Tag Archives: memory

Angel, Jamie Derkenne

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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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Backyard Ink, Ramona Hester

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Your naval medals commemorate

 

twenty years of undetected crime

that’s the salty term

your sun wrecked mates throw ‘round

inked like youngsters.

 

Caught on the web between your thumb and forefinger

a butterfly

in Hong Kong backyard ink

a coloured Emperor

a sailor’s papillon

seafaring homage to the wing.

In the 70’s it flew for your children

with a father’s magic

barely resting and so hard to catch.

 

The rest –

the full seascape – began with Keith

as his health sank

you began to court the blue needle

in an effort to feel your own pain

and perhaps

through the barrel

to suck some away from him

 

You taught your willing flesh Greek

four lines across the heart:

greater love

has no man but this

that one should lay down his life

for his friends

the truth sits warmly beneath your gulf medals

 

There will be no mistaking you at the morgue

 

how blue those pictures will be

against porcelain skin

when quiet flesh rests on a bed

of stainless steel, you take a breath

Jesus rises on the cross, chest expanding

nightmare ending

 

just about where I would place an ECG lead

ancient serpent disappears beneath Greek

burrows into your ribcage

slips between pericardium and chest wall

comes up for air at the fifth rib then,

snaking hipwards

is crudely arrested

by a sword through the head

unnatural iconographic end! – the promise was to crush

swords not preferred ‘til mediaeval rush

of tangled crusade push

and tempered steel

subvert the real

the naked heel of God deemed

insufficient.

surely man’s own implement

could not bring about this promised Word

and yet

every pirate needs a sword.

you told me

gold ring wobbling

on mature cartilage your

earring was commemorative

every sailor who rounds the Cape

has his ear pierced I believed you

then called you a bastard call me

anything you like you said after

twenty full years in the navy I’ve

heard every swearword going

so I asked you to elaborate

and it was true

you  h

a

v

e

 

you have below your navel

an ellipsis of un-inked flesh

from flank to flank

carrying a different

skillful mark where

,

tattoo postponed —-

a doctor reworked your insides

hid art’s Dacron mesh secret

 

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Trophies, Scars and Confusion, Angelica Wright

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 Trophies, Scars and Confusion: a four part retrospective of events and effects some decades on

 

Zipped

Moving down floating

Towards the drift

Of oblivion

Sleepless

Honing

Creating infinite parallels between this world and next

Continuing to be battered

By pressures plundered by a thousand souls

Hopeful of perfection

Ever striving for absolution in a place where

Absolution is obsolete

Defeated by minds that hum and drum and strum their static forever

Winding up and down, down and up forever the staircase to the void

Avoid mess caress, be less by being more

Hopeful of feeling less tired of it all,

I’m not really this small.

I am forever exponential, and Zipped

 

 

The Teacup

I wish I had not taken that drink

I remember only some things,

In the middle of the night I felt invincible and worldly

But I was a teacup and you drank me in slow sips

 

I wish I had not followed you

I remember their faces

And my friend’s desperation like a sheepdog herding wolves

In the middle of the night I can still hear him crying outside my window

 

I wish I could forget but

I remember

In the middle of the night that strange pulling, as if I a canvas bag were unstitched by strange hands

 

I wish I had not carried the shame

I remember feeling guilty, like a whore paid in ashes

In the middle of the night

I remember the unforgiving morning and your precious cushions stripped red upon the lawn

 

I wish I could forget but

I remember

In the middle of my night, the surgery of my ego.

 

 

Tattoo Ink

I wrote HIM on my heart in tattoo ink.

Now unrequited love glues my lips and eyelids shut,

taught barbs to squeeze within sinews of dreams.

 

How did you stay close in a deliberate mediation of thoughts and warmth,

dreamed away and forever unyearning?

 

Oh I wish I could smite that hysterical ravenous gloat,

for the path stolen by ignorance disappears in golden milk.

 

I am hopeful you will fade away but you linger on,

screaming in that red satin dress.

 

My undying love,

My broken heart,

My therapy conversation,

My recurring dream.

 

Finally now, a heart impairment stained in tattoo ink.

 

 

Little Boxes

Memories of childhood

More vivid now

I’ve binned the little boxes

Of youthful collections

Even those seashells gathered

From the shore

Have seen better days

Their light lost the moment

You took them away.

 

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Black and White, Tianqi Li

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In my grandma’s eyes, the world is clearly divided into black and white. Life should follow one right and light trail, beyond which there are only dark, cold forests. Every day, we should follow a scientific and healthy daily schedule; for every stage of life, we should do what is supposed to be done, and do it right. Study hard, get in a good university, find a great job, work diligently, contribute to society, get married and have children, and live happily ever after. Even now, at 26 years of age, when I go back to our home in Beijing, I have to stick to her 6 p.m. curfew. Even now, married for 54 years and 81 years of age, my grandpa still has to get up before 8:30, because otherwise it’d be too late. Five minutes late, my grandma would be sitting on the sofa worried and mad at me, or starting a racket with spoons and plates in the kitchen to serve as an alarm clock. ‘Everybody else is doing it.’ That’s her reason for doing anything, in a tone declaring that the Earth is round.

In my grandma’s eyes, if something is printed in black and white, it must be true. ‘Why else would they print it? It’s the newspaper!’ she exclaims when I try to point out that the self-contradicting ‘health tips’ might as well be misleading or purely made-up. Of the seven children in her family, she was the only one that went to university and thus lived in a big and modern city, so it is only natural that she follows the religion of knowledge. Knowledge comes from printed words compiled by scholars and experts, who are as powerful as Chairman Mao in his Little Red Book.

