Tag Archives: family

Shrouds Without Pockets, Julian Knight

‘Hello?’ I shout into the grey abyss around me for what is probably the hundredth time. ‘Can anyone hear me?’ I’ve been in this horrible place for what seemed like an eternity. I can’t honestly say how long I’d been here seeing as my watch hadn’t been there when I’d woken up. In fact when I’d woken up I’d had nothing but my clothes.

I’d walked, run, sprinted and even just sat down and waited in this place to try and make something happen, but so far I’d accomplished nothing.

I reached into my pant pocket to pull out my phone, but like the past ten times I found nothing there. I kept going to call my wife, Jean, and each time I found no phone.

Someone had stolen from me, that much was for sure. Then again, that was less of a problem given that they’d also stolen me. I was still in one piece though, I thought someone might have hurt me while I was out, but there wasn’t any sign anyone had so hopefully Jean and my daughter Abbey are okay as well.

I’m just standing here in an infinite grey void with no idea what I’m doing here. I’d simply woken up with no recollection of how I arrived or what I’m supposed to do. The last thing I could remember was getting in the car with Jean and Abbey.

This place was an anomaly to me, just an infinite grey mist stretching out in all directions. I couldn’t even make out a distinct floor.

It wasn’t hot or cold either, or any temperature at all. In fact, I couldn’t feel anything in this place, not even the pressure of my feet upon the ground.

There were shapes out in the void. They could be people, they did seem to be moving, although I had no way of knowing for sure. No matter how hard I’d run, I hadn’t seemed to get any closer or further from them.

Or maybe all the shapes were a reflection of me. Maybe I’d been drugged and put here as part of an experiment.

I’d heard of places like this before. It’s an optical illusion that makes it look like you’re in empty space, but it’s really just a round room with mirrors and smoke that trick your mind into walking in circles.

That must be it, that’s the only explanation that makes sense. With this revelation in mind, I set my shoulders back and strode forward purposefully, hoping to run into the wall I knew was right there.

I walked for a minute.

Then two.

Then I started jogging for five.

And then as my heart started to beat faster and I realised this wasn’t working I screamed in anger, and started sprinting.

After a second I suddenly tripped on my own feet and collapsed forward.

I nearly screamed as I fell forward into the abyss, only to be stopped by whatever invisible floor allowed me to stand.

I rolled over and lay on the floor for a second, feeling my rage turn back to despair. This damned place was endless, what could I possibly do?

“I have to find them!” I said out loud, that’s what I could do. Being in the car with Jean and abbey was the last thing I remembered, so maybe they’re here too, in this void or in another room if it really was an illusion.

I stand up and start running, this time screaming; ‘Jean! Abbey! Are you here?’

*

‘Come on girls!’ I shouted, sitting in the leather seat of the car, ‘The shoe shop closes in an hour!’

I heard a distant giggle as a response and sighed, smiling slightly to myself as I saw them get out and close the front door behind them in the rear view mirror.

I closed my door, letting the cool AC in the car start to cool me down as Jean and Abbey walked down the drive towards the car.

I sat and watched the cars go past in front of us. We’d bought a house on a main road as that was the only house that we could afford when we got the happy news Abbey had gotten into a selective school nearby. That hadn’t stopped me being unhappy about being near a main road, though; it was so loud and dangerous.

The passenger and back door opened and slammed closed as they got into the car.

Before I could start driving, Jean laughed slightly to herself and reached over and undid the top button of my shirt.

‘We’re going to buy shoes, not a house, you can relax.’

I smiled at her, and felt my shoulders slump a little as they un-tensed. This move had really taken a lot out of me.

‘So, are we ready to go to buy some shoes for this new school?’ I asked as I put the car into gear and began to role forward.

‘I don’t want new shoes Dad,’ Abbey said sadly all of a sudden, ‘I want to wear my old school shoes, at my old school.’

‘I know Abbey, I know.’ Jean responded, as I saw an opening on the road, ‘But this school is going to be good!’

I heard a honk from the right as I pulled onto the road.

Before Abbey could respond I felt a sudden strong force hit me and slam me against the arm rest, and then nothing.

*

I was panting hard as I ran, my voice hoarse from all the shouting.

That flashback had seemed so real I had to supress a shiver as I felt the AC blow against my arms.

As I slowed to a walk my heart slowed and the fire in my veins subsided, leaving an empty feeling in my stomach.

So I’d been in a car accident. Whoever made this place must’ve taken me after that. No wonder I hadn’t seen their car, they probably meant to run into us.

Suddenly, I heard a gentle cough from behind me and my heart leapt into my throat.

I span as fast as I could and nearly jumped out of my skin.

There’s a thing standing in front of me.

The thing had arms, legs and a head, but beyond that it had no features, it was just made of mist. It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen.

I swallowed my first response, which was going to be a scream, and simply asked, ‘Hello?’ My hands were shaking. ‘Who are you?’

‘Greetings.’ It nodded at me. Its voice was eerie, echoing like it was talking right next to my ear, although I could clearly see the shape floating a metre away from me.

That was not the answer I expected. I also didn’t expect the British accent that came with it. We just stood there for a second; I guess it didn’t want to answer the second question.

‘Did you put me here and take my things?’ I asked suddenly, my most pressing questions coming to mind.

It laughed at me, ‘I know not who put you here, and as to your things…’ It trailed off, ‘Have you not heard before? Shrouds have no pockets. You have naught but your soul.’

‘Shrouds?’ I asked, confused. ‘Is that what you call someone in this experiment?’

Again the thing just laughed, this time turning away from me. It began walking away.

I started following, asking it more questions as I realized it was getting further away from me, my voice slowly turning to a shout as it moved away from me.

‘Wait! Please just tell me why I’m here, what do I need to do to get out? Where are my wife and daughter?’

If it could move away from me it must know how to break the optical illusion in the room, if I could just stay with it maybe I could escape.

So I sprinted after it, even as it got further and further away, less distinct against the grey backdrop, until I realized it wasn’t discernible from the other shapes out in the void.

Out of breath I dropped to the floor.

‘I do have pockets, they just don’t have anything in them.’ I muttered under my breath, before breaking out laughing.

I laughed for a long time, although it slowly turned into a sob and then crying.

I had no idea what I was doing or even where I was.

I finally sighed and lay still.

*

I’d spent a lot of time on this floor.

Or at least I call it a floor. I’d felt very afraid and ill when I’d first woken up, floating in the void, I’d panicked and it’d taken me a while to get over the vertigo, and I still really didn’t like looking down.

If this is an experiment, maybe they’ll let me go if I refuse to participate.

If I just sit here and do nothing for even longer surely I’ll prove I won’t take part and they’ll let me out.

I’ll die eventually with no food or water and they can’t let that happen, I think.

I’ve probably been missing for hours now, let alone all the time I was unconscious. My mind turned to Jean and Abbey again.

I reached behind me to take out my wallet so that I could look at my picture of them.

As I put my hand in my back pocket I realized the stupidity of what I was doing. ‘No pockets, remember,’ I said to myself with a chuckle.

But I put my hand in my pocket anyway, and to my surprise, I found something. Instead of my wallet, I found only one thing.

A photo. Of my wife and daughter.

We’d had a professional photographer take it before we moved house. We’d gone down to a national park near our old house and all sat together, laughing and playing while the photographer stood back and took photos. There were a lot of good photos, things to put on the Christmas card we send out every year, but this one had been my favourite.

All three of us were rolling on the grass, me and Jean tickling Abbey as she tried to wriggle away. I felt a smile begin to form on my face. Even through the hard times, changing schools and moving houses we’d stuck together. And most importantly we could still smile together.

But then my smile started to fade and I came back to the grey abyss around me.

Why did I have this pictures and nothing else?

Were they here to taunt me? To threaten me?

In a fit of rage I stood up again and with the photo clutched in my hand I started walking again.

I was going to figure this place out, and most importantly, how to get out and find my wife and daughter.

As I took my first step everything went black.

*

Blood. Why could I taste blood? And the pain, all over my body. It was excruciating, like having every bone in my body break at the same time. I desperately hoped that’s not what had happened

Sirens where blaring somewhere nearby, or at least I think it was nearby. It could have been right next to me but my ears felt so muffled I couldn’t tell.

‘Quick, we’re losing him he needs a blood transfusion now!’ I heard a voice shout.

I tried to open my mouth to talk only to feel my mouth fill with the iron tang of even more blood.

I choked on it, and felt pain stab into my chest and stomach.

What was this, where was I?

I felt myself slipping again.

I heard a flat line beeping somewhere as it all went dark again, the shouting starting up again, but I couldn’t understand it anymore.

*

What the hell was that?!

Did I just die?

Or am I dead already and only just remembering it?

I realized I was collapsed face first on the floor, just staring down into the abyss.

I picked myself up and brushed myself off, even though there wasn’t dust in this place.

Whatever this place is. Purgatory? Hell?

Or did they drug me again and that was a delusion?

‘Oh!’ I heard a voice exclaim behind me in a rich British accent, ‘It’s you again.’

I turned slowly as I saw another shape, a shroud I guess, standing in front of me. It must be the same one, it had the same British accent and definitely seemed to recognise me, not that I’d be able to tell it from any other shape in this abyss.

‘I’m dead aren’t I?’ I asked, anger seeping into my voice, ‘That’s what you meant when you said shrouds don’t have pockets, that’s why I don’t have anything but my clothes.’

‘Yes, that’s the one. Welcome to what I guess must be Purgatory.’ It said with a small amount of humour, its arm like appendages raising and gesturing around ‘It took you a while to realize.’

My anger rose at that, but before I could shout at the shroud I realized there was no point, it was just some dead person too.

Suddenly something occurred to me, ‘Why do I remember the flat line? If I was dead how could I hear it?’

‘The soul only moves so fast, and it gets anchored to things, like your body, hence why many shades remember dying. Your soul still hasn’t let go, has it?’ it said gesturing to the photo

I’d forgotten about the photo, I must’ve kept clutching them when I passed out.

‘Why do I have this?’ I said staring at my closed fist. ‘I thought shrouds didn’t have pockets’

It laughed deeply at that, ‘You’re right, shrouds don’t have pockets, but our souls are not just us, they are also all the things we touch, and that memory must be a strong one for you to bring it with you here.’

I felt the numbness that had set in lift slightly, and my hand unclenched from around the photo and let me look at it again.

‘Does that mean I can find them?’ I asked looking back up at the shroud, ‘If I’m anchored to them?’

‘I don’t know, they might not even be here, they might’ve moved on, or maybe they survived whatever sent you here.’ It said in a tone which made it sound like it was shrugging, even if I couldn’t see the movement.

‘Wait, move on? Move on to where?’

‘Heaven I assume.’ It responded. ‘I don’t think this is all there is to the afterlife, that would be most boring.’

‘How do I get out of here?’ I asked, my hand clenching around the photo again

‘How should I know?’ it chuckled ‘I wouldn’t be here if I knew, I’m just a shroud like you. Some people do leave though, though it takes a wiser man than me to do it.’

‘Well I’ll do it,’ I said stamping one foot on the invisible ground. ‘I’ll get out of here, and I’ll find my wife and daughter, or wait for them wherever I end up.’

He laughed fully at that, his form shimmering and moving with the sound, ‘Maybe you will do it then, maybe determination is the key.’

‘Maybe we’ll see each other again?’ I asked, ‘Here or somewhere else’

‘Not likely I’m afraid, this is the first time I’ve met the same shroud twice. Maybe in the next world though. I wish you luck with finding your wife and child.’ It said

‘Thank you, good luck to you to.’ With that said I turned and strode away, leaving the other shroud behind.

This wasn’t an angry walk, or a despondent walk, this time I walked with purpose

I gripped the photo in my hand tightly as I walked. I was dead. Admittedly that wasn’t great. But there was hope that I could get out of here, either to meet Jean and Abbey in what would hopefully be a better world, or to wait for them.

 

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Lost, Ashna Mehta

It was a quarter past nine. Rubbing her eyes, Evie sat up in bed, roused by the scent of frying butter and coffee wafting into her room from the kitchen. Untangling her legs from the quilt, she swung them over the side of her bed and stood up as she registered the familiar Saturday morning sounds coming from downstairs. She could hear the television in the family room blasting Spongebob Squarepants, which had become Benny’s favourite show as of late. Evie heard her father clattering around in the kitchen, no doubt making a celebratory brunch for her mother—she was due home from New York this afternoon after being abroad for close to a month for work.

Enticed by the idea of a big fry-up and coffee, Evie stepped out of her bedroom and made her way into the family room. Still in his pyjamas, Benny sat cross-legged on the couch, his eyes glued to the screen, thumb in his mouth. He looked up and gave her a toothy grin when she walked into the family room, his arms flailing for a hug.

‘Mama’s coming home today, Evie!’ He crowed, wrapping his arms tightly around her waist. He looked up at her, his face ruddy and crusted with Weetabix. He beamed at her and she grinned back.

‘Are you excited, Benny?’ she chuckled, eyeing the clumsy ‘Welcome Home’ banner that Benny had drawn for their mum. He’d spent ages the night before colouring it with his crayons and pleading with Dad to let him stay up just a little longer to finish it. Now the banner sat folded on the coffee table, ready to be hung up by the front door, although Evie knew her father would never get around to it. Ben gave her his best gap-toothed smile and nodded. Evie ruffled his hair and padded into the kitchen, where her father was making pancakes.

‘Will Mum be home in time to watch The Magic School Bus with me?’ Ben called out, his voice hopeful. Evie laughed.

‘Sorry, kiddo. Her flight doesn’t land until 11:00,’ her father answered, smiling. He had a spatula in one hand and was wearing an apron over his sweatpants and Rabbitohs T-shirt. Evie studied her father’s face as he flipped the pancakes on the griddle. His hair was still mussed from sleep and he hadn’t bothered to shave since her mother had left for her trip. His face had grown wider over the years and reminded her of a gruff but kindly headmaster.

‘So, miss.’ Sensing her presence in the kitchen, her father turned to face her, holding the spatula like a microphone. ‘What would you like with your pancake?’ He gestured to the kitchen island, where he’d set up a cornucopia of pancake toppings, replete with maple syrup, apples in cinnamon butter and chocolate chips. Evie felt a little burst of contentment unfurl in her chest; she loved mornings like this, when her Dad would make them celebratory brunch. Today, they had two reasons to celebrate; her mother’s arrival from New York and the first day of summer holidays.

‘The chocolate chips, definitely,’ she replied, perching on a barstool by the island. Moments later, a plate of warm pancakes was set before her, along with a steaming mug of coffee. A second plate and mug was placed next to hers soon after as her father settled beside her.

‘Are you excited Mum’s coming home?’ he asked, taking a sip of coffee.

‘Of course I am—but what’s she going to say when she sees the state the house is in?’ Evie asked. Her father glanced up from his breakfast, a forkful of pancake held comically in front of his mouth. He surveyed the kitchen, taking in the clutter and general detritus that seemed to accumulate twice as fast in her mother’s absence. Her father shook his head, a small smile dimpling his cheeks.

‘I’ve never seen your mother lift a finger, yet somehow the house is always spotless.’ He sighed. ‘Having said that, knowing her talents in the kitchen, you’re lucky I’m the one who made brunch today.’ Evie’s father winked.

Evie nodded, grinning. ‘Remember the meatloaf fiasco last Christmas?’ she reminisced, referring to the time her mother had become inspired by Nigella Lawson’s cooking tutorials online and had decided to make an entire Christmas dinner herself. Predictably, her mother’s attempt at domesticity had ended with shrieking smoke detectors, a charred meatloaf and takeaway boxes from the local Thai restaurant.

