Tag Archives: childhood

Radio Face, Elizabeth White

Ebony Janssen was walking from the train station in her school uniform. She could feel a clammy glide of sweat lubricating the movement of her thighs. In a modest attempt to firm her thighs and put an extra shield between the world and her underpants she wore bike pants underneath her dress. They had rolled up and were now like thick tubes around her legs.

The black lycra soaked the salty moisture and alleviated the premature signs of chafe. She tried to adjust them by pulling at their hems through her uniform.

She had been walking for ten minutes since stepping out of an air-conditioned train and onto the steaming black asphalt platform at Bowen Hills station. She didn’t know anyone who caught the train to Bowen Hills. The surrounding streets were lined with industrial buildings and mid-rise office blocks without many windows. She hadn’t walked past anyone since leaving the train station, but felt a pang of fear every time a car drove by. She kept her school hat on her head and pulled it down at the front to obscure her face. Her parents thought that she was working on her history assignment in the library after school. Although it wasn’t likely that they would drive past her, she kept worrying that someone that she knew might. What would they think about the way she was walking, trying to keep her thighs separated, causing her steps to angle out diagonally?

Two incidents in Ebony’s life had taught her that other people noticed her faults. One morning in Grade 3, Ebony had been sitting on the carpet with the rest of her class while Mrs. Wilson shared with them the daily news. When Mrs. Wilson asked Ebony and the other students to return to their desks, Ebony put her hands on the carpet in front of her, uncrossed her legs and got up from her hands and knees. Brandon Francis noticed the way she used her hands to get up instead of swiftly powering up in an unsupported motion, the way he did with his own lanky frame. Once Ebony returned to full height Brandon sniggered at her, ‘That’s how fat people get up.’ A new concept began to shape itself on Ebony’s unmarked psyche. Brandon had just brought it to her attention that she was fat, which was not something she had noticed or believed about herself before, but he had. She now understood from things she had heard in the playground, that fatness equated with ugliness.

The second instance had occurred on the train home one Friday afternoon earlier in the year. Now in Grade 10, Ebony had been standing inside the door of a train, gripping the handrail that hung down in the centre of the carriage entryway. Olivia Johns stood opposite her. They weren’t usually companions on the train trip home, but on this particular day, all of their friends had been picked up from school by their parents. Ebony was conscious that Olivia was cooler than she was, and therefore she made an attempt to appear up to date with the latest gossip circulating through their grade. ‘Did you hear about the party that boy from St John’s had? Apparently some guys from Macarthur High gatecrashed, and then the cops turned up.’

‘Yeah, I was there,’ Olivia replied. She avoided looking at Ebony by watching some schoolboys sitting down the other end of the carriage. Ebony tried to keep the conversation going. ‘Do you know many guys from St John’s?’ she asked. The only boys Ebony knew were on the soccer team she played on. But she never really spoke to them unless they said something to her first, which wasn’t very often.

‘A few. I went out with one for a while,’ Olivia said, still watching the boys further down the train.

‘That’s cool.’ Ebony hoped that one day she’d go to parties and hang out with some boys.

‘Hey, why don’t you wash your face?’ Olivia turned back and centred her attention on Ebony, looking at her through the metal handrail.

‘What? I do.’ Ebony’s face started to feel warm. The train came to a halt at a station. Losing her footing, she tried to grab onto the handrail and rebalance. She turned back to Olivia and mentally chastised herself for her inability to remain balanced on the train.

‘No you don’t. You’ve got blackheads on your nose and pimples on your forehead because your face is dirty. You should start washing your face.’ Olivia’s eyes scrutinised Ebony’s appearance.

‘But I do,’ Ebony tried to vindicate herself.

Olivia didn’t know that every morning and evening Ebony showered and washed her face with Clearasil. She rubbed the tips of her fingers over the small bumps that littered her face. Each spot was a tiny embodiment of her imperfection. Ebony prayed, she pleaded, and she bargained with God. ‘Please make my skin perfect. I’ll believe in you if you do.’

Ebony’s mother had told her that she would eventually grow out of her pimples, the way she had when she was a teenager. But Ebony couldn’t stop the feeling of disappointment that she experienced when she looked at herself in the mirror, a haunting reminder that what she saw was ugly. If she noticed it, she was certain that everyone else did too.

Now, on this hot afternoon, standing on a corner, Ebony pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket and checked the address she’d scrawled on it. 14 Brookes Street.

Looking at her surroundings she concluded that the place she was looking for was just a bit further ahead. She was going to see Dr. Hayward. She wasn’t positive that he was a real doctor. She was only positive that if she had any other options she wouldn’t be walking down an industrial road on her own with her birthday money in her schoolbag.

The front of the building was plain and undistinguished. There were no signs and the windows were all blacked out from within. Ebony noticed three pot plants that were lined up beside the front door. Their leaves were green and supple, signs of excellent care and attention. This was a good omen for her appointment. Ebony walked through the door and saw a man sitting behind the reception desk. She assumed that he must be Julian, the receptionist she had spoken to when making her appointment. Until she spoke with Julian, Ebony hadn’t made an appointment for herself before. When he answered, his voice has been friendly and approachable.

‘Good afternoon. Skin-Deep Clinic. Julian speaking.’

‘Hi. I want to see Dr. Hayward. Please. I have pimples.’

‘Darling, of course. Let me see what I can do for you. I need your name first, please.’

‘Oh, sorry. I’m Ebony. My name is Ebony Janssen. Can Dr. Hayward fix my pimples?’

‘Lovely. Ok Ebony. Dr. Hayward is booked up for the next few weeks. What time of day works best for you?’