In my grandma’s eyes, any derailing from the normal and right course is inexcusable, unreasonable, and just outright inexplicable. There was a saying in the Cultural Revolution: walk in the middle, not in front nor behind; follow the crowd, not left nor right. In the chaotic ten years that destroyed people’s trust in human goodness and brought out the darkest side of humanity, the Chinese ‘Doctrine of the Mean’ was testified to be the only way to survive, and my grandma has no doubt taken it as the motto for living. ‘I want you to be normal just like other kids,’ she told me of her parenting principle, as she was the one that brought me up. ‘I don’t want you to be different. If you were, that’d be my fault.’

And that is why I will never tell her I have a same-sex partner, not until her death.

In a lot of ways, the Cultural Revolution to China’s modern history was very similar to my dad’s divorce to my family; no one saw it coming, and no one would talk about it in the following decades. Yet they were always there, the bloody elephant in the room, silent and staring. The Cultural Revolution is never mentioned in history textbooks and is often filtered out or banned in online forums, just as the word ‘mother’ is thoroughly avoided in my presence. I have always been curious of both events, because they are so confusing and mysterious, refusing to be reconstructed and disclosed in full, as if they hold the ultimate answers to humanity and the universe.

Like any other family, our personal history is intertwined with and wrapped by the history of modern China, like a wave in the sea, a gust in a tornado, a raindrop in a storm: on the exact day of my grandpa’s fifth birthday, the Sino-Japanese war broke out on the Marco Polo Bridge west of Beijing. My dad was born in 1959, the start of the three-year Great China Famine, while the Cultural Revolution started right after my uncle’s birth. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, my dad came to Australia.

My family tree is short and concise, as my great-grandfather was an orphan, and there are only four generations to comb. If there is anything that can be said to be a family trait, that’d be the tendency to go on long journeys. My great-grandfather was a ship engineer, and he went on a seven-year-long voyage as early as 1938. My grandpa must have been deeply impressed by his father’s adventure, since he always encouraged the rest of us to dive into the outside world. And we all did.

My grandpa’s own overseas trip happened in 1981, when he went to Iraq to improve his English. He and my grandma were Russian teachers, and when China had a falling-out with the Soviet Union, the Russian department transformed into the English faculty. ‘Iraq was still peaceful then,’ my grandpa said and smiled, ‘and I ate too much chicken, since it was the cheapest.’ He never talked too much about his own experiences, as it was all ‘boring’ and ‘not worth mentioning’. No matter how hard or unbelievable it sounds – learning a new language at the age of 50, or selling ice on the street at the age of six to support the family while his dad was at sea – he sounds like it was nothing, adding even more flavour to the heroic father figure in my eyes.

In comparison, my dad feels like a distant relative. No matter how hard he tried, he was absent in the major part of my life, and it is not something that you can ever make up for. Because of the irretrievable distance, and because I don’t really care what he thinks, I didn’t hesitate in telling him about my same-sex relationship. He was calm and accepting at first, but later became more and more doubtful and opposing as he had time to reflect. ‘Fortunately you are a girl,’ he said, ‘otherwise I’d never allow this.’

I did not know him enough. I did not know that he would blame himself for my choice, or that he had such strong opinions on gender roles. Ever since my partner has come to Australia with me and lived together with my dad, I have been discovering new things about him, and he has been saying things that amaze me. ‘I wanted a wife, not a female doctor,’ he complained of my step-mum, who has a doctorate and was too busy to do house chores. He sent me links to articles titled ‘Women should look fantastic, otherwise men would leave’, to encourage me to lose weight. ‘What’s so good about her that turned you into a lesbian? Is it because she can cook?’ he asked of my partner, a little sarcastically. ‘So you’re playing the boy role,’ he concluded after seeing me consoling her. I did not bother to explain how wrong that idea was.

If there is a need to blame somebody, then I am just as guilty for his marriage breakdown as it is responsible for who I am. If I were a boy, everything would be different, at least temporarily.

The winter of Beijing in 1990 was smoky and grey, but the night sky was still dark blue filled with stars, not the foggy blanket tinted by lights as yellow as a smoker’s teeth. The temperature was still low enough to have snow thick enough to bury one’s foot, and people stored piles of cabbages for their daily dishes. It was the end of a golden era, when most people were still simple-minded and trustworthy, and the streets were still safe and quiet. Beijing was the ancient city full of cultural treasures, not the faceless metropolis buried under shining skyscrapers.

In 1990, divorce was as rare as a panda, and was seen as a huge embarrassment to the whole family. It did not help that my mum sued my dad in court, and the reason she used was that my dad masturbated while watching porn. Nobody told me this­ – of course they wouldn’t. It was in 2010 when I finally saw their divorce papers, when my dad went back to Beijing for the spring festival. He was sitting on the bed, reading a novel. I sat down at the desk, and caught a glimpse of the suspicious faded papers. Like the daily newspaper that my grandma never forgot to read, the typewriter font was black and white. My dad must have known I was reading, but he did not say anything, continuing to read the book in his hand. I did not know if it was put there intentionally for me to see, nor did I ask him if it was true.

It is not hard to imagine how shocked, betrayed and infuriated my family must have felt. My grandparents, my dad and my uncle; they all had different reasons to hate that pretty woman, the evil bitch, because she refused to breastfeed me in order to keep her body shape, because she did not want me after the divorce, because she took money and valuable things, because she cheated, because she lied. Because my dad really loved her, and nobody ever imagined the happy marriage would not last.

