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Brave New World, Rebecca Fraser

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(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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From Slipstream, Kylie Nealon

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

 

Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But-’ he tried to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A knock sounded at the door, startling them.

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

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

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

 

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Grace’s Room, Emma Dorreen

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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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From What She Knew, Vanessa Ryan

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This is an excerpt from a novel in progress entitled What She Knew, which is written for an adult female audience and falls into the genre of Contemporary Literary Fiction. Kitty is a traumatised and emotionally numb young woman trying to run from the ghosts of her past by changing everything she can about herself, partying hard and travelling the world in her quest for a perpetual summer. However the ghosts won’t leave her alone. She soon realises that she has to face up to the fact that her father is a murderer and that she is the sole witness to that murder twenty years ago.

 

Chapter One

June 2007, Berlin

On the day Kitty is forced to give up her fake life she calls in sick to her job as an English Language Teacher and heads to Viktoriapark to drink cheap white wine with her best-friend Sylvana.

‘This looks like a good place to sit,’ says Kitty, plopping herself on the ground in the deep shadow cast by the wide arms of a willow. She slips her shoes off and flexes her toes over the soft grass. Her skin is as white as a ghost-gum from avoiding the sun for years because she grew up in Australia and is paranoid about skin cancer. Sylvana is from Malta and doesn’t give a crap about skin cancer. She stretches out in the sun, lowering her bra straps over her shoulders to avoid tan lines.

‘I always wondered why the ground here is so uneven,’ says Sylvana looking at the grass field that slopes up and down like a toddler’s drawing. The lawn is dotted by groups of sunbathers, drinking beer or wine, smoking dope, reading books, eating hummus, playing the bongos. A group of Turkish boys kick a ball around, their dark hair soaked with sweat.

‘There are World War Two bunkers under the ground,’ Kitty says. ‘I think people used to hide in them when there were air raids.’

‘Ah, right. Mystery solved. You’re so smart Kitty.’

Kitty shrugs. ’I just read about it in a guidebook once.’ She opens the wine bottle with a Swiss Army Knife, pours it into two plastic champagne glasses and hands one to Sylvana. They hold their glasses up, Prost!, Kitty sips delicately, the wine is tart and makes her mouth pucker.

‘Anyway. Do you know that so-called photographer, that pink-haired Swedish girl?’ asks Sylvana.

Kitty nods, recalling the pretty Swedish girl with washed-out pink hair, who turns up at art shows regularly, looking hip and vain.

‘Well, I heard that she’s not a lesbian. She says she’s a hobby lesbian so she can score cool points with the gay art community and all the lesbians have a huge crush on her. She’s a pussy tease. She’s as straight as a…’ Sylvana searches for a word, ‘as straight as a banana.’

Kitty frowns, ‘Bananas are crooked?’

‘She is crooked,’ replies Sylvana.

Kitty snorts and lights a filter tip cigarette, takes the bottle of wine and tops up her plastic cup. She leans back on her elbows in the grass and feels the earth under her fingers, spongy and damp. She smells water in the air and knows that the good weather isn’t going to last long, so she decides to enjoy this moment, the air still and calm, the sun’s rays rinsing the world in mellow amber. Kitty has a vision of them sitting in a moving painting, and she and everyone around her perform these orange-hued, warm actions over and over again in a simple sepia-stained loop, always framed in gold. Before her lies the sea of possibilities, winding out like every mid-summer evening, the heady scent of summer flowers, a constant stream of wine, every person an old friend who is happy to see you, the music swinging, the sound of laughter.  She wants to freeze this one perfect moment and keep it in a locket around her neck.

Sylvana chatters on about the saga of her almost-ex-boyfriend and his intense hatred of her new boyfriend. Kitty is nodding along, when her relaxed mood is interrupted by the sound of a low rasping voice, talking intensely.  A chill shoots through her. She listens harder, Sylvana becomes background noise as Kitty concentrates on the rhythms of the speaker. She recognises her father’s timbre, hollow and singular. Her stomach clenches, the wine sloshing uncomfortably. She glances up, and wills her head to turn in the direction of the voice, trying to look casual, and is relieved to see it isn’t her father, but a man in his mid-thirties, talking in the ear of a woman who looks stricken. The pair standout like a dirty smudge on the bright green grass, the woman dressed in a drab grey track suit, the man wears a filthy white baseball hat and a pair of dark sunglasses. Kitty realises that if she stands, walks over to him and whisks the glasses from his face, she will see the same eyes her father had, animal and hypnotising, like a lion. He rests his arm casually over the woman’s shoulders, owning her with that one gesture. The woman’s body leans away from him, her eyes searching, as if looking for help, and for a moment she locks on Kitty, who turns her head and stands suddenly.

‘I have to go,’ she says slipping her shoes back on.

‘Are you ok?’ Sylvana asks, ashing her cigarette.

‘I forgot, I promised to meet Fabrice in half an hour, so I should go,’ says Kitty shrugging her shoulder.

‘Sure, ok. Call me later, yeah?’ says Sylvana, handing Kitty her bag.

‘Ok,’ says Kitty, who turns and walks out of the park, not daring to look to see if the man is still there.

 

Kitty and Fabrice are lying naked on Fabrice’s bed, the sheets are soft from sweat and smell like sex and dope from the countless afternoons they have laid there talking and dreaming. A browning orchid sits on the windowsill, a pile of dirty clothes are heaped in the corner next to Fabrice’s drum-kit.

‘Tell me a secret,’ she says, her head in the crook of his elbow.

Fabrice takes a drag of his joint and blows a plume of smoke out above his head, the earthy smell of marijuana floating in the room.

‘A secret? I don’t have any secrets,’ he says, his voice slow and soft, his French accent stronger now that he is stoned. She looks at his face, high cheekbones, aquiline nose and thinks to herself that it is carved from pure light.

‘Sure you do, everyone has secrets, sometimes they don’t even know they’re hiding them,’ she says running her finger around his nipple.

He catches her hand. ’That tickles,’ he says laughing.

‘Come on, you must have something,’ she says. Suddenly she has to find out what is behind his placid smile.

‘Ok, uh, when I was in Nepal I snuck over the border of Tibet in the back of a truck, and then the truck driver tried to blackmail me into paying him a hundred dollars or he’d turn me over to the Chinese government, so I hit him and ran off and hitched a ride back with a different driver who I paid a hundred dollars to get me out of there.’

‘That’s not a secret, you’ve told me that. That’s an adventure story,’ she sighs, plucks the joint from his hand, rolls over and takes a drag.

‘Ok, sorry my secret isn’t secret enough. Do you have a secret that will show me what type of secret I might be secretly hiding?’

‘You’re so stoned!’ she laughs.

He laughs too, his white teeth flashing, eyes half closed. She takes a drag of the joint and sits up, her naked body cold in the smoke-filled room.