Her father laughed, his eyes crinkling in mirth. ‘Oh yeah—we made her sign an agreement that she’d never enter the kitchen unsupervised again.’ He nodded, his features softening as he remembered.

‘So are you leaving to pick Mum up from the airport soon?’ Evie asked, pooling syrup onto her plate.

‘Yep, just as soon as I’ve showered.’ her dad answered.

It hadn’t been easy, adjusting to Mum being away for so long. While the initial concept of having pizza for dinner and Pop Tarts for breakfast had thrilled her, Evie found that she couldn’t wait to have her mother back home, if only so she could stop looking after Ben while her dad was at work.

‘Good point. Big day for you, huh? Are any of your friends coming over today?’ her dad asked, draining the last of his coffee.

‘No—I haven’t made any plans with friends,’ she shook her head, swallowing a mouthful of pancake. ‘I was just going to relax at home today,’ she finished.

‘Okay, well try to coax that little cretin into the shower,’ her dad gestured to the family room, where Ben had resumed watching his cartoons. Evie gave her father a dubious look, remembering Benny’s cereal-encrusted pyjamas.

‘I’ll do my best.’ Finishing the last of the pancakes, she stood up and went to wash her plate in the sink. Her dad placed his plate and mug beside hers on the counter and went upstairs to shower. Evie enjoyed the sensation of the cool water on her hands as she washed the dishes, her mind absorbed in the pleasantly mundane task. Twenty minutes later, she heard her dad clatter downstairs, clad in jeans and a Polo shirt, his face shaved.

‘Evie, before I forget.’ He began, entering the kitchen where Evie had progressed from doing the dishes to tidying. ‘Please clean up a little around the house so your mum doesn’t think I kept you kids in a den of iniquity while she was away.’ he coaxed, a wry grin on his face.

‘Alright, as long as you promise to fix the porch light when you get home.’ She bargained. ‘Mum’s been nagging you to fix it for ages.’ Evie continued, wiping down the kitchen counter.

‘Sure thing, Evie.’ Her father chortled, patting his pockets for his car keys. After a brief scavenger hunt, they found the keys nestled in Ben’s toy box. Evie returned to the kitchen and kept tidying, the muted sounds of Spongebob and Patrick keeping her company. She heard her father shout a hasty farewell, followed by the familiar creak and groan of their ancient garage door rolling open. Soon, her father had gone, and it was just her and Ben.

*

Two hours later, Evie sat on the porch swing, a tattered paperback on her lap. A pitcher of iced tea sat on the coffee table by her side, sweating in the afternoon heat. Having spent the last two hours wrangling Ben into clean clothes, vacuuming the family room and tidying her bedroom, Evie felt like she’d earned a break and had decided to relax on the porch. Evie felt her phone vibrate from the pocket of her jeans and frowned as she went to answer the call; her father never called her. He always preferred to text.

‘What’s up, Dad? Is the plane delayed or something?’ she asked, noticing that her parents should have been home by now.

‘Honey, I don’t want you to worry because I’m still trying to get the details, but there’s been some sort of accident,’ her dad began, his voice strained.

Evie sat up on the swing, her eyes wide. ‘What sort of accident? What are you saying?’ she stammered.

‘I don’t… There’s been an accident. I’ve called Mrs Cassini and she’s going to watch you kids while I’m at the airport. She’ll be over soon,’ he spoke in a rush. Evie felt as if she had missed a step going downstairs; her stomach swooped and her heart seemed to stop for a few moments as her father’s words registered in her brain. Her mother, in an accident? The image did not compute; her mother was the most cautious person she’d ever known. This was the same woman who never gambled, drank only one glass of wine a week and drove five kilometres below the speed limit. Her mother, who would fret and call Evie if she was even five minutes late to pick Ben up from kindergarten every day.

‘Evelyn, are you still there?’ her father barked. Evie nodded, forgetting that he couldn’t see her over the phone.

‘Yes, I’m here,’ she croaked. ‘I’m scared, Dad,’ she quavered.

‘It’ll be alright. It will be fine,’ he answered, his voice slipping into autopilot.

*

They didn’t know much, but they knew that her mother’s plane had crashed. Hours later, Evie sat frozen on the couch, her eyes unfocused. Their neighbour, Mrs Cassini, a plump woman in her sixties, sat across from her, a skein of wool and the beginnings of a scarf in her lap. She had come over shortly after Evie had gotten the first phone call from her father and had sat with her and Ben while they waited for more news.

The TV was playing the five o’clock news, with segments every ten minutes about the plane crash. After a while, unable to bear hearing the same news over and over, Evie had muted the television and resisted the urge to chuck the remote at the wall. Her phone had been set to its loudest ringer, so as not to miss her father’s calls.

‘Try not to worry, petal. I’m sure your mama will be alright.’ Mrs Cassini consoled, glancing up from her knitting needles. Evie bit back a retort, but couldn’t resist rolling her eyes. She couldn’t see how Mrs Cassini’s irritating platitudes would help and resumed staring at the TV, her thoughts jumbled. The two of them sat in silence, with Evie staring at the TV, and Mrs Cassini engrossed in her scarf. Earlier, Evie had tried to settle Ben down for a nap. Picking up on the tension, Ben had become churlish and recalcitrant. He’d cried out in his sleep twice, but had otherwise been silent. Evie’s heart rate spiked as she heard the creak and groan of the garage door as it opened. Her father was home.

She was off the couch in a second, her palms moist. Her father entered the family room, his face weathered and beaten, as if he’d aged twenty years in a day. Worry lines creased his face, his eyes red and raw.

Evie stared at him, biting her lip. ‘What are they saying, dad? What happened to Mum?’ she questioned, stepping closer to her dad.

‘The airline said that there was a problem with the wing design, which caused wing failure,’ he answered. He sat down on the couch, burying his head in his hands. Evelyn waited, feeling dizzy.

‘The plane experienced mechanical failure over the Blue Mountains, and crashed somewhere above the ranges,’ her father continued. ‘They’ve sent helicopters and are making their best efforts to find survivors in the rubble,’ he finished, his voice breaking on the last few words.

Through all this, Mrs Cassini had listened in silence, her jaw slack. ‘But… Surely they must find survivors. In this day and age, there must be some,’ she wavered. The old woman’s unflinching optimism made Evie want to put her fist through a wall. Evie closed her eyes as she felt tears prick her eyelids. She didn’t want to imagine her mother hurt, scared and alone. Better to imagine her mother at home, dressed in her comfiest tights and tank top, singing along to Queen.

At a loss for words, Evie hugged her father, burying her head into his chest like she used to when she was little. He hugged her back, but his arms were stiff and mechanical. Sensing that he needed to be alone, she went upstairs to her parents’ bedroom, which was exactly how her father had left it this morning, before the accident. She closed the door behind her and walked through her parents’ bedroom like it was a museum.

All day she’d refused to cry, believing that it would somehow mean her mother had gone. But now, standing alone in the darkened bedroom, she dropped to the floor and leaned against the bed, her shoulders wracked with sobs. She remembered the kind of cries Ben used to make when he was a baby, but this felt different. This felt like grief with no end. Evie cried so hard she could hardly breathe, but her tears eventually slowed to long, deep sighs punctuated by the occasional sniffle. She heard muffled voices from downstairs, and listened, wiping her eyes. Mrs Cassini was trying to console her father, but her presence in their home felt downright intrusive now.

‘Listen darl, they wouldn’t have sent search and rescue teams to the crash site if they didn’t think there were any survivors,’ Mrs Cassini began. ‘Your Alison is a strong, wilful woman. I’ve no doubt she’s waiting for rescue right this moment in an air pocket. She’s got so much to live for!’ Mrs Cassini cried. For a few moments there was silence, before a loud slam echoed around the house. Evie flinched, her eyes wide.

‘Damn it, there are no air pockets! They don’t exist!’ her father bellowed. ‘She’s gone. My Allison’s gone,’ he groaned, his voice cracking. Mrs Cassini fell silent.

Tears began trickling down Evie’s face again; she’d never heard her father raise his voice to anyone. She heard Ben wail from his bedroom; her father’s shouts had woken him. Doing her best to wipe her face, Evie crept across the landing and into Ben’s bedroom.

He was curled up in bed, his face creased with worry. His lamp cast a warm yellow glow around his bedroom, reaching all the way from his bed to his bookshelf.

‘Why is dad angry, Evie?’ Ben asked, gazing up at her.

‘He’s not angry, Benny. Just upset,’ Evie soothed. She pulled a pile of books off the shelf to read to him just like her mother did whenever Ben couldn’t sleep.

‘About Mum not coming home?’ Ben mumbled.

‘Yeah, about that.’ sensing a change of topic was needed, she told Ben to pick a book from the pile she had chosen. He picked Love You Forever by Robert Munsch. Evie hesitated for a moment, but opened to the first page, nestling closer to Ben in bed. A picture of a young mother cradling her baby son greeted them and Evie read aloud, ‘There was a mother who had a new baby and she picked it up and rocked it back and forth and sang,’ her voice was hoarse from sobbing, but she persisted.

‘I’ll love you forever; I’ll like you for always. As long as I’m living,’ here, she glanced down to Ben’s face. It was streaked with tears, his sobs so quiet she didn’t notice at first.

‘My baby you’ll be,’ Evie finished the song she’d heard her mother sing countless times before, tears rolling down her cheeks.

‘Is Mum going to come home, Evie?’ Ben sniffled.

‘I don’t think so, Benny,’ Evie whispered.

 

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Rip the Stitches, Jacqueline Bunn

The crowd was all scraps of unfamiliar skin and dark clothing; black dresses and suits circling her in the church foyer. The chatter faded and swelled like an unrelenting tide and Lorraine, pulled to and fro by murmurs of sympathy, let herself be swept away.

What all these people had in common with Sally, Lorraine had no idea. But, she thought, people just show up at funerals. They were like weddings that way – disguised in the right attire and disposition, anyone could consider themselves welcome. Offering their condolences filled attendees with a calming sense of having done their bit, and what’s more, that evening they could turn to their spouse over the dishes and say, ‘Well, darling, I went to so-and-so’s funeral today. It was a lovely service.’ Then their spouse could ask who preached and whether the sermon was any good, and perhaps for a moment or two they both might feel very sad about the idea of death, but eventually they would wipe down the sink and watch some television and forget about it all.

Standing behind the kitchen servery window, a woman with long hair pinned into a perfect bun was explaining to Lorraine how very much her sister would be missed on the morning tea roster. Apparently no one had been quite as good as her at mixing the cordial the way the kids liked it. Incapable of really listening, Lorraine could only wonder at how early poor Susan was going grey. She herself was nearly seventy-two, and only just now starting to gain silver threads around her ears.

Realising how few nods and ‘hmms’ were required for Sue to continue in her reminiscences, Lorraine allowed herself the freedom of gazing through the grubby glass of the door behind her. Outside, the grey November sky was falling down in rivulets, dripping through the shadesail and flooding the lawn.

Not for the first time since her sister’s death, Lorraine found her thoughts taking her back to Papua New Guinea.

In the Papua New Guinean ‘dry season’ it had rained every second day. In the wet season, the downpours became so frequent that twenty-four rainless hours seemed unnatural. Mostly the deluges would arrive in the afternoon, right in time to drench her young sons’ games of tag at the Ukarumpa International School. These didn’t bother her, so long as she got her washing off the line in time. When the rain came in the morning, though, she would wake up cold to the wind and the melancholy patter on the corrugated iron roof. Her husband James would often be long gone, the ghost of a kiss pressed to her cheek as he left to drive to the villages that kept him away from her for days at a time.

Her favourite storms by far, though, would arrive angry in the evenings, coming in clouds that pulled the dark with them, swallowing up the town in starless black until the sky ruptured, dividing, dividing, and dividing again with eerie streaks of white that lit the world for tiny, staggering moments. In the early years, those were the times she had been most thankful that her older sister had joined them on the mission field. The locals were used to such displays – even the expats who had been there a little longer than them (like that irritable American schoolteacher, Judy) weren’t particularly impressed. Only Sally shared her delight. When it rained at night Lorraine would ask James to puff up some popcorn on the stove, or she would make something else special, like vegemite on toast, the salty taste a reminder of home. Then she, her boys, and Sally would sit out in the screened verandah watching the ‘lightning show’ being put on just for them.

Sipping at her mug of weak, church-kitchen tea, Lorraine brought herself back to the present with some exertion.

‘Sue,’ she said, keeping her voice as polite as she could. ‘I’m just going to duck to the ladies, if you don’t mind.’

*

Natalie had cried. She hadn’t expected to. It wasn’t that Sally wasn’t worth crying for; Natalie just didn’t cry a whole lot.

Standing in the back pew, though, the organ echoing out the melody of ‘When We All Get to Heaven, Heaven,’ she had been swept back to her last morning at school in Hong Kong. Ten years old, walking dry-eyed up the stairs to her classroom, praying to Jesus would he please, please, please let her cry? You couldn’t leave your home and your friends, forever maybe, without crying. It wasn’t right.

As it had turned out she needn’t have worried. Her teacher had given her a scrapbook with photos and farewell messages from the whole class, and Natalie was choking on the sobs before she realised they’d begun. Her best friend, Ling, had drawn flowers around her goodbye note.

‘Niu,’ it said – for that had been her name back then – ‘we’ll always be best friends. I’ll see you again when I’m rich enough to fly to Australia or else in heaven maybe.’

Twelve years later, they hadn’t seen each other since. As the music had faded to a final, hollow note, Natalie thought she might have been crying for Ling as much as Sally. Both of them were gone, were no longer her friends but memories instead, to be enclosed in photo albums and pocketed away until she needed to cry again.

It was after the service, when Natalie was reaching to dab at her eyes with a scrap of paper towel in the bathroom, that the seam under the sleeve of her dress split neatly down to the strap of her bra. It was the only black dress she owned that fit the occasion, and apparently she’d bought it a little too long ago, as it no longer fit her. Hearing the noise as it tore, like the slow undoing of a zipper, she swore under her breath. Remembering immediately that she was in church, she flinched, lamenting the dirty habit that high school had taught her. Closing her eyes, she silently apologised to God and held her breath, hoping that whoever was in the occupied stall behind her hadn’t heard.

She heard a flush, and the lock clicked open.

Natalie watched in the mirror as the occupant of the stall exited behind her, and cringed at God’s sick sense of humour. She recognised the woman, of course, The black gored skirt, the neat court shoes, the fragile skin worn down from its years of devoted service to the Lord – it was the same woman who’d given the eulogy not half an hour ago. This was Sally’s sister, and here she was, caught with a foul mouth and her underarm on display.

‘You wouldn’t happen to have a safety pin, would you?’

It wasn’t the most refined way to introduce herself, Natalie knew, but ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ when your not-so-recently-shaved underarm was making a bid for freedom from your dress didn’t seem appropriate either.

The woman mumbled something about a sewing kit somewhere, reached into her bag and began to rummage. Natalie felt for a moment like she was watching Sally again, digging through her ridiculous knitted bag before scripture class on a Friday morning for her lipstick, her pen, or the bag of lollies she brought along to reward the gremlins for correct answers. She smiled at the memory as the woman pulled a small purple case out from the depths of her handbag. ‘Sally had a Mary Poppins bag too.’

Sally’s sister – Lorraine was it? – studied Natalie. ‘You knew her.’

It was an accusation, Natalie just couldn’t figure out what of.

‘I did, yeah. We taught scripture together. She was a great lady. All the kids loved her.’

Lorraine pulled a needle from the case and began to unravel a small bobbin of black thread. ‘What’s your name?’ She asked, snipping the thread with a pair of nail scissors.