Therefore, in our family tree, I do not have the maternal side to track. I do not know if her family had any history of disease, what her blood type is, or how many times she remarried. Nor do I know if she loved my dad or me. But I do know that part of the reason was that I wasn’t a boy, and the Chinese government had published the one-child policy. My mum is the youngest of three sisters, who all had daughters. I was her family’s last shot at having a boy, a ‘real’ descendant to inherit the family name.

‘It’s time to find someone now,’ my grandma said in our weekly phone call, and then added, half jokingly; ‘Don’t become a ‘left-over woman’.’

I wasn’t surprised that she would bring up this topic, but I was surprised at her use of ‘left-over woman’. I was even more surprised when I found out that this phrase was actually coined by the central TV station, a representative of the Chinese government, who also said that the male/female ratio has become severely disproportioned in many cities as a result of valuing boys over girls for decades.

Another piece of news followed up a week later. In a campaign for the drama The Vagina Monologues, a group of female university students published a series of photos, in which each held a sign declaring sexual freedom and their ownership of their own body. The public’s response was outrageous, calling them cheap whores and ugly bitches. Finally, I have realised that China has not even started a real feminist movement, let alone achieved certain results. I could have so many things to say from the things I’ve learned in the feminist class, but I had no idea how to make my grandma understand. ‘Left-over woman’ was from the central TV station, the majority, the mainstream, and the authority. As always, the world in her eyes is black and white, and I do not have the courage nor the patience to tell her that’s not the case.

I could only change the topic and lie. I could only hide the truth in protection of myself and of them: I am happy. I am happy being myself, being in a same-sex relationship, and being in a grey zone without a clear identity. I am happy to be the last one in my family – Li is the biggest family name in China, so there is no danger of extinction – and I am happy to be out of the torrent of Chinese history.

After all, this is my life and my happiness, and ultimately that’s what they would wish me to be.

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The Forest, Amy Way

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It’s just after 10am when I’m standing at the head of the road. Behind me and to the left are golden paddocks with fat cows and dams sparkling with reflected sunlight. In front and to the right is the forest. The pine trees stand like soldiers in their state assigned grids. Tall, regimented, plain. Yet in their shadows is something sinister that’s hard to distinguish. Is it the tangy smell of sawdust that burns the nostrils? The way the wind makes a muffled roar through the pine needles? Or the light that flickers in the corner of my eyes?

Back on the road, I shift my feet on the finely ground gravel. The sun is warm on my back but I feel cold as I watch the road ahead disappear into the shadows of the forest. Beside me is the sign, parading its welcome and warning: ‘Welcome To Belanglo State Forest. Please Be Careful.’

2013-08-17 10.03.00The sign is almost scarier than the forest itself. From a distance it’s impressive and dominant, but up close you can see etched into the enamel the myriad of messages that make up its power. Names followed by dates, and ‘Tim loves Jess’, ‘Lackey was here.’ Then there’s the more ominous: ‘ANT (DENGY) NOW RULES THESE WOODS! BEWARE!’ and ‘IVAN WAS HERE.’ Beside this last message, some cunning visitor has written, ‘No shit.’

I can’t remember exactly when I first heard the stories of Ivan Milat and the ‘Backpacker Murders’, but like most Australians, the killer’s name and the place of his crimes has long lurked my consciousness. It was a story so unbelievable that it existed for me only in the realm of fiction. That was, until November 2010, when 17-year-old Matthew Milat brutally murdered his friend in the same forest as his notorious great-uncle. Lured with the promise of alcohol and marijuana to celebrate his 17th birthday, the victim, David Auchterlonie, was taken to the forest by Milat and two others. I couldn’t understand it. Why would someone go to Belanglo State Forest with Ivan Milat’s nephew? What did they think would happen?

It’s not exactly superstition, nor is it the workings of a cautionary tale. So what is this feeling of a dreadful knowledge inside me? Surely David Auchterlonie would have felt it too, knowing what had happened there. The forest is imbued with symbolism to the point of being tainted by it, and the more I think about it, the more places I can list whose connotations have been altered by some conflict or event.

Sometimes it’s a physical alteration, a mark on the landscape whose effect your eyes can comprehend in the instant it takes your heartbeat to quicken. In Pripyat, the ‘ghost city’ of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, time is suspended and the ground is littered with remnants of a former life. Its population of nearly 50,000, all nuclear plant workers and young families, were evacuated in 1986 after the explosion in Reactor 4. Resting within the 2,600 square kilometre Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the entire city is abandoned.

Six-storey apartment buildings stand silent in their decay, hidden among overgrown trees. Their interiors, along with those of the hotels, the fire station, schools and kindergartens, are full of dust and rubble. Most haunting, are the kindergartens. Once the playground of several hundred children they now resemble tombs. Dolls lay scattered among the debris, their eyes clicked shut, their hair and faces rotten. Others sit stoically on small, toddler-sized chairs, staring with a weary determination through the cobwebs that cloud their faces. Desks are overturned, the wallpaper peeling, and in the nursery rusty bunk beds and broken wooden cots lie awkwardly on a floor of shredded feather pillows and tiny shoes. On the wall hangs a list of names: children of Pripyat, and the allocated beds they once called their own.

Such places may never be anything more than large-scale memorials and museums. Suspended by past horrors, their function now is to educate and to mourn. Over time, they may lose some of their stigma. But for the foreseeable future at least, their scars are too visible. Sometimes, the effect is more subtle. You may see slight changes in the landscape or perhaps no noticeable marks at all. Everything about it will look unimpressive and benign. It’s only for people privy to the stories and the whispers that something else emerges.

