to work?’ asks Kate. Anna expects this question. It is one that they have regularly asked for the last few months since she quit her teaching job. They do not understand her need for solitude, the space that gives her pause, the seclusion in which to wait for her life to take on some sort of shape again.

She tells them what they are waiting to hear. ‘Soon,’ she says. They seem satisfied with her answer.

Aboard the monorail on the way home Anna looks up the number for the cryogenic company and calls. There is an information session for prospective clients the following week. She books her place.

The company is situated in a technological district on the edge of the city. The squat building of four stories in industrial grey does not seem exceptional enough to contain the expanse of a century, but when Anna gets to the elevator she can see that the building reaches down into the depths by another twenty floors. She wonders how many people are down below, sleeping into their futures.

The conference hall is crowded. On the surface they look like a random mix of men and women, of varying ages and appearances. As she takes a seat, Anna searches those around her for some sign, some behaviour or expression that is common amongst them, something to indicate the shared desire to deceive time, to break from the hold and thrust of its linear unfolding. But she detects nothing in their bearing to indicate a yearning for a yield in mortality, a plasticity to bend and stretch at their will, the need to leave the present and sleep into another century.

The session begins with a lecture on the science of the process and a stream of facts tumble forth. They are assured that everything is sound. One hundred years is now a very safe time frame for this type of procedure. In fact, a vastly longer period of time would be possible, but government regulation will not allow for any advance at present. Power to the capsules is secure. In the event of electrical outages, solar-power can keep the capsules operating for years. If there is any breakdown in the system, the capsules are programmed to automatically begin the waking procedures on the occupants.

The process is similar to being anesthetised. One will be aware of going under and then waking again. There will be no dreaming, no sense of time having passed. Anna realises that her grief will not be dulled by the passing years. The darkness will follow her to the future, but she hopes that the light of a new world will absorb much of it. She will see the process as a rebirth, a fresh beginning in a transformed world.

They are informed that counselling is available for those left behind. Anna will not be telling her friends what she has planned. She could not bear another major goodbye in her life, or the protests and the attempted interventions that would no doubt follow. She will leave messages for each of them explaining her choice, to be delivered after she is asleep. They will not understand, but the course of the years will convey them along until she is an amorphous memory left in the wake of their lives.

The lecture continues and many questions are asked by others and are answered while Anna simply wonders how soon she can be put to sleep.

After six months of preparations, the day for her sleep arrives. Anna has passed the medical tests and completed all of the legal paperwork. She has sold the house, the car, most of the furniture, and has given what is left to charity. The company provides financial management for sleeping clients, but she has very little left after paying for a century of sleep. An airless square metre of space is also provided to store any personal belongings. She uses this to store a suitcase of clothing, a brown mohair jumper that had been Daniel’s favourite, and a small brooch of her mother’s. Despite her attempts to disengage from any feelings of sentiment, she found that she could not let go of these items at the end. Nor could she control the surge of regret that surfaced, an oily slick floating across a wave of relief when the time came to move out of the beach house. She has a vague notion that there is more she should have organised or could have taken with her, but her focus has been on dismissing the present. The less she takes with her, the more she leaves behind.

As she enters the grey building where she will spend the next one hundred years, she takes a moment to look back at the city skyline, registering its shape, wondering how much it will have changed by the time she next walks through these doors.

Once inside, Anna is processed with a speed and efficiency that gives her little time to contemplate what is about to happen. She suspects this is intentional, a way to counter anxiety for the client, but she feels no apprehension, only a sense of release now that the time has come.

Soon she is lying in a thin white gown, being given the initial injection that will put her under before she is transported to the capsule for the final preparations. She closes her eyes and the green-robed medical team are replaced by a drawing from a childhood storybook that appears before her, of a man with a long grey beard. He is lying beneath a tree, yawning and stretching, waking from a long, long sleep. Her mind slants and the image slips away as a stream of ice runs through her veins. She feels herself tumbling through space and then she is in the beach house. Daniel is there looking out towards the ocean. He turns to her and smiles as the house fills with a gleaming white light that seeps through him as he disappears. The walls fall away and the ocean floods in. She is lifted by the swell and finds herself drifting in a deep green wave before a cold current sweeps in and carries her away.

 

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From Xenoglossia, Tianqi Li

It was 1960, the height of the Cultural Revolution, a time when people had to recite something from The Quotation of Chairman Mao before they opened their mouth. Ju woke up from an accident and found himself speaking English, a language that could only be learned by outstanding Communist party members or cunning national traitors. He was neither, but would others believe him?

 

Excerpt

Zhang Ju woke to a world of silent snow. Patches of white clashed against each other, cotton and plasterand enamel. His first thought was, is it the Lunar New Year already? Have we entered the next decade? —But no, that couldn’t be right. He blinked slowly and saw a pale tube leading to his left hand, nailed to his wrist by two strips of white tape.

Ju turned his head slightly to the left. Among white wood and more white cotton was a single drop of red, a little shiny book, and he relaxed without realising he’d been tense. It was not only a copy of the Quotations from the Chairman, but also his very own, and he’d made the protective cover himself. It was cut out of some plastic remnants from his factory, and he was proud of the delicate handwork, a symbol of both his senior craftsmanship and his faith.

It was better to put the book back into his pocket, close to the heart. Ju extended his right hand, only to find he couldn’t extend it far enough. There was no pain, just a general numbness. Some memories came back, but more were still in a haze. The first person that jumped into his mind was Comrade Yi Mei, his fiancée. Thinking of her plump cheeks, Ju lowered his eyes in shame. As the Chairman dictated, one should fight selfishness and repudiate revisionism. Thinking about a woman before his widowed mother and his younger brother, who was one of the top Red Guards in school, was not right. He could see the Chairman’s look of disapproval in his mind. No wonder he was still not admitted into the Party, despite a solid working class background.

But how did he end up in hospital? What happened?

Before he wondered long enough to give himself a headache, a girl walked into the room without knocking. She was well groomed in a neat grass-green uniform, and the same coloured belt was one button too tight. She put a tray of white bottles and syringes down on the side table, glanced at Ju, and jumped back in surprise, two short braids dangling over her shoulders.

‘You’re awake!’ She shrieked. After a moment, she regained her composure and quickly amended, ‘We shall support whatever our enemies oppose and oppose whatever our enemies support.’

Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thoughts contend,’ Ju replied in kind. His voice was rougher than he imagined.

The girl — probably a nurse — gave him a warm smile, and served him several mouthfuls of water from the enamel mug. Replacing the mug on the table, she asked politely, ‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’

Let a hu…’ Ju repeated, but choked on the water remaining in his throat. He did not have the strength to sit up, which made the coughing even worse. When he could finally breathe again, the numbness was replaced by an inner ache that defined the boundaries of his body.