‘Umm…I need to see him one day after school. And I have soccer training on Tuesdays and Wednesday afternoons. Oh, and games on Fridays. Is he free on a Monday or a Thursday afternoon? Please. Thank you.’

‘You’re a sporty little thing Ebony. And has anyone ever told you, you have a lovely phone voice? Maybe you could be on radio.’

‘No. They haven’t. Thank you.’

‘Now, I can fit you in to see Dr. Hayward on Thursday 6th November, 4:00pm. Does that work for you Ebony?’

‘Yes. Yes it does. Thank you.’

‘Wonderful! We’ll see you in a few weeks. Take care till then Ebony.’

‘Ok. I will.’

Now, she could put a face to the nice man on the phone. He wore a white shirt, unbuttoned at the top, underneath a navy suit. His glasses were tortoise shell and round, his hair brown and combed back in a perfect wave above his forehead, and he didn’t have any pimples. Ebony approached the desk the way she’d seen her parents do when they arrived at an appointment.

‘Hi, I’m Ebony. I’m here to see Dr. Hayward at four,’ she said.

‘Hello Ebony, you’re the girl with a voice fit for radio. It’s lovely to see you. Take a seat. The doctor will see you shortly.’ Julian’s warm reply lightened Ebony’s apprehension about her appointment.

Ebony found an empty leather chair with wooden arms. In the centre of the room was a large fish tank that stood from floor to ceiling. Ebony watched the fish swim around in their bottled blue ocean while she waited for Dr. Hayward. A harmonic progression of classical music sounded from two speakers that sat on a filing cabinet behind the receptionist’s desk. Ebony didn’t pretend to know about classical music, but she listened to Classic FM frequently. She believed that the calming sounds might relieve the stress that was probably causing her pimples.

Ebony kept a record of the different methods she had used to try and makeover her skin and outward appearance. She started with different soaps, noting which made her outbreaks worse, or which brought slight improvements. She attempted to eliminate soft drinks and lollies from her diet, but very often failed to say no when they were offered to her. She tried drinking more water, but that only made her have to go to the toilet all the time. She tried to be a better person; hoping people would think she was nice. But none of these approaches rid her of her blemishes.

The waiting room was deserted except for one other patient, a woman asleep with her head crooked back. She was dressed like Ebony’s mother: a pearl necklace, white denim skirt with a red polo shirt and matching red loafers. Shortly after Ebony sat down, the woman let out a low moan and slouched back into her chair. The receptionist whispered, ‘Never mind Mrs. Tyson, Ebony. She’s just coming to after a little procedure.’

‘What was her procedure?’ Ebony asked, feeling uneasy about how she might find herself after her own appointment.

‘I’m afraid I can’t say. Patient confidentiality. But really, she’s fine.’ He stopped working on his computer and looked over at her with reassurance.

Ebony didn’t get time to consider Mrs. Tyson’s situation any further. Dr. Hayward appeared at the doorway beside the receptionist’s desk and called her name. She slung her school bag over her shoulder and followed Dr. Hayward into his office. He ushered Ebony into the seat in front of his desk and sat down opposite her.

Like other doctor’s surgeries that Ebony had been in, she noticed that Dr. Hayward had his certificates of qualification hanging on the wall. He looked younger than her parents, but old enough to be an experienced doctor. He was the best-looking man she’d ever spoken to. Ebony thought that Dr. Hayward had probably never had any trouble with pimples on his skin, or if he had, he had obviously been able to cure himself. He had smooth, faultless skin.

Dr. Hayward pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket and held it ready to write. ‘Ebony Janssen,’ he said, reading her name off the manila folder on the desk between them. ‘Yes?’ she said, looking at him.

Ebony sat on the doorstep outside her house. The sky was dark and her phone began to buzz in the bottom of her school bag again. She didn’t answer. She’d been sitting in the dark for fifteen minutes trying to deny the consequences of her pursuit for beauty. Finally, she resigned to her situation and opened the front door. Her mum rushed down the hallway towards the stairs. ‘Ebony? Is that you?’

‘Yes Mum.’ Ebony kept her head down and took off her school shoes, leaving them beside the door with her school bag. Her mum reached the top of the stairs and looked down at her.

‘Ebony, it’s eight o’clock! Where have you been? God! What happened to your face?’

‘Hi Mum,’ Ebony looked up at her, ‘Sorry I missed your calls. I went and saw a doctor about my pimples. I want to get rid of them.’ Her mum rushed down the stairs, reaching out her hands to hold Ebony’s face.

‘Who? What doctor? Where? How did you get an appointment? What happened to your face? Ebony, it’s all red. Does it hurt?’ She looked at Ebony’s face closely, examining the moist blisters that had appeared.

‘Sort of. I heard a girl at school talking about this doctor, apparently he helped her. I just called up and booked in.’ Ebony, shook herself free of her mother’s hold and started to bend down again, this time removing her socks.

‘Where?’ Her mother bent down, trying to reconnect with her daughter’s gaze.

‘A place in Bowen Hills.’ They both stood up again and looked at each other.

‘Bowen Hills? Ebony! What specialist practices in Bowen Hills?’

‘Dr. Hayward.’ Ebony picked up her bag and started moving up the stairs.

‘I thought you were at the library!’ her mother followed after her, ‘You should have been home hours ago! I’ve called your school! I’ve called your friends! Your father is driving around trying to find you. And you were in Bowen Hills seeing a doctor, who’s burnt your face! Ebony, I’m going to have to take you to a hospital. What else did he do to you?’ Ebony walked into her bedroom at the end of the hallway.

‘Nothing. It’s fine Mum. He said it would be a bit red for a few days, then new skin will form and I won’t have pimples.’ Ebony pulled out her school books and placed them on her desk.