When I was ten years old, my grandmother tripped on an uneven bit of a footpath in Castle Cove. The offending piece of concrete, protruding almost invisibly on the corner of Kendall Road and Holly Street, had been part of her daily walk to the shops for over fifteen years. Nothing much had changed, but that day she just went down. Split her head open and needed four stitches. For months, years afterwards, her blood stained the concrete with spectacular ferocity. For a while it was a source of pride and amusement. Walking hand in hand every weekend, we’d pass the spot and I’d laugh and marvel: ‘Look Gran! Your blood’s still there!’ And sometimes with friends or visitors: ‘See that? That’s where my Gran fell that time. She’s a trooper.’
She died less than a year ago. Quite unexpectedly. Now, whenever I pass that spot, I can’t bring myself to look at the faded black stain. As I avert my eyes it whispers to me of past happiness and future evils. Like a glob of slick paint it withstood the storms and the sun and has marked that place forever.

As my car crawls along the gravel road I look from window to window at the lines of trees, scanning the needled undergrowth for something out of the ordinary. But life seems to continue as normal in the forest. As I pass a crossroads, loggers in high-vis vests and hardhats lumber between the green shadows of the trees and a dusty Ute. In another hundred metres I see a women walking two dogs.

‘What the…’

I follow her with my gaze. She’s sporting sunnies and a nonchalant expression as she clambers over branches on the side of the road.

I shake my head and continue following the main road into the trees. It skirts along the southern side of the forest and before long I come out the western edge into more paddocks of private property. I do a U-turn in the first driveway I see. From the porch of a small house, a dark haired woman and an aging Labrador regard me with squinted eyes.

Back beneath the gaze of the trees I spend ten minutes driving around the gridded roads before pulling off onto a patch of grass. This area of the forest looks the same as all the others: sparse, dull. I can look down the lines of the skinny trees and the gaps between, but I can’t see through to the other side and the road I know is there.

‘Well,’ I say to no one. ‘Nothing left for it.’

I have no plan, I have no map, I have no phone reception. For a moment I am still. In my head is a soft memory, a warning echoed by a girl in a red hood.

Don’t wander from the forest path.

2013-08-17 11.10.19But like I’ve told myself before, this is not the working of a cautionary tale. Trying not to look too wistfully back at my car, I walk slowly off the road and into the trees. I’ve gone about five or six metres when I allow myself to look back. I let out a gasp when I can’t see the road at all. The deceptively skinny trees have closed in at an alarming speed.

‘Right. Well…’
If I just stick to the grassy rivet between the tree-rows, I’m sure to come out the other side. I glance up at the sun snaking down through the branches of the pines. There are a few clouds in the sky but overall it’s a beautiful day. I bring myself back to earth and start to examine the trees and forest floor as I move gently across it. Pinecones dapple the ground just as regularly as shadows. Everything is a mixture of dull shades of green, brown, grey and white. Nothing shines, nothing glimmers, but still, there is lightness.

It’s very quiet. Almost peaceful, until I realise why: there are absolutely no animals. Only several minute spiders, strung undisturbed between grass blades. Once or twice I see the flitting of grey birds. They don’t chirp or sing, and their wings are swift and silent. At that moment a cloud swallows the sun. I pull my jumper tighter around my shoulders and head deeper into the trees.
Somewhere near the centre of my chosen grid I come across a clearing. There are different types of plants here. Shrubs that look almost tropical with their straight shining leaves and sharper shades of green. Every metre or so sits a severed stump, old and flaking. I smile at the unexpected change but it disappears when I recall old news stories. The remains of many of Milat’s victims were found in small clearings. So too were nearby campsites, evidence that the killer spent considerable time with his victims both before and after their deaths.

I don’t cross the clearing. Instead, I turn sideways and shuffle around its border, heading back into the trees more quickly than before. As I’m hurrying away from the clearing I start to hear noises. Thuds, thumps, something clunking nearby. My whole body shudders with the sound and I can think of nothing but getting out of the trees. As abruptly as I left it I find myself stumbling out onto the road again. It isn’t the road I started from, but the section that stretches away to my left ends in a T-intersection. On the corner I can just make out the nose of my car.

The thuds return, this time accompanied by the murmur of voices. I spin to my right, breathing fast. At the end of the road I can see the beginning of another clearing, this one much larger. Slowly, I walk towards it. The closer I get the more familiar the thudding becomes. As the trees start to thin, I can see it but I don’t believe it.

It’s a camping area. And it’s full.

The campground is surprisingly big, almost the size of a football oval. On the right, 4WDs, station wagons and trailers with motorbikes are slotted tightly into a grassy car park. Closest to the car park is a huddle of eight tents. They circle a makeshift communal area with a fire, several dogs, and parents who watch their kids play from the comfort of foldout chairs. To the left of the tents stretches a expanse of mowed grass. On the far left of it, nestled in some trees, are a few swags and a dome tent. A man methodically pegs his swag to the ground. The background to the camping area is a small brown lake. The campers laugh together and pat their dogs, but I don’t cross this clearing either. I stick to the road and make my way to the next intersection. A few of the campers look my way, and for an instant I wonder if they’re startled to see a lone stranger stalking through the trees. But I wager if they’re brave enough to camp here then they wouldn’t be fazed by me.

I’ve reached the intersection and I’m about to turn right, away from the campsite, when something catches my eye. Down at the very back of the campground, there’s a tiny green toilet block and a State Forest noticeboard. Moving closer, I can see it’s covered with pamphlets and posters. I’m expecting some information on the Backpacker Murders: dates, names, a memorial perhaps. But instead the noticeboard is bursting with State approved advice on how best to explore the forest, particularly its two main activities, motorbike riding and mushroom picking.