The girl stared at him, clearly concerned. ‘Do you want me to call the doctor?’

‘I’m all right,’ Ju decided to recite something shorter, ‘All reactionaries are paper tigers.’

The girl frowned and was silent for a long moment. When Ju started to feel uneasy by the silence, she said, ‘I’m afraid I can’t understand you. Can you speak the Peking tongue?’

‘What are you talking about?’ Ju was confused. ‘I’m speaking the purest Peking dialect.’

‘Or could you tell me where your hometown is? Maybe I could get someone from the same place.’ She then continued with equal confusion and perfect seriousness, ‘Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.’

Ju did not know what to think. He glanced at his copy of the Quotations rather helplessly, and the girl turned her heels as if on cue, saying she’d go find the doctor. Ju watched her go and replayed their conversation in his head. In fact, it was she who had an accent, a kind of nasal sound that indicated far north. ‘Well, conflicts and struggles are common and absolute,’ he mused, and raised his eyes to see the next person walk into the room.

It was Yi Mei. She was in the exact same uniform as the nurse, her belt tied just right. Ju felt a familiar warmness blossom in his heart.

Everything is for serving the people,’ Mei said with her low, calm voice, and walked to stand at his bedside. ‘It’s good to see you awake. How are you feeling?’

‘I think I’m all right, but I may need your help,’ Ju said, trying hard to control his smile, and consciously stiffened his hands that longed for her touch, if only a quick handshake. He wanted to ask how she was and what exactly happened, but the expression on Mei’s face shut him up.

She looked into his eyes as if examining whether the stitches on a bed quilt were tidy, and then asked softly, ‘Why are you speaking English?’

Ju looked at her blankly. English? He didn’t know a word of English.

He had no idea what he’d say if the silence remained longer. But the northern girl came back, followed by a middle-aged man with round-rimmed glasses and a rumpled uniform. He nodded to both Mei and Ju, saluted and bellowed in a baritone, ‘We have the Marxist-Leninist weapon of criticism and self-criticism. How are you, our selfless hero, Comrade Zhang? Comrade Wu said you had some problem speaking…?’

Ju opened his mouth. ‘I don’…’

He froze mid-sentence, not only because Mei was staring at him, her face expressionless and her eyes sharp as burning needles.

This time, he actually heard himself.

And it sank in. He had been speaking English ever since he woke up on this hospital bed. A language that he could not speak, and certainly had never studied in his entire life.

The doctor saved everyone by saying, ‘Ai-dong? Are you freezing? Hmm, it was summer last time I checked.’ He grinned at his own joke, and came closer to check on Ju with professional efficiency. Mei’s face disappeared. ‘Where does Comrade Zhang come from?’ Ju heard the nurse ask. There was no reply.

‘You’re sweating a lot. Probably due to a fever caused by an infection,’ the doctor said. ‘The accident was very bad indeed. Don’t worry, I’ll fix you in no time. As the Chairman said, health is the capital of revolution.’ He nodded, did a bad job of straightening the quilt over Ju, and went out of the room. The nurse followed suit.

Ju looked at Mei, who looked straight back. She was standing with her back against the opposite wall, as if a snake was coming out from under the bed. ‘I…I don’t know,’ Ju croaked, struggling to find the right words to say.‘I don’t know.’ He could not find anything other than I don’t know. ‘What accident? Were you, were they speaking…? Am I still…?’

Mei stared at him for another moment, and recited, ‘Down with all ox-gods and snake-ghosts,’ almost under her breath before turning to leave. Her voice was quivering.

‘But I’m not an ox-god nor snake-ghost!’ Ju burst out. He was shaking, and he could feel it. ‘I’m not…I’m not a landlord or bourgeoisie or insurrectionist or rich peasant or rebel or traitor!’ What else was included in ox-gods and snake-ghosts? But the doctor came back with the nurse, asking why and what he was shouting about. Ju shut his mouth out of instinct, afraid that the doctor might know some English, or know that it was English he was speaking. In a swirling fog of panic, he lost focus amongst the surrounding whiteness, oblivious to the thermometer and the wet towel and more water down his throat, praying for Mei to come back — although there was no one he could pray to, as gods did not exist.

It was only after the doctor and the nurse left again, and did not return for some time, that Ju calmed down enough to think. While busying over him, the doctor and the nurse had talked about him in a serious tone, worrying that he might be suffering some after-effects from the accident, and thus was not in his right mind. He had just woken up from a week-long coma, after all. The poor comrade! What a brave man, a true hero, sacrificing himself to save public property! All comrades are servants for the people, just as the Chairman observed.

It was all right, Ju told himself. He was a worker, a proletariat (where did that word even come from? He’d never heard of it for sure) and a hero, although he remembered nothing of his heroic act. Just let them think he was still dizzy and unwell. He’d switch back to Chinese before anyone else noticed, and laugh off Mei’s mistake in thinking his gibbering was a foreign language — she had the honour to receive night classes as an Excellent Party Member, but surely her English could not be that good. He extended his right hand and gripped his Little Red Book, ignoring the pain in his arm and his shaking fingers. Yes, he said to himself, everything would be all right.

Except the cover of the Red Book, with the Chairman’s portrait and five Chinese characters, now only had the Chairman’s portrait and five strange squares with golden lines going everywhere.

Ju closed his eyes. And opened them. The five golden drawings, quivering in his hand, remained the same. Quotations of the Chairman. It was as simple as that. Yet he could not tell how each of the five words were pronounced, even though they must’ve been the most well-known characters in their young country. Everyone knew them, even babies and the illiterate.

Ju swallowed hard. He used both hands to hold the Red Book, and raised it up until the Chairman smiled fondly at his eyebrows. The first golden drawing, the one that looked like an amputated centipede, was the Chairman’s family name. Slowly, it began to swim.

‘Why are you crying?’ The voice was cold, distant, but also unmistakably Mei’s.

Ju lowered his aching arms, but still held onto the Red Book. Mei was standing at the opposite wall as before, and it seemed she’d been there for a while. The door was thoughtfully closed.

While Ju kept blinking away his tears, unable and afraid to speak, Mei stepped closer, watching him with caution.

‘Are you a foreign spy?’ she asked.

Ju shook his head, before he had time to decide whether to feign ignorance at her allegation.

‘Do you have illicit relations with the West? Do you have foreign relatives? Have you been learning English in private?’ Mei raised her eyebrows with each question. ‘Then tell me, how do you know English? And how come I’ve never known that you knew English?’

Silence would not help, so Ju answered, ‘I don’t know.’ He inhaled deeply, and added, ‘I don’t know English, and I don’t know why I’m speaking it.’