‘A bit red? Ebony what did he use? What possessed you? Why didn’t you tell me? I could have gone with you.’ Her mother took Ebony’s lunchbox as she handed it to her.

‘Mum, I’ve asked you for help before, but you just said it would be fine. It’s not fine. I hate my face. I hate the way I look. And you don’t seem to care.’

‘Ebony, what am I supposed to do?’ Her mother reached out to move strands of hair that had become stuck to Ebony’s blisters.

‘Whatever.’ Ebony brushed her away, sat down at her desk, and started flicking through her schoolbooks to do her homework.

She was copying notes from the blackboard at the end of her German class when someone placed a note on her desk while they walked past. A lined piece of paper had been folded to half the size of a business card, and her name was written on the front in a fancy cursive. She grabbed it and put it in her pocket, and quickly scrawled the last of the notes into her exercise book.

Once she was back at her locker, Ebony opened the letter and glanced first at the bottom to see who it was from. Olivia Johns. Unease gripped Ebony’s stomach. She couldn’t separate herself from the shame and embarrassment the thought of Olivia caused her to feel. Ebony didn’t have pimples anymore, what would Olivia say was wrong with her now?

Hi Ebony,

How are you? You must be really good at German, you write down all the notes! Frau Martin is so boring. Anyway, we haven’t really chatted in a while, but I wanted to tell you I think you look really pretty lately. I’m not sure what you’re using on your face, but it’s really working for you! My friends and I sit in the second train carriage from the front on the way home, you should come and join us this afternoon, it would be good to catch up!

Don’t dog me!

Xo Olivia J.

Ebony folded up the letter and put it in her locker. She turned around and surveyed the lunchtime commotion in the locker room. Girls were rushing in to drop off their books and grab their lunch. Everyone wanted to make the most of the break with their friends. Ebony saw Olivia over the far side of the room. She was leaning against a locker, eating an apple while she waited for one of her cool friends to get her own skinny girl lunch. Ebony thought of the sausage sandwich in her lunchbox that she’d been waiting all day to eat. Olivia and her friends existed on a diet of fruit and vegetables. But if ever they strayed, it was common knowledge that they’d go and vomit up their indulgences in the bathroom. Olivia was looking at Ebony. Ebony looked away and then looked back at her. Olivia was still looking at her. Ebony felt like it was a challenge, a new chance to prove she was cool. Ebony wondered if she should walk over and say something. She felt awkward and hesitant. What would she say? ‘Thanks for your letter. It’s nice that you think I’m pretty now. I went through a lot of pain to look like this. There are parts of my cheeks that I can’t feel anymore and my parents think I need to see a counselor because they don’t know how to handle me.’ Or, ‘Hi Olivia, I guess you know I wash my face now. Can you introduce me to some of the boys you know from St. Johns?’

No, she thought, that would sound too desperate. Ebony was still scared of Olivia; her clear skin hadn’t changed that. Olivia continued looking at her. Ebony turned back towards her locker and got out her sausage sandwich. When she turned back Olivia was walking away with her friend. Ebony felt relief. She couldn’t be Olivia’s friend; she’d have to give up her sandwiches, and her friends. And somehow, she felt that would only be the start.

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MelalUKEa Boy, Leanne Wicks

Music Class 

‘Where’s your guitar, Dylan?  Hop to it, boy.’
He straightened and skipped a half step until
sniggers slithered around his legs.
Why do teachers say things they don’t mean?
Two rows from the front, Dylan held the neck
of the borrowed guitar toward Mr D as if it were his own.
I must concentrate today.

Fingers found F chord
and the calming strum
settled his stomach.
At the coda, Dylan’s mind
shifted to the window
the sea glinted
for him.
Soon.

Melalukea Medicine 

8am Saturday. Scrambled eggs done.
Time for the sea rhythms, water and sun.
Dylan clips his helmet and rides through the breeze
down to the saltiness, down to the sea.

He reaches behind to check it’s still there,
pats the side of his uke and smiles to the air.
Notes meet his heart as his feet touch the sand
peace in his guts, just as he planned.

Pausing to pray, he nods to the edge
looks for the right spot and plonks on a ledge.
A second of still in which
he’s stealing God
for himself.

Seaside Prayer 

Hey, God, 
It’s so good here with You.
Why can’t I stay?

He slaps the front of the uke with the flat of his hand,
echoing the thwap of sea to rockface.
And plucks at a string, head tilted to compare
tone to roar.

I want to hear You, the rumble of Your voice.
Speak just to me, Father.
You’re always here,
not like my other Dad.

The Interstate Move 

Dylan stared at the road
lulled by his head vibrating
on the side window.

Guitar ringtone jolted
his Mum.  Always.
She buried phone under the faded
folder of ‘DV Stuff’.
New life in Melalukea. New friends, she said.
But I only have one good friend.
He’s Aspergers, too.
Books hid us 
in the demountable library.
Felix.  He’s my lucky charm
and we are getting further away
from him every minute.
‘Play me a tune, honey.  C’mon
it’ll be OK.’

Dylan scooped the ukelele from his lap.
Familiar, like cuddling the cat.
He leaned to see placement
of second and fourth fingers
on reliable strings.
His fingers kept marching
as he remembered
being stuck
in the dented Hilux
Dad called the truck.

He never did ask
why she didn’t come and get him.
It was his turn with Dad.
The solicitor said he had to go.
Dylan used to stare out the window
and finger his booster seat sash
creating tunes
til the ‘Club House Bar’
neon yawned with him.
Will Daddy find us?

Blessing of the Pets 

Dylan snuggles his ukulele
softly kicking the back of the next pew
as his mother shares the first reading.