In the mushroom foraging community, Belanglo Forest exists as a place filled to the brim with desirable fungi. You don’t need a permit, and as long as you don’t pilfer any timber, mushrooming is a popular hobby in all of NSW’s State forests. In late 2011, a group of foragers went to Belanglo to harvest mushrooms. I’ve tracked them down through an organic forager’s online forum, and despite enjoying the day, group leader Elizabeth Perez-Meza explains to me that the trip was structured and business-like.
‘We knew that we would have to get there by about 11am and leave by 4pm, way before sunset. Definitely go in a group of 4-5 people, bring walkie-talkies, make sure everyone is wearing boots or gumboots, plus gloves. And leave way before sunset.’ Just like me the sign at the entrance to the forest made a lasting impression for her, but what is most evident when Liz speaks of her time in the forest are its silence and baleful conformity.

‘I wasn’t scared but you just know that something bad has happened there,’ she says. ‘I understand why the Milats went there to kill: it’s dead quiet and everywhere looks the same. It’s so easy to get lost and if you were to scream out for help, your calls may go unanswered.’

The sun vanishes as I’m examining the noticeboard. When I look up, the entire blue sky is doused with grey. The wind is picking up and the muffled roar of it through the pines is starting to irk me. I pull my jumper tighter around me but it yields no extra warmth. Head down, I walk back past the campsite in the direction of my car. The man has finished pegging his swag, and the voices of the campers are lost in the wind.Belanglo Forest 3

Climbing into the warm air of my car, I expect instant relief. Instead I find myself desperately trying to look anywhere but at the trees. An impossible feat: I am surrounded. Some relief comes when my car starts on the first try. I buckle up and drive, weaving my way through the dirt roads towards the entrance. I’m almost on the main road when around a corner there emerges a log cabin. Thin white curtains veil every window of the squat brown building. I slow down slightly until I see a maroon commodore parked on the other side of the house. It’s just a park ranger, I tell myself as I speed up again. But this doesn’t stop my fantasy of owning a hidden log cabin from being quashed somewhat.

Finally, I’m back on the main road. Ahead of me are the entrance and the silver back of the sign. As I pass it I can’t help but look back. The paddocks of the surrounding farmland are still golden despite the clouds. Perhaps they will shine forever, always in contrast to their silent neighbour.

Later, I’ll find out that there was a visible reminder to the past. Hidden at the other end of the forest is a rock memorial to Ivan Milat’s victims. The boulder would blend into the background of shrubbery if it weren’t for the dark plaque. In brassy letters, it commemorates the memory of the seven backpackers and the efforts of the state services’ members who aided the investigation into their deaths. A bible quote reminds the reader: ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Looking at photos, safe in the comfort of my lounge room, it strikes me just how ordinary the forest is. Unlike Pripyat, there is nothing to suggest that this was, or ever will be, anything more than a lonely pine forest. Only being there, once you’ve heard the stories and you can stand listening to the sound of nothing, only then do you feel it.

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Flowers and Tea, Grace Mitchell

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‘You useless woman.’

The voice resounded through the café and rang through her brain, opening up the doors to the memories she had long ago tried to forget.

The small ornate tables and the talking customers disappeared as the café was overtaken by grass, leaving Samantha standing confused and bewildered in a field. Hearing the voice, she turned around, only to see her father and mother on top of a nearby tall, grassy hill. They seemed to be both smiling and waving down at her. Dazed, she found herself smiling and waving back. The smiles on their faces seemed to glitch for a second into the look of anger on her father’s face and fear on her mother’s. They instantly turned back into smiles as though nothing had really happened. Just as children would, her father pushed her mother down the hill and her mother joyfully rolled down the grassy knoll. With a large smile upon her face, she rolled down to where Samantha was standing. There she landed, though not as a bundle of joy like a child who was playing, but as a messy heap with her arm at an angle that an arm shouldn’t naturally be in.

Looking into the fearful and weeping eyes of her mother, Samantha felt her gaze rising to see her father. There he stood menacingly above her, on the top of what was no longer a grassy hill but an old splintery wooden staircase. He stared at her for a moment before walking away, leaving her bruised and battered mother to find help by herself. Samantha wanted to pick up her mother and help her, but she looked at her hands only to find they were too small to ever help move an adult. In fact, her whole body was too small to help her mother; she was just too young. So she did the only thing she could do and sought a way out of this horror. There to the right she saw a darkened door; it didn’t seem to fit with the old house. So she ran to it and pushed it open with all the strength that her five year old self had. Stumbling on to the other side of the doorway, she found herself out of the memory and back to her twenty year old body. Not only that but when she looked around, she found herself in an ancient wooden corridor that was lined with dark wooden doors.

Tree roots showed through the floorboards and the more she looked, it felt like she could feel her mind tear and warp just like the wooden planks. The corridor before her looked like it went on forever, with all the tree roots and grass growing out of the wood, or maybe it really was because it did truly go on forever. Feeling drawn to one of the dark wooden doors down the corridor, she felt her feet start to move, like they had different ideas about the door than her mind did. Walking across the unsteady flooring, she saw the wooden ground under her feet start to crumble and break. Suddenly at the door, she didn’t have a moment to think about the dangers of her surroundings. Instead her hand shot out, and she let herself into another world.