‘Right, you just acquired it?’ Mei gave him a contemptuous look. ‘I didn’t want to believe it, so I came back, and the way you held the Quotations…I thought maybe it was a misunderstanding… but now you’re just lying to my face.’ She straightened up and recited loudly, ‘Who are our friends, and who are our enemies? This is a question of first importance for the revolution.

‘Yi Mei, I’m not—’

But she was already gone.

 

The only way out of this insanity, his only salvation, was to exorcise the demon called English and resume his normal self. Until then, Ju decided not to open his mouth, except for eating, drinking and brushing his teeth. His mother and brother came to visit, but he did not respond to their relief at his recovery, nor their concern at his silence. His workmates came as a group and brought him a small juicy watermelon, which would have cost them a fortune, but he pretended to be sleeping. And he did sleep; he slept as many times as he could, in the hope of finding the world making sense again the next time he woke up.

But it didn’t. The characters in the Red Book remained undecipherable, no matter how familiar they looked or how well he knew the content by heart. The nurse brought him newspapers every day, but he had no idea how the revolution was advancing in the vast republic. Mei’s words played and replayed in his head, but he could not recall what she really said, not the actual words. In his mind, she was speaking in fluent and perfect English in her clear, serious voice, although in real life the only English he had ever heard her say was, ‘Long live the Chairman,’ when she wanted to show him what was taught in the evening classes she’d been attending. On that same date, she had called him his full name for the first time. Zhang Ju, not just Comrade Zhang. Her lips pouted into a flower for the sound of Ju, and stayed in that shape for a short, sweet moment.

Immersed in the memory, Ju slowly pursed his own lips, trying to mimic her perfect curve. But he could not make the Ju sound anymore. It was not drew, or shoo, or jole; the U was not pronounced as a U. He did not know how it was pronounced.

Mei did not visit him again. Ju’s mother did not approve of this self-conduct in her future daughter-in-law. ‘She should have come every day to visit you,’ his mother said. ‘If not out of love as a fiancée, then at least out of compassion as an intimate comrade. Even if you might be like this for the rest of your life…’ his mother stopped, and abruptly turned her back to him.

Ju glanced at his mother and understood how worried she was, for her hero son appeared to be in some sort of inexplicable stupor. He wanted to tell her the truth, to tell her that he was in perfect health, including a fully functioning and clear mind, or so he thought. But she would not understand a word, not in the only language he was capable of using now.

 

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Golden Drachmas, Claire Catacouzinos

Thasians wrestle with malleable metals. They mine, smelt, mint, and tend to hot furnaces, wrought with much toil. They are iron-willed smiths like Hephastios, forger of the three-forked thunderbolts. They should be equal to other Hellenic cities; but why has Athens seized their markets and a gold mine at Thrace? Why do the Athenians’ believe they can rule them? Thasos is the golden island, caved with quarries of gold, marble, lead, and iron. For they are masters of hammers, strikers that can crumble empires, not sooty anvils that tolerate threats.

 

Limenas, Thasos, 463 B.C.E

 

Sixteen year old Nesaea, an orphaned Abderan now living at Thasos, grabs a silver blank disk inside the minting workshop, and places it in between two blocks of iron, the dies that have carved designs. She raises her hammer, tightening her grip, and strikes down on the first die; the punch made. Yes, she thinks, as she takes the disk out, another great coin for today. She stares at one side, touching its edges, checking that the image of four tiny squares is smooth. Perfect, she thinks, as she then flips the coin to the other side, wrinkling her nose in disgust at the sight of the bald-headed, bearded satyr, kneeling to his right as he carries a struggling nymph. She imagines her master, Aglaophon, that four-plumed monster, carrying her to bed like he does with the slave girls at night. Thank sweet Demeter he does not know about her disguise.

She tosses the new coin to the pile of forty-nine drachmas that she has made on the marble table, listening to slaves outside smelting metal. Out the window, she sees sweating faces, men’s short tunics damp, their skin tanned just like her own, and their callused hands with disjointed and purple-bruised fingers holding metal clamps. They pour the molten metal into circular, shallow pits that are narrow at the bottom, and wait for them to cool.

Turning away, she stares at her messy nest of coins. If only these were hers, every piece for her to keep, to help her start a new life away from Thasos. She suddenly feels wetness in her loincloth. She knots her eyebrows, thinking it can only mean one thing. She holds in her breath, her skin tight against her ribs like leather stretched to make a tympanon, a hand drum, and touches the dampness in between her thighs. The god Deimos creeps upon her when she realises with dread what it is. Damn the gods, she thinks, my gorgon has escaped her case.

She hears her friend returning to the workshop and she knows she needs to get back to her master’s house and grab a linen rag. Why did she not remember to wear extra rags today? Last night she tried to count on her fingers, to remember the last time her blood flowed, but her mind was empty like her clay cup beside her bed. It has been months, she thinks, so many months since my body has done this.

Wiping her hand on the inside of her brown chlamys, she pins her cloak to her right shoulder, snatches a few drachma coins, hides them in her breast-band, and runs out of the mint workshop.

‘Where are you going, Nireus?’ her friend asks as she passes by.

‘I will be back,’ she says.

‘You cannot leave,’ he says, grabbing her arm, ‘the official will cut your throat!’

She yanks his arm away. ‘I will return in an hour, just cover for me until I get back.’

‘The things I do for you, Nireus. Just think, one day it will be us shitting on the golden hills!’

Yes, she thinks, one day we will be living on solid mountains of gold in our own houses…one day.

She hurries past the three minting workshops and peeps behind the stone wall. She sees her red girdled supervisor with his pot-belly, his long hair tied back in a ponytail, a leather whip in his hand. For a moment she wishes she had her long hair again, braided to the side by her mother’s milk-skinned hands; but once she hears the loud crack of a whip, she’s glad she hacked it off. There is no work for her as a slave girl, besides selling herself at brothels, having older men’s oily and hairy bodies upon her. She remembers what her mother told her that day the Athenians ransacked her home, two years ago, ‘You run, you hear me, Nesaea, you run and take care of yourself.’

She sneaks past the slaves blistering in the heat, and runs out of the back entrance of the metalworking precinct on the west side of the agora, the market place. She passes Thasians ambling near their struggling slaves, and dodges the fresh-smelling stalls of bakers, but it is when she sees a young couple, holding hands, the woman’s stomach swollen, and the man’s hand caressing her belly, that she slows down. Her heart still racing, she watches the woman and touches her own stomach, feeling its hollowness, her body not ripe. One day, she thinks, staring at the woman, rubbing her belly, one day soon enough, I will be like you, with my own husband beside me.