A whippet slips
her owner’s grasp,
licks his hand.
Tucking the uke inside his blue jacket
Dylan pats the tiny head.

The minister calls for beloved friends
places a hand on fur and feather in turn.
Her lips whisper halos.

Dylan presents the wooden instrument
Rev Bryony turns and looks out over the lake
as if she were called.

She nods and collects the anointing oil
forming the sign of the cross
on the boy’s freckled forehead
then chipped orange paint.

‘In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
I anoint you, Dylan, and your instrument
May you play your life for God
for He wants to hear you play’

Secret Beach 

Bike tossed to sand
like a beach towel
as he seeks the sea.

I know I can play it

Water approaches his ankles
like a loving cat
and draws out minor chords.

Dylan’s breathing slows
Your will be done on earth
as it is in Heaven

Clouds whisper
and their white foam
on the sea coaxes him to play on

Dylan takes another step
and the blue parts
like a glassy aisle to Heaven
before embracing him.

If his mother were here
she would have heard the
change in tone
the resonance of his sea-strum
that echoed even in the shells
as if the sun were dawning
on this beach alone.

‘Stay a while with me, Dylan.’
He hears His voice plaited
around the strings
and smiles, taking another step
into the hug of the ocean.

Play the sea.

His mother would have
screamed
She would have been the only thing to stop
Dylan from soothing
himself up to his neck
ginger tufts of hair like anemone arms
waving farewell.

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The Free Runner, Eva Matheson

Every teenager in my school wants to be a Free Runner. Everyone wants to be a celebrity, or they want the money that comes with the title, or both.  Everyone, that is, except for me.

“Move Cassie!” Mr Downs is yelling at me again.

I glance down to where he stands on the stadium sidelines. He stares with a thin smile. He looks brown and shrunken, like a small cooked chicken. I guess that’s from spending his days bullying students in this obstacle course. My chest is aching, and I’m holding my breath so tight it hurts. My face is hot. I grip the baton tighter in my hand because I know his yelling will draw more attention. Mr Downs is one sadistic bastard. He set the game at level 4 at exactly my turn. He’s the kind of person that could drown fluffy kittens. Level 4 is the second hardest parkour course, with an extensive range of death drops.

I know exactly what Mr Downs is doing. He’s setting me up to fail. He wants to make an example of what happens to the weak minded. I know this because he’s done this to me before. Another girl from class, Ivy, stands on a platform on the other side of the gap. I’m supposed to pass her my baton. She’ll take it and do her part of the course and then pass it on to Johnny. He’s watching me with a finger inside his nose and a bland expression. He’s been waiting longer than I realised. Ivy’s face, on the other hand, is seething with irritation.

“Stop being such an attention seeker Cassie, just run and jump! It’s not rocket science!” Ivy hisses.

Attention. That was the last thing I wanted. I rock my weight back and forth. Breathe, calm down. Just. Do it. I lean forward, and then I stumble and stop.

“This is your last chance, Cassie! Move it, or else!” Barks Mr Downs.

I know what that means. He’ll move the setting up to Level 5, and that will add another metre to the width of the death drop. If he does that, I may as well flop off the edge and dangle in my harness, like a big baby. Students are watching, I can see faces popping up at the windows everywhere. Even a few teachers coming to see the Cassie show. I want to lie down on the steel and melt. The students in my class start to chant my name and clap their left hand against their right shoulder. It’s not friendly, it’s just a stadium chant at a real Free Runner race. A droning sound of unity. Slowly at first then faster and louder. Soon they’re all doing it, below me, behind the glass windows.

Provoke the Free Runner, encourage their Hunter. Mess with their heads.

Fall. Fall. Fall.

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The Memory, Melissa Farrell

I have this early memory of my mother. We’re in the house where we lived for a couple of months before we moved to Italy, while my father was in Naples organising our new home. I must have been two years old because I turned three soon after we moved. This memory is like looking through a lens that won’t quite focus. I’m sitting on a blanket. There is some sort of pattern to it, but I can’t quite make out the detail. A collection of soft toys lies beside me. One might be a rabbit. I’m looking out through the bars of a wooden cot. My mother and a man. Sitting close together on a couch. Murmurs that don’t take quite take the shape of words. My mother stands. Leans down and kisses my forehead. Then she and the man disappear down a set of stairs into a darkness below. That’s it. That’s the memory.

We were in Italy for three years. My father had an engineering contract in Naples. I have some memories from our time there but they’re of moments lying outside the context of the larger world: sipping a sour orange soft drink from a thick glass bottle, riding in the back of a car through honking traffic, walking through an endless space while clutching my father’s hand as we gaze at paintings on the walls.

My sister, Anna, was born in Italy. She was born several months after we arrived. She was a chubby white baby who our Italian nanny would bath outside in a big wooden barrel. The nanny’s name was Giulia and she could only speak a few words in English. She taught me to speak Italian. I’ve forgotten the language over the years since we returned to Australia, having nobody to speak Italian with. I can remember stories Giulia told me, long stories about strange creatures who lived in magical forests. She must have told me these stories in Italian, but I remember them in English.

We have photographs from our time in Italy. Black and white ones. There are lots of my sister and me. Even in tones of black and white you can see my olive skin, inherited from our father’s side of the family and further deepened by the southern Italian sun, in contrast to my sister’s pale skin that would turn red but never seemed to hold a tan.

I watch now as my sister passes her new son to our father. Our mother stands by his side. I can smell the brandy in the morning coffee she holds tightly. He carefully takes the baby and leans down to kiss him on the forehead. The baby has my sister’s pale skin and a soft white fuzz on top of his head. My sister’s smile is wide as she watches our father with his first grandchild. I pull out my phone and take some photographs. It’s time to create new memories.