‘Yeah, I got a secret, a real weird one. I think my Dad is a murderer. I think he killed two girls,’ she says. Her voice echoes in her ears, and she feels that what she’s saying can’t be true, it’s an absurd joke.

‘Bullshit,’ he laughs, taking another drag.

‘Yeah. It’s true. I was just a kid. But I wasn’t Kitty back then, I was Lisa,’ she says, her former name rolling around her mouth like a slippery stone. She feels her hands shaking and holds them trying to stop the tremor, but her arms start to shake instead. Fabrice looks at her, confusion on his face.

‘Really, I think he killed two girls that lived next door to us and hid their bodies. The police questioned him and everything, but the bodies were never found,’ she says. Her chest wells up as if a tight white ball is inflating inside her and she’s afraid that if she says anything else it will explode and her body will fly apart.

Fabrice sits up, his smile gone.

‘That’s heavy,’ his shoulder slumping, a line furrowing between his brow.

She snaps back to the room, realising that she’s said too much. She doesn’t want him to ask questions, she’s scared she’ll blurt everything out and then she’ll have to face things she doesn’t want to know about. She doesn’t want to know what she knows.

‘No, I mean. Nothing happened. The police just wanted to question him, and they did and then nothing happened,’ she says, backpedalling.

‘Really? Then why did you say you think he’s a murderer, when he only got questioned?’

‘Because, I don’t know, I don’t remember,’ and it’s true, she can’t remember.

‘I’ve got to go,’ she says, untangling herself from the bed sheets. She picks out her fishnet stockings from the pile of clothes next to the bed and pulls them on.

‘I’ll come with you,’ says Fabrice, grabbing a pair of ripped jeans.

‘I want to be alone,’ she says glaring at him.

His hands, holding the crumpled jeans, stop in mid-air. He looks at her and doesn’t say anything. She smiles.

‘It’s bullshit,’ she says, zipping her black denim skirt shut and picking up her bag.

‘Ok. See you at the show?’ His eyes are hopeful.

Kitty sighs. She’d almost forgotten they had to perform that night.

‘Yeah. See you,’ she says, walking out of the studio apartment, slamming the door.

It’s only when she is half-way home that she realises she forgot to kiss him goodbye.

 

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Crossroads, Alix Rochaix

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I

What is it about the small hours?
Those between say, 2.00 am and 4.00 am?

‘These hours are as small as a human heart
— with no hope left in it.’
No. Too tragic.
‘These are the hours in which
to unleash a dam burst of
… creative agony.’
Worse.

I (for one)
rap out thousands of words
in these wee
small
hours
my face surreal in a monitor light.
(But you will never read them)
I hold schizophrenic dialogue with myself.
I may mutter.
Take my own pulse
— peevishly.
I examine my mad eyes in the mirror.
You know.
You have been here too
— in these same small hours.

What is it about the crossroads?
In these hours I can hear every sleeping scream
slamming door
and all the bottles
that have ever been hit
strike the pavement.

 

II

If we care at all about image
— as we doubtless do.
I would prefer to be seen as mad rather than bad.
You to be seen as crazy rather than stupid.
I’ve heard you smugly identify yourself
as a bastard
— even a cunt.
Because that to you, derivations aside,
implies power.
I think you have felt very powerless.
A bit like I do now in fact.

We know that misinterpreted power corrupts.
I know that it reduces the function
of a human heart.

 

III

I am alone in the room.
The room is sparse and loveless.
An oversized Asian washroom
— white tiles, cold surfaces.
No tell-tale signs of emotion here
— for you have sponged them from your life.
Everything on wheels.
As you decreed.
My heart shrinks and shrivels.
Outside it’s hot, heavy, acrid.
Fires in faraway mountains, but not here.
Here there is only the haze
and I have stumbled about in it.
The air is as heavy and polluted
as this ‘love affair’.
I can’t go out there.
The smells, the smoke, your silence
— are all strangling me.

I have thrashed about on blistered feet
trying to find a place to belong.
My scream is like Kahlo’s,

Diego!

I am alone.

 

IV

I stand outside the terminal.
You are waking to find me gone.
And all things shining and stationary
on their wheels.
I’m such a klutz.
I can’t do anything effectively
A stranger lights my cigarette
— face full of tender concern.
Can I get you anything?
What? A paramedic?
They don’t have an antidote
for disappointment.

This is the crossroads.
This is where worlds collide
and shove and push all things on wheels
— toting their collective baggage.

I must be a sight.
Tall blonde woman with tear-bloated face.
I inspire pity.
I have cut across the global rush
and served as a small reminder.
Stare if you dare
— or if your culture permits it.
Gabble about me assured
that I don’t understand
— because I really don’t.
Confusion is as much in the admixture
of my tears
as catharsis.

 

V

My last-minute escape flight
my adrenalin flung flight
— cancelled.
Grounded.
Thwarted.
This is no dramatic exit.
I make my displeasure known
to the blank face
beyond the counter.
I’m powerless, he says.
I may have ranted.
I did call a state of emergency.
You’re at the top
of the wait-list
he lies.
We’ll call you.
What to do
in this wasteland between
imprisonment and flight.

I check through the leather bag
bought at Bvlgari.
You thought it would make me happy.
It didn’t.
Now I’m inspecting it meticulously
— to ensure there’s no mysteriously materialised
shreds of marijuana.
Now that would be a thwarted exit!
Arrested
at Changi Airport.
For the tiny scumblings
of the marijuana I smoked
to make me happy.
The irony of that
makes me laugh out loud.
People’s heads pivot.
The thought then
of an immense space-age auditorium
this terminal
full of heads pivoting
at the sight of a tall alien
scraping her nails through
a Bvlgari bag,
feeling the surge
of hilarity hysteria
sometimes brings.
And this thought too
is hysterical.
Strange person
who stands alone

laughing.

I buy cigarettes.

 

VI

I stand outside the terminal.
Smoking and sniveling.
Yes. Yes.
I am a spectacle.
I’ve had a bereavement
a breakup
a breakdown.
Thank you.
Nothing to see here.
Move on.
Only the kind stranger stopped
at the sight of she
who scrabbled about in a
flashy bag muttering.
I’m such a klutz.
cigarette clamped
between her teeth.

I buy cigarettes.
But no lighter.

However,
being a spectacle pays sometimes.

For I am called.

 

VII

In the sky I splash my face
paint my lips a pink called Pashin’.
Take my seat and see
the blue that has stretched
gloriously above untainted
by the haze.
I had nearly forgotten it.
Eyes wide, clear now
as this sky.
— it must have been the smoke.

I can laugh out loud
at a stupid movie,
finish a forgotten novel buried deep
in the grinning gape
of a Bvlgari bag.

 

VIII

When you say,
What the hell?
We could have talked.
I say we could have.
But we didn’t.
And it was the silence
you see.
I need words and laughter.
You need your sad guitar
and silence.
And without words
I shrivel to a smudge
on the tiles
of Singapore
smoking and toting
a burdensome bag-full
of shredded dreams.