When she sneaks into her master’s house, and hides behind a marble column, both hands touching the cold frame, she sees Aristophon, her dear friend, one of her master’s sons, painting on a wooden board in the garden courtyard, with its cream and brown pebbled mosaic floor. Aristophon, the man whose name she whispers at night in her sleep, wishing to share her bed with him, to feel his hands on her breasts, hands that are stained with pigments and powder that are mixed with egg yolk inside an oyster shell, to bind the colourful paints. How she yearns, longing to tell him every day of her true identity, to have him look at her with those cerulean eyes, like he does with the Thasian maidens at festivals that dine with him, who are dressed in silk, one sash fastened to their waist, another under their plump breasts, their heads adorned with wreaths, their bangles and gemstones shining.

Oh how Nesaea wishes to dress like a girl again, wearing these expensive dresses, and her body, oh how lovely and thick and round it will be, plumped with fine slices of fish that are salted with thyme in fig leaves, and sesame-cakes. Aristophon likes wealthy girls, not scrawny girls that bind their breasts with linen, smelling like foul, muddied swines, and diseased pigeons.

I wish you knew, she thinks, then I could kiss you.

She turns away from the column and sneaks past him, entering the slave quarters. None of them are in sight and the room is crammed with four beds, all the coverlets bedraggled. She hurries to her bed, bends down on her knees and searches through Satorneila’s wooden chest. They have to be in here, she thinks, they just have to. As soon as she lifts up a black, tattered dress, she finds the linen rags. Thank you, merciful Zeus, she thinks, standing up and wiping herself clean. She changes into a fresh loincloth and places a rag inside. The bloodied rags are still in her hand.

‘Satorneila!’ someone calls.

Nesaea slams the chest shut. By the gods, no, she thinks, looking around the room to hide herself. But there is no time. Damn the gods, what is she going to do?

‘Satorneila, have you made my oxtail soup?’

The door opens and Nesaea does not move, her body feeling heavy like the stout iron block the slaves hammer metal on.

‘Nireus, what are you doing home so early?’ Aristophon asks, his hand still on the door handle.

I can lie, she thinks, or I can tell him the truth. Perhaps it is time he knew, but what of the master, what will he do? Will Aristophon tell his father; surely he would not do that to me?

‘I…I,’ she says, looking down at the rags in her hand, ‘I had an accident at the workshop.’ She sits down on the bed, touching her chest. Yes, that will have to do.

‘You’re hurt,’ he says, running over to her and bending down on one knee.

Their eyes lock. Nesaea’s heart beats faster, her palms damp. All she wants to do is tell him the truth.

‘Where are you hurt?’ he asks, touching her shoulder, looking at her legs, her hands, her arms, her neck, and her face. ‘Where are you bleeding?

It’s his eyes that torture her, those blue depths weakening her heart. ‘Ari,’ she says, smiling inside, thinking about that sweet name she calls him, and drops the rags and grabs his hand, ‘I need you to listen.’ He squeezes her hand. Please, she thinks, please do not hate me.

‘Did someone at the workshop hurt you,’ he asks, shaking her hand, ‘I will have them removed from the place.’

‘No, no,’ she says, taking his other hand as well, ‘it’s not that.’ She looks down at both of his hands, rubbing her callused thumbs against his smooth skin, her back hunched over like a wilted flower, its petals browned, shrivelled and soft. ‘I…I need to tell you something,’ she chokes. Tucking a short strand of hair behind her ear, she holds both of his hands again in her lap, bringing them close to her mouth to kiss. He smells like olive oil, she thinks, mixed with lemons and yellow yolk. When she looks up, teary, and stares into his eyes, her cheeks reddened, his eyebrows are knotted, his mouth agape. It’s her teary eyes that make him see; she is a girl.

He blinks four times, and jerks away.

‘You lied to me,’ he mutters, letting go of her hands and stepping away from her. He holds his mouth shut and turns away.

‘No, Ari, you need to listen to me,’ she pleads, getting up and grabbing his arm, ‘you need to listen to me.’

He moves away from her, and she clasps both hands to her mouth, sucking in a deep breath. He walks sideways, touching his forehead now as he stares at the ground.

‘You are always keeping secrets from me,’ he says, turning around and looking at her.

Nesaea feels like a wooden spinning top that the gods have unwound, her life unstrung, staggering to its last turnings of hope. She squeezes her eyes shut and prays — please, Hera, oh please, help me.

She opens her eyes, still holding her hands together, and rests them under her chin. ‘I need to protect myself,’ she says, looking at him.

‘You always say that!’

‘I know, Ari, I know, but I did not want to die on the streets.’

‘You should have told me,’ he says, ‘I thought we were like brothers.’

‘How can I be that close to you when I was bought by your father?’ she asks, her eyes tearing again. She thinks about his father hitting her over and over again on the head when she drops a tray of fruit.

Silence. The goddess Hesykhia forbids the branches to sway outside, the birds from warbling, and Nesaea’s mouth to move.

Aristophon clenches his fist. ‘Who are you then? Are you really someone from Abdera?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then what is your name?’

Shaking her head, she closes her eyes, her clasped hands in front of her lips now. I want to tell you, she thinks, oh how every night I want to tell you; but you know now. Nothing good will come from this. Nothing.

She opens her eyes and she can see the pain on his face, just like Achilles when he lost his beloved friend, Patroklus. ‘I cannot,’ she says, shaking her head, ‘I cannot tell you.’ She flees from the room and runs into the courtyard.

‘Come back!’ Aristophon shouts.

She ignores him and sprints out of the lion-sized door, never looking back, never wanting to see the pain in Ari’s eyes.

‘Stop!’ he yells, ‘Nireus, come back!’

I cannot, she thinks. Your father will have his way with me now. She keeps running, past the chunky trinketed Thasians, and thin, short-haired slaves holding amphorae and sacks of food. Past the stalls selling corn, wheat, leather and rowlock thongs, jars, and nets of garlic and olives and onions, until she is one in the midst of the sweating crowd at the temple of the god of war, Ares.

Looking around the area, she tries to find a gap to escape through, when she hears a man say, ‘This sacrifice will scare those Athenians away!’

‘Nireus!’ Aristophon calls.

Go away, she wants to yell. She pushes past the Thasians, and trips. Wincing, she looks down at her skidded knees, grimy and bloodied. When she looks up, Aristophon sees her. Damn the gods. Her heart pounding, she runs faster and faster, hearing the pan-pipes and reed pipes pierce her ears as people chant to Ares — hail to the spear-wielder! She sees strangers’ blurry faces of toothy grins, bushy eyebrows, and black-pigmented eyes staring at her. She passes cracked buildings and stalls opened with fresh caught tunnies, codfish, and mackerel. Following the cobblestone footpath, she heads to the docks, listening to the shouts and commands by the boatswains, the sounds of sailors hammering in dowels.