‘Natalie.’

‘I can sew this up for you, Natalie.’

*

Lorraine’s new acquaintance stood patiently, one arm in her dress, the other slid out as the older woman worked.

Sew it shut, sew it shut. The mantra hummed in Lorraine’s mind as she stitched the cheap cotton together under the fluorescent bathroom light, her hands not quite as steady as she had expected.

Sew it shut – and the slice of the needle seemed to be her only defense against the memories that threatened to gush free and swallow her.

Sew it shut – but it was too late, already she was back in Papua New Guinea, careening past mudslides and over rickety bridges in the backseat of the jeep, tears clogging her throat, clutching a cloth around her son’s finger as the pain dragged him into unconsciousness.

The whole damn thing was pulling open now, coming back no matter how hard she fought it.

They had been on a village trip some six hours drive from Ukarumpa. James was to work with a local translator while Lorraine visited families in the village with Dean and her younger son, Harry. Harry in her arms, she was in the middle of a halting Pidgin conversation with the matriarch of a household, when she heard Dean scream.

A teenager carried him from the courtyard where he had been playing into the thatched room. A crowd of bodies, of men with pierced noses, of women with their bare breasts dangling to their stomachs, gathered outside the door, yelling words so fast that she struggled to comprehend. ‘Pen bilong em han!’ Dutifully, she looked to her son’s hand and saw the blood that dripped from his index finger to the dusty floor. It was mangled, crushed to the bone, torn and bleeding profusely.

‘Maritaman – bilong mi maritaman!’

‘My husband, my husband.’ It was all she could piece together at the time, but before she had even tried to get any further, two men came running from the other side of the village, hauling James along with them. Lorraine pulled off her cardigan and bundled it around Dean’s hand before James could see the injury. He tended to pass out at the sight of blood, and she needed him alert to navigate the hairpin turns down the mountains as they drove.

They made it back to Ukarumpa in the darkest hours of the morning. James carried Dean, floppy and feverish in his arms, from the car to Sally’s door, kicking at it with his boot, bellowing, ‘Sally, wake up! Dean’s done his finger!’

Her sister, the quintessential nurse, was the kind of person that the missionary kids ran to when they grazed their knees and wanted sympathy that their parents wouldn’t give them. Opening her door to Lorraine’s family that night, her purple dressing gown cinched at her waist, she had hustled them quietly inside the moment she realised Dean was hurt.

‘Sally, can you fix it? Can you sew it up?’ Lorraine knew she sounded hysterical, but she needed to know, she needed to be sure that her sister could make this okay.

‘What happened?’ Sally’s voice was measured and kind, and Lorraine felt herself begin to breathe again.

Here, it was James who spoke. ‘Kid stuck his finger in a coffee grinder.’

Lorraine thought she saw a rare flicker of disquiet cross her sister’s face, but it was gone as quick as it came, and soon they had Dean across the road in Sally’s little two-room clinic (the best hospital they had, at that point) and they were ready to operate. Even though she shuddered with every one of her son’s anguished cries, Lorraine watched her sister close his wound from a chair by his bedside, and felt safe. James had taken Harry back to their house; it was just the three of them in the room. With no diesel on hand to turn the generator on, Sally worked in total silence under the flicker of two gas lanterns, squinting at the little hand splayed out in front of her, sewing it up stitch by painful stitch. For that long hour, the sisters could have been in a world entirely their own, wrapped up in the pale blue walls of the clinic, and Lorraine allowed herself to be enveloped in the comfortable familiarity of the moment.

The next morning, though, it was raining.

Sally came over to their house early to check on Dean, and Lorraine realised quickly that something had changed.

‘Now the stitches will have to come out in about three weeks, alright?’ Sally told her. ‘And you’ll have to do it, I’m afraid. I’m booking to fly back home about then.’

‘What – already?’

‘Well, you knew it was going to be soon. Ukarumpa’s just – well, I’m not sure this is where God wants me right now. But don’t worry, you’ll be fine, won’t you Lor?’

And she had been, Lorraine thought as she stitched. She and her family had called that place home for fifteen years without Sally. But when they returned she had folded up the memories and stored them away from her sister, cramming them into boxes in the garage. She’d sewn her past up neatly and got on with her life, but now, in the ladies bathroom of St Mark’s Anglican Church, Sally had torn everything open again.

*

Natalie gingerly lifted her arm to inspect Lorraine’s handiwork in the mirror. It wasn’t as good as new, but it would get her through the rest of the afternoon tea without embarrassment. ‘Thanks,’ she said.

Lorraine nodded, but was quiet, her hands trembling slightly as she put away her needle. A pregnant pause had Natalie wondering if she should just go ahead and leave the bathroom when the older woman turned to her and asked in an odd voice, ‘Did my sister – that is – did Sally ever talk to you about her missionary work?’

Surprised, she replied that yes, she had often heard Sally talk about Papua New Guinea. ‘We used to debate the differences between Papua New Guinean churches, Chinese churches, and Australian churches. Actually – I think she was the one who convinced me leave the Cantonese service for the evening one I’m at now! I remember her saying something about how the church was a delicious soup with all different flavours and ingredients blended together, and that I couldn’t always hide myself away in a safe little clump of noodles, I should get out there and make the soup as tasty as I could.’

Natalie smiled at the memory of the conversation. ‘She could be a real nurse sometimes. Great with the kids, a little pushy with adults.’

Lorraine softened, and looked ready to agree, but then before she could a careful but firm knock sounded on the bathroom door. ‘Excuse me – is Lorraine in there? It’s James.’

Lorraine’s voice was steady. ‘I’m sorry love, I’m coming.’

Leaving the safety of the bathroom behind them, Natalie and Lorraine ventured back into the fray of mourners. After a cordial farewell, both women pocketed away the memory of each other, but perhaps, they decided, not quite as deep as usual.

 

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Grace’s Room, Emma Dorreen

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

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

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

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

 

‘You never want to hear about the dream.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘You say that it’s not important.’

‘Well… is it?’

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

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

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

‘I’ll tell you about Jodie Metzler.’

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

‘No I did not.’

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

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

‘That was Britney.’

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

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

‘How do you mean?’

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

‘You let her go,’ he prompted.

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

‘Can I get you something for that?’

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

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

‘Yes.’

‘To let her go.’

‘Yes.’

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

‘Hard for you. But it went well?’

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

‘Did James ever meet her?’

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

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

‘Did you? Did you go?’

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

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

‘You enjoyed the move?’

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

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

‘Do you want to talk about Grace?’

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

‘You forget. Relax. There’s no rush.’

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

‘You tell me.’

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

‘Can we talk about the dog then?’

Kate would not reply.

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

 

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

 

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

‘Yes, I slept well.’ Liar.

‘No bad dreams?’

‘You don’t want to hear about that.’

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

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

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

‘I wouldn’t know.’

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

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

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

‘Until?’

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

‘Forget it. Forget I said anything.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I do.’

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

‘I’ll start with Jodie.’

‘Whatever makes you comfortable.’

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

‘Yes, I can see that.’

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

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

‘Was that important?’

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

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

‘And then?’

‘And then — I noticed the wallpaper.’

‘What wallpaper?’

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

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

‘You don’t believe me.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Look at the dog.’

‘No.’

‘Look properly.’

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

 

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

 

‘It’s in our house,’ Kate remembered.

‘Yes.’

‘The room.’

‘Yes.’

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

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

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

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

 

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The Narrator, Melissa Farrell

 

As he dresses for work, Harry wonders just how long his parents-in-law will be staying. They have exchanged their life in the suburbs for one on the road, selling their house and buying a large motorhome with plans to travel the country. So far they have only managed to travel the twelve kilometres across town from their previous home to his. Their monstrosity of a vehicle is parked in his driveway and has been for the past three weeks, leaching his electricity and guzzling his water. His in-laws, who sleep and shower in their motorhome, spend the rest of their time lounging about in his home.

Harry cannot abide their company, but there has always been that sweet sense of release at the completion of any engagement with them. Now he is cornered in his own home, snared by these wretched people. His mother-in-law, Thelma, is an impetuous woman, all urge and impulse, a mess of emotion. She cries or laughs at the slightest provocation, in a frantic sort of way that sounds as if she is in some sort of distress, confusing Harry so that he is never quite sure whether she is actually crying or laughing. This unrestrained disposition flows through all facets of her behaviour from the way she speaks, without any censoring, right down to her eating habits, the way she attacks her food in a vulgar bustle of gnawing and gnashing until her plate is empty. Her husband, Gary, is an arduous bore who is incapable of conversation, preferring to pontificate, or to tell stories which he stretches to tediousness. With winter setting in, Harry suspects that Thelma and Gary may be and hunkering down for the season.

Harry’s wife, Sherry, is behaving strangely. Since her parent’s arrival she has indulged in a childish energy that Harry finds irritating. She is laughing wildly at all of Gary’s predictable jokes, calling him ‘Daddy,’ and is constantly referring to him for answers. ‘What do you think about the situation in Afghanistan, Daddy?’ Or ‘why does the moon seem closer when it rises, Daddy?’ When Harry had pointed this out to her, she had behaved like a petulant child, sulking for the rest of that day. She is also encouraging her mother to do most of the cooking. Thelma’s bland concoctions of tasteless grey meat and mushy boiled vegetables make Harry squeamish. He misses his wife’s cooking. He misses his ordered life and his orderly wife.

Harry looks in the mirror and straightens his tie. It is emblazoned with the

‘Harry’s Hardware’ logo. The only place he feels any sense of composure at present is in the dominion of his hardware store. He lingers for longer hours amongst the neat rows of screws, glues, tools, paints, rattraps, hatchets, and buckets. He inherited the store from his father who had left instructions for Harry to sell it and to continue with his studies in journalism. Harry, determined not to let his domineering father dictate his life from the grave, discontinued his studies and kept the store. Finding it in a careless disarray of random stock and messy financial records, he had systematised the whole affair. From the shelves up and had slowly shaped the store into the methodical and productive business it is today. He has sedulously trained two employees to ensure that everything is performed to his design. He takes great pride  in knowing that his store is the most efficient in town. And amongst the tidy aisles of the fluorescent world of the hardware store, he is at peace. A psychoanalyst might tell him that his need for order and control stems from his parent’s marital problems and their subsequent lack of attention to him during his period of toilet training.

‘Who’s there,’ says Harry. He pushes open the window and looks out into the garden below. The other thing that has been bothering Harry is that he sometimes hears someone talking, seemingly about him, but he has been unable to find its source.

‘Where are you?’ says Harry as he begins prancing around like a territorial rooster, looking back and forth, up and down as if searching for someone. ‘I don’t know who you are, or where you are, but you’d better bugger off,’ he demands. Anyone observing this scene could believe that Harry had gone quite mad as he seemingly addresses some invisible interloper.

The bedroom door opens and his wife, Sherry, comes in. ‘What’s all the shouting about? Is someone here?’ she asks as she glances about the room.

‘Someone’s here alright,’ Harry tells her.

‘Who?’

‘I can’t find him.’

‘Who are you talking about?’

Harry stands quite still and listens. He takes Sherry by the shoulders. ‘Can’t you hear that voice?’

‘What voice?’

‘The one speaking just now.’

‘Are you feeling alright?’ Sherry puts her hand to Harry’s forehead.

‘Didn’t you hear that? He just said ‘Sherry puts her hand to Harry’s forehead’.’

‘I can’t hear anyone,’ says Sherry looking at Harry with concern.

‘Shh, listen carefully,’ Harry whispers. ‘Don’t you hear him? He just said ‘Harry whispers’.’

‘I don’t hear anything. I think you should sit down,’ she says as she eases him towards the bed.

‘I don’t need to sit down. I’m late for work.’ He takes one last anxious look about the room before pushing past Sherry and slamming the door behind him.

 

Arriving at work, a flustered Harry heads straight to the restroom. Locking the door behind him, he stares into the mirror. ‘Who are you?’ he asks. ‘Are you in my mind? Am I going crazy?’ Leaning closer to the mirror, he stares deeply into his blue eyes as if some answer lay buried there. ‘Ah ha,’ says Harry. ‘My eyes are grey, not blue. I would never call them blue. You’re not me… then who are you?’ Harry waits for an answer. There is a knock on the door. ‘Won’t be a minute,’ calls Harry. He splashes his face with cold water, adjusts his tie, and takes one last look at his reflection before opening the door to his working day.

There are a few customers waiting at the counter as Harry approaches. He notices one of his employees check his watch. Harry is never late. Just ignore him, Harry tells himself as he makes his way to the counter. With effort, he stretches his mouth into a smile and addresses an elderly woman waiting to be served.

‘What can I help you with today?’

‘I’m after paint for an outdoor wooden table.’

Harry knows just the one for the job. It is a waterproof paint compatible with wood.

‘You think so?’ says Harry.

‘Ah… yes.’

‘Sorry… what I mean is, I think you should go with a hard wearing paint. It’s not waterproof,’ Harry says smiling smugly towards the ceiling, ‘but it will last longer.’

‘Oh… if you say so. I was thinking of a muted colour, perhaps a beige.’ Perfect thinks Harry, who likes the colour beige very much.

‘Aubergine would be a good choice,’ suggests Harry. ‘I think aubergine goes nicely on any surface. It’s one of those versatile colours.’

‘Oh… well okay then… if you think so.’

Harry does not think so. He hates aubergine, but he strolls over to the paint counter and proceeds to mix a vile combination of black, grey and purple.

After sending the uncertain customer on her way, Harry looks towards the ceiling. ‘You think that I’m some sort of puppet, that you can read my thoughts and predict my actions? Think again,’ he says to nobody in particular, before spending the rest of his day second guessing himself and leaving many dissatisfied customers in his wake.

 

The following morning when Harry wakes, he lies quite still, listening for a few moments. ‘You’re still here,’ he sighs.

‘Where else would I be?’ asks Sherry.

‘I’m not talking to you.’

‘Harry, what’s going on? You’re scaring me.’

‘Can’t you hear that voice?’

‘What voice?’

‘The one speaking right now.’

‘Harry, maybe you should see a doctor.’

‘I don’t need a doctor,’ insists Harry. ‘Leave me alone,’ he shouts to the room.

‘Harry please…’

‘Shut up. Shut up the both of you!’

Sherry pulls the covers over her head and sobs.

 

At dinner that evening, Harry sits silently while Gary tells a protracted story about a holiday that they took to the coast when Sherry was a child. Although Harry is preoccupied with listening for a voice that only he can hear, he feels a trickle of jealousy at the story. His own childhood had held none of the adventure of his wife’s. After Harry’s father had left, just getting through each day’s routine was an overwhelming affair for his mother. Their house had reflected the disarray of their lives, everything out of place and out of order. His mother was oblivious to this, living largely within the narrow world of her own mind. Harry would fantasise that he was adopted and that his birth parents, who were organised and tidy people, were searching for him and would rush through the door at any moment to rescue him into a happy family life.

‘How would you bloody know?’ Harry snaps. ‘For your information, I was a very content child!’ Harry is in self-denial about the way he felt as a boy. At his outburst, Gary had stopped in mid-sentence and they all sit staring at Harry now, waiting for some sort of explanation.

‘Harry, what’s wrong?’ asks Sherry

‘Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s bloody terrific.’ Tears begin to well in Sherry’s eyes.

‘Tears begin to well’. ‘Is that the best you can do? Talk about hackneyed! Maybe it’s time you found something else to do with your time,’ laughs Harry.

‘Maybe it’s time we all went to bed,’ Gary says signalling for Thelma and Sherry to rise. The three of them hurry out leaving Harry alone.