 

IX

So I stay awake
in the small hours
rewriting words.
But I can only start
at the ending.

This is a little story
— a flight, some sleepless hours,
a few words.
I thought, at least,
I should address it to someone,
rather than leave all that
folded up in the dark.

What is it about the crossroads?
There’s always small hours
of grief and madness …

Aren’t there?

 

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Here was one, Victoria Brookman

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Here was one who breathed

who laughed

who yearned.

 

Who birthed.

Who fed.

 

Sweated in the heat

and shivered in the cold.

 

Gazed mindlessly at supermarket shelves,

decision fatigue closing in.

 

Who ironed and refused.

 

Who burnt a few dinners,

triumphed at the pav.

 

Here was one who yelled and stressed,

cried tears of joy

— often.

 

Encouraged.

Heaped scorn.

Played favourites.

(And was one.)

 

Who fucked and came and loved.

 

And, above all, was proud.

 

Arrived in a sac, left in a bag.

 

Not defined by nothing.

No flame,

nor universal bounds.

 

I love life.

Here was one.

(Vale B.E.H.)

 

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To Live in the Memory, Lynda A. Calder

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‘It is better to live in the memory of two or three than to be mourned & forgotten by all the world. Remembrance is a golden chain time tries to break.’

— Recorded in the back of Illuminated Scripture Text Book
belonging to Ada Bladwell (nee Mitchell)

 

At the front of a sandstone Gothic church in Newtown named for St Stephen, the first Martyr of Christianity, is an ornately carved wooden Roll of Honour: ‘To the glory of God and the perpetual memory of the following men who made the supreme sacrifice at the call of duty in the Great War.’ It is framed by two aging flags, the Australian flag on the left and the Union Jack on the right. Almost in the centre of this Roll, on a shiny brass plate, is the name ‘H. Mitchell’. The parishioners of St Stephens are researching the names on this Roll of Honour and, as the centenary of ANZAC approaches, I can imagine many churches, villages and families are also researching their links to the Great War. I am no different. I have been sent the spreadsheet of their research and next to the name ‘H. Mitchell’ it reads ‘Can’t find him’. Only a week before, I would have said the same because I had no idea that H. Mitchell was a member of my family tree. Learning the identity of H. Mitchell was a journey of surprise discoveries and remembrance of forgotten relatives.

In 2005, for the commemoration of the ninetieth anniversary of ANZAC, I was writing a short, one-hundred word piece, for a local newspaper’s competition. I used my father’s maternal grandfather’s war diary as source material. Albert Joseph Hancock had been a Sapper in the 5th and 59th Broadgauge Railway Operating Company. His diary was a small, thin, black affair, with yellowing pages filled with pencil scrawl recording the daily weather, ‘Fritz’ dropping bombs nearby from their ‘Taubes’, some close calls with shrapnel and shells, the ‘big push’ (my research at the time revealed this was in Ypres, since Joseph never elaborated on locations), a visit to the King of Belgium’s country residence and, towards the end, whether or not he had a ‘good night’ or not with the continual bombardment. On the last two pages there are double entries for certain days. My Dad always maintained that this showed signs of shell-shock, especially since he had been ‘gassed’. This was the reason Joseph had given his family for being discharged ‘medically unfit’. In 2005 I discovered the Australian War Memorial’s online war service records and learnt that he was admitted to the Syphilis ward. He had never been ‘gassed’. No one knew.

What an ignominious link to the ‘war to end all wars’ and, at that time, our family’s only known link to World War One. No other family member had served in the armed forces until World War Two when my paternal grandfather, Alfred Frederick Mitchell, enlisted into the Army and then transferred to the Air Force.

Grandpa died in 1987 and all his papers were bundled into a box then stowed and forgotten under Mum and Dad’s house. In the intervening ten years my Dad has been through these papers. Why it took Dad so long to go through them I doubt even he knows, but it was probably prompted by Mum’s ‘clean under the house drive’ to farm out all the boxes of stuff belonging to my brother and me — both of us married and no longer living at home. The clutter under there had become a nest for cockroaches and mice and a potential fire hazard.

Among Grandpa’s papers, Dad found a folder of tantalising letters, which had belonged to my great grandfather’s cousin: Ada May Mitchell. There were two sets of letters: one from Servicemen at the end of World War 1, sending thanks to Ada and ‘The Girls of the St Stephen’s Patriotic Club Newtown’, and the other set were personal letters from Henry Lachlan Cyrus Hailey, who signs off as ‘Lock’. All are written by hand, some in ink, some in pencil, and all on fragile sheets of paper. Most of the paper is plain and faintly lined, but a letter from Private Cecil Rhodes MM comes on stationery from The Salvation Army, especially prepared for servicemen ‘With the Australian Expeditionary Forces’. Some thank you notes come from Newtown local boys. Some are short, expressing heartfelt thanks for care packages that finally arrived, but others go for a few pages describing how the packages were appreciated and how they were looking forward to coming home. Lock’s letters, however, are crammed between the lines of ruled note paper and onto note cards recounting his war exploits, injuries, and giving replies to Ada’s many letters.

Dad handed these letters over to me, the family historian and an author. ‘You should write their stories, if you have nothing else to do.’

I identified all the servicemen using the Australian War Memorial’s Record Search. Some had received the Military Medal, many had been punished for turning up to muster late. The citations for the Military Medals are harrowing such as this one for Private Atal Norman Spencer Elphinston.

On the 3rd October, 1918, during the attack on the BEAUREVOIR SYSTEM, near the village of BEAUREVOIR, East of PERONNE, when his Platoon was held up by a strong enemy machine gun post, Private ELPHINSTONE worked round the position, bombed it, jumped in and killed five of the enemy and took 1 Sergeant Major and 10 other Ranks prisoners. This enabled the platoon to come up into line with the remainder of the advancing Company. Later under extremely heavy machine gun fire this soldier worked untiringly for three hours bringing in wounded from in front on our position when the Battalion had withdrawn to a defensive position.

It makes me wonder what extraordinary feats were worthy of the more prestigious Victorian Cross.

And then there was Lock. Why were there so many letters back and forth between Ada and this man? Had they been in love? Yet Ada remained unmarried. Had Lock been killed in action, then? No, his service record showed a safe return to Australia. Was this a forgotten relative?