‘Nireus, wait!’

She sprints east to the iron mines that she first worked at disguised as a boy, when she was fourteen, before Aristophon found her.

She pants now, each step thudding with the beat in her ears. Twelve fishing boats at the dock are swaying in the breeze. Once she’s in front of the hollow cave, she touches the bronzed and red-tinged edges of the entrance, her eyes catching sight of the layers of smoky iron rocks with their dark raspberry and ebony spirals at the foot of the entrance. Looking over her shoulder, Aristophon’s running, his cheeks reddened, his eyes determined like a foot runner returning home with an important message from an enemy. The sky above him is turning grey and cloudy by the Nephelai nymphs; they will soon pour water from their pitchers, casting rain across the land and sea.

Nesaea scurries into the iron mine, her feet slugging through the damp dirt, her legs splotched with mud. There are no oil lamps. If she stays quiet, hidden, Ari will not see her.

Further into the mine, she raises her hands to help her move around, going deeper and deeper into the tunnel. When she can walk no longer, scared of losing the light from outside, she turns around and sits down on the ground, the cold dirt freezing her skin. A tiny drop of water drips in the distance. As she huddles her legs and wraps her arms around them, she rests her chin on her knees, staring at the opening of the cave; she listens to the pounding of her heart.

A figure nears the entrance; please go away. Biting down on her lip, she waits. The figure draws near. The body of a man appears, the light from outside framing him.

‘Nireus!’ Aristophon calls.

She squeezes her eyes shut, tightening her grip around her legs. A cold breeze blows her hair away from her face, a gasp decamps her lips. Opening her eyes, she watches him.

‘Please come out so we can talk,’ he says, holding the side of his waist, leaning down and panting.

‘I do not want to,’ she says.

‘You can trust me, you know you can. How many times have I helped you?’

Too many times, she thinks. Even when she bought the wrong grapes one day for her master, he went with her back to the agora and showed her the dark purple ones that were prized by his father.

‘Can you at least tell me your real name?’

But that will mean I will never be able to hide again, she thinks. My name is all I have left from my home.

Aristophon leans against the cave entrance. ‘I am not going anywhere until you come out.’

‘I will be cold by sundown,’ she says, letting go of her legs and rubbing her arms now.

‘Well, my dear little friend, that will be your choice,’ he says, folding his arms.

She knows she has to decide whether to tell him the truth, or to get out of the mine and run. But am I done hiding? What is there stopping me?

She leans forward and sees Ari at the entrance smooth back his brown hair from his face and wait. If he has come all this way, she thinks, then he must want to help me. He must care for me.

She stands up now, taking slow steps towards him. She can see it now. Back to the first day she met him. Here. At the iron mines, deep in the tunnels, when he offered her water, that rich, delicate water that quenched her thirst. ‘I am Aristophon,’ he had said.

Out in the open where the wind makes her shiver, he turns and looks at her. This is it.

‘My name is Nesaea,’ she says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

He ushers for her to come closer, and puts his arm around her. ‘A name of a nymph,’ he says, kissing her forehead, ‘I do not know what I will do without you.’

His words swell her heart, but she sees in the distance a trireme ship sailing towards them with its huge white sails and daunting eyes and its nose slicing through the water. Who are they? How many men are on that ship?

She keeps looking beyond Ari in front of her, her hand on his chest. ‘Can you see them?’ she asks.

‘I see you and only you.’

Thunder cracks in the sky; the rustling breeze is bringing the rain. He needs to look, he needs to see what is approaching us, she thinks.

‘Nesaea, speak to me, my girl of golden hope.’

She looks back at him. ‘My girl of golden hope,’ he called her. I am his golden girl, she thinks.

‘I want to be with you,’ she says.

‘And I want to be with you.’ He touches her hand on his chest. ‘You are special to me like Aphrodite loving Adonis.’

‘What are we going to do? What will your family think of us?’

‘We will leave!’ he says, ‘but I cannot leave the island empty-handed, we must return home.’

‘What if we get caught?’

‘How can we when I have you?’

Men chant nearby and Ari turns around.

In one moment, they see the trireme ship with one-hundred and seventy bronzed armoured men row past them on the rocky hill in front of the iron mine, curving west towards the hub of the city. In one moment, one man raises a shield to the sky, the crest of Medusa with her serpent coiled hair, lolling tongue and sharp fangs stare at them; the Athenians. In one moment, Ari rises from his seat, and that’s when Nesaea sees an archer, pulling his bowstring.

‘Holy Hera, no!’ she shouts, pushing Ari out of the way. The arrow pierces her flesh, blood trickles down her arm. No no no, this cannot be!

‘Hail to Athena!’ the soldiers chant.

Four arrows hit Aristophon in the chest, one after the other; he gasps, grabbing one near his heart. ‘Run!’ Ari shouts, pulling the arrow out, ‘run, Nesaea!’

Her eyes frightened, she’s frozen, staring at him as he pulls the other arrows out. You cannot die, she thinks as the rain begins to fall. ‘I cannot leave you,’ she weeps, touching his shoulder. I cannot abandon you, she thinks. ‘You have to let me help you.’

Blood froths from his mouth. She wipes the sanguine smear from his lips, holding his chin. He clutches her wrist, ‘You run,’ he says, ‘you hear me, you run and live your life.’

More arrows are fired at them and Ari embraces her in his arms, protecting her as the sharp-pointed arrows puncture his legs and arms and back and neck and skull.

You are my girl of golden hope, he had said.

Nesaea holds in her breath, thinking, please do not leave me too, as he stirs in her arms.

 

You came and I was crazy for you, and you cooled my mind that burned with longing. We live, the opposite [lives], daring. Loves new.

— Sappho of Lesvos, Fragments 48, 24A & 59

 

Download a pdf of ‘Golden Drachmas’

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Five Loose Screws, Jamie Derkenne

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Note: do not try any of this at home.

 

As she was leaving my mother handed me an envelope.

‘It has the screws for the bed head in the second bedroom. I’m sure you can do it by yourself. It won’t take you more than five minutes.’

‘I’ll try my best.’

She handed me a screwdriver. ‘I even remembered to bring you the screwdriver,’ she said. ‘I knew you’d insist. Not that you really need one.’

The family holiday house I was staying in and which she was leaving was forty-five minutes by rough road to the nearest town.

This was a remote corner of the world. Police recently caught a murderer whose location they knew, but could never find. He had been on the run for seven years. The terrain was so rugged they could never quite catch up with him. There was a single cable power line that came up the valley. That was it. No phone, no TV, no post, no shops, nothing. Sometimes on a cloudy night you could pick up a radio station broadcasting from Sydney, but there was so much static that you couldn’t really make out what was being said or sung.