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Legs Off An Ant, Lachlan Marnoch

I remember that when I was little, maybe three or four, I found an ant in our bathroom. Because I was still a cruel, insensitive child with no understanding of empathy, I proceeded to pull all six of its legs off, one by one.

I can’t remember whether my mother caught me or whether I actually took it to show her, git that I was, but either way she was very angry at me. She told me to think about how that would feel for the ant. And at that point, I had this epiphany, as though her words unlocked some door in me: this was a living, feeling creature in my hand, no different from me. I felt terrible. Probably not as bad as the ant, though.

It worked, apparently, because later I found a dead fly on our windowsill. This made me sad. I knew by then that you buried people after they died – to me there seemed no reason that insects should not be afforded the same honour. I picked it up and asked Mum if I should give it a little hexapod funeral.

She gave me a funny look and said I could if I really wanted to, but I had to wash my hands afterward. I took the tiny carcass into the front yard, scooped out a little hole in the dry soil, and buried the fly. None of its family or friends made an appearance.

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Looking at Lorikeets, Sheriden Goldie

The street burst with colours. The liquid lipstick red of a car as it turned out of a driveway. Sun-drenched leaves tried to resist the cool breeze of autumn. Lorikeets suckled at the late-blooming blossoms. The heat clung between the concrete towers even in May.

The stream of pedestrian traffic passed under my window. They passed in ones and disconnected twos. All marching towards the station. An old lady hunched against the current persisted down the centre of the footpath. They flowed around her like a boulder in the stream.

I reached out to touch it, wondering if I was destined to be a part of that same army. Instead, I felt the cold shock of glass against my skin. The cold leeched up through my wrist. The fleshy mounds of my palm pulled taut, and the creases of my yet-unlived life stretched to faint memories. I imagined pushing outwards with all my might. Both hands pushing against the glass. What would it take? A sudden rush? A punch? Or gentle constant pressure?

I pressed my other hand into the glass, resting my forehead between my hands. I felt the pressure build in my arms. At some point would the glass crack?

Silvered spider webs would streak out from where my hands were, and I would push still. It would crinkle. Fracturing. Rupturing. Shattering. The pressure would finally release. I could almost taste the air on the other side. My tongue tingled. I swallowed. The shards of glass would shiver in the air, then they would fall. Deadly snowflakes. I imagined the shards diving around my fingers. Like silver translucent Olympians. They would slice through my skin with barely a shiver. I wouldn’t even realise at first, but the hot drip of blood would be the proof. Momentum would carry me. But, from this height, it would have to be a direct hit on the concrete. Landing on my side or legs would just mean a lot of broken bones. Shattered ribs, fractured skulls, a concussion for sure, perhaps even amnesia. Just a little more pressure, I think.

“What are you doing?” she asked. I turned. She stood in my doorway, concerned but unknowing. A patch of fog clouded the window from where I had pressed my face to it; imagining. The truth would have only confused her. I didn’t want to die, not really. I don’t think I did anyway. I certainly don’t now.

“I was looking at the lorikeets,” I said.

“Right,” she said, reassured somewhat. “When’s your bus?” she asked but really meaning why hadn’t I left for school yet.

I looked over at the clock on my bedside table. I was going to be late. I slid off the bed and found my school shoes in the jumble at the bottom of my wardrobe. I mumbled from the shelves, and mum turned away.

That day I imagined telling her the truth. Instead, I tried drawing a lorikeet in art class.

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Sleepwalker, Alyssa Fletcher

My mother stood in shock, holding me, a sleeping bundle, a parcel of limbs, of skinny legs and soft cotton sleeves.

I don’t remember it of course, I just have that knowing kind of memory. Like the memory you have of being a baby in the bath. You’re too young to remember it, you know it from photos you’ve seen a hundred times. But you think you can really feel the soapy water, the light breeze on your damp shoulders, the suds between your palms. You don’t really remember it. But you know it.

She stood there, my mother, in the pitch blackness. On this night, we holidayed at Kangaroo Island. We slept early so we could rise at dawn to look for Fairy Penguins in the beach rocks of a bitter morning. The ocean groaned from beyond our window. It’s a more ancient place, on the island. The sand is older, greyer. The sea grasses are more weary, tired of being blown over day after day, year after year.

In a cabin we slept: my mother and father in a double bed; my kid brother sleeping in the bunk beneath me. He went all night with this sleeping noise—a distracted, contented sort of moaning. A crackly, grizzly sound that went for ages and then stopped suddenly. It would scare you if you didn’t hear it every night.

I was a sleepwalker, the child who sat up in the middle of the night. Just bolt straight up, in the depth of the silent night, asleep but alert, sitting up, ready to speak, and then—back to sleep.

I suppose I sat up again that night. Or I suppose I fell, my body paralysed in sleep. And I don’t
suppose why, but suddenly, my mother was there, just as though she knew to leap out of bed and rush over to catch me.

With the wings of an archangel, she flew to my bedside. Her feet never touched the icy wooden
floorboards. She hovered, light and sleepy, eyes closed, knowing and yet unknowing, just waiting with arms outstretched.

And I tumbled softly, effortlessly, straight into her arms. Like an actress in a play, I simply fell, dramatic, but trusting the arms waiting to catch me.

And it wasn’t until I hit her arms, that she jolted awake, and the world came rushing in with a sharp, painful breath that awakened her body. And there were her feet, on icy wooden floorboards. And there was her child, a dainty fawn, all downy softness and dopey limbs, in her arms like a baby. She woke with the shock of a snow shower, a freezing anticlimax. Like painful breathing after an early morning sprint. With the heady wash of relief, and the bafflement and confusion of a sudden start.