Henry Lachlan Cyrus Hailey signs off from his first few letters as ‘Your old friend Lock’. The first letter is dated 16th March 1917 and Lock is sending a ‘short note’ to let Ada know his change of address because he is ‘going back to France for another go’. Lock Hailey was in ‘C’ company of the 20th Infantry Battalion. After enlisting in August of 1915, he found himself in Alexandria and then on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 11th November 1915. His Battalion was involved with the effective retreat from Gallipoli. On 19th and 20th December troops moved from Gallipoli to Mudros maintaining the appearance of normality to fool the enemy into thinking the trenches continued at full strength. There was to be no lights and no smoking. Orders were given in undertones and the word ‘retire’ could not be used. Socks were drawn over boots, bayonets were removed and rifles carried ‘on the trail or over the shoulder’ but ‘not sloped’ so as not to show over the trench tops. Mess tins and other equipment had to be arranged so there was ‘no rattling or shining surfaces’. Reportedly the retreat resulted in only one casualty.

Lock’s first deployment to France, in 1916, was during the Battle of the Somme and the Pozieres Offensive and during his second deployment he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and then Lieutenant. Lock’s letters give a stark insight into the life lived by many soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front and also their confusion at the lack of support from home.

 

12th November, 1917

Had a very rough time during the last few months and what with continual small doses of gas and continual wettings and exposure fairly flattened me. I left the front trenches or rather shell holes on the night of the 5th instant after four days toil without food or sleep. I had a rough time as the Germans kept coming over on to our line and as I was second in command of my company I had to take out fighting patrols all night to keep them from finding out where we were situated. And I can confidently assure you crawling about in no mans [sic] land in the shells full of mud & water looking for fight for a sick man was no bon. After doing four lovely days of this I was relieved just when I got to the “couldn’t stand” stage and taken out & hunted before the doctor who gave me a terrific gravelling for not reporting before and sent me right off.

 

2nd February 1918

One gets use to hard knocks & bruises and I can assure you they take it very well. One of our Officers was shot through the thigh and kept going thinking he was the only Officer left. Until one the Sergts said to him “You had better go out as old Hailey’s bound to be all right” and at that minute I came on him. One of my lads had just blown a German’s brains out all over me & of course I was covered with gore & dirt. When I came on the scene the chaps & the wounded officer actually laughed, as they made sure I was hit at last’…’I tell you when I see my men lying all round I see red.

 

26th December 1917

What do you think of the Referendum regular fall through was it not and I expect the next thing we will all be attached to British Regiments as we have no men and no chance of getting any more for quite a long time.

 24th Feb 1918

I wonder why the Catholics are so against conscription, they must surely see we must all go down together if we do not win.

Lock talks much about his ‘debility’, convalescence in Scotland, a trip to London, Medical Board after Medical Board to determine if he was fit for service and his work at Camp Weymouth to return injured serviceman ‘with arms and legs off and every other ailment’ to Australia.

Lock returned to Melbourne in June 1918 and his last letter is sent on 17th July, 1918 from his home town, Yarra, just south of Goulburn (New South Wales): ‘No doubt you will wonder what has become of me these days but the fact is I am giving up single blessedness on 23rd July.’

Henry Lachlan Cyrus Hailey married Sarah Jane Ward in Goulburn on that date. The ‘matrimonial rush’ was because he could be sent back into action.

Goulburn is certainly the link between Lock and Ada, but as friends, not relatives. Ada had many Mitchell Aunts, Uncles and cousins. All of them originated in Goulburn where her Uncle, Alfred Arthur Mitchell, was a respected member of the community and Grand Master of the Manchester United Oddfellows Lodge. There is a large and imposing black obelisk in the Goulburn general cemetery that marks Alfred’s grave.

There was a small clue in Lock’s letter dated 18th April 1918 that furthered my journey of discovery. Lock writes, ‘Have not had the good fortune to run against Harry Nott so far and there are very few of the old Goulburn boys left.’ Nott was a familiar family surname and Harry, or Henry William Nott, was one of Ada’s many cousins, son of her Aunt Esther (nee Mitchell). All we knew of Henry was his birthday – 16th April, 1889 – and date of death – 22nd August, 1918. Why had we not connected this date to World War One?

Henry Nott was in the 55th Battalion which advanced on Albert in the Somme late in the night on 21st August. Henry Nott was killed in action on 22nd August 1918, aged twenty-nine years; one of five from his Battalion who died at the height of the battle to retake Albert. Henry is now buried in Plot I, Row A, Grave Number 341 in French soil at Cerisy-Gailly Military Cemetery.

I delved more into the life of Ada May Mitchell hoping to find more clues. She had been named after her aunt, Ada Bladwell (nee Mitchell), known as Aunt Sis. Ada May remained a spinster who lived her whole life with her parents and likely cared for them into old age. She died alone in 1978 in her family home from atrial fibrillation suffering from senility. Only two black and white photos survive of Ada May. One shows a chubby faced cherub of, presumably, four years old in a white pinafore arranged for a formal photograph standing with legs crossed, an elbow leaning on a book with her other hand holding a little bouquet of ferns and flowers. Her shoulder length hair and short fringe has been curled in rags. Her face is wide. She has the distinctive Mitchell button nose and thick Mitchell bottom lip which shows the hint of a smile. The other photo is from a street photographer. Cut down the middle, it removes the person standing to her right. Ada May is on the left edge of the photo, grim-faced, caught unaware, older, maybe in her 50s or 60s. She is dressed in all black: black dress, a small necklace and something pinned to her left breast, a jacket draped over the hand carrying a handbag, and a stylish brimmed black hat with veiling. She still has the broad face, button nose and thick bottom lip but now carries the marks of age around her neck and jowls.

There is no one left who knew Ada. My Dad may have met her when he was young, but he doesn’t remember. We do know she served over fifty years on staff as a Clerk at Grace Bros and carried herself with ‘dignity and aplomb’. Dad has the impression that she was possibly like Mrs Slocombe from the British TV comedy Are You Being Served with a severe personality, tinted hair and finding solace in a cat or two. Ada and her parents lived at 3 King Street, Newtown, next door to modern day Moore Theological College and, later, 50 Wemyss Street, Newtown. Both are not far from St Stephen’s Anglican Church in Newtown where she attended and was Secretary of the St Stephens Patriotic Club during World War One. The Patriotic Clubs raised funds to support the war effort and sent care packages to local boys serving at the front. So, I contacted St Stephens in Newtown. Did they have any records of parishioners or the Patriotic Club? An answer was slow in arriving but would arrive eventually, but not yet.

During this period of research my Dad found a small blue notebook with gold embossed writing on the cover: ‘The Illuminated Scripture Text Book for every day — 365 coloured illustrations with interleaved memoranda’. The spine is held together with aging sticky-tape, the cover is barely holding onto its contents and the pages are yellowing and rigid with age. The front inscription, in hardly legible ink script, reads:

“Love your Enemies”
To Ada Mitchell
With best love & ??? wishes
From E. ??Thompson??
St Saviours Finishing School
April 1879

Ada May Mitchell was born in 1891, therefore this notebook had to belong to Aunt Sis, Ada Bladwell (nee Mitchell). Inside she has recorded the birth dates of friends and relatives, her wedding anniversary and the death of her husband, William Henry Bladwell. Also noted was the death ‘killed at war’ of Harry Nott on 22nd August 1918 and another name, an unfamiliar name, that had no place, yet, on the family tree: ‘Harry G Mitchell killed at war 29th May 1917’.