Feeling as flat as a nail head, Harry leans back in his chair. ‘Oh, that’s clever, ‘Harry says sarcastically’. The similes are from my world perspective,’ he says to the empty room. ‘I’m not talking to the empty room and you know it. Come on, it’s just the two of us here. Admit that you exist and tell me what this is all about.’ Harry sits in silence as if he is waiting for some concealed presence to answer. Finally he shakes his head and says, ‘okay, if that’s the way you want to play it.’ He stands and opens the refrigerator, reaching for a bottle of beer. ‘You’d be mistaken,’ he says with conceit, pulling a bottle of chardonnay from the shelf. Harry does not like wine but he pours himself a large glass anyway. ‘Cheers,’ he says and takes a deep gulp. He fights the urge to balk at the flavour and continues to drink.

 

The following morning, dealing with an intense hangover, Harry watches Thelma’s tacky lipstick coated mouth move to the discordant tones of her voice. It cuts through his consciousness in an unintelligible babble. Sherry and Gary have gone to the supermarket and as it is his day off, Harry has nowhere else he needs to be. Thelma has just devoured a plate of bacon and eggs and Harry can see bits of bacon dangling from between her yellowed teeth. She is a truly repugnant woman, thinks Harry. ‘You think you know me and you can read my thoughts?’ he demands.

‘Well, Harry, I suppose I don’t really know you terribly well…’

‘I’m not talking to you,’ he says in an aggressive way that alarms Thelma making her jump. Harry laughs at her reaction and stands to leave.

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ he says. ‘Now what?’

‘Why don’t you sit down,’ suggests a confused Thelma.

Harry continues to stand, glaring obstinately into the room. After a few moments, he begins to feel foolish.

‘I am not foolish,’ Harry shouts.

‘Oh Harry, I’ve never thought you were foolish. A little droll at times, but never  –’

‘Take this,’ he says grabbing the back of Thelma’s head and plunging his mouth to hers in a kiss that tastes of eggs. ‘How’s that for repugnance?’ he shouts.

‘Oh Harry,’ exclaims Thelma, ‘I’ve always felt that there was something between us.’

She moans as her greedy mouth finds his again. He pulls away to make his escape from the loathsome woman. ‘Is that right?’ he challenges before pulling her up and sweeping her along the hallway to the bedroom. Tossing her onto the bed, he pulls his trousers down and leaps onto her, raking her nightgown aside.

‘Oh Harry,’ she swoons as he pushes into her.

‘How’s this for aversion?’ he calls to the ceiling.

Harry is momentarily surprised at his level of sexual performance before he finds himself flying backwards through the air and landing on the floor with his trousers around his ankles.

‘What’s going on?’ bellows Gary, standing over him, fists held high.

‘He pulled me in here and forced himself on me,’ Thelma shrieks.

Harry stumbles to his feet, pulling his trousers up as he rushes for the door, pushing past Sherry who is wailing uncontrollably. He feels a momentary surge of compassion for her. ‘Shut up!’ he shouts as he pushes Sherry against the door with his hands around her neck. ‘How’s this for compassion?’ he cries. Sherry is struggling to take a breath. Gary grabs him from behind and throws him to the floor.

‘Hold him down,’ Gary shouts to Thelma, who throws her naked body on top of Harry, pinning his arms down with her thick thighs.

‘You think you’re in charge, that you can read my life with such confidence? You have no idea and your narration is so clichéd,’ Harry laughs. ‘Come on, ‘surge of compassion’, I’ve heard it all before. You’re so banal. And why the formal language? Throw in a few contractions, mate.’

‘Shut up, Harry,’ yells Gary as he tries to console a bawling Sherry who is slumped against the door. ‘Make him shut up, Thelma.’ She presses her bacon- scented hands over Harry’s laughing mouth, which makes Harry laugh even harder.

Harry is still laughing when the police arrive. As he is handcuffed and pushed out to the patrol car, their words wash over him: rape, attempted murder, hears voices, yells at people who’re not there.

Harry tries to explain to the police about the voice he hears. Nobody seems to understand, until they send in a psychiatrist who asks him all sorts of questions and believes that he can indeed hear a voice. Harry is relieved until the psychiatrist testifies in the court, calling Harry a paranoid schizophrenic. Harry shouts out that it is not true and he calls to Sherry and her parents to help him, but they will not look in his direction. He is dragged from the courtroom, yelling profanities at the ceiling.

Harry is committed to an institution for the criminally insane. The doctors will try many medications, but none will prove successful. He will spend the next seven years trying to convince them of his sanity until the fine thread that holds him together snaps. His mind will close down and he will simply stare into space for the rest of his days, never to utter another word.

 

Sherry does not visit Harry after he is institutionalised. She just wants to put her life with him, which was unsatisfying even before his mental health issues, behind her.

She files for divorce and once it is finalised, she sells the hardware store and begins an affair with the real estate agent, Barry. Sherry experiences lust for the first time and a year later they wed and continue to live in the home that she once shared with Harry. Sherry’s parents continue their stay in the driveway.

Sitting in their mobile home that is yet to travel very far, Thelma and Gary discuss how they much prefer their daughter’s new husband to her previous one. As Gary watches Thelma, he wonders if he will ever be able to nullify the vision of her in bed with Harry, of her calves wrapped around his skinny white buttocks.

‘Did you hear someone?’ Gary asks as he looks about.

‘Oh Gary, that’s so funny. No Gary… or should I say Harry, I didn’t hear anyone.’ Thelma laughs in that frantic way of hers. Gary hesitantly joins in and Thelma does not notice his furtive glance towards the ceiling.

And so you see, life goes on and nobody misses Harry… not even me.

 

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Taras’ Parthenians, Claire Catacouzinos

 

They would have their revenge one day, these bastard children, sons of bitches and Helot slaves, they were filthy mutts, unworthy of Spartan rights and citizenship. Their Spartiate fathers had disowned them after the First Messenian war, their Helot mothers tried to protect their puny sons, but they were better off to be thrown over Mount Taygetos, down into the chasm of the Apothetae. They were named, the Parthenians, the sons of virgins, born out of wedlock, and wherever they went, they were attacked with cacophonous insults from the Spartans, that scathed their hearts. For they were inferiors, half-bloods; but they would have their rancorous vengeance, oh yes they would, for the gods themselves willed it.

 

Amyklai, Lakonia, 706. B. C. E.

 

In the month of Hekatombaion, Neophytos the Parthenian was at the Amyklaion sanctuary celebrating the Hyakinthia festival among the Spartans, Periokoi and Helots. It was the second day of the festival. Neophytos was lined up behind other men on the right side of Apollo’s temple, waiting for the sausage contest to begin. There were six older men in front of him, wearing the red cloaks of Spartan men. He looked above them and gazed at the almighty, towering statue of Apollo; he wore the Corinthian helmet, held a bow in his left hand and a spear in his right that pointed down towards the entrance of his rectangular temple. Neophytos could see through the marble columns the priestess offering a chiton the women had sewn for the festival, and watched as she placed it down on the pedestal shaped as an altar that the statue was built on; a gift to Apollo, rejoicing in honour of him and his lover Hyakinthos. May they be blessed, he thought, looking away and staring at the cooked pieces of pig intestines filled with pork mince in front of him, hanging on the wall. Each sausage was pierced with a spear to keep it in place – by the gods, they looked delicious to eat. Neophytos licked his lips as he heard someone laugh beside him.

‘You look hungry Neo, I can see you desire to test your tongue.’

‘All in good time Timaios,’ he said, laughing with his friend. ‘But I will win the eating contest today.’ Of course he would, his stomach was grumbling for food, he could eat four pigs like Dionysos feasting, and then drink it all down with diluted wine; he could salivate on the tenderness of each meat – ah, he wished the damn contest would start already.

‘I am not so sure, Apollo standing before you is on my side today, have you not seen the hyacinth flower I wear?’

Neophytos looked down and saw the red flower attached to Timaios’s belt. The bastard, Apollo would favour him today. ‘Where did you get that?’

‘From your averter of unlawful desires.’

‘My Oreithyia?’

‘Yes, she entered the sanctuary moments ago with the other dancers, they are handing the flowers around for good fortune. It seems I am in more luck.’

Neophytos turned away from his friend, looking for his beloved – where was she? More men joined the two lines for the contest. Neophytos looked over their heads, searching for the girl who doted him with her honey-sweet love. When was the last time he had seen her, four days ago? She had been preparing with the other girls for the procession dances for their three-day Hyakinthia festival.

People were scattered everywhere: other Spartan men were near the lounging statues of couples who lay on marble recliners shaped as lions feet, children raced each other to the left of the sanctuary near the marble buildings, and outside of the precinct chariot races would be starting soon, after the parades of carts decorated with Spartan girls and women finished going around. Then to his right, on the other side of the temple, were four rows of choir boys and girls already competing amongst themselves, playing the kitharas and aulos, and singing the celebration song to Apollo; Oh great Apollo, hail! God of the golden bow and the creator of the hyacinth flower. Oh great Apollo, hail!

People everywhere wore crimson tunics: the women wore short chitons, Spartan men were draped with their red cloaks, and they all wore grassy wreaths – except for the Helots, Neophytos’s mother amongst them. They stood out like deer, waiting for their predators to strike them down. They wore the symbol of their social class; dog-skin caps, that shielded their faces from Helios’ rays. Why could they not have a day off from wearing them? Neophytos thought.

He turned away from the groups of Helots and saw a couple of women walking around with baskets filled with hyacinths in their arms, their long, violet chitons lapping and fluttering in the wind like Pegasus’s wings; their veils covering their braided hair. One of the girls, Oreithyia, bent down and handed a child a red flower. She smiled at the little boy and Neophytos felt an overwhelming feeling of love that swelled his heart and made him smile. Ah, my Oreithyia, he thought.

He watched the little boy, a couple of metres in front of him, place the flower amongst the many others that rested against the circular altar. Neophytos remembered how he had gone to the altar yesterday with his mother and half-siblings, and placed their own red flowers amongst the rivers of red and purple flora. It had been the sorrowful day, the first day of the Hyakinthia festival where everyone mourned with Apollo for the loss of his lover, Hyakinthos. The hyacinth flowers spilled along the circular altar like the spilled blood of Hyakinthos when he had been killed by a discus. Neophytos could not imagine losing Oreithyia. How long had it been now since their secret union when they had first tasted each other’s lips? He watched her rise from the ground and place the basket on her head, the flowers complementing her rosy lips and tanned skin. May Apollo bless her, she looked like a sun-light Hesperides, rich and luscious like the golden apples they were entrusted to care for. If only he could hold her in front of everyone like they did every night when her betrothed, Dexios, was away, fighting in battle with the other Spartans. He watched her compose herself, and when she was ready to walk away from the altar, she looked up, and Neophytos and her locked eyes on each other, and without being aware that Neophytos had been watching her, thinking about their relationship and her beauty, she stood there and smiled at him, Neophytos the Parthenian, the man she truly loved, and she wondered if they would ever be together, to hold hands in public. However, she would be ridiculed if she married him by the ever-watchful Spartan women, whose eyes were all-seeing like Argos-Panoptes; but she could not help thinking that if only Neophytos was a full-blooded Spartan like Dexios, they would be able to wed and create their own family. Yet, Neophytos had lost that right once he was born a half-blood, he had been dishonoured by the community to remain wifeless like the rest of the Parthenians. She did not know how their love affair was going to end, and when, and if Dexios returned, she could go through with marrying her betrothed. She looked away and bent down to give a little girl a flower – may her fate be different to her own.

Neophytos turned back to Timaios who had been watching him stare at Oreithyia. He was the only man who knew of their affair, but he had told them, their secret was safe with him. Just as Neophytos was about to talk about Oreithyia with Timaios, an old man shouted behind him, ‘Move, you dirty Parthenians.’

Timaios elbowed Neophytos, but he ignored his friend.

‘Are you deaf, boy? Move out of the way, you bastard child!’

Neophytos folded his arms, ‘Wait your turn, you old brute, there is plenty for all.’

Move.’

The Spartan men in front of him now turned around. ‘Let him through, show some respect to your elders,’ one said.

‘Did your mother teach you any manners?’

‘With this one, how could she when she is bending over like a dog,’ another said, who wore wristbands.

Neophytos clenched his fists while his arms were still folded; he tightened his jaw, wishing he could put these men in their place.

‘I bet ten drachmas a Helot is breathing hot desire into her bosoms and thighs,’ the man with wristbands continued.

‘Shut up, you cock-sucking swine,’ Neophytos yelled.

‘Come at me, boy. I will rip your balls off; there is no use for them in our city.’

‘You dare make war upon me, I scorn the threats you vomit forth.’ Neophytos lunged at the man in front of him, but the old man, who had tried to push through, knocked him in the ribs. He let out a breath full of air as the old man grabbed his arms behind his back.

No sound echoed throughout the sanctuary anymore; the choirs of girls and boys stopped competing. All eyes watched the men in front of the temple of Apollo.

‘Let him go!’ Timaios yelled.

‘Silence him,’ the man with wristbands yelled. Another Spartan punched Timaios and he fell to the ground.

‘Do you know who you are speaking to, boy?’ the man asked Neophytos. He did not care; he was a pig-headed brute, just like the rest of the Spartans. He did not answer him, but fumed out his anger.

‘Hold him steady, I want to admire the craftsmanship my son did to this Parthenian years ago.’ He pulled down the tunic from Neophytos’s chest and exposed the scar of the letter P above his left breast.

‘You are Dexios’s father?’

‘Yes, I am Doriskos.’

Neophytos remembered that day like any other when he had been bashed and ambushed by the Spartan boys, before they went to the barracks and trained in the agoge. Two boys had held him down while Dexios straddled him and carved the letter into his skin, branding him as a Parthenian forever. Someone had yelled for him to stop, Neophytos had thought the torture would end, but once the man approached them, he had said, ‘keep going, son, you need to carve deeper than into the flesh.’

Neophytos clenched his jaw as Doriskos’s face was so close to his own. This was enough, there had to be a change, he had to be respected, to be an equal. He head-butted Doriskos and watched the man fall back to the ground. The men stood still, shocked with what he had done. Neophytos was able to loosen his hands from the old man’s grip and punched him in the face. He grabbed Timaios’s hand and yanked him up. ‘Victory for the Parthenians!’ he chanted.

Spartan men now lunged for them, throwing punches to stop them, but other Parthenians around joined in – this was not about a misunderstanding.

Women yanked their children away and ran out of the sanctuary, screaming. Dirt lifted into the air as people rushed away over the precinct wall and down the hill of the sanctuary into the bushes.

‘The gods will have their heads,’ someone screamed.

Neophytos punched another man to the ground with Timaios beside him. He looked around the rushing crowd but could not see the purple figure of his beloved. He was about to run to the circular altar to look for her when someone pushed him into the marble wall of the temple. The pork sausages fell to the ground, some hit Neophytos’s head. He saw a wristband coming at him and he was punched in the face. He shook his head, drool falling to the ground, and took a swing at the man, punching him in the face. He jumped up, grabbed hold of Doriskos’s shoulders and kneed him in the genitals – now who would not be able to use his balls? Neophytos thought. With his hands full of Doriskos’s hair, he bashed and bashed his head against the temple wall – more sacrificial blood for Apollo. The man fell to the ground, blood frothed from his mouth, dyeing his beard the colour of wine. Neophytos with one knee, knelt down on Doriskos’s chest. Timaios approached him from behind, blood smeared on his cheek and mouth, a sword in hand, and gave it to Neophytos.

He smiled down at the man, shouts and screams drilled into his hears, but he let them fade away; this was his sanguinary time. ‘Tell your son you were defeated by Neophytos the Parthenian.’ He hoisted the sword and took his strike. A croaked yelp, spurted blood, hacked bone, an annihilated arm – ah, the smell of victory.