Another world being her old kitchen. There was the old dirty sink filled with plates, and the fridge displaying a pathetic drawing from her six year old self. Then, of course, there was dear old Dad sitting at the table, right next to the gathering pile of bottles. Except…this time, the pile wasn’t as big. This time, half of the pile was smashed all over the floor, along with a smear of blood. It was now that Samantha suddenly realised which memory she was in. It was the night he had thrown the glass bottles at her mother, the night when…

There was her mother in the kitchen doorway, with a shotgun in her hands. The same weapon that was her right to bear. The same gun she had to protect herself from intruders, but this time it was her husband who was the trespasser. A trickle of blood came down her forehead as she stood glaring at her husband, with fire in her eyes that even devils would be scared of.

‘Harold,’ she said, announcing herself to the poor excuse of a man before her.

Samantha’s father turned around and his face instantly turned into shock, and then anger. His hand grabbed a bottle, as if to punish her insolence. ‘What are you going to do, you useless woman?’

A loud sound echoed through the kitchen as if to answer his question.

A golden flower flew out of the shotgun’s barrel and slowly careened over to Harold’s chest, where it hit in a sudden shock and then, there were petals everywhere. The petals escaped from his chest as he slowly fell to the ground. Samantha turned from her father, who looked like he had just robbed a flower shop, and then to her mother. Samantha, in shock, looked down at herself to see a petal on her dress.

She quickly turned and ran for the door, without looking back at her parents. She didn’t want to see her mother give a giant sigh of relief before finally saying the words, ‘I’m not useless.’ She didn’t want to see her father’s body give its last heave. She didn’t want to see, she didn’t want to remember.

Instead she found herself back in the hallway, which now looked like the floor was crumbling beneath her feet. Nevertheless she kept running to the next door way, which was all she could see. Back in the hallway, the part of her dress that the petal had fallen onto was now stained with the dark red of her nightmares. She needed to keep running to get away; she needed to get away in case reality wanted to make its presence known.

Swinging open the door before her, Samantha ran into a room that was dimly lit. The first thing that really that hit her though was the noise. The noise of screeches and roars. She cringed at the noise of fists pumping and hands slamming. Slowly and unsurely she walked into the dim lit room. As her eyes adjusted, she was shocked to see that the room was filled with metal cages. Cage after cage, they seemed to go on forever or at least as far as she could see. The screeches of birds and howling of monkeys were louder now she was inside, and she found her hands scrunching up the edges of her shirt. In the cage nearest to her was a big gorilla thumping his chest, making sure all that saw him knew that he was the boss here. There next to him, in her own separate cage, was the meek form of her mother.

Hands clenched tightly around the edges of her brightly coloured shirt. She seemed so pale against the bright orange that hung off her small and thin body. A small taut smile came to her face as she saw her daughter come closer to her.

‘How is school, honey?’

Samantha didn’t know how to answer. Not only was the question too ordinary for a situation that was so bizarre, she was pretty sure the last time she checked, she had graduated from high school.

‘Mum…’

‘Yes, what is it Samantha?’ Her mother said with the same kind eyes she had always had. They looked like total strangers to the rest of her body now.

‘I…I miss yo-’

A sudden barking from the next cage over made Samantha jump. Her mother’s neighbour wanted to be heard and feared, especially by little girlies like her. Samantha looked at the terrifying muscular black dog, and then back to her mum, whose eyes looked at the floor. Slowly fading into the background, only the orange suit stood out. Not wanting to see her mother disappear, Samantha felt herself running down the lines of overbearing cages. It was there at the end of the cages, she found the same familiar door waiting for her.

Grabbing the door’s handle, she pulled it open and rushed through, only to find herself in midst of a puzzle of the few pieces of mossy timbered floor left. Looking around wildly, she knew she had to get out of here. She had to get out before the whole place around her broke apart and she fell to the abyss below.

Then she saw the golden wooden door. The door that had a cute etching of a teapot on the front. Her safe place, her haven. Without a second thought, she jumped from piece to piece of the ancient wooden floor, without ever looking down or thinking about what would happen if she missed, until she was at the door that smelt of roses and tea, the smell of home.

Looking back, she found the once full of life hallway and the many doors had all disappeared around, leaving only her and this final gateway left. She didn’t care though; she only wanted to go forward anyway. Grabbing the handle, she pushed and welcomed the world before her.

The first thing she saw, of course, was the alligator. It wasn’t acting like most alligators would, as it was not only sitting cross legged on a garden chair but it also was holding a cup of tea (luckily it was an alligator, because if it was a crocodile it would surely have not liked tea, since it is made with fresh water and not salt water). It had its pinkie extended; after all, he did have manners. He did look remarkably like the soft toy she had once owned, which had stolen her heart as a child with its big toothy grin.

‘Hello Samantha, my dear,’ the alligator said politely, as he looked at his new company. ‘Please do come and take a seat.’

Samantha walked over to the garden table and chairs and sat down with a large smile upon her face. ‘It is so good to see you again Sir Reginald.’

She calmly took the spare tea cup and poured herself a cup of tea. Then she leaned back, letting the tea cool down as she took in the little garden she had walked into. There were rose bushes everywhere that scented the place so wonderfully, and the white garden seating that consisted of two seats and a small table, just seemed to come out of a Home and Gardens magazine. Then there was, of course, Sir Reginald sipping his tea slowly, looking dashing in his top hat. Samantha gave a large sigh as she relaxed in her chair. She needn’t run here.

‘So how has work been?’ Sir Reginald politely inquired.

‘Quite terrible, the other day this couple came in and-’

The teapot crashed, shattering into pieces of ceramic as the tea escaped on to the café’s floor. Samantha’s gaze had been slowly following it as it had fallen out of her hands, and then suddenly, with that loud sound, she was back to her job at the small café by the train station. Back to her reality, back to here and now. Quickly kneeling to the floor, she started to pick up the pieces of the teapot.