Another discovery. Although, on reflection, I recall walking along the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in 2012 past the M’s and noting the name Henry George Mitchell. Both Henry and George are common family Christian names (although, likely common in the Victorian era). I was almost certain this person could be a relative. I always read Rolls of Honour on church walls and obelisks in country towns; I wonder if there is not some long lost relative listed there.

Henry George Mitchell came up on the war records search; Service Number 159. On his enlistment attestation, Henry recorded his mother’s name as Mrs Will Mitchell, with ‘Will’ crossed out and ‘Martha Edith Lily’ written above it. On another copy of this attestation his father’s name was written in red ink: W.M. Mitchell. The family tree held William Milton Mitchell, brother to Ada Bladwell and Uncle to Ada May Mitchell. His wife was Martha Edith Lily Morgan but the names of his children were unknown and listed only as Child One, Child Two, Child Three, Child Four, Child Five, Child Six.

Henry George Mitchell had been in the 25th Battalion and likely died in the trenches in France during a ‘quiet period’. His Battalion has no War Diary on record for the period he served and the 35th did not even enter its first major battle, at Messines, until early June 1917. He died on 29th May, 1917, and is buried in Belgium: Plot I, Row D, Grave Number 11, Strand Military Cemetery, Ploegsteert.

Finally I received an answer from St Stephens in Newtown. They had never heard of the Patriotic Club and had no parishioner records from the early 1900s but they mentioned the Roll of Honour and sent me the spreadsheet of their research. Could my Henry George Mitchell be the H. Mitchell on the St Stephens Rolls of Honour?

Henry joined the 35th Battalion (Newcastle’s Own) in Islington Newcastle. In Henry’s service record is a letter from his father reporting the family’s move from Newcastle to 42 Bucknell Street, Newtown; not far from Ada Mitchell and her parents. It would be safe to assume the families attended church together at St Stephens and, therefore, not a great leap to link H. Mitchell with Henry George Mitchell.

Family tree research is like having the pieces of a larger jigsaw and working out where they fit in the greater whole without the help of the picture on the box. I have consequently discovered many other relatives and more who served in World War One: Henry Mitchell’s brother William Leslie who also enlisted in the 35th battalion at only age seventeen; Arthur Edwin Bladwell, Ada Bladwell’s nephew, who received the Military Medal for gallant service in May 1915; John Digby Nott (Harry Nott’s brother) who has a plaque commemorating his life on a wall at Lithgow Hospital in the Blue Mountains and Eric Henry Mitchell, son of Uncle Edward Mitchell, who was gassed and returned to Australia.

One hundred years ago, these men and women did their small part in that greater conflict. As a nation we remember the World War One every ANZAC Day, but it is up to families to remember the individuals who died or returned injured, ill or safe, or served from home. Yet, those who had no children, like Henry, Harry and Ada, where the golden chain of remembrance has been broken, become forgotten Uncles and Aunts. I wonder if anyone has sat by the grave of Henry William Nott in France or Henry George Mitchell in Belgium to consider their service, sacrifice and the circumstances of their deaths. I wonder if anyone else has thought about the contribution Ada May Mitchell and the girls of the Patriotic Club made to the war effort from home. I found Ada’s grave in Rookwood Cemetery in Lidcombe and was moved to tears to find her buried with both parents: Ernest Henry and Harriet Mitchell.

H. Mitchell is listed on the St Stephens Roll of Honour and he will be remembered and spoken about as tours are conducted to mark the centenary of his ultimate sacrifice. But now, with the centenary of ANZAC the Mitchell family will be able to remember their contribution to World War I with greater pride and personal interest. Sacrifices and lives will live on in the memory of two or three (or more) and not be forgotten by time.

 

L.Calder_Image11

 

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Winter Jam, Judith Mendoza-White

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One

By the time I had climbed up the first flight of stairs I already knew that Julián had hit rock-bottom. The odour of rancid food and urine worked its way into my nostrils as it had carved its way into the walls decades before. While I kept climbing up the steps one at a time I amused myself looking down at the hollowed surface in the centre of the timber, where hundreds of other feet had preceded mine, and tried to guess some vestige of brown or green lost along the years or the decades. The remains of old and new graffiti screamed against the government, the country or life itself from the dirty walls, hostile as those of a prison.

I was out of breath when I reached the sixth floor. Julián shouted, ‘Come in!’ from inside when I rang the doorbell; the door was not locked, sure, anybody would have known that whoever lived on the top floor of that pigsty had nothing to give or to lose.

‘Ah, it’s you. Come in, viejo.’

It was cold, dead cold, inside. It somehow felt colder inside the room than out in the street on that freezing mid-July early afternoon. Julián was wrapped in a threadbare blanket with a design of large brown and white squares; I recalled similar checked blankets from my childhood or my teenage years. There is no closet in Buenos Aires which does not sport one of those old-fashioned blankets folded up on the top shelf. On the sofa next to Julián another figure was curled up under a wooden shawl: Roxana. She smiled an absent-minded grin towards me but her eyes did not move away from the screen of the black and white television set. The incessant chatter of one of those gossip shows that entertain or increase the emptiness of the siestas blared from the screen, the street noises muffled by the sound and the closed curtain-less window.

‘Do you want mate? Give him a mate, che.’

Roxana handed me a lukewarm mate without looking back. I sat in the only empty armchair. There was a hole on the dry leather seat and its oblique legs tilted outwards, in the fashion of the fifties. As I sat down I saw the guitar leaning against the cupboard and I turned away to avoid seeing it, to look at Julián.

‘It’s crazy to bump into each other in the street after all these years, isn’t it,’ said Julián as he reached and took a cigarette out of the packet that I had just deposited on the table.

‘Buenos Aires is a big city, but not that big after all… One ends up coming across people sooner or later, I guess,’ I said, aware of the banality of the comment. If it were so, we would have bumped into each other some other time at some point of those twenty years, more than twenty perhaps, though what difference does it make after all, who’s counting?

Julián had spotted me in one street or other near Once train station, an area I had not set foot in for years, and to which only the possibility of a good business deal could take me. The deal had been excellent indeed, and the cheque was already in my pocket when Julián bumped into me while I scanned the noisy avenue trying to find a taxi. The evening was dull and windy, there was a fine silent drizzle that threatened to turn into heavy rain, and most taxis were busy. My hand clasped the wallet in my pocket when I felt the fingers on my arm, and I almost turned away and ran before I saw his face. Julián. Twenty years. Or was it longer than that?