Timaios smacked Neophytos on the back, ‘That will teach them; we will bring death upon the enemy.’

‘Let this one live,’ Neo said, ‘his son can see the mark I have left behind for him.’ He wiped the sweat dripping from his face, noting that he needed to change his headband once he got home, and turned around. He could see red cloaks twirling in dirt, and ripped crimson tunics moving side to side like snakes. He felt like a suppressed dog that had been suffocated by a leash, had finally bit back and ripped its teeth into its master’s arm, puncturing the skin; the blood oozing, the bitter taste and smell reassuring the dog of its freedom.

Neophytos noticed that amongst the blood and tunics, there were scattered hyacinth flowers around the circular altar. Had Oreithyia escaped? He was about to run over to the altar when he saw an arm appear with bangles, leaning on the ground, and a purple figure revealed herself closer to the flowers, bent down on her knees and looking around the sanctuary. Her veil had fallen from her head; parts of her hair had fallen out of her braid. Oreithyia looked up and Neophytos caught her eye. They stared at each other – if only he could take her to safety, but she could take care of herself, she had been doing it for a long time since her mother had died, when she was younger. Oreithyia stared back at Neophytos; blood soaked his hair, his hands covered in it. When would the fighting end, she thought, when would all of this frightening end?

‘Neo, come help me,’ Timaios called, fighting two Spartans.

He took one last look at Oreithyia and motioned his head to the right – go, run, he thought. He took a bronze dagger from a body on the ground and hurled it at one of the Spartans. It hit the man in the chest and he fell to the ground. Neophytos ran towards Timaios, snatched a sword from another body and struck another man down in his way. He followed Timaios away from the temple and jumped on top of one of the reclining couples statues, and fought another Spartan. The man’s sword cut into Neophytos’s arm, but he ignored the pain and thrust his sword into the man’s stomach. He thought he was in a bloody bath as he watched the blood purge out of the man once he withdrew his sword.

‘Stop this madness,’ someone yelled.

Neophytos looked up, still mantled on the statue, and saw his friend, Phalanthos, on the steps of the temple, holding a spear like the statue of Apollo above his head, but with blistered hands, and an index finger missing.

‘Heed yourselves.’

‘They must be put in place,’ Neophytos yelled, jumping off the statue and walking towards Phalanthos. He kicked a flinching hand on the ground that tried to grab a sword.

‘You are all fools, they will gather more Spartans and they will come find us and kills us.’

‘Not if we take the upper hand,’ Timaios yelled, stepping closer to Neophytos.

‘They will come, they will kill our families, we must go, now.

Neophytos looked at Timaios, perhaps if they killed the two Spartan kings they would not have to leave the city. They needed more weapons, they could fight them off?

‘We must go, leave the dead; the women will return and bury them.’ Neophytos watched as Phalanthos hurried down the stone steps, his long blonde braid swishing side to side as he walked right up to him. ‘Follow me; they will drive us out of the city.’

‘The gods will ensure us victory if we stay.’

‘Hold your tongue, Apollo will smite us for this treachery. We have spilt blood on a day of celebration. Gather your belongings from Messoa and we shall meet at Therapne,’ he turned away from Neophytos. ‘Hurry, men.’

Neophytos clenched his jaw, but listened to Phalanthos’s wise words – he was always right. He was the first Parthenian to train and educate the other Parthenians to be strong and fearless warriors, when all the Spartan boys at the age of seven left to go live in the barracks and train. Phalanthos would take them to the Plantanistas, a secret place that was surrounded by plane-tree groves, a couple of metres south of the tribe of Messoa. Two groups of Spartan boys would brawl with each other there for a couple of months, biting and gouging each others’ eyes out until one group won. Neophytos had learned how to fight with his fists and legs. The first time he had trained with daggers was the day he had been attacked by Dexios in the marketplace at night. If Phalanthos had not found him with Timaios, he would have not been able to take his spiteful revenge.

Timaios turned to him, ‘We could still raise an attack.’

‘I think Phalanthos is right, we are not able to control this.’

They followed the Parthenians down the sanctuary hill. It was going to take a good hour heading north on foot to get to Messoa and far away from Amyklai. Neophytos then noticed that Timaios’s hyacinth flower under his belt had missing petals, a couple still held on, but they were ripped and damaged – discoloured, just like Neophytos’s own heart.

 

Neophytos was beating down a sheet of bronze material later on that night, when the blacksmith’s workshop door slammed open.

‘They are going to kill you; they are sending the krypteia out tonight!’

‘Let them come,’ he said, looking up, ‘I will cut their throats.’

‘Why must you shed more blood to be heard?’ Oreithyia took a step closer to him, her golden bangles jingling. He liked the sound of them, how they reminded him of her and when they had first kissed. It had been the Karneia festival and he had been watching her dance, her bangles and anklets clinking together with every precise twist and flick she made with her hands, her body whirling in the ring dance with four other chosen girls who were unmarried; he had become enchanted by her like Aphrodite herself, and that day, he had talked her into watching him during an athletic race. They had kissed afterwards behind one of the tents set up for the festival. She had revealed she had always been filled with pothos, passionate longing for him, since that day in the marketplace when he had given her food to take home. It had been raining, and it was the dreadful time she had lost her mother to childbirth. How things were changing now, he knew she did not want him to fight for his cause.

‘They will kill you; you will leave me and go to Hades.’

‘My rightful place is to be honoured, to be respected as an equal.’

‘Do not let your pride suffocate you.’

‘How can I when they have taken my right to marry, am I to remain wifeless because I was born a Parthenian?’

‘They are going to kill you.’

‘I am leaving with the others.’

‘What about me, are you going to leave me all on my own?’

Beads of sweat travelled down Neophytos’s face, his olive skin was alight by the fire in the corner that was illuminating the dark room. He ignored her and kept bashing down the bronze material, he needed to finish this, he had to get it right, it would be his last job as a blacksmith.

‘Do I mean anything to you?’

He stopped. His hand unclasped the hammer and he leaned forward on the stone bench, his weight pushed on his arms, his head bent down. She had to come with him, he could not leave her with Dexios; he could not leave her here. He clenched his jaw, wiped his face with his arm and stood up. Their eyes interlocked and they stared at each other.

‘You will come with me.’

‘I will not die for your cause.’

‘I am waiting for Phalanthos’s orders’ we are planning on leaving the city.’

‘But I thought – ’

They heard a noise outside. Neophytos walked in front of Oreithyia – Zeus forbid, had the krypteia been sent out already? He grabbed his sword from the wooden stool where he had left it and watched the door pull open. He raised his sword, ready to strike.

‘I have word,’ Timaios said, taking in deep breaths, leaning forward.

Neophytos withdrew, and threw his sword on the stone bench. ‘What is the news?’

‘Phalanthos has returned, there is word going around that they are attacking us tonight.’

‘We must go.’ Neophytos grabbed his sword and the bronze armour he had been beating down to fit him. ‘Oreithyia, you must come with us.’

‘I cannot leave my family.’

‘If you want a life with Dexios and to bear his children, stay, but if you want to be with me, to be free of these people, come with us, we will marry, I will be able to marry you.’

They left the blacksmith’s workshop, Neophytos holding Oreithyia’s hand, his woollen cloak flapping in the wind, Timaios behind them. They travelled south to Neophytos’s family home and once they were in, his mother, Krateia, stood up from the hearth she had been sitting near.

‘Where have you been, I thought you were killed?’ she hugged her son, and Neophytos let go of Oreithyia’s hand.

‘We are leaving the city with the other Parthenians.’ He told her of their plan and the Spartan’s attack tonight. ‘You must stay indoors; they could kill Blathyllos and Elatreus if they see them.’

His mother called his half-brothers over to sit at the hearth where his half-sisters, Kydilla and Limnoreia were slurping down their broth soups in wooden bowls. ‘Will we not see you again, my boy?’

‘Boethus will take care of you all, I will send a messenger if our plans have been a success, but if you do not hear from me in a couple of years, you must find peace.’

He saw his step-father, Boethus, another helot, carving into wood, making a figurine. He did not move. His mother looked at Oreithyia behind him and Timaios, and she smiled. She looked up at her boy for the last time and cupped his face, ‘May the gods be with you all, my son.’ She kissed him twice on both cheeks and he hugged his siblings goodbye.

His step-father finally stepped forward, ‘Your mother will be fine with us,’ and handed him the figurine he had been carving.

They left the house and saw a snake of light approaching Messoa from the citadel of Sparta. The enemy was coming. They climbed onto their horses and travelled south to Therapne and met up with the other Parthenians and Phalanthos. Before Neophytos left, he looked down at the wooden figurine in his hand, and saw that it was Zeus Tropaios – he who turns to flight.

The Parthenians would find a new fate with order and law, by their own making, for the gods themselves willed it.

 

Glossary

Agoge                                    Spartan system of education and military training

Apothetae                             deposits

Aulos                                      an ancient wind instrument like a pipe

Argos-Panoptes                   a one hundred-eyed giant

Drachmas                              ancient coinage/currency

Hekatombaion                     July/August Summer

Helot                                      captured Greeks of Messenia and turned into slaves for Spartans, they were subjugated and carried out domestic duties and farming

Hesperides                            nymphs who attend a blissful garden

Kithara                                  an ancient musical instrument – a lyre and similar to a modern harp and guitar

Spartiate                               Spartan men of equal status and known as peers

 

Download a pdf of Taras’ Parthenians

 

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A White Arm, Hiroki Kosuge

My mum has gone to the universe. That’s true. Because I saw her off to the station. She seemed to be a bit tired then. Just before she got into the train, she gave me a cake as a Christmas present. There went the starting bell. When I waved the hand through the window, she had already started drinking and was looking at her phone. Then, as Dad told me that she had been chosen, I felt a bit proud of her although I worried about whether drunken astronauts could go home safely.

My mum used to drink a lot while Dad was absent. She used to drink sake, as if she drinks tea, and would sometimes hit me during drinking. I tried drinking a few times, while nobody was watching, to know why the liquid makes Mum mad. But, last summer, I was carried into the hospital for that. I often heard my parents quarrel out of the hospital room while I was in the bed. I felt very sorry for that because it was my fault. Finally, they divorced last December. (Dad said, divorce means Mum goes far away. I asked, ‘How far?’ He said, ‘It’s too far to see.’ So, I thought divorce would mean Mum goes to the universe. Dad liked the idea, though Mum looked a bit sad when she heard of this.) Dad and I started a new life here from this January. I still can’t get used to the strong provincial accent here.

Now, dad and I are in the hall at school since there is a graduation ceremony today. The ceremony isn’t for me. We, the pupils and parents, have been brought together to sing a song for graduates. Dad standing among mothers seems to be a bit embarrassed because he is the only male. Ken, a friend of mine, said earlier, ‘Where’s your mum?’ I just said, ‘She’s gone to the universe.’ Ken said, ‘You liar’. When I tried to say no, the floor shook and some people fell down like chessmen on a chessboard. The siren blew and dad rushed to me. We, dad and I, bent our bodies and waited for the tremors of the earthquake to stop. After the long shaking, somebody screamed, ‘Tsunami comes!’

 

School teachers guided us to the rooftop. The level of the water rose little by little. I could see burning water cover the field in front of the school. Muddy water walls grew slowly. I could hear the sound of a cage made of mud swallowing the world, and realised that the world was made of sugar, otherwise it couldn’t be broken like this. Looking at the ground, which was about to be fully covered by muddy water, I shouted, ‘A grape is running!’ Dad looked at me briefly and said, ‘Shut up’ quietly. Then, I found that I was still wearing the shoes for gym. I wanted to go to the lower floor to get the shoes for outside, but dad didn’t allow me to go. We were looking at the destroyed houses which came floating down the river. Again, I yelled out, ‘A GRAPE IS RUNNING!’ At the moment, he scolded me severely. I was so astonished I burst into tears because Dad rarely shouts. Dad’s hands were shaking. A group of people running on the street looked like an apple, lizard, and then, grape again. I didn’t intend to make dad angry, but smile as he would. Everything on the surface of the water was spinning slowly. People around us kept on screaming, ‘Up,Up,Up Uuuuuuuuuuuuuup!’ I wondered if I should scream with them, but finally didn’t. Because Dad had been silent.

It grew dark, and we ended up spending the night on the top of the roof. I’d decided not to speak until my dad spoke to me. I lowered my body into the big bed made of parents ’coats and slept like that, and found that I’d lost my voice the next morning. I couldn’t say anything even if Dad asked me to say something with his sad look.

 

After the Tsunami confusion, it’s been decided that I go to see a doctor once a week. It takes nearly three hours from my ‘temporary house’ (Dad taught me to call it so). Since dad has given up his job in order to take care of me and buy a digger, he seems to be busier with his new part-time jobs, but also looked happy with this weekly outing with me. I like to go to the hospital too, despite the fact that Dr Kaneko plunges a silver spatula into my throat and asks some strange questions, because Dad buys me an ice cream. Angelato, the ice cream shop, is located on the ground floor of the hospital. The floor is filled with the scent of the elderly who smell like burnt bread. I suspect something is burning in their bodies, something important.

I am in the habit of ordering a double: green tea and brown sugar. Dad always makes fun of me for choosing such flavours like an old man. A shop assistant at Angelato made it triple as a free gift today. I bowed carefully in order not to drop the vanilla on the top and ran up to Dad. He was reading a magazine for boys. He loves manga comics in spite of being an adult. He glanced at me and said, ‘Gimme the vanilla.’ I shook my head and bit into it.

Dr Kaneko is a beautiful, unlikable woman. When I first met her, as she introduced herself in the standard language, which is unusual in this region, I wondered if she was angry about having ‘a conversation’ with me. Her beautiful smile made me all the more confused. Dr Kaneko, today, asked me ‘What is there in your hometown?’

I wrote. ‘A steel tower.’

She said, smiling beautifully, ‘Anything else?’

I wrote.  ‘A chimney.’

She spoke in superlatives. ‘Well done! How about the mountains, rivers or rice fields?’

I wondered for a while and found myself at a loss, and then wrote. ‘There were.’

Mrs Kato, a dad’s friend, arrived on a rainy Sunday. She was fat and short, like a small shrine. As she said, ‘Hello,’ I bowed carefully. She took out a robot toy, which I didn’t like the look of, from her double-layered plastic bag and gave it to me. She asked if I liked it, so I nodded. Since my mum had gone, I didn’t know how to conduct myself in front of a woman of her age.

We didn’t have anything to do while waiting for Dad. Mrs Kato was sitting politely on the square floor cushion, and I was pretending to play with the robot and was disappointed with the movable region of its arms.

When Dad arrived, it was already dark outside. He apologised for being late and Mrs Kato responded politely. Dad glanced at the robot in my hand and asked if I had said thank you to her, so I nodded. They talked quietly for a while in the stuffy room. Mrs Kato talked while covering her eyes and mouth, one after another, with a handkerchief. I happened to hear that her husband was carried away by tidal waves. I had known I shouldn’t laugh, at the moment like this, no matter how incredible it was. Mrs Kato, in the middle of their conversation, handed Dad money and he immediately returned it. After their conversation, as Dad asked if I would come with them next Sunday, I nodded twice. It is the sign I made to tell my feeling, after I have lost my voice, which means I am with you, always.

It was fine weather on Sunday. But a drive from our temporary house to Mrs Kato’s was not enjoyable because of a traffic jam. Dad said these cars were bringing relief supplies and volunteers. I thought, we are neither of them.