She carried me to the safety of her bed, and we slept with breaths climbing in one body and out the other. I never once roused, until I woke up, a little closer to the earth.

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Empty Shells, Lani Watt

When I was a kid, I remember my Grandma taking me for a walk along the beach. It was a day just like this: scorching hot sun prickling my skin like needles; the humidity encouraging the sweat to plaster my shirt to my back. But the sea breeze was heaven. And the water lapping over my feet as I walked the shore reminded me why the beach was the best place to be at that very moment.

I was a bit of a rough nut, as everyone liked to tell me. Shells were being tossed haphazardly into the basket Grandma used to keep her sewing threads in, sand littering over the top of them. ‘Why?’ was my favourite question at that age. I wouldn’t learn until I was growing up myself just how annoying that could be. Patience of a saint, Grandma had.

‘Grandma, where do shells come from?’

‘They come from the sea,’ Grandma explained as she handed me one that I had decided was a pretty cool looking one. Aqua-blue, shiny, clean. It didn’t immediately go into the basket with the others.

‘Why?’ I shot back, studying the shell.

‘Maybe they’re the souls of the beautiful people who passed away when they’re no longer with us. It’s a lovely view for them don’t you think, darling? Perhaps this is why we feel compelled to collect some and not others. They’re the souls we’ll always stay connected to,’ Grandma mused. I still remember the knowing smile she gave me then.

That was when I started to gather the shells out of the basket and put them back in the sand, carefully, with the opening facing out to the water. I kept that one cool shell she gave me.

‘What are you doing, sweetheart?’ Grandma asked.

‘I don’t want to take someone else’s friend home.’

Some things as you grow up just stick with you. I remember looking back over the beach from the direction we came, seeing hundreds of shells littered all over the place. It was nice to think about, even back then. But now, since I lost you, I keep coming back here.

I’ve been sitting here yet again looking at the beach. I keep getting drawn back here. This was our place. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to come here to feel like you’re still with me. But today is the first day I have ever sat right down beside an empty shell that is almost identical to the aqua-blue one I kept way back when. Your favourite colour.

Now I’m older, I don’t know if I truly believe Grandma’s sweet musings of the world and the beauty of the relationship between shells and the beach. What if they’re really not empty shells? I can’t leave this one here, I have to take it with me. Just in case.

For some reason, today it feels easier to turn away from the water and walk away without looking back.

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Powerless, Niko Campbell-Ellis

It had always been a struggle for Cate, seeing her grandchildren wanting for something so easy to give. Holding out a book to their parents and asking them in perfect English and Korean to “read it to me. Please, pleeease.” Seeing them head out into a frozen Seoul winter day without a coat and only cloth slippers on their feet. Seeing them slapped for not eating properly, not speaking properly, for getting a bad report from school. Tory was only seven for God’s sake, and Nano only five. Lucky, or perhaps not, Kara was too young for school.

It wasn’t something she wanted to face but these three little people, wild, fierce and desperate for love, forced her to see that her son was an idiot and her daughter-in-law a cold-hearted bitch. They were such an odd pair. Sure, she could see the attraction, they were both beautiful, but they had nothing in common. Cate knew that Tory, coming when he did, glued Sam and Akari together and that without him they probably would have split. But in their shoes Cate would have left, pregnancy or infant notwithstanding. And now the crazy pair had added two more kids to their brood.

The straw that broke Cate came a week ago. Nano had not eaten her dinner. She didn’t like it she said and Cate could understand that. Was there no room for the child to have her own opinion? Apparently not. Akari pulled Nano from her seat and delivered a slap to her knickered bum in one practiced movement.

Lip quivering, Nano still refused the food. Arms crossed, mouth clamped shut, a shake of her head. Then Sam, Cate’s only child, the one who had been brought up in a home of gentleness and love, her Sam grabbed the plate and shoved his daughter and her meal outside onto the balcony. “Come inside when you’ve eaten it all.” His words swirled around the heated apartment in an eddy of icy air.

Cate had looked from Sam to Akari and back again. They avoided her eyes, watched Nano instead.

“It’s freezing out there…

She’s only wearing a singlet and undies… she doesn’t even have any shoes on…

Let me take some warm clothes out to her.”

“No.”

Both parents spoke at the same time.

“She can come in anytime she wants,” Sam said, not taking his eyes off his shivering daughter. “All she has to do is eat it.”

“Sam, this is cruel.”

Cate could see Nano watching them through the glass. Stoic, she wasn’t crying and she wasn’t eating. Her arms were still crossed but Cate couldn’t tell if this was defiance or an attempt to keep warm. Every breath haloed around Nano as it hit the cold air. She locked eyes with her grandmother.

“Sam, it’s freezing…

Sam, let her in…

Akari?”

Cate started to cry. Outside in the cold, Nano began to eat.

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Can You See Ghosts?, Jamie Creswell

 

Rio Linz was a mostly normal boy who lived a mostly normal life. He attended school and maintained average grades and was able to mostly keep himself out of trouble. He lived with his parents, both of whom worked. Everything about Rio was for the most part completely and utterly unremarkable.

Save for one titbit fact.

Rio could see ghosts.

 

 

Rio’s first ghost was his former nanny. Her name was Madalyn.

The boy used to look up to see the elderly woman’s face, when his head barely reached her waist. Wispy white hair trailed down, splitting into two halves before ending just shy of her chin.

She still looked down at him. Her gaze wandered over his features curiously as she examined him. Her weathered lips formed a thin line as they pressed together. Her eyes blinked once as he stared at her intently.

‘Rio?’

Not trusting himself to speak, Rio nodded his head sharply.