The blanket slid off Julián’s shoulders and I saw the outline of his bony arms covered by a thick turtleneck that had seen many winters, his stomach flat under the purple wool. I thought of my round stomach, the stomach of a man who orders lunch in upmarket restaurants without looking at the price list, who needs but to send the maid down to the cellar if he wants to enjoy a good bottle of wine with his dinner. Julián had always been skinny, with that skin-and-bone- rocker air that only added to his Mick Jagger looks, which he had consciously or unconsciously learned to emphasize with the ironic grin of his large mouth, which seemed to take over the whole of his face when he laughed. Twenty years of gigs in seedy basement bars, cheap joints and the odd meal does not help anyone keep the weight on.

If I had stayed on with the band I’d also have a flat stomach, and maybe a room in some pigsty or other like this one here. Instead, I have a beer belly but also a BMW sitting in the parking lot round the corner, a penthouse on Libertador and money to do or buy whatever takes my fancy. I feel sorry for Julián, yes, I’m sorry for him but it all makes me a bit sick as well; when we were twenty we didn’t even smell the piss in the clubs where we played, it did not bother us to spend the odd night on that creaky sofa that we found in the street and pushed up the stairs for two hours, all that puffing and sweating over the goddam sofa, but with the cover knitted by one of the many girlfriends or one-night-stands that used to flutter around the house we covered the stains, and if somebody had asked what colour was the sofa or the dozen chairs that came from God knows where, nobody would have known or cared.

But it’s a different story now, for God’s sake, anyone in his forties starts to notice a few more things, the wires poking through the seat start to hurt, at this age we snort as I did when I walked in and smelled the grease and the dampness on the walls; it’s no longer easy to live on mate, cheap beer and last night’s pizza boxes, and the dreams of fame have turned into memories, yeah, good moments while they lasted, there’s no denying that, but to drag them along the decades is absurd and doesn’t do anyone any good, just a look at Julián is enough to prove me right.

… it’s great of you to drop in, we could barely talk the other day, in the street, what with the rain and all…

… it was a different world, viejo. Those were the nineties… If it was now with Facebook and WhatsApp and all that crap I’d know every bit you’ve been doing in each and every day of all these years… I’d recognize your kids if I came across them in the street. How many kids do you have? Even your dog I’d be able to tell.

… He must be happy, your old man… CEO, are you? … He almost had a stroke, remember? When you dropped out of university to tour the provinces…

… c’mon loco, take a toke for old times’ sake… no? Ok, it’s your loss, viejo…

… are you coming on Friday? We are playing at Parnaso, here, take a flyer… Yes, El Parnaso, in Floresta, the same but not the same actually… they haven’t invested a cent on it for years and the basement is pretty run down… but they don’t charge to play, and we can always make a few pesos from the door cover if we bring enough people…

… Clarita is trying to get us a spot on the radio. Yes, she drops in from time to time, but she’s been having some issues with the kids… She’s got two, and her husband went to Brazil last summer to do a couple of gigs and looks like he’s lost the way back…

… Che, how about a jam? Come over on Saturday, if you can’t make Friday… Do you still have your bass guitar?

 

Two

…The door was always open, after all he was asking for it. That seedy rundown apartment block, that creepy back alley. Anyone could come in day or night, even the front door of the building would not lock unless you gave it a good push. Nobody saw me when I walked in that Saturday evening, much earlier than Julián had suggested. I knew the others would not be there yet, and Roxana is always out at the handcraft market on weekends. Julián was alone, his fingers caressing the guitar strings, his eyes closed in the solitary winter jam. The extremes of his large Mick Jagger mouth curved in a private, placid smile. I listened to the languid bittersweet string of notes for some time before I took the gun out.

I still have the bass guitar, yes, but I think the time has come to burn it with the other junk or put it in the bin. It annoys me but not as much as it annoyed me to see Julián’s guitar, so clean, so shiny, the strings taut and new, the only thing that was in good condition in that pigsty he lived in. All Julián cared about was his guitar, his music. He condemned himself to stale pizza and cask wine because he wanted to live for his music, to be what he had been born to be. And he did not care for shit. That was the worst thing: he honestly did not care.

Me, that’s another story. I just couldn’t keep freezing my ass in those damp basements, could not put up with the lack of money, the lack of everything; the rock-hard beds started to bother me and then came María Paz. She also put up with a few months of late night gigs and drank cheap wine with us in bars with cement floors and no ventilation and she even enjoyed it, sure, a bohemian interlude in her rich daddy’s girl world, but it had to end. I knew it would end, and if I wanted her to stay it had to end for me too.

On Sunday I’ll stay home while María Paz takes the kids to her parents and I’ll de-clutter all those boxes that have been piled up in my office forever. I’ve been meaning to do it for ages, all those drawers full of demos and CDs and the guitar, the blessed bass guitar that I used to play every now and then until there was no more time. No more time to waste on anything but keeping it all up, the money, our beautiful life, my perfect world.

… Because Julián was happy. I saw it in his eyes that day, sitting on that stupid armchair wrapped up in the old blanket, in that cold dirty pigsty. I don’t know how anyone can be happy among all that crap, and then Roxana and the mate like twenty years ago, luckily they had no kids, sure, Julián did not want children, he needed nothing but his music, he didn’t even need Roxana, she stayed because she chose to, because she never left. Or perhaps she did love him. Who knows? Who cares?

Now I can go on with my life, and there will come a time when I’ll forget about it all, like I had managed to do before that damned evening in which the rain and the city put me in Julián’s path and it all started to hurt once again.

….Forgive me, viejo. I had to do it. If you stayed around I could not keep ignoring that other world that is still out there even if I chose not to see it. Without you I can live without music, without dreams. With you gone, there may come a time when I talk myself once again into believing that I am happy.

 

Notes:

Viejo: Lit. old man. Colloquial form used to address male friends.

Mate: typical Argentinean drink, a kind of green tea sipped from a pot by means of a straw and usually shared with others.

Once: suburb in Buenos Aires inhabited for the most part by working and lower classes, especially the areas around the train station.

 

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Revelations from my German Woman’s Household Manual, Kerry Behrendt

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Rapünzchen, a diminutive of Rapunzel, is a German name for lamb’s lettuce or field salad, a common winter green in Europe, but rare in Australia. I love it. It has a nutty, tangy, very distinct flavour. The leaves of baby spinach look somewhat similar, but the flavour is quite different and their relationship as salad greens is probably not close. Rapünzchen is the first alphabetical entry in my German woman’s household manual, volume eight. It is the only volume bequeathed to me by my ancestors. The last entry is Schuhwichse (shoe polish).