After I finished my second peeing on the road and came back to the car with Mrs Kato, she began to talk bit by bit. She told how she had been searching with her bare hands but she had had no success, and all her hope was now on the digger. She talked with a worried face, like the one who forgot to buy the meat for curry. Dad had been listening to her while chiming in with a remark occasionally.

 

We arrived at Mrs Kato’s house finding ourselves three hours behind time. Mrs Kato said we could cancel today, but Dad responded that we had better get the work done as soon as possible, and climbed into the digger. While he was digging, Mrs Kato showed me around her house. We walked hand in hand lest I slip and fall down. She said there used to be a field of dandelions. Her hand was soft and a bit sweaty. I just wondered why she didn’t smell like sake. The ground which used to be a yellow carpet of dandelions was covered by slime now. The area was filled with the mixed smell of the slime, seaweeds and something burnt. The dead bodies of sturgeons were scattered near a piano lying upside down. I could see the end of the road we were on was blocked by a huge ship.

We, Mrs Kato and I, took a rest by a mountain of rubble. The sludge on the fusuma attached to the broken walls reminded me of a friend’s drawing at the school. Strange, messy and blackly green. He always ends up drawing such pictures since he mixes all his pigments.

Then, I heard Dad calling Mrs Kato behind the broken walls. She seized my shoulder and told me not to come. Her wet eyes with large irises were shining like gentle gems. I didn’t say yes, but nodded twice. When I looked down the ground, I found the fragments of a broken mirror reflecting a flaming sunset.

I could hear Dad was saying something from behind the broken walls. I walked toward the voice, and then stopped. All I could hear was the roar of strong wind. I peeped from a crack of a wall. Mrs Kato was hanging onto a white arm jutted out from the ground. Dad wasn’t crying but joined his hands in prayer and then bowed. It was a beautiful bow, beautiful and cold.

 

Mrs Kato was asked to cremate her son within the day by a man from a municipal office. The man, who looked quite tired, said it was ordained by law. We went to a crematorium. Mrs Kato politely took off her son’s clothes and one shoe and put them in her shoulder bag. She kept on murmuring, ‘Sorry, I’m so sorry,’ while squeezing her son’s fingerless hand. After holding onto his white hand repeatedly, she saw her son disappearing into an incinerator.

It took approximately 20 minutes. I heard someone in the room talking in an undertone. ‘Children can be quickly burnt.’ I wanted to escape from the room, but didn’t want to be alone either. There was only the tick of the second. I felt it like forever.

When the bones, like a fluorescent hard chalk, appeared on the black plank, Mrs Kato cried loudly, as of animals, and then she faced the remains, which used be a part of her, and put a piece of them into her mouth.

 

On the way back to the temporary house, Mrs Kato wearing a dirty shirt, asked if I wanted to eat something since I hadn’t eaten anything since that morning. Dad said no thanks, but as she insisted, we three stopped at a restaurant facing the sea. The radio was on the air in the restaurant.  An idol group was singing about dreams, love and peace. I wondered why they didn’t sing about muddy school bags or torn-off electric wire.

I ordered a Japanese set meal. Dad didn’t make fun of my choice, but just said no. As Mrs Kato, however, told me to order the set, I did so. Dad and Mrs Kato neither ordered nor touched their water.

Mrs Kato, when we were about to leave to pay, said in a murmur. ‘It’s been good.’ As she suddenly said so and burst into tears, the restaurant stuff at the cash resister seemed to be startled. Dad didn’t say anything, but was just looking at his hands sadly as if it’s all his fault.

 

It’s 4:00am now. Dad has given up on driving us home and has decided to take a nap in the car. I couldn’t sleep at all. The night sky was pitch-dark. Dad seemed to be sleeping. Mrs Kato was hugging her son in the tiny white box and just shutting her eyes. I got out of the car silently in order not to wake dad up, and told Mrs Kato that I would go to the toilet. The sky was getting gloomy, but the azaleas along the road were still enduring in order not to melt into the darkness. I stepped onto the observation platform overlooking the sea. I inhaled the chilly air, and then it instantly bloomed in my stomach. I opened my mouth to fill it with the light of the coming morning dawn. However, the silence of the darkness still covered the area.

Suddenly, a bright moonbeam broke through the clouds. The pale moonlight and silent black sea reminded me of the white arm jutting out of the ground. Where did the arm go? WHERE COULD HAVE IT GONE? I got scared, but realised that I couldn’t do anything for that. I watched my trembling arm. It was dimly lit by the moonlight. I prayed. I prayed that my arms wouldn’t become whiter anymore, but the cruel particle of light didn’t seem to stop bleaching my arms. I prayed. I kept on praying until the desperate wish became hoarse cries.

 

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Falling, Willo Drummond

The chimney is leaking again. Clara stands in front of the slow combustion stove, watching the tiny drips roll down the outside of the flue. This must have been happening for a day and a half now, each drip hitting the stove top and sending a spray of moist ash, like fine dark diamonds, against the wall. How could she be so blind? It was the flash of one of these sprays that had finally caught her attention.  Now that she’s piled the base high with tea-towels (flannels, half the contents of the linen closet) she stands slightly out of breath, wondering what to do.

Just what was happening up there on the roof? If only she could see for herself. She’d only had the thing fixed last month (‘fixed’, she now saw, had been something of an overstatement) by a little man. Little men:  She calls them this still, picked up from Essie all those years ago. It had both scandalised and amused her before getting under her skin and into her vernacular. She feels the familiar thrill at her use of the term now (once these things take, one can never seem to shake them) and hears that liquid-clear voice as though Essie were in the next room.

We’ll have to get a little man in, she’d announce, whenever there was a problem.

Clara never did confirm if irony was intended on Essie’s part, or if it was simply an unconscious hangover from her upbringing (patrician, so very different to Clara’s own) and in fact (she knew this now), that had been part of the thrill. Somehow Essie’s breezy tone, her slight wave of the hand would always settle the matter.  Clara’s throat tightens a little. Essie: Always so practical, in motion, weekends punctuated with household chores, the thrum of endless loads of laundry, tidying piles of the week’s papers, books, scarves; the substance of life that Clara insisted on leaving around. (Too busy dreaming! Her mother would have said, Essie too, although their meaning couldn’t have been more different.)

As Essie bustled from room to room, always so much to do! trailed over her shoulder like silk.

Clara thinks of that tone often these days, rattling around as she does in the cottage. It sings in the still, solitary air. Sometimes she thinks she can actually glimpse the vibrations, against a vase, a curtain. Some days it’s these vibrations alone that get her into motion, moving through her schedule as she knows she’s supposed to do.

She surveys the lounge room now. The old carpet needs replacing. This section near the fireplace in particular, is brittle against her toes. The orange paint they’d chosen for the walls soon after they’d moved in (the painting almost killed them!) is still holding up, however. It blazes down the hallway to the front room where the wallpaper remains defiantly modern. It’s remarkable how these aesthetic choices have come back into vogue. They’d lived a good life together here, the two of them.

Splayed open on the old tea chest that serves as a coffee table in front of her, is the poetry collection she’d been browsing as the glittering spray of ash caught her eye. She’d been struck by a line and had begun to copy it into her notebook before the interruption: ‘Our bodies are breakable…’°

Indeed, she thinks now, considering the fragment, amazed once more by the silver multiplicity of meaning.

 

Clara can’t remember when it had arrived, her fear of heights (she’d been a gymnast as a child, flying on the uneven bars, balancing still and sure on the beam). One day she’d woken up and there it was, about a month or so after they’d bought this place, a paralysing fear, not of heights so much as of falling. Of meeting some shock, or, she supposed more precisely (with familiar resignation), of becoming unbalanced. These days she can’t even stand on top of a ladder to pop her head through the manhole. There is simply no possibility that she’ll be able to get up on the roof to see what’s happening with the blasted chimney. There could be high winds at this time of year, sudden, possessive gusts. Who knows what might happen?  Losing her footing could cast her clear off the pitched roof of the cottage. She could stumble, slide, take a nose-dive. She might plummet, plunge, hit-the-dirt. Lose her grip altogether.

The roof had been entirely Essie’s domain. This was surprising of course (in true Essie style), as she was actually afraid of so many things one would associate with roofs (spiders, snakes poised to strike from the downpipe!) yet, Essie would climb on up there as sure as breathing. Clean the gutters, brave the baking steel in summer, sleeves rolled up like some kind of 1950’s mechanic. Clara had more than once expected her to re-appear from a foray on the roof with a packet of Marlboro tucked under her shirtsleeve, her own little James Dean.

Clara turns back to the mass of tea-towels (a futile defence, now almost entirely soaked through) at the base of the flue. It’s a public holiday. There simply won’t be a little man available at such short notice. Think Clara, think.

 

The first time Clara saw Essie she was playing the banjo-mandolin in a third generation bluegrass band (although Clara knew none of these labels at the time) in a run-down inner-city dive. The only female in the outfit, she played hillbilly music to ruffle her family’s feathers. The violin-like tuning of the instrument made it an easy transition for a classically trained aristocratic punk, and Essie never did like to muck about. Clara had stumbled into the gig after a less than memorable evening with a colleague, something of a date.  He was a nice enough fellow, shy, hair slightly thinning already at 30, but the most remarkable thing about him (the only thing she can really recall) was the way he managed to have a small ink mark on the breast of each and every shirt, although Clara never once saw him with a pen in his pocket. A fellow mathematics teacher, Clara had been out with him a few times, but could never shake the vague feeling of frustration at this mysterious cliché of a stain (as though its mere presence had the power to bring them all down, their whole maths teaching breed). This small stain, along with his frustratingly limited views on mathematics (Clara was much more interested in the poetry of numbers), had made things… difficult. They’d met for a drink in a crowded city bar full of suits pressed shoulder to shoulder, jostling amongst the enduring one-upmanship of men. They’d soon argued over something inconsequential (or so it seemed now) and agreed to call it a night. Clara had been grateful to get out of there, but it was still quite early. She decided to walk the 40 minutes or so to the other side of the city, to gather her thoughts in the cool night air, before taking the train home to the familiarity and comfort of the suburbs.

At some stage she walked past a small old pub, with wild music clattering out onto the street. She can’t quite recall what made her stop and step inside. In fact, Clara barely remembers anything about that evening other than what happened next. Logic tells her the venue was full, pulsing with art students and punks, appropriately enraged and alcohol fuelled. But to Clara these steaming, pressing bodies remain ghosts. As Clara crossed the threshold that evening she was aware only of a singular image:  A boyish girl on a cramped corner stage, with hooded dark eyes, all straight lines, braces and boots. A white cotton shirt and tan linen pants gave nothing away of the woman underneath, but her hands, her small, capable hands sent a shock through Clara with each and every strum. She was transfixed by those hands. The world dropped away. All was distilled to this image, those hands and the sound of the banjo-mandolin.

The woman was entirely focussed on her task, intense, serious. Her concentration was somehow at odds with the loose, frenetic vibe of the music but at the same time completely appropriate. Very occasionally she broke focus, looked up and laughed or said something to the other musicians, and at those times she seemed joyous, entirely free. She seemed the perfect mystery, exciting and dangerous and Clara knew that she must find out what lay beneath.

 

In contrast to that first evening, Clara remembers with visceral precision the early days of their life together. An anxiety unlike anything she’d felt before. She remembers the violence of her heart flailing against her breastplate and how she felt she might expire at any moment. To cease to be without having the chance to see Essie one more time seemed an end horrible beyond imagining. It compelled her breathless-self off trains and buses, through crowded city streets to the promise offered by the front door of Essie’s inner-city flat. All the hope and possibility that was held by the click of that door: It was a meeting of minds, of spirit, the likes of which she’d never known. (And there she was, supposedly a grown woman!)  She felt fragile, exposed as an infant. The possibility that she might lose hold of that glittering, singular knowing was simply too much to bear.

They’d spent long days in Essie’s flat, playing records, talking in marathons of intensity, tumbling ideas and the fierce embrace of understanding. Occasionally, every 30 hours or so (she still blushes to remember) they’d emerge from their bubble to get supplies, to take the air on the main street (petrol fumes and spices) and to test the hub of the world against newly formed skins.

 

As Clara moves from the lounge through to the small kitchen she sees the old photograph of Essie – yellowed now – attached to the fridge. A magnet advertising a removals company pins it there and it vibrates slightly as the compressor struggles to negotiate the too few items contained within. How could she possibly still have this magnet? In the early years they’d moved frequently, almost every six months (it was traumatic! Clara can still hear Essie’s hyperbole on the matter), but once they’d found the cottage, once they’d found this place, they knew they’d found home.  

Over the years, Clara has rarely looked at this photograph. She fingers its soft frayed edge now. Essie’s hands are wrapped around a paper cup containing hot chocolate, a roll-your-own cigarette perched between her right fingers just near the rim. She’s leaning against a black wrought iron railing, behind which you can see the stone work of Notre Dame de Paris. Essie peers at the camera from under the peak of her grey cap, her dark eyes as always, both a challenge and an invitation.

Clara remembers they’d purchased the hot chocolates that day simply to keep warm. The year they went to Paris had been one of the coldest European winters on record.  Across the street is the red awning of the cafe where they’d purchased the beverages, and at the edge of the picture, just entering the frame, is an old man on a bicycle. The sky is clear except for a single smear of cloud.  It’s this smear, and what it represents for Clara, that makes the image so hard to look at. In this tiny frame, this imprint of light on fraying paper, the world is going about its business. Cafes sell hot chocolate on the street and old men cycle toward their destinations. Her Essie, bold and defiant, leans against a railing by a cathedral, lost in the pleasures of a warm drink and a cigarette. But all Clara remembers of this trip (after Essie’s family had cut her off, they’d scrimped and saved so hard for the holiday it seemed as though they’d dreamed it into existence), was how the assault of that fierce cold air was a reprieve from the vice like grip of her own frozen spirit. There they were in the City of Light and all Clara could feel was a newly pressing darkness. She felt out of time, out of alignment. Unable to enjoy the pleasures in abundance around her and unable – most shamefully – to meet Essie’s romantic ideal of their holiday.

Each day Clara put on layers of clothing: Tights, jeans, cardigan, jacket – one scarf for her neck and another to hold her hat over her ears – and traipsed out to some monument or other, made awkward attempts to dine in a multitude of quaint cafes. But she was numb and she was tired. Tired of looking (and of being looked at) amongst all this perfection, the weight of a northern history an unwelcome rod against her Antipodean spine.  She longed for a glimpse of the real, took to scouring the footpath for a protrusion of weed, a glimpse of life. The icy air, slicing as it did at her cheeks and searing her lungs, was sensation at least, she thought. Some indication that she was alive.

After the trip, these darknesses came and went. Unannounced, they rolled in and out like the mist, marked out their years together in the cottage. Clara became fascinated by the thresholds of madness, carrying within herself as she did a constant fear of following in her father’s footsteps: That one day the mist would roll in for good.  At first Essie had fussed over her, convinced that Clara’s darkness was to do with her writing, but later they came to see how much more pervasive her depressions became without it. At least Clara’s writing (her ‘scribblings’, as she called them) provided a vessel into which she might pour that un-distilled part of herself that she couldn’t share with Essie. She couldn’t bear to lean on Essie too much; Essie had enough on her plate with her work at the local youth centre (she’d reconciled with her family by then, but could never bring herself to follow in their footsteps).  Clara still marvels at how Essie stood by her during those years, allowed for her, offered acceptance, if not always understanding.

 

In the days and months following Essie’s aneurism (so cruelly shy of her fiftieth birthday), Clara’s scribblings were all she had. As she slowly learned to renegotiate the space that had been theirs – lounge, hall, study – she scribbled herself into existence. To her astonishment her first novel, Etchings, won a local literary prize and her subsequent work has taken her to festivals and conferences. She has spoken on panels, and occasionally given lectures at the local University. Yet absurdly, here she stands, a woman unable to get up on a roof.