My mother drove down the road, her dust cloud slowly settling on the road and verge behind her. I stood on the veranda clutching the envelope of screws, and the small green family screwdriver. I looked at the screwdriver. The shaft was bent.

My mother was the tradesman about the house. ‘My tools are words,’ my father said. ‘If you want something done with a hammer, then you employ a carpenter. I do not expect a carpenter to be able to prepare a brief, and nor should a carpenter expect that I be able to use a hammer.’

But my mother had a different view. Household maintenance could only be a matter of common sense.

Years before, my Woodworking class made plywood puppets. We cut out the shapes using scroll saws. The body and legs were separate. The idea was that the legs would be pinned to the body and by pulling a string, you could make the puppet’s legs dance. Our teacher told us we had to drill the holes and secure the legs for homework.

‘Your dads will help.’

I knew, however, that this was my mother’s territory. ‘It’s just a matter of common sense,’ she said. We took my puppet bits to outside the laundry and lay them down on a saw-horse. The saw-horse had seen better days, and wobbled quite a bit. It was very old. I think it had belonged to my mother’s grandfather. I often wondered who had taught her so many practical things. Maybe it had been him. She once told me he had been an accountant. My mother went to the garage and came back with a large electric drill. It was very heavy, like the power tools from the 1940s on display in the Museum of Technology. The casing was made of metal, and the power cord was made from frayed woven fabric.

‘I’ll show you how to use a drill,’ she said. ‘First, we have to use the chuck key and put a drill bit in.’ She looked along the cord. There was a rubber thong which had perhaps once held a chuck key, but the rubber had perished so much that it couldn’t hold anything. There was no chuck key. ‘We can use the screwdriver,’ she said. Using the screwdriver — there was only the one, and it was the same one I was holding in my hand now — as a chuck key was difficult, but she eventually managed to get a drill bit in and the chuck reasonably tight around it. The drill bit looked worn. The tip was polished and rounded. I felt it with the tip of my finger. It felt cold and smooth.

‘You place the drill exactly where you want the hole to go, and then lean into the drill as much as you can, then turn it on. I’ll show you.’ She positioned the drill carefully over the ‘X’ I had marked on the plywood and leant on it with all her weight. The drill made a groaning sound, and the bit started spinning. It didn’t seem to be drilling. The wood started spinning. She stopped and I held the wood in place. We started again.

‘I need to lean in more,’ she said above the din of the drill. Smoke started to rise from the plywood. The drill was screaming. A small flame erupted. My mother stopped and examined her handiwork. There was a slight ebonized indentation where she had been drilling. The drill bit glowed a dull red.

‘Must be hardwood,’ she said. ‘Maybe we should just punch a hole through with a nail. Have you ever used a hammer before?’

I shook my head. I had used a hammer in Woodworking class, but the school hammers, I knew, were not like the household one. The only time I had ever used a hammer like my mother’s was once in Metalwork class.

‘I have the hammer in the kitchen. I’ll go and get it.’ My mother returned with a large rusty hammer and a four-inch nail. The head of the hammer was ball-shaped. The wooden handle had a large split going down the middle. She had got the hammer and nail from the second kitchen drawer, the one she kept the broken carving knives in. The first kitchen drawer was for cutlery. The second was my mother’s toolbox. It was exactly the same arrangement at the holiday house. First drawer for cutlery, second for house maintenance and broken carving knives.

‘The trick with nails is that you give them a few light taps to heat them up, then you bang like fury.’ She showed me how. She tapped lightly on the nail, and then delivered an almighty blow. The nail clanged as it hit the clothesline and there was a clack as bits of hammer handle hit the concrete ground.

‘No problem. I know what to do.’ She hurried off to the kitchen and returned with a lump hammer. The lump hammer also had no handle. I had never seen the lump hammer before, but then the second kitchen drawer was three times as deep as the other drawers.

‘We just grip it like so and hit the nail with it this way.’ She banged the nail a few more times, gripping the lump hammer head in such a way that she could strike the nail with its side. The nail went through the wood. My puppet made a splitting, wood crunching sort of sound. My mother took the nail out and examined the split wood and nail hole.

‘Nothing that can’t be fixed.’

My mother kept a large roll of gaffer tape in the drawer as well. The gaffer tape was an extraordinarily useful tool. She had repaired refrigerator shelves, garden pots and even the garden hose with that gaffer tape. Once she had even done some temporary repairs on a pair of school shoes. She tore a piece of it off with her teeth — the family scissors hadn’t worked properly since the time they had been used as an awl — and smoothed it over the hole.

‘Now it’s your turn.’

I aimed my nail carefully over the mark on the remaining leg and tapped, a bit more tentatively than my mother, as I wasn’t used to using a lump hammer without a handle. My nail went through without incident, but the wood was slighty burred on the other side. After prising the nail out, my mother carefully peeled the wood splinters away from the hole. One splinter kept peeling until it reached the other side of the plywood.

‘Perfect,’ she said. ‘You see, you can do anything if you set your mind to it.’

‘Mr Robinson had said we should use brass split pins to join the legs to the body.’

‘I’ve never heard of those. We don’t need to buy expensive complicated dooverlackies. We’ll just use some two-inch nails. It’s so easy. I’ll show you.’

I couldn’t remember Mr Robinson ever saying that split pins were expensive or complicated. My mother lined up a leg hole with a body hole, and tapped a nail through, into the saw horse, so that it was about half-way into the saw-horse wood. She then bashed the top so it was bent over, extricated the nail from the saw-horse, and then did the same on the other side. It worked like a pin, but because of the thickness of the nail, the leg jutted out at a strange angle.

‘What is this?’ Mr Robinson asked holding up my puppet with his thumb and forefinger. He said it with the same tone of voice Mr Rodgers used when handing me my marked Maths papers.

‘It’s my puppet, Sir.’ Someone at the back of the class sniggered. I didn’t come last in the form, though. That position was reserved for Alan Bertwhistle, who had moved interstate half-way through the year, and as a consequence had not done any assessable projects for at least six months. Mr Robinson wrote on my report at the end of the year that ‘James tried his best.’

I watched my mother leave, then folded the envelope, put it in my pocket, and went into the bedroom. I lined up the bed head against the bed. Bed head and bed had been separated some weeks before by my mother so they could be carried up in the trailer. Maybe my mother was right. Maybe it would only be a five minute job. After all, she had managed to get the screws out. How hard could it be to get them back in?

The bed head was attached to the bed with two metal brackets. The idea was that you screwed the metal brackets to the bed head, then screwed the brackets to the bed. Only it hadn’t been done that way. Whoever had assembled the bed head and bed in the first place had screwed the brackets onto the bed first, so that the only way of screwing the bed head on was to guess where the metal holes of the bracket were from the other side of the bed head. There should have been six holes, but there were in fact thirteen, as many of the holes hadn’t quite lined up with the bracket holes. Seven of the holes were near misses.