‘I’m so sorry.’ She said as the customers peered in to see what the large crashing sound was.

‘Why do you always make a mess of things?!’ A man’s voice broadcasted himself from halfway across the room.

Samantha looked up to see a large man harshly pulling a woman by her arm out of the café. For a second she swore she saw her father’s face but with another look, she could see it wasn’t. So she stopped, with the ceramic pieces limp in her hand for a moment, as she watched the couple walk out. It was only when they were out of sight that she went back to cleaning up the mess she had made.

After all, she had learnt a broken teapot can easily be cleaned up.

 

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The Time Machine, Elizabeth Robson

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It was a very long time ago for some but not for all. She only married him for his horses, so she said. She was a girl from the city and he was a boy from the bush. She attended Art School and soon found her calling as a teacher and he bred horses and cleared the land.  They met by chance; a mutual friend, so he wooed her with his brash looks and country drawl. They were both young and impetuous and it wasn’t long before they were married. He sold his horses and took up cattle and wheat farming along the foothills of the Moonbi Ranges. She had dreamed of living a life on the land and she threw herself into that role. She reared children and fought fires and cried when the floods came and I never once heard her complain.

I push open the first door, step through and let it close, slow and heavy. I cannot open it now from the inside without a key. Once inside the vestibule I notice as I always do the marble-topped, side-table against one wall. It stands alone and looks rather conspicuous in this small space. On the wall above the table, is a small oil painting, or rather a reproduction, of Drysdale’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’. I like the painting because the woman in the foreground appears strong and determined as if she has made her decision and she will suffer the consequences without yielding. I have heard others speak of this woman as ‘sturdy and resolute’ against a world that shrivels and dies. In essence, the idea of survival through inner strength permeates the underlying significance of the image. As I study it, I realise what an interesting choice of painting someone has made. It says far more than words could ever do.

On the table are a visitor’s book and a china vase sprouting plastic flowers. I have never signed the book and for a fleeting moment I think about what I could possibly write within those pages. Maybe not the usual: ‘Had a lovely time, a most relaxing stay. Food was great and the company fabulous.’ I look at the painting and smile. Not today. Ahead is a second door, similar to the first. It too is solid and weighty. I step forward and turn the handle, lean into it and move through into a sun filled room. A warm rush of air with the scent of urine and antiseptic blanket me as I stand clutching flowers and a plastic grocery bag.

To the right are small clusters of dining tables. At one, two women sit facing each other, one holding a ragged, brown bear with a bright blue ribbon knotted around its neck. She looks as if she has been crying. A nurse places a small plastic cup in front of her and a glass half filled with water. The woman sits still then suddenly lashes forward with her hand and knocks the water and the pills onto the floor. The nurse mumbles something about the RN being called and bends to clean up the mess. The other woman seems oblivious to the scene unfolding in front of her and appears to sweep invisible crumbs from the vinyl tablecloth with her fingers. Neither speaks. A light glows softly from a large tank near where the two women are seated, and a big laminated sign is blu-tacked above it, reminding the residents not to feed the fish.

 To my left is an open area with windows running along one side, over-looking a grass and paved courtyard. Red and brown leaves fall from a Tallow tree in the centre of the lawn. A man is standing near a small clothes line. He bends and picks up a piece of clothing from a basket and clumsily pegs it to the line. He bends and repeats the action. After he has pegged several pieces up he begins unpegging them and places them back in the basket at his feet. He stops what he is doing and wanders off towards the high fence surrounding the courtyard and stands looking out. A gentle wind stirs his hair and leaves circle his feet. I wonder what he is thinking.

Inside, a horseshoe of upholstered chairs are occupied by other men and women, some dozing in the air-conditioned warmth, others peering as if seeing their surroundings for the first time. No one speaks. Words are lost here.

Mindful not to make eye contact, but smiling pleasantly, I search the room to see if she is seated in one of the padded chairs facing the huge, flat-screen TV, against the far wall. Images flicker vividly between ads as muffled dialogue and music penetrate the space. It is a Sunday and it has been a month since my last visit.

Towards the side of the room I see her. She is about my height but hunched and twisted slightly in the chair. Her hair is ruffled as if by some draught and her hands lie folded loosely in her lap. She is dressed in dark slacks and a light-blue, zip-through jacket, crimson slippers on her stockinged feet. She stares, not at the screen with its flashing images and droning sounds but out of the window near where she is seated. She has the look of an expectant child but something else has settled there – some sense of foreboding, loss maybe.

‘Hello. How are you?’ Pause. ‘It’s Liz.’ Pause. ‘You’re daughter, remember?’ Pause. Take a breath. ‘You’re looking well,’ I say, as I notice she has lost weight and looks quite drawn and pale. ‘Here, I brought you some flowers.’ She looks up startled for a moment, then wipes her mouth with a tissue. ‘It’s ok. You look like you could use some company.’

‘Where did you come from? Are the others here too?’ She sounds surprised and peers around me.

 ‘Nope, just me. Do you like the flowers?’ I dangle them in front of her face hoping she can make out some familiar-looking shapes amongst the oranges and yellows. She doesn’t look impressed but stares hard through the smudged lenses of her glasses. She points a shaky finger towards me.

‘Where did you come from?’ ‘How long did it take you to get here?’

I pull up a chair next to hers. I sit. ‘Not long. I came from Newcastle. It takes about an hour. I just came over to see how you were.’

‘You shouldn’t have come. It’s too far. Will you be staying long? You can stay the night if you like. You’ll have to find Bill. Do you know where he is?’ Questions are fine. It’s the answers I hate.