It’s cool outside today, but nothing like that European winter. The rain has stopped now and the mist is rolling in, bringing with it that clean, mossy smell. Clara moves from the fridge and opens the back door, lets the moist air wash over her skin.

Alive, she thinks, these cloaks of low cloud, rolling through unannounced. They’re both mysterious and familiar (like a long lost lover reflecting back your own gesture) and intrinsically, astonishingly, alive. Passing though, the mists obscure everything, and somehow in that same act remake each and every tree, blade of grass, the very fabric of time.

Clara knows the ladder sits just under her feet, in the storage area below the house. For the briefest moment she recalls rolled up sleeves and a sound like silk.

It’s not impossible, she thinks. When this mist passes through, the air will be clear and cool, and there’s hardly any breeze. It’s simply a case of unfolding the thing and propping it against the front of the house. Five, six, seven steps and I’ll be up. It’s really quite simple Clara. In fact, it’s sure as breathing.

 *

Works cited

° Malouf, David. “Flights, 3”. Typewriter Music. St Lucia: UQP, 2007. p17

 

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The Great Roaring Noise, Bruce Naylor

 

This is sort of a kid’s story. Not that I believe in kid’s stories… I am currently expanding it into a novella, which is turning out to be rather macabre, so perhaps it’s more of a nightmare than a story. However, this is the short story where it all began….

 

‘But what was it like Da?’ whispered Seamus in the gloom. ‘Tell us about the Great Roaring Noise.’

Da chuckled, ‘I keep forgetting that you kids are all too young to have heard the Great Roaring Noise.’

Nine little sets of eyes blinked in the dark, eagerly waiting for him to go on. It was one of their favourite games to pass the time. They would give him no peace now, badgering and pestering him, until at last he would sigh, and then in his slow and dreamy voice, begin to talk of the life that had been before.

Before the Dark.

‘Go on Da,’ Seamus pleaded, his tiny high voice penetrating the silence, ‘Tell us what was it like.’

‘Keep your voice down,’ hissed Da, ‘or you’ll wake him, and then you’ll have nothing to worry about except which one of you he’s going to eat for lunch.’

They all froze, hardly daring to breathe, hoping that he wouldn’t hear them. He was over there in the other corner, nestled amongst the trash. Occasionally, in the soft dusty dark, they might hear an antenna twitch, but Old Man Cockroach had barely moved since he ate their brother, Blod, yesterday.

After a long while, the one they called Ten, simply because he was the last one of them born, and Da had run out of names after the first nine, grabbed Da by the leg.

‘Please Da.’

Da sighed and settled back into the dust. With his front legs he slowly cleaned the dust off his palps before beginning in a slow whisper, ‘Well, you couldn’t really call it a noise…’

‘What do you mean,’ whispered Buck into the frightened hush, his outsized fang that gave him his name, glinting in the gloom.

‘Well, it’s not like the sort of noise you might hear. Like when Old Man Cockroach gets hungry and comes looking for us, or even a scream like Blod made when he was being eaten,’ and here, Da’s voice fell away.

None of them would ever forget the terror of that moment, as Blod was swallowed, piece by awful piece.

‘No, it’s more like the sort of noise that you feel first. And it’s only later, when it’s all over, and you realise you’re still alive, that you might think about what it sounded like. It’s like, I don’t know, like…like the sound that the walls might make if they fell down, like the sound you might hear inside your head if it was being crushed by the jaws of a cockroach.’

Ten whimpered with fright when Da said this, but Da didn’t seem to notice, he was in the grip of a powerful memory.

‘It was like the sound of a thousand spiders screaming as they’re being boiled in hot water. Except it wasn’t the sound I heard first, but the wind.’ Da paused for effect. ‘It was the wind that really frightened me. I had never seen a wind like that before. I remember that day so clearly. I was in my corner working the web early. We’d had a good harvest the night before, with the flying ants just throwing themselves at us. Our webs were groaning with food. I was so stuffed! Couldn’t have possibly eaten another one. I’d been up most of the night, wrapping and storing the harvest for a rainy day, but still I woke up early before all the others, to repair the tears, to check the tension. Our family have always been like that. We’ve worked that corner for generations.

You have to understand that in the old days, on the Outside, you didn’t have Old Man Cockroach to worry about. They stayed down there on the floor where they belonged, and we had the skies. Things had an order then. We all had our place, not like now, not like this topsy-turvy time.’

Da was on a roll now, his voice soft with longing. This was what the children loved. Tales of the old world – when a spider wasn’t too scared to move, lest he be eaten.

‘And the light,’ Da went on, ‘Oh the light, it was so bright, like nothing you ever get here. With light like that, you could see the flying things clear across the room. You could set your web up just right, catch ‘em on the updraft. No spider ever went hungry in those days.’

‘No hunger!’ squeaked Pip. Not one of them could remember a day when they had not been hungry.

‘So anyways, when this wind started up, I did what we’d always done. I called the alarm to tell all my brothers that something was up. I grabbed the web just like you’re supposed to, and shook it with all my might, so they could all see, so they could run and take cover, and to frighten whatever it was, to warn it off, but it wasn’t frightened at all. It just kept coming, up the edge of the roof, and heading straight for me.’

‘What’d it look like?’ whispered Ten, in the faintest of voices.

‘It was huge, like some silver beam of light, and on the end is this black mouth as wide as five spiders, and that’s where the terrible great roaring noise is coming from. And it’s hungry, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Not even like Old Man Cockroach over there,’ said Da, gesturing with his head towards the other corner. ‘He just comes over ‘cause he’s a little bit hungry and fancies a bit of young spider for afternoon tea. This thing was different. It was insatiable. It sucked up everything in sight. Whole webs, whole families that had worked the north roof for countless generations, back to the dawn of time, gone in the shake of a leg. It was terrible,’ Da shook his head, lost in grief. After a long moment, he raised his great shiny head, his eight eyes glinting in the dark. ‘Now, where was I?’

‘The Great Roaring Noise,’ they all said together.

‘Ah yes, The Great Roaring Noise. Well, it came straight for me. I see the edge of the web start to lift off the wall, and I run. Just in time too. I just made it back to the corner, as the whole web was sucked straight off the wall. All the ants I had so carefully wrapped and hung from the roof for a midnight snack – gone. My three brothers who were working the west wing – gone. Your grandfather, your grandmother, my sister, all gone. But still, the beast wants more, and the faster I run, the faster it follows me. It’s then that I realise, that it’s after me. Every time I duck and dive it changes direction. And it’s gaining on me. I can feel it’s cold breath on the back of my neck. Finally, I make a desperate dive for the Crack.

‘The Crack,’ breathed Max.

‘Tell us about the Crack,’ continued Jax, finishing Max’s sentences as he always did.

‘My family,’ said Da, before pausing to correct himself, ‘your family, have used the Crack for hundreds of lives. It had never failed us before. I just make it inside the Crack, before it gets to me, and that terrible noise passes over the top of me, and moves on up the wall. I don’t mind telling you kids that at that moment, I’m crying, I’m sobbing like a baby, I’m panting with rage and screaming at the top of my voice. But finally I get a grip on myself. I have a look around me and I notice that there is no one else in the crack. I’m the only one who made it back. That Roaring Noise got everything. My whole family, all our supplies,’ and here, Da’s voice wavers a little, and he pauses before continuing, ‘at least I’m alive, I tell myself, I’m safe, here in the Crack, it can’t possibly get me. The Great Roaring Noise is still out there, but for the moment, it moves on and leaves me alone. Nevertheless, I wedge myself in tight at the back of the Crack, get all my eight legs in close, and push against the walls.’

‘It came back didn’t it?’ squeaked Pip.

‘Yes, my little one,’ said Da, gathering Pip under his foreleg, ‘it came back. But this time it comes right up to the Crack, sucking and pulling. The pressure was incredible. The wind was so great. It felt like my insides were being sucked out my mouth. There was nothing I could do, so I let go.’

Nine little gasps of astonishment punctured the dusty dark.

‘Then what happened?’ breathed Bobbin. He had a raspy nasal voice that sounded like he had a permanent cold. Da said that he was probably allergic to house dust in the Belly of the Roaring Noise.

‘Well, I remember flying through the dark like I was falling down into a great pit, and then nothing.’ Da looked slowly around at his children. ‘When I came to my senses, I was here. Oh, those first few moments were horrible. I’m feeling around me in the dark, and the dust is so thick that I feel like I’m breathing nothing but dirt. All around me I hear screaming. There are spiders everywhere. Your family, and all the other great families of the North Roof.  All the different ones too, even the big black ones, all mixed together. Most of them with missing legs, and some of them, poor souls, have been turned inside out like a sock by the Great Noise. Then I hear my sister,’ and here Da’s voice fell so quiet that they all had to lean in to catch the next bit, ‘Your dear mother. She’s lying right here in this corner where we are now, and I can see at once that she’s hurt bad. She whispers to me to come near. “I’m done for,” she croaks. I hold her close and say, “No way, you’ll make it Mildred –” but she shakes her wise old head. “You know what to do,” she says. And I do, but I don’t want to. “It’s for the children,” she says, “Do it for the children.” And I’m weeping and wailing, but I have to, so I take my teeth, and tear open her abdomen. Then, with a great cry, she dies, and in that moment, you all tumble from out of her, and that’s when I take each one of you, each a tiny, but already fertilised egg, and I tuck you in the dust, away from the other spiders, and all the terrible things that live down here, and as I do so, I name each and every one of you.’

Da looked around at all their little faces, so intent, so serious. He had never told them the whole story before, and none would move a muscle in case he stopped. They didn’t want to hear it, but at the same time, each of them wanted to know their history, their whole history, for the first time in their short lives. With his foreleg, Da indicated each of the assembled spiders in turn.

‘You Seamus, you were first born and brave, you have always been. Fastest and strongest of all your brothers and sisters, then Blod of course, the sweetest and gentlest of you all, then Nero, and you, Grace, tangled up together in each other’s legs, inseparable at birth as you have been ever since. Bobbin was next. What can I say, he tumbled out like a jack in the box ready for action, and hasn’t stopped since!’ Da gently cuffed him about the head. ‘And you, Buck, always ready to eat anything and everything. I’ll never forget that day you tried to eat that marble and broke one of your fangs.’ A little ripple of mirth passed around the group, their abdomens shaking as they giggled at one of the family’s most cherished stories. ‘And of course, not forgetting Pip, though I swear that squeak will be the death of us all, and Max and Jax, always fighting. You two,’ said Da sternly. ‘Just remember that family don’t eat family, no matter what! You hear me?’

They both solemnly nodded, remembering that day, in the depths of a terrible hunger, when Max had chewed off Jax’s back leg. Max hadn’t been able to sit down for a week after Da had finished with him. They all smiled at the memory.

‘Except for Mother,’’ piped up Ten.

‘Yes,’ replied Da, gruffly, ‘well, that was different. She would have wanted it that way. I don’t think I would have made it through those dark times without your mother’s ample body to feed you all. Particularly you, Ten, you were so small, I used to mistake you for a speck of dust in those days.’

They all laughed. Despite having a ferocious appetite, Ten was still the smallest of them all, by far.

‘Now listen up, all of you, and listen carefully. Never forget that you are descended from one of the great families, and you must stick together, even when I am gone.’

At this mention of a life without Da, Pip gave a little sob.

‘None of that now Pip, you have to be strong. That is what makes us different from him over there,’ said Da in a hoarse whisper. ‘I’ll never forget those early days. They had no mercy for each other, because you understand, he wasn’t the only cockroach in the belly of this beast.’

‘There were more of them?’ said Bobbin.

‘Oh yes, there were small ones and big ones and skinny ones and fat ones. But when they got hungry, they turned on each other, the filthy animals.’ And here Da lowered his voice as if he didn’t want the cockroach to hear, and whispered, ‘They even ate their own children!’ They all gasped in horror at the thought.

Da shook his head solemnly. ‘Old Man Cockroach over there, he’s just the last cockroach standing!’ Da spat a long thin stream of venom into the dust to underline just what he thought of that. ‘They have no sense of family, they are nothing but the scum of the earth, and maybe one day, when we find a way out of here, once more when we rule the sky,’ said Da, his voice thick with emotion, ‘we’ll be free of them forever!’

‘There must be a way out of here,’ said Seamus, fiercely.

‘Maybe there is son, maybe there isn’t,’ replied Da, slowly, weighing his words carefully. ‘I haven’t had much time, what with looking out for you all, to turn my thoughts to that. I feel in my waters that there is, and if there’s anyone who can find a way out of the Belly of the Great Roaring Noise, it’s…’

But they never did hear what their beloved Da would have said next. It all happened so fast. In flash, Old Man Cockroach was upon them.

‘Run children,’ screamed Da, ‘Run to the ten corners of the earth! I’ll hold him off.’

With a great war cry, Da threw himself at the cockroach. The old warrior was taken by surprise for a second; he had never seen a spider move so nimbly. As the children ran to hide themselves amongst the dust piles and the collected bric a brac of lost thimbles and scrunched up tissues, wads of chewing gum and safety pins, bread bag ties and lost 5c pieces, Da climbed on the back of the cockroach and bravely sank his fangs into the cockroach’s back. But the Old Man hadn’t outlasted every other cockroach in the Belly of the Beast to be taken by surprise by a simple spider, and with a flick of his ragged wings, he threw Da from his back. Turning with the speed of a boxer, his legs working in opposite directions like a well-oiled tank, armour flexing as he did so, the cockroach pinned Da to the ground with one of his legs. His hideous mouth hovered over Da, mandibles slicing the air like knives.

But the Old Man hesitated for a moment. The truth was, that cockroaches didn’t really like spider too much. That’s why he had left them to last. They were too bitter for his taste. But he had no choice anymore, he was starving, and besides, they were so arrogant, they deserved to die.

Fighting back the urge to vomit, he got a firm grip on the spider’s skull with his jaws, taking care to avoid those fangs, because despite being so feeble, spiders were also quite poisonous. He bit down gently, feeling Da’s skull flex in his mouth. The cockroach thought he might just carefully rip off the spider’s head, where the poisonous glands were, before sitting down to a nice nibble on those legs. They were more to his taste.

Da screamed in agony, and nine other voices echoed him, as his charges watched in horror from their hiding places. They screamed, and the screams got louder and louder until the noise filled the air, and in that moment, a sort of miracle happened. A great wind picked Old Man Cockroach up, and slammed him against the back wall of the Beast. His wings; crippled and chewed and broken from his many battles, were his undoing. The wind had got underneath them and they opened out like an old umbrella in a storm, lifting the old cockroach up in the air, slamming him against the back wall. For what seemed like an eternity, the Roaring Noise screamed through the belly as more and more dust piled on top of dust. All the children were safe though. Da had been training them from birth to run and hide themselves in the soft piles of dust, upon his command. When he had cried, ‘Run to the Ten Corners of the Earth’ they had instinctively obeyed him, just as he had drilled it into them, time and time again. Somehow, he must’ve known that this day would come. But Old Man Cockroach did not fare so well. His wings were twisted backward by the force of the wind, his nose ground into the dust, his body pelted with the rubbish of the screaming void. Then they heard, above the wind, a strange rattling noise coming towards them.

Then complete silence.

‘Shit!’

A voice from outside.

‘Bugger.’

Then a clicking noise, and from where Seamus crouched, safely nestled in the house dust, he saw a giant round window open in the roof of the Belly. The most dazzling light he had ever seen, shone down from above in a golden shaft, burning his eyes, but he couldn’t look away. Then an eye as big as three spiders, like a watery globe, pressed against the giant window.