The obvious solution was to unscrew the brackets from the bed, but they were firmly screwed in with three large slotted flat-head screws on each bracket. There were no screwdrivers except the one my mother had given me, which was small and bent. However, my mother had years before showed me a practical solution to this very problem: carving knives.

I was taught how to use carving knives as screwdrivers when she showed me how to do my own electrical repairs.

‘The trick with electrical repairs,’ my mother said, while carefully using the tip of the carving knife to unscrew a little brass screw that held two wires together, ‘is to make sure the colours are the same. If you have a red wire, you should always make sure it connects to another red wire. Same for green, same for black. It’s that easy. And to think some people pay electricians for this.’

We had to wait until my father was out of the house before we started the project. That very morning he had pleaded — begged — with her to hire an electrician. She had agreed, but now that he was out of the house, she had changed her mind. My mother had never hired an electrician, ever.

We were wiring in a new light fitting, one that terminated in two halogen lamps. She had bought it on special at Ikea for just a few dollars — there was a discount on the discount when she had complained there was a dent in the packaging. She unwrapped it and looked at the wires. There was a blue one, a brown one and a red one. She looked at those, and looked at the black, red and green wires from the old fitting.

‘Hmm. Looks like they got the colours wrong,’ she said.

‘Maybe they just changed them,’ I said.

It was all a bit complicated, because in the old fitting there were two blacks and two reds. She hadn’t been expecting that. The two black wires were together, but the two red ones were in different sockets.

‘I suppose brown means red. Maybe they ran out of the proper coloured wires,’ she said. ‘That means blue means black and green is of course green.’

‘This may look complicated to you, but it isn’t really,’ she continued. ‘All we need to do is wire up the new fitting the same as the old fitting. We’ll draw a diagram so we won’t forget. You should always draw a diagram or make notes if you have any doubts.’

She drew a diagram and on it with her unique handwriting labelled each wire so we could tell what colour it was and what slot it belonged to, guessing at its colour equivalent. Red and brown seemed reasonable. I wasn’t too sure about black and blue. The blue was a vivid blue. Almost an electric blue. She put Gr for Green, Bl for Blue, Br for brown and Bk for black.

She then got the carving knife, and using the very tip, loosened the little brass screws that held the wires in place on the old and new fittings, prising the wires out. We then looked at the diagram for guidance.

All her life my mother had writing and reading issues. If she was growing up now she would have been diagnosed as dyslexic, but she was just told she was stupid. In order to cover up the fact she had trouble writing words, she invented a spidery curly script where one letter was almost indecipherable from another. She perhaps worked on the theory that people would spend so much time working out what the writing said that they’d forget about the spelling. In my adult life I have received perhaps six or seven letters from my mother. I’ve never been entirely sure what any of them said.

I looked at the diagram with its Bk, Bl and Br annotations. I could make out the B, but wasn’t sure if the next letter squiggle represented any letter in particular.

‘Is that a Br or a Bl?’ I said, pointing to the diagram.

‘Bk. Definitely a Bk. This digital age. My own child can’t read his mother’s handwriting.’

Using the carving knife, my mother started tightening the screws. The tip snapped.

‘Get me another knife will you?’ she asked, handing me the broken carving knife. I went to the kitchen and put the carving knife with the others in the second drawer next to the gaffing tape. I took a new one out of the top drawer. My mother bought carving knives six at a time from St Vincent De Paul for 50 cents each. She preferred the long thin ones with the bone handles, because they were good for getting bits out of toasters.

After she finished the wiring, my mother asked me to screw the fixture to the ceiling.

‘Shouldn’t we test it first?’ I asked. She agreed that it was probably a good idea. I went outside and turned the power back on. I came inside, and on her nod, turned on the light switch. There was a loud pop as one of the bulbs exploded. The rest of the lights in the hallway remained dark. Now none of the lights worked.

‘Maybe it was Bl after all,’ my mother said, frowning.

‘It’s the fuse,’ I said. I knew how to mend fuses. My mother had taught me. Our fuse box was the old fashioned type, the ones with the ceramic insulators and a little bit of fuse wire. The power company had once offered to update the fuse box to something more modern and safer for a nominal fee, but my mother had declined, saying their bills were too expensive, and they weren’t going to get yet more money out of her. I went outside with a fresh carving knife, and turned the power off. I took the fuse out and examined it. The wire had melted clean through, which was surprising because my mother never used a single strand of fuse wire.

‘It’s cheap nasty stuff. You need to twist at least four or five strands together for the wire to last,’ she had once said.

I fixed the fuse, using just a single strand, and leaving the power off I returned inside. I was deep in thought. I was trying to do a mental calculation. There were five sockets in the new light fitting, and five wires that had to meet three wires, two of completely different colours to the old wiring. How many permutations, would that be, mathematically speaking, before we had gone through every possibility? I couldn’t work it out. I wasn’t any good at maths. I suspected the answer was ‘lots’.

Which brings me back to the lots of screw holes in the bed head. Armed with a carving knife, I inserted the back of the blade into a screw slot and twisted. It wouldn’t budge. I looked at the screw. It had a fine brown layer of rust on it, almost indistinguishable from the shellac veneer on the wood. This was an old bed. On a lacquered paper plate next to the bracket were the words ‘HS Joyner and Sons, 132 Lambton Road Broadmeadow,’ and then the letters ‘TEL’ and then a four digit number. I never knew that phone numbers once only had four digits.

I wasn’t going to shift the screws in a hurry. The next best thing was to line up the bed head and guess which of the thirteen holes my five screws were supposed to go in. I lined up the bed head as best I could, and opened the envelope. Inside were five loose screws. I looked at them carefully for at least a minute or two, turning them over in my palm one by one.

The screws were amazing. In a way, they were a testament to the ingenuity of man. Each and every one of them was as different to the other four as a screw can be from another screw, and still be called a screw.

The first one had a brassy look and a wide flat slot head. It was about an inch long. Screw number two had a small rounded silver star head, and a thread that looked like it had been originally used to screw two bits of metal together. Number three was rusty, and the same sort as the screws on the bracket that I couldn’t shift with my carving knife. It perhaps had been an original part of the bed. Number four was much the same, except it had a round head and a bent shaft. Someone had tried to straighten out the shaft at some stage by hitting it with something heavy. The threads were all mashed on one side. Whoever had tried to straighten this screw hadn’t succeeded, but had, from the state of the screw, delivered some forceful blows in the attempt. The last screw was black, and had a wide thread, the sort you get for particle board screws, and had an Ikea key head. It was one of the many screws my mother had kept as left over bits and pieces from Ikea projects. My mother loved Ikea furniture, because you could assemble it yourself. She never followed directions which were always printed on a large sheet of paper using graphics and as few words as possible, probably in deference to the fact the Ikea furniture is international furniture. She always preferred to work things out for herself. Had she been asked why, she probably would have said following instructions was somehow cheating. She always managed to assemble the pieces of furniture, but often had bits and pieces left over, which she attributed to careless packing. What hardware we possessed in our house, we possessed because of St Vincent De Paul and Ikea’s careless packing.