‘You can see me, sweetheart?’

Despite himself, Rio nodded a second time.

Understanding quickly dawned upon her features as her grey eyes locked with his brown ones.

Hesitantly, Rio reached out and held her hand in his grasp.

 

 

The next four months saw Madalyn developing a routine. It fit with Rio’s easily enough. She would walk alongside him on his way to school and then waited for him until he came back out after school closed for the day. They would usually discuss mundane things such as the weather and how their respective days carried out.

Sometimes they didn’t speak to each other; they just walked next to each other in silence.

Rio noticed that Madalyn always wore the same clothes; a baby blue blouse and a dark skirt. He recalled that she had worn similar clothes when she was alive. He once asked why she never changed and the ghost replied that she simply couldn’t.

Madalyn would visit Rio several times on the weekend while he was in the backyard doing his homework in the tall grass or just drawing on a piece of paper. One time she offered to help him with his work and he accepted. This continued every weekend that followed. She excelled in story writing and geography, but hated maths even more than he did.

Rio never once thought to ask Madalyn what she did when she wasn’t spending time with him.

 

 

‘Madalyn.’ The said woman perked up when Rio said her name. The two were walking next to each other.

‘Yes, angel?’

Rio paused for a moment to consider how to best phrase the question before continuing.

‘Do you know anyone else that has died?’

Madalyn frowned in confusion.

‘What is it. . . leading you to ask such a dark question?’

Rio just shook his head and shrugged.

Madalyn mulled over the question quietly for a moment before replying in a sombre tone.

‘Many hearts as a matter of fact. Colin. I guess you wouldn’t remember him… he was my husband, he fell to lung cancer several years prior to myself. Naturally, my dear parents passed long—’

‘I don’t mean that. I meant if you know any other ghosts,’ Rio cut across her.

Madalyn looked surprised. She was silent before making a noise of understanding in the back of her throat. Rio had tapped into her one sadness and though she tried not to dwell upon her loneliness, she couldn’t help at times but wonder why only she remained on Earth.

‘No, I don’t, unfortunately.’

The boy was unable to completely hide his disappointment. Madalyn easily picked up on it.

‘Rio, are we friends?’

Rio nodded.

‘Then you know that if you need someone to speak to, don’t hesitate to ask me. Some things are best kept secret, but not all things. It’s okay to share your thoughts with people that you trust. Even if we’ve lost people, its best to try and focus on who we still have.’

 

 

Rio’s primary reason for wanting an authentic camera was because of his invisible companion. He wanted to prove her existence to his parents. It had been the highlight of his eleventh birthday to receive one from them.

However, when he tried to take a picture of her, he came up short—the image of his backyard lacked a ghost. Madalyn had initially been sceptical about the idea, but her facial expression fell slightly when it had failed.

Madalyn suggested that he use his birthday gift for something else. Eventually, he decided to see what he could capture outside. Having nothing else to do, his former carer accompanied him.

That was how Rio came to meet Kane.

 

 

Their meeting was similar to the first time Rio met Madalyn, yet almost entirely different.

They stood in the park, several feet from an ice cream vendor that was selling to a line of children from the street. Rio had finished taking photos of things Madalyn liked and was moving to the skateboard park with her trailing behind him, when he noticed the man. He seemed occupied, harassing nearby pedestrians. Rio noticed that they showed no response to his presence, which was surprising if one considered his physical appearance.

Kane was a big man, easily much taller than Rio and Madalyn. Muscles beneath his skin were practically bulging under an orange jumpsuit. He was covered in tattoos of spiderwebs and foreign kanji that decorated his domed head.

Wanting a photo, Rio looked for a good position. Once in location, he looked through his lens and saw no one there.

Confused, the boy lowered the camera and saw that Kane was still before him.

Once Kane had realised he was in the presence of someone who could actually see him, he was initially quite vocal, letting off a stream of new words.

‘Fucking hell, you can see ghosts?’

The brashness caught Rio off guard. To his credit, he quickly recovered.

‘I guess? You’re my second one.’

Kane glanced at Madalyn, who squinted her eyes at him in distaste.

The giant glared.

‘Something you want to say to me, bitch?’

Once the excitement had passed, however, getting words out of him was harder than drawing blood from a stone. Despite Rio’s best efforts, his newest ghost kept his mouth firmly shut.

Eventually, time forced them to leave the park.

 

 

Rio and Madalyn went back the very next day after school, to the same spot as last time.

‘Hey… ’

‘Yes, Rio.’

‘Do you think you can walk through walls?’ he asked Madalyn

A moment of silence passed.

‘I don’t know about that darling… I’ve never tried it.’

‘Why don’t you try it?’

She paused to consider before chuckling.

‘I’m sure I would have known by now if I could do something as whimsical as that.’

A moment passed and in that beat, Rio’s breathing quickened and he felt hot. He’d always felt unsure of how to approach a particular question and if, indeed, he should.

‘How did you die, exactly?’

Madalyn glanced at him before looking away. She didn’t answer.

Her mannerisms were quite contradictory; her distant and sometimes awkward behaviour clashed with the times that she was exuberant and full of life.

Kane wasn’t there when they arrived. Rio tried to wait but was forced to take off after Madalyn when the old woman lost interest.

 

 

Rio saw Kane a second time only five days later, hovering outside of a rundown house that had most certainly seen better days.

To his surprise, Madalyn was also there. They were speaking to each other. Standing several feet apart, their appearances were a sharp contrast to each other. His interest getting the better of him, Rio decided to investigate. Thanks to his size, he was easily able to hide his small frame behind a rubbish bin.

He strained to pick up their words.

‘Moping won’t help you stand straighter, boy.’