‘I’m sure he’s about somewhere.’  I contemplate briefly whether or not I should remind her that her husband, my father, died three years ago. ‘So, what have you been up to?’ A vacant, silly question really. I didn’t need to ask it to get the answer. What has my mother been up too? Let me guess, shall I? Sleeping? That’s a given and eating soggy, steamed fish and plastic mashed potato while sipping a thick, milky drink through a straw. Oh and how about the lashing out at staff and the few vulgar insults she tosses around when things aren’t going quite her way, especially at sun-down. She looks at me, curiously and asks:

‘How old are you, Elizabeth?’ Not unexpected. This is a question she tosses around every few minutes. In fact it’s a question she’s been tossing around for many months now.

 ‘How old would you like me to be?’ I smile at her but she frowns and sighs. This is the dilemma: if I tell her how old I really am she becomes upset because she has no comprehension of real time anymore. At the last visit she seemed quite content to think of me, her daughter as thirty-something. That could possibly make sense. It would mean that she was possibly in her early sixties; again, quite reasonable. However, time moves swiftly in this incongruent world and the lines have shifted once again. I must tip-toe very carefully. This is how the conversation will swing today:

‘I’m forty-seven.’

‘Oh, rubbish! You are not! How old are you really?’ She rubs her frail brow with frail fingers. I notice the chipped, pale pink polish on short, filed nails, obviously a favour from one of the staff. I smile to myself, thinking how horrified she would be if it were brought to her attention. She lived for her horses and cattle – no room for girly delights.

‘Okay, I’m twenty-five,’ I lie.

‘Twenty-five? Really? Oh.’ She looks at me and nods. ‘That’s nice.’

 

When I was twenty-five, my parents retired. My father had sold the farm and instead took up fishing with as much gusto as droving cattle.  Mum was content to end her teaching career and threw herself into her pottery and drawing. She was also an avid reader and enjoyed discussing the latest novel or Art Australia magazine that had recently arrived in the post.

 It wasn’t noticeable, not at first, but over time books seemed to take longer to finish and there was always some excuse about not finding the right glaze for a particular pot. Her studio became messy and she spent more and more time lying in her chair on the veranda, paper half read. I visited them both whenever I could but then came the phone call.

My father was scared and shaken, to say the least. He had never witnessed such hostility and confusion before. There were no obvious tell-tale signs. The piece of timber she wielded was her rifle and she meant to destroy whoever stood in her way. The valuable china and glassware on the side-board didn’t stand a chance.

When I finally arrived, the bruises down my father’s left side and the look of incredible grief in his eyes said enough. It wasn’t long before a diagnosis was made and for the benefit of both, they were moved.

 

I remember the shopping bag. ‘I brought you some more underpants and some singlets. You didn’t seem to have many, last time I was here. I will have to get someone to put some name-tags on them before they go astray in the laundry.’

‘You didn’t have to do that. You keep them. I have plenty.’ She dismisses the underwear with a curt flick of her hand and reaches for her walker.

‘Where are you headed, mum?’ I bundle the flowers and shopping bag under one arm and push myself up and out of the chair with the other.

 ‘I need to go to the toilet’. She hauls herself up on tremulous legs and looks vacantly about. Her spatial awareness is diminished now that she only has sight in one eye, and she frequently forgets that she can’t see particularly well out of the other.

‘Okay,’ I say, ‘let’s go to your room, then.’ I take hold of the front bar of the walker and begin to guide her through the maze of chairs and slippered feet and walkers and sticks. She pushes forward with great gusto and grumbles under her breath when she becomes snagged on furniture or unfortunate limbs that are left unattended by their owners. ‘Whoops! Sorry! Just hang on a sec, mum. Okay, this way – no, no, this way. That’s it. Turn. Turn! Sorry!’

Finally beyond the corral of chairs, we head down the corridor towards her room. The décor is soft and comfortable. We could be in any four-star hotel if it weren’t for the polished, timber hand-rails and brightly decorated name plates on the doors. We stop in front of an open doorway half-way down the hall.

‘Is this my room? But I don’t stay here do I?’ She looks worried and shuffles to a halt. ‘Where are we, Elizabeth?’ If there is one question I hate more than any other, it’s this one.

I try evasive action. ‘I see it’s nearly lunchtime. Bet you’ll get something good today. A Sunday roast, maybe.’

Head tilted, she looks at me and asks, ‘So how old are you?’

 ‘Twenty-one.’

 ‘And how old am I?’

‘Eighty-three.’

 ‘I am not! Tell me the truth.’

 ‘Okay, thirty-five’

‘Am I really?’

‘Yes. No. Look – let’s go in.’

The afternoon moves slowly, creeping its way into dusk as I sit in a padded chair next to the woman who is my mother. The light plays games with her hair; thin and white, it glows softly against the pallor of her skin. Soft, jowly flesh crinkles along her jaw and thin, dry lips softly part. Her eyes are closed as she slips in and out of fretful sleep. Soon she will wake and I will be gone. The demons that she fights in the witching hour of the early evening are not for a daughter’s eyes. These are monsters she must slay single-handedly.

I prepare to leave. I wave down a nurse with keys jangling on rounded hips and ask to be released. She smiles and says, ‘Thanks for coming. See you next time,’ as I slip past her and into the real world. When my mother wakes she will not remember that I have been there. She will not remember the flowers or remember my age and one day, in the not-too-distant-future, she will not remember me. I should feel comforted in the knowledge that for my mother, time does not travel forward. Life for her is a time machine that only travels into the past – her past, and she will grow more youthful as her body fails.

 

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