The manual was published 176 years ago, in 1839. It is not easy for us now to imagine what life might have been like then, particularly for women. To get a better feel for this I thought I might investigate what was happening in the world around this time. The quickest way was trawling through the internet since I am quite experienced with this due to researching my family history. And so I found that Queen Victoria had ascended to the British throne just two years before this manual was published, and had not married yet. There was no German nation as we know it now, but only a loose confederation of thirty-nine German states. This came about through the upheavals caused by Napoleon. As for Australia, where I live now, it was a British colony of course and still had convict transports coming in. There were eighteen shiploads full in 1839, nine each to New South Wales and to Tasmania, which was still called Van Diemen’s Land. When I looked at specific historical events of the year 1839, there was of course no mention of anything that women had accomplished, but plenty concerning men’s achievements, such as British capture Hong Kong from China, or Charles Darwin elected Fellow of the Royal Society. There were few ‘world events’ that may have been of interest to the women of the day. Tea from India (not China) 1st arrives in UK (thereby making it more affordable), or Prussian government limits work week for children to 51 hours might have been the most likely.

I was curious also whether there were any household manuals for women in the English speaking world. The best match that I came across was Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management which is still very popular today and is considered a ‘classic’ of its type. It is available online in full content, with an emphasis on food and recipes, but also contains a thorough guide for dealing with domestic help. Mrs Beeton’s book was published in 1861, twenty-two years after my manual, but unlike mine, is not forgotten. As for Australia, there was no similar publication. The Country Women’s Association of Australia, which might have published such a manual, was only founded in 1922.

I discovered that there were actually twelve volumes of this German woman’s household manual. But getting hold of any of them proved just about impossible. For one, the publisher, Lewents of Berlin, had closed its doors long ago. At best, I could imagine there might be other copies of this manual still hidden somewhere in an attic, or maybe lost on the dusty shelf of an antiquarian bookshop. But it seems rather likely that I will be stuck with my lonely copy of volume eight.

The old manual is not very large, about the size of a small paperback, a bit thicker than the average, but still handy for easy use. There are some signs of wear and tear, particularly on the hard cover; the pages though are only slightly yellowed. I had a thought to check for fingerprints, and other spots like food stains to see which entries were of most interest to the users of this manual. But I could find no clue to this. Only the index pages in the back seemed marked by heavier use, which would make sense, of course. They were a little darker. The cover design in light and dark brown shades reminded me of soap bubbles or a boiling broth, but this surely must be coincidental. There is no title, and no author listed on the outside, just a small light green square on the spine. This square shows some faint traces of lettering but is so faded it cannot be deciphered.

I decided to take a closer look at what the contents might reveal. This is the layout of the title page:

K.Behrendt_image2

 

Most obvious to me was that the input of the ‘experienced Women’ appears to be less important than that of the ‘learned Men’. As if those men knew much about a woman’s business in the first place. And in particular in 1839, when women’s business was strictly segregated from the much more important affairs of the men. This was confirmed to me by yet another rather interesting discovery. My research on the internet produced a website which featured a repository, or listing, of all known historic reference books published in German, an Encyclopaedia of Historic References. This website provided me with the confirmation that there were twelve volumes of my manual and that it was an important publication of its time. And what is more, it listed a men’s version of my manual, produced by the same publisher:

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Unfortunately my information did not mention the learned persons who gave input to this manual, such as whether any ‘experienced Women’ were consulted, but I believed that rather doubtful. In my representation of the title page here, I have used the same layout as for the woman’s manual, since this was not provided. There are some obvious differences: reference to ‘the Man’ versus ‘the female Gender’ which might confirm the lesser standing of the women of the time. And there is the obvious difference concerning expectations about each gender’s place in life and in society as well. The man had a profession and was active in society outside the home, whereas the woman’s place was strictly within the home with responsibilities as a wife and mother and, quite interestingly, in charge of the domestic help. While the men had responsibilities regarding the education of their children, there is no mention as to their responsibilities as a husband. All of this makes me so glad that I live now. While our current society is far from perfect, life has certainly improved, especially for women, who, in the western world at least are not confined to house and hearth, have opportunities for a profession and have the same responsibilities concerning their children’s education. Full equality, alas, is still a dream.

My thoughts then turned to the intriguing question about the owners of this manual among my ancestors. Two four-leaf clover stalks (very dried) between pages 298 and 299 and the word ‘Volz’ scribbled on the title page inside were the only personal hints regarding the ownership of this book. The handwritten word in ink meant nothing to me. I assumed it was a surname, since I did not recognise it as a common word of the German language or a first name. Nobody with that name is known to me amongst my ancestors. As for the four-leafed clover stalks, was somebody just pressing them and had forgotten they were there, or were they put deliberately in this book, between those pages? They are in the middle of a rather confusing five page explanation of Schachspiel (chess).

My search for clues of ownership had to continue then. As this manual was clearly meant for the mistress in charge of a well-to-do household that most likely included domestic staff, I would expect that it came from a household of some means and standing. From what I knew about my ancestors, based on old documents I’d found and what my family had told me, I had to say that most of them would not have been in a position to acquire twelve volume household manuals or any other books for that matter, with the exception of my paternal ancestors, the Schmiedebergs. They very likely had the monetary means and the status that would allow them to contemplate just such an acquisition. The head of this household, my paternal great-great-grandfather Karl Schmiedeberg was a master furrier and the mayor of the town, and therefore in good standing. Although my father was reluctant to talk about his ancestors, he proudly mentioned on occasion that his great-grandfather had been a mayor. I was able to confirm this from the information in my father’s Ahnenpass, the ancestry passport that was a required document for every German during the Nazi years. This was to prove your racial purity and had to include details down to your great-grandparents, including occupation.

As I confirmed from my research, the ownership of books was definitely an important status symbol, a sign of learning and sophistication, but also of a certain wealth. My maternal grandfather was living proof of this; although the household manual could not have come from his collection, his lifetime was much later and he marked all his literary acquisitions with his initials and a date. But nonetheless, I found it fascinating that family lore states that my Grandpa Fritz, who came from very dire circumstances, was keen to acquire books as soon as he could manage to afford them as he rose in the public service; and he made sure that they were noticed, although there is considerable doubt whether he actually read them. I still remember two locked cabinets full of books, visible through the glass panes. All these were packed away into the attic when he had passed away and the cabinets were used for other storage. The attic was a dusty, narrow space in the top of our gabled roof. One naked light bulb and two tiny windows at both ends was all there was for a light source. The only way to get up there was by pulling down a trapdoor in the ceiling of the corridor with a hooked broomstick. The trapdoor had a ladder attached that had to be pulled out and extended to the floor. One needed strength to manage this and a good reason to proceed up to this musty, dusty place, so naturally we were not up there very often.

Since I left home to go to university and then on to Australia, I had forgotten about the books until we needed to move my mother from the family home to my brother’s place, because she could not stay all by herself any more. This was in 2010. We cleaned the attic and the cellar too, and all these books now came to light and all were fairly well preserved. No mould or funny smells. Most came from Gandpa Fritz’s collection but there were others too, from who knows where, and one of them was volume eight of a German woman’s household manual. I picked this one and took it with me to Australia, because it was by far the oldest book that I had come across. I found it in one of the large cardboard boxes full of books; but there were letters too and documents and photographs, containing much of the life stories of my ancestors. All this is waiting for me to explore in detail, whenever I can make my way to Germany.