Rio was surprised by the tone of Madalyn’s voice, possessing a sharp edge that he never before knew existed.

Kane replied angrily, sounding impatient.

‘Thanks for your fucking advice. I don’t remember asking you to give a shit.’

Madalyn was silent for a moment. Then she spat out, ‘Try to make an effort to understand your situation—our situation,’ she insisted, urgently. ‘You and I are both still here instead of completely passing on.  In a way, this second chance has—’

She was interrupted.

‘What “we” is there? Let me tell you something, you dumb bitch—hospital and fucking prison are as different as ice and cannabis. Needles don’t mean squat. Just go and leave me the hell alone.’

Fearing he might be caught, Rio fled.

 

 

One month after meeting Kane, Rio decided to take his interest in photography and art to new heights.

Armed with his trusty camera, Rio went out by himself.

He lived in a rather rundown neighbourhood full of plain colours. His family wasn’t poor, but they were very far from well off. More than a few houses showed signs of neglect and old age, a few broken windows here, some rotten wood there. The surrounding neighbourhoods possessed the same atmosphere. There were weeds showing on several front lawns, driving up from beneath the ground like untameable servants.

Frowning at the lack of potential snapshots, Rio’s young mind struggled to come up with ideas.

Rio found Madalyn sitting on the stairs of the front porch outside his house.

She was completely unprepared for his request.

‘Sorry, I must confess. . . I am not quite sure what it is you mean.’

‘Help me find stuff to take photos of.’

‘And how would this be of use to you?’ Madalyn asked.

Rio nodded.

‘I figured that if I can’t take photos of ghosts, I can use this camera in other ways to help.’ He deliberately paused for dramatic effect before continuing. ‘If you can take me to where you lived and other places that you liked when you were alive, I can retell your story through pictures of the things that meant the most to you.’

It only took two minutes to convince Madalyn of the idea.

 

 

‘Of all places, why here?’ Rio asked, holding his camera in both hands while looking around in confusion at his surroundings.

Both he and Madalyn were standing in the backyard where they did Rio’s homework together.

Madalyn smiled before she explained her reasoning.

‘Because this place has meaning to me. Here with you, on this little patch of grass, is where I now spend most of my time.’

Rio couldn’t help but blush in embarrassment.

Soon, photographs began to replace the various sport and motorcycle posters that took up the wall space in his small room.

Gradually, over thirty new images appeared.

All of them were places of significance to Madalyn. Rio’s latest one was a shot of a creek that Madalyn liked to walk alongside. Another was her favourite café in the shopping centre. They, along with several others, were all titled under Madalyn’s name.

 

 

As Rio’s photographs of Madalyn began to accumulate, the pair approached Kane and tried to rope him into the idea.

They failed.

 

 

While walking near a stream surrounded by an assortment of pebbles that lay underneath an overpass, Rio and Madalyn noticed a girl. She was young, sickly and petite, wearing torn jeans and a rainbow sweater with a woollen beanie covering her short brunette hair. She was bright and cheerful despite her pale complexion and somewhat unkempt appearance.

She approached the pair as they were about to move on, a mischievous grin betraying the general nature of her intention. He had seen it before in movies, when a person did something mischievous in exchange for attention.  From the corner of Rio’s eye, he noticed the yellow armband encircling her wrist.

She began to lean in, past what Rio considered his personal space. This merited asking her what she wanted. Madalyn beat him to it.

‘Is there something we can help you with, dear?’

She yelped and jumped back as if she had just received an electric shock. Scrambling back, she nearly tripped over.

‘You can see me?’ the girl asked him, her eyes wide. A look of understanding came over her as she stared at him. ‘You can see ghosts?’

Rio replied with a yes.

‘That’s incredibly cool,’ was her response.

 

 

The first place that Natalia, their newest companion, dragged Rio and Madalyn was to a carnival circus that took place once every June. Amongst the cacophony of noises there, including Natalia’s laughter, Rio wasn’t very sure where to point his lens.

Madalyn found herself struggling to keep up as her body ached in protest while pursing Natalia. Eventually she was forced to stop, leaning against a food stand for support.

Natalia seemed to have the knack of getting ahead of herself.

 

 

When Rio decided to ask Natalia about the places that held any sort of significant meaning to her, Natalia had taken Rio to the aquatic centre at night after closing. This led to Rio getting arrested for breaking and entering—only to get photos of himself in the water at night.

While sitting in the chair waiting for his parents to arrive, with Madalyn and a guilty-faced Natalia standing on either side of him, Rio overheard something. According to two officers who were standing outside the office, a teenager had broken into the pool eleven times over a three-year period.

Apparently, the girl ran away from the hospital at night just so that she could swim with no one else in it.

Natalia had the decency to blush as Rio turned to look at her with incredulity. They made eye contact and her skin tone practically went from a mild pink to a rich scarlet as she fiddled with her hands. It took several seconds for Rio to realise that Madalyn was also looking at Natalia, her soft eyes charged with disdain. Fortunately, the centre kindly decided to drop the charges when they realised Rio wasn’t their regular culprit.

 

 

Rio approached Kane and asked if he wanted to be a part of the project he was undertaking one last time.

The ghost refused.

 

 

After recovering from his grilling at home, the first thing Rio did was head up to his room to return to his work. Once it was done, he hung up his newest picture and stood back to admire it properly. Looking over the photos he had taken for Natalia, he allowed himself a moment to enjoy the pride swelling up in his chest like a balloon fit to burst.

Alongside the collection that he had created for Madalyn, they formed the tales of two people who had already lived out their full lives.

 

 

Download a PDF copy of Can You See Ghosts? by Jamie Creswell

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