I started with the Ikea screw first. The holiday house was practically bereft of tools, but did have a huge assortment of Ikea hexagonal keys. My mother kept them in an old coffee tin in the shed. There were maybe fifty or sixty Ikea keys in that tin. It took me a while to find the right one, and a bit of jigging around to find the right hole, but eventually I got the screw in. From the four remaining screws I took out what looked like the sturdiest, and using my crooked screwdriver, screwed it in. This was hard work. Screwing in a rusty screw with a short bent screwdriver into what may or may not be the correct hole requires patience, considerable strength and callused hands. I had none of these qualities. I blistered the palm of my hand on the screwdriver handle getting that screw in. But now I had one screw either side, and a bed head that was precariously attached to the bed. I had three screws left.

Wondering vaguely whatever had happened to the sixth screw (it definitely hadn’t been in the envelope), I tackled screw number three. It was too tough for the screwdriver, so I resorted to the carving knife. I had it almost all the way in before the carving knife snapped. Carving knives weren’t going to work on this screw. I needed a proper screwdriver, but how?

I remembered I had a little toolkit in my car, under the back seat. It had a tyre jack, and a tool for levering off the hub caps and undoing the tyre bolts. The lever bit looked like it doubled as a giant screwdriver, maybe the sort you need for tinkering with the engine. I found the tool kit, a black leather satchel and took out the tool. It was about 15 inches long, and did indeed have a screwdriver end. A massive screwdriver end. The sort you would use for maybe taking screws out of an engine block. I took it inside and tried to turn a screw with it. The screwdriver wouldn’t fit into the screw slot. It was too big. Maybe, I thought, I could use a hammer, forcing the head into the slot. I didn’t have a hammer, of course, but there was a fist-sized lump of quartz by the back door. I took that and hammered the tyre tool onto the screw head. After about three minutes of repeated blows the screw head fell off. It took with it the piece of screw sticking out of the wood. That would do for that one.

The next two were relatively easy. The fourth one went in so easily that I could push it in and out with my fingers. I thought this might be a problem, and decided to pack out the hole with sawdust and wood glue, a handyman trick my mother had taught me. For some reason there were several small piles of very fine sawdust underneath the bed head. I have no idea where they had come from, as I certainly hadn’t done any sawing. I went to the kitchen drawer where I knew lay a small bottle of wood glue. It had been in that drawer since we first bought the holiday house, about twenty-five years ago. My mother had used it to repair some plastic wall power plugs, and it had lain there since. It took me a while to get the cap off the plastic bottle. The top half was watery, like thin milk. But the glue underneath seemed good. I mixed up a sturdy putty, and using my fingers, crammed it into the hole, and pushed the screw back in. I imagined that in a few hours it would set like concrete.

Concrete, by the way, is a great way of repairing outdoor furniture. My parents once had western red cedar chairs and a small outdoor table that they didn’t look after very well. After some years, the chairs has such deep weathered grooves in them that sitting was uncomfortable. My mother smoothed over the wood with a ferro-cement mix, and they were as good as new. Or they would have been as good as new if my father hadn’t chucked them out sometime over the next few days. My father, without permission or a by-your-leave from anyone, went out and bought a whole new set, taking the old one to the dump by himself. We only found out several days later. My mother was very cross about it, and would still get cross just remembering the incident.

‘For God’s sake Elaine,’ my father would say, his voice straining with exasperation and carefully enunciating each syllable so it was a rifle shot, ‘Why can’t you just go and spend some money instead of trying to fix everything yourself?’

‘At the very least, he could have waited until I got the screws out of the chairs. We might have been able to use them. Completely wasteful,’ she had said.

By the time I got the last screw in, it was dark. It had taken me about four hours to do the job, but I had done it despite a dearth of tools, and a complete unconformity with the screws. I lay down on the bed, my back leaning on a cushion against the bed head. It felt good, sturdy. The kind of bed head you could rely on.

My father’s favourite tune was a song that has many names. He called it ‘Waly Waly’. He’d sing it when he was happy, but it was a sad song. It had a stanza that went something like:

I leaned my back against an oak

Thinking it was a mighty tree

But first it bent, and then it broke

So did my love prove false to me.

I often sing that song inside my head when I’m feeling good about something, when I feel I have accomplished something. Today I had accomplished something. I had, despite the various difficulties, put the bed head back on the bed, without even losing my temper, much.

I knew my mother’s handyman hints were wrong, and that things would have been a lot easier had I bought myself a tool set. But I hadn’t. I should have expected my mother would have some project planned for me. And now, in an isolated cottage I had had to resort to my own ingenuity, meaning the things my mother had taught me. It’s funny how we fall back on doing things because we are used to doing them, not because it makes any sense.

Of course the bed head snapped. Deep down I sort of guessed it would. I didn’t know it would snap exactly, but I knew something would go wrong. I thought maybe my mother would change her mind, and buy a new bed head, or a complete bed ensemble. That was unlikely. Maybe it would catch fire, like the transistor radio she fixed when I was thirteen. But I knew a bed head could not have an electrical fault, and my father had long ago put a complete ban on electric blankets. It was stupid to imagine the bed head could catch fire. Maybe someone would steal the bed head. I tried to imagine someone stealing the bed head. Why would they do that? But then, why did my mother keep all those broken carving knives?

‘Snapped’ is perhaps too strong a word for what the bed head did. ‘Disintegrated’ might be a better way of putting it. I was leaning against it, thinking my thoughts, when it fell into several bits. I got off the bed and examined one of the bits. Where it had broken, the bare blonde timber showed. It was riddled with little holes, and covered with a fine dry powder. In one of the holes I could just make out something moving, like a beetle.

The pieces of wood came away easily from the screws. There was only four of them sticking out, as the one I had wood-glued had fallen out completely. I decided to let them be. I gathered up the bits of wood and took them to the stove to start a fire. Now that the sun had set, it was getting cold. All I had to do was put a match to the bits, as between the dry wood, the little holes, and the ancient shellac, it roared into flame. It was a bed head that was meant for burning. At least I was doing something useful with the wood. My mother would approve.

 

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