Back in Australia now, I took a closer look at all this household wisdom in my manual from 1839. The index in the back showed 326 entries in 504 pages of very tight script. Some entries were very short and there were pages with up to three. To find what must have been considered the most vital and detailed knowledge required of the discerning mistress of a household of this time, I decided to take a look at those entries with the most pages first.

I found, to my astonishment, that Schatzkästlein (little treasure trove) was the longest by far with no less than 25 pages. The next one down was Schnellräucherungsmethode (quick smoking, as in curing, method) with 20 pages, thence Rindfleisch (beef) with 18 pages, Sauce (sauce) with 16 pages, Rofe (rose) with 15 pages, Reinette (apple variety) with 12 pages and Schinken (ham) at 10 pages. Obviously, most entries refer to preparation and preservation of food except for Schatzkästlein and Rofe. The book has an unusual typeface where the ‘s’ looks like an ‘f’. It is one of the more obvious differences when it comes to the old-fashioned German font style used in this manual. It can be difficult to decipher, but thanks to my family research I had learned to read it well enough. As to the entry of the Rofe, the first part is all about planting and successfully growing roses in all their varieties, and horse manure is highly recommended. This is followed by the usefulness of rose products: rose water, rose honey, rose jam, rose vinegar, rose wine and more. At least that part is also food related. But of course the well-known and beloved perfume of the rose and its applications are certainly discussed as well.

I finally decided to take a look at what kind of treasure the Schatzkästlein, the ‘little treasure trove’ was hiding. I found a metaphoric use of ‘treasure trove’ both in the German and the English language. But I was still unprepared for what came next. I started reading and found the first words puzzling: ‘Franklin has provided rules for living…’ Franklin? Yes, this referred indeed to Benjamin Franklin, one of the famous Founding Fathers of the United States and author, statesman, scientist and inventor. After a few lines of introduction, followed Franklin’s own words in translation on his well documented ‘thirteen virtues’, with some additional explanations from one or more of the ‘learned Men’ presumably. Franklin devised this list of virtues to enable him and others to live a proper, honourable, dignified and upstanding life. Here, in my little manual were those thirteen virtues which Franklin exhorted us all to live by, painstakingly describing his own attempts and not denying that he too fell short on occasion: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquillity, Chastity and Humility.

And then I discovered that my household manual had expanded this to fourteen virtues. I searched for explanations of this discrepancy but could not find any further hint in regards to the additional virtue of Menschenliebe (humanity, humanism, literally: love of the human) in reference to Franklin’s virtues. So where did this fourteenth virtue come from and why was it added here? I found some clues: a Christian version of seven divine and seven worldly virtues and another set of virtues ascribed to Aristotle. But the most likely source and inspiration for the inclusion of those virtues into my household manual were probably the fourteen virtues of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Humanitas was one of his virtues and explained the extra virtue of humanity. Either the learned gent who wrote this entry made a genuine mistake or maybe this was added quite deliberately. Menschenliebe is certainly discussed within the ‘treasure trove’ and it does fit in very well with the whole concept.

Of course, those virtues were established by a man, aimed at the men folk of the day, presumably, so I did wonder why they were given so much prominence in this household manual for women. Part of the answer might be that ‘learned Men’ were foremost in the input to this manual. Of course, the serious application to those virtues by their wives would certainly be most desirable for all the men folk. What did occur to me is that the women who read this would have to be well educated in humanistic thought and values to even understand its concepts. And there is further evidence that a certain level of sophistication was expected of the female readers of this manual: the entry schön (beautiful). This entry starts with an elaborate explanation of ‘beauty’ and its perception that can be quickly summarised as ‘Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder’. There is also mention of an inner beauty, a beauty of the senses, the idea of beauty and the like.

And then I paused for thought. How could this be compared with such down to earth information on Scheuern (scrubbing), for example? This entry describes the correct method for scrubbing and scouring one’s pots and pans with special regard to tin plates and also wooden floors. There is a strong emphasis on the good housewife and host who would gain the utmost respect by having a properly scrubbed home. Or Säugen (breastfeeding): besides the insistence that mother’s milk is best for your child, there is a warning as to the length of time breastfeeding is to continue, a stern admonition that longer than 18 to 24 months runs the very serious risk of having your child die of water-on-the-brain. Then there is Schnellräucherungsmethode (quick smoking method), an entry emphasising the usefulness of well cured meat ‘when under siege’, your city or your town, that is. Or maybe Rothkehlchen (robin, the song bird). After two pages of almost lovingly describing how to capture, tame and keep a robin, the last sentence says, ‘Its meat is quite tasty and also good for your health.’ And the extermination methods concerning Ratten (rats) are truly awesome: drowning, poisoning, coating the live rat with a mixture of rancid cod liver oil and tar, and if that does not deter them, feed them bits of sponge fried in salted butter. Provide lots of water as well, because the salt will make them thirsty. When they drink, the sponge will soak up the water, expand and — bang! The rat explodes. I can hardly wait now to explore this manual’s suggestions concerning the elimination of Schaben (cockroaches) and Schnecken (snails) or Schildläuse (scale bugs)!

These latter entries in the manual seemed to be a world away from philosophical discussions on beauty or a virtuous life, although much closer to what I had expected to find in such a household manual. I have only read a small number of the entries so far, the ones that looked most fascinating, and further exploration begs. I can already see exciting promise in such captivating information as Rauch aus dem Zimmer zu vertilgen (remove smoke from room), or Regen (rain), and Schnee (snow), or Säure im Magen (acid in the stomach), or Sachen (things?), or Schreien (scream) or Schnürbrust (literally: tied breast, an early version of a corset).

When looking at this book I had never imagined that a woman’s household manual from 1839 could be so fascinating, so illuminating about a woman’s everyday life as it was 176 years ago, and by association a man’s life too, of course. And then there are those mysteries as well: who of my ancestors did own this manual and who was ‘Volz’? Whatever happened to the other eleven volumes? Why is the largest entry a treatise about the thirteen virtues of Benjamin Franklin, and what about the fourteenth virtue? Why did the authors of this manual include such sophisticated concepts in a household manual for women? I doubt that I will ever find the answers to all these questions, but my investigation so far has been highly fascinating and quite revealing and it goes hand in hand with my research on family history.

I must also mention yet another aspect of my investigation: I found much information on household manuals from 19th century Britain and the US, and other German publications too. I knew it would be fascinating to compare them all and I could not resist a quick perusal and found at least one unique difference to my own manual: no hint of such sophisticated concepts on beauty and a virtuous life. This made me truly regret that my unique manual has completely disappeared from view, and that I will most likely forever be deprived of its particular household wisdom except for what is found in volume eight: the entries of Rapünzchen (salad green) to Schuhwichse (shoe polish).

 

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Cold Current, Melissa Farrell

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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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