‘Oh for god’s sake, Dave, have you got the tongs? The bloody vacuum cleaner’s sucked up my tweezers.’

As Seamus’s eyes adjusted to this rich and wonderful light, he couldn’t help but follow the shaft of light as it cut through the thick cloud of dust that had been stirred up by the Noise, and there, against the back wall, where the heavenly shaft of light illuminated a small circle of the dust on the back wall of the Belly of the Beast, lay the most ghastly spectacle.

Old Man Cockroach, his body twisted and broken, was skewered to the ground by a shiny pair of steel tweezers piercing his vile belly, and in his jaws, firmly gripped between his mandibles was their beloved Da’s head.

Without knowing where it came from, and without even thinking, Seamus lifted his voice, the sum of all Da’s patient lessons coursing through his body, and cried, ‘Run my children, to the air, to the air!’ and without hesitation, the nine sons and daughters of Da, ran up the sides of the Belly, and out through the light drenched window in the roof of the Great Roaring beast, and down its shiny sides. They fled for the cracks in the walls, and for the high places where the gentle night breezes blow:  the breeze, that to this day, still guides the delicious flying things of the air into their skilfully woven webs.

And all the children of Da, through their countless generations since, have been taught from birth, to fear the Great Roaring Noise.

No more do they shake their webs in vain attempts to frighten the thing away. Now they know better. As soon as the Voice of the Beast is heard, they flee for the Deepest of the Cracks, behind the ceiling boards, where they have learnt that they will be safe, free from the Terrible Breath of the Great Roaring Noise.

 

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Angel, Jamie Derkenne

 

Lots of people had theories on how to catch those silver perch swimming in the water holes where the Nambucca snaked round Bowraville, but not many people ever seen any theory work.

Ray Glossip freely gave advice to any passing tourist or local, whether asked to or not. He’d swear a small hook with a tiny pinch of mullet was the only way. The time of day was crucial, had to be just before dawn, or just after sunset, and cool but not frosty. Neglected to mention been fishing for years, no luck. Percy Callinan, who caught one about thirty years previous, but had to throw it back because it was too small, reckoned silver perch were slippery bastards related to eels. His head cocked to one side, he’d show you a small, faded photo showing nothing, and opine you had to use a swivelled hook, and you needed a net. Andy Murray from the South Arm reckoned he caught them all the time, no big deal. ‘Just need the right ‘quipment,’’ he’d say, but never said what he had in mind. Also reckoned they weren’t good eating unless made into fish cakes.

Kev Shillingsworth, who was as close as most in town ever got to talking to someone traditional, often got asked questions like, ‘What you fellas do to catch perch in them olden days?’ To which he would reply, mysteriously tapping his nose with his forefinger, ‘We had our ways.’ But if Kev had ever known of the ways, he’d long had most of them whipped out of him, and suspected the ones he did know weren’t so traditional anyway. Once lifting up some lino with Percy, he’d come across some old yellow pages from the Bowraville Guardian, including a small story concerning the court appearance of two long-gone great uncles from the 1930s. The paper said they’d been caught fishing for silver perch near Lane’s Bridge, which wasn’t so much a crime even for them, although there would’ve been people who would have liked to make it one. The crime – fined five pounds each – was they were fishing with dynamite. Which explained why Andy Murray, who was into blowing things up, thought they were an easy catch.

Kev could understand this, because with dynamite, you could catch a lot of fish, and fish was good. ‘He was a fisher of men,’ old Father Finbarr Ewels would say from the pulpit of St Mary’s, pointing his bony finger to those up the back. He would growl about the heathens, because that’s what they were, their faces dark with sin. Women were the worst, sometimes wearing those white Jesus dresses like old mish girls, so poor, Finbarr would get confused bout what decade he was in. Some of them probably started thinking that if they ate a lot of fish then maybe they wouldn’t have to stand in the stalls any more at that Bowraville Theatre. Kev had been a Kinchela boy, so would eat anything so long as it wasn’t hay. He’d have fish on Fridays, and many other days besides.

Kev had taken his son Saucepan, river fishing a couple of times, but on each occasion they had soon given up, preferring to eat the cobra worms hiding in the sunken logs. Tastier, and a lot less hassle than if they had caught a fish, which would have meant building a fire, and scaling and gutting the catch.

Not that Saucepan ever gave up on the idea on catching some of the perch. You could see them glide just below the surface. Mostly small fish, but occasionally one of the big ones would rise up from the depths of the water hole. You could make a proper meal out of one of those, if only you knew how.

Which is how Saucepan stumbled on a secret. It’s not like he invented anything or the like, being Saucepan, it’s just that once, by the river, with his Marley music and earplugs, he built himself a small fire out of some wattle twigs, in the hope of making just the right amount of smoke to keep mozzies away. The wood burnt keenly, so to make a bit more smoke, he grabbed some smartweed and making a small tight bundle, put that on the fire as well. Sat watching the river, nodding his head to the music, not hearing or seeing the pale pink Martins on the other side of the bridge yelling at him. After a while, he put the fire out by throwing the burning sticks and bundle of weed, one by one, into the water. Watched them fizzle as the water soaked up the small yellow flames, got up and started walking back home. Was almost halfway back over the paddock to the road before realising he’d left a Burnin’ cover on the bank. So he walked all the way back, and as he was picking up the cassette cover, looked over the water and saw about twelve small fish on the surface, gulping air, which was doing them no good at all.

Saucepan stood staring for a minute or two, trying to work out what was going on. The fish hadn’t been dying when he’d left the first time. Had someone come along and poisoned them? He waded in and without any difficulty picked up the biggest. It rested limply in his hands. He smelt it; but he couldn’t smell any chemical. He tossed it back into the water. He scooped up some water in his palm and tasted it. River water has its own particular taste, and this didn’t taste any different, just faintly of the ashes from his fire. Shrugging, he picked up his belongings and went home.

It took Saucepan, being Saucepan, nearly a month to work it out. One day Kev was showing him old photos, including one of his Grandma, called Aunty Rose by everyone, the one who was Grandpa Jacko’s wife. The photo was a bit bigger than the small four-by-two jobs, so you could see some of the details of her face. An old woman when the photo was taken, but shy of the camera. Was giggling, and had her left hand over her face to hide a smile. Most of her little finger was missing.

‘How come she got no finger?’

‘In them olden days if you were a girl who wanted some lucky fishing you’d get most of your little finger chopped off. Women’s business. Tradition. Dunno why.’

‘Any good at fishing?’

Kev laughed. ‘Was she any good at fishing? My mum said she was the best. She knew some lingo she’d call out to the fish. She’d call them softly so they would come to the surface just hoping she’d pick them up, and when they floated up within reach, she’d just wade out there and pick up them grateful fish.’ Kev made it sound like his history, but being Kinchela, most of it was history he scraped together long afterwards.

Saucepan got to thinking. Maybe it was the wattle, maybe the smartweed. Maybe he’d accidentally poisoned the fish. One way of finding out.

He got himself back down to Lane’s Bridge early one morning, cool but not frosty, plucked up some smart weed, chucked it in the water, sat down, lit a bong, and waited. Waited a long time, staring at the water, sometimes thinking he could see ripples, though on the kind of Ganja Saucepan was toking, you could end up seeing anything. Saucepan had bought it at the mish, but like almost everyone else, believed it had been grown by those Thumb Creek boys, who, legend had it, would rather shoot than let you stumble across one of the crops. Sat and toked for twenty minutes, waiting, then gave up.

Saucepan was halfway up the bank thinking nothing ever worked, when he heard a loud smack on the water. He paused, thinking should he check it out or not? Finally figured he had nothing to lose, and carefully, being toked up, went back to the river bank.

In the middle of the pond weren’t any silver perch. They had probably figured someone was messing big time with their pond and had gone away. Nope, no silver perch, but the biggest freshwater bass he’d ever seen. A granddaddy of a beast, more than two foot long, lying on its side, and sucking air the same way Angus Noble sucked schooners at the Royal.

Saucepan waded out and picked it up. As soon as it was out of the water, the silvery rainbows of its scales became dull grey. The fish looked at him, its mouth opening and shutting like someone trying to get you to understand what they are saying in a mosh pit.

‘Bless you, bless you,’ the fish seemed to say, over and over, carefully, yet silently articulating each word.

‘Fuck that,’ Saucepan thought, and taking it to the bank, gutted it on the spot.

Now you might think that Saucepan’s dad, Kev, being the closest most in town got to talking to someone traditional, lived down the mish, but he and Saucepan lived on the Macksville Road, several miles past the races. Kev owned a hundred long there, and even had a job working as a lollipop for the Shire road crew. How he scored that caused a lot of scalp scratching. Someone reckoned it was because he had a degree in sociology which some people, Andy Murray included, said just proved learning wasn’t worth a rat’s arse these days if they were learning the likes of Kev Shillingsworth.

So this Saucepan, with a bong hidden in his red, yellow, and green beanie in one hand, and a great big dead bass in the other, found himself walking the long walk back to his house. Was daydreaming as he walked along, a dopey sort of dream, that his dad might be mazed with him catching a whopper with  bare hands and all. Saucepan had an uneasy time with his dad. Saucepan thought Kev was maybe coconut like most of the mish said. Hundred acres, job and all, maybe he was in with the Thumb Creek boys. It did Saucepan’s head in trying to work out his dad. Kev thought Saucepan was growing up to be a waste of space.

So lost was he in his little dream about him and his dad sharing a fish meal, that he jerked in fright when he heard Billy Wells’ voice softly in his ear. Billy Wells was in the habit of unintentionally sneaking up on people along the roadside, so much so that come dusk, or dawn, most drivers kept a sharp look out for roos, stray cattle, and that Billy Wells.

‘You shouldna oughta done that,’ Billy song sang, walking  beside him, his hessian bag slung casually over one shoulder. Saucepan exhaled slowly, relaxing himself, and muttering something bout the weeping Christ.

‘Shouldna oughta done what?’

Billy nodded towards the fish tucked under Saucepan’s arm. Saucepan swapped the fish and the beanie. The fish was getting to be a bit of a burden. It had stiffened up quite a bit in the sun, but seemed like it was made of lead. Was a big fish, after all.

‘That there is an old man fish. Probably thirty years to grow like that. And you come long and caught it. Shouldna oughta.’ As he walked, Billy shifted the sack from shoulder to shoulder. There was something solid in it, like a rock.

Saucepan opened his mouth to say something, that if Mrs Ringland heard, would have had him expelled from school, again, but instead said, ‘Me and my dad we’re gonna eat this fish. This is good eating, this fish, so don’t you go telling me what I can and can’t eat. Free country innit.’

Billy held up his palm in apology, and the two walked some distance in silence. A few bush flies also joined the procession.

‘Jesus this fish. I swear he’s getting heavier,’ Saucepan said. ‘I gotta stop a minute, give the arms a rest.’ Saucepan sat down, and placed the fish carefully on a tussock of grass. Saucepan sat down, rubbing his arms. Billy sat beside him.

Billy looked at the fish thoughtfully. It had quite a few flies on it now, and its river water smell was getting just a little bit stronger.

‘Fish like that, you should eat it right away. You live next door to Jesus and Mary right? That’s a long long way to walk a dead fish.’

Saucepan knew, rightly, Billy wasn’t talking about Father Finbarr’s Jesus, but Mexican Jesus, who was a neighbour to his dad and him, who would never eat fish if there was some muck called frijoles in the offing.

Saucepan looked at the fish and thought. Few banana leaves, a small fire, he could have nice steamed fish in next to no time. And he was hungry. Tokin all the morning does that. But what about having a nice meal with his dad? He could tell his dad all about how he sussed out how Aunty Rose had done it. Would make his dad proud, that.

‘Yeah, okay. Let’s cook the fish. You go get some leaves,’ Saucepan said, standing up, and looking around for some sticks.

Billy grinned so his whole face crinkled, and pushed a lank strand of hair  out of his eyes. ‘You’re boss.’

Saucepan built a small fire, scaled the fish, and carefully wrapped it in several layers of leaves. He put the parcel to one side, waiting for the fire to go down to hot embers.

Saucepan watched Billy as he squatted on the ground, observing the fish on the embers. The old man was still agile, and had no trouble sitting on his haunches. Billy brushed a strand of hair from his face again, and using a stick, poked the embers. Saucepan reasoned maybe the hair was long that way to hide a patch of thinness in the middle of the scalp. As Saucepan watched, he couldn’t help but feel he’d seen a younger, more curly-haired version of Billy, something from an old painting. Not that he’d ever seen an old painting, only the small black and white prints of heavenly consorts, saints and philosophers in Miss Ringland’s well-thumbed History of Art. Well-thumbed not because of any artistic appreciation amongst the class, but because Jesse Owen, who had an eye for such things, found several pictures by some bro called Corbet that were real interesting.

Billy kept staring at the fire and as he was staring idly, reached under his coat and gave his back a good scratch. He half-closed his eyes as he was scratching, like a dog does when scratched behind the ears. Although his hand was hidden under the threadbare coat, it seemed he was concentrating on scratching the space between the shoulder blades. He scratched delicately in the one spot, the sort of scratch that is needed to remove a pimple or small wart. Eventually, his black-nailed hand came out again, holding a small white feather that was decidedly worse for wear, its vanes tangled with grit, and the shaft bent at an odd angle. Billy adjusted his haunches and stared intently at the feather in his hand for a few seconds, before holding it over the embers and dropping it. But instead of falling, the feather soared upward from the heat, see-sawing ever higher. Both Saucepan and Billy watched it disappear gently into the sky, becoming one with the blue.

‘I’ll be damned,’ Billy said.

Soon Saucepan had the fish steaming in the embers. It takes just two or three minutes for a fish to cook that way, and using banana leaves as plates, the two of them made a good meal out of the bass. Saucepan ate in silence, listening to Billy prattle on. Billy was good at prattling on, especially when he had scored a free meal or a free drink. He called it philosophising.

‘Have always liked fish. A noble meal. The kind of meal even Jesus would approve of,’ Billy said, while delicately sucking on the bones. He licked his fingers and wiped then carefully on his jeans. He burped, and lay down on his back, looking at the scuttling clouds.

‘A blessed meal, a blessed meal,’ he said, letting out a fart and started softly humming to himself. After only half a minute, he started snoring.

Saucepan thought for a while that this might be a good time to see what was in Billy’s hessian bag. A lot of people had theories, but no-one had ever gotten to the truth. The sack was in a heap in front of Billy, and definitely had something small in it. He started to stretch his arm over to grab it, but he checked Billy first and stopped, because Billy was sleeping, there was no doubt bout that, but sleeping with one eye open, looking at Saucepan. Saucepan raised a hand and waved it in front of the half closed eye. The pupil sluggishly followed the hand.

Saucepan sighed, grabbed a stick, and sat on his haunches, flicking dirt onto what was left of the fire to put it out. He felt cheated. Having just caught the biggest fish he’d ever seen from the upriver Nambucca, he had nought to show but old Billy Wells’ farting and snoring on the side of the road. Saucepan always thought his luck turned bad in the end. It was like everyone else was living under the Grace of God, but all he had for a guardian angel was the likes of Billy Wells. What was he going to say to the old man about the fish now? ‘I caught a big fish, but Billy ate it.’ He had been so close to making an impression, and now all he had was a story. Two stories, because he had also accidentally discovered Auntie Rose’s secret method of fishing. Maybe he could tell that to Kev, being traditional stuff and all.

 

Glossary

Frijoles                                    a traditional Mexican dish of cooked and mashed beans

 

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