Tag Archives: relationships

Pass Over, Alec Mallia

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I was paying to watch her die, every week.

 

I flew to the city when she was admitted and managed to get a room half an hour away in a share house. At four or five in the morning my eyes would open to the cracks in the roof, shying from the window light as if sleep was ever going to come back into the picture. Pulling the dusty cover off my razor, I’d make sure every single hair was cut to the skin. Little red welts would begin to wrap across my chin, and I’d remember why I kept the beard back home. Before walking out the door there would be three perfect circles, five scratched attempts and two games of noughts and crosses on the morning’s paper. On the way there the red needle of the speedometer nestled exactly to each road’s speed limit. When an orange light came on in front of me, I’d slam the breaks – safety first.

Eventually I got lucky and someone rammed straight up my backside. It was one of those utes that sat three tires above all the other cars on the road. Couldn’t see a scratch on its actual body but apparently I messed up his precious bull bar. He was waving his arms about and screeching this-that and the other. I did my best impersonation of a copper, talking all slow like ‘HAVE. YOU. BEEN. INJURED?’

He was having none of it, and by the time that got sorted I was at least an hour late.

 

Coming down the hill to the car park I’d circle round the first floor, finding the nicest little spot with a twenty-point reverse park job. On the colder mornings I smoked in the fire escape, eventually shuffling in the building to one of the reception desks. There was a lady there most Sundays; her name was Michelle Zhao. Grandma would always tell me that getting someone’s name, ‘and all of it,’ was the polite thing to do. Of course I was terrible with names, worse with faces, and although this never bothered me, I had begun to try with Michelle.

‘Michelle Zhao!’ I called, with a sort of coughing, shuddery-ness from the lingering accident’s adrenaline. She waved, almost crouching under her desk from her startling, but a smile nonetheless.

‘It’s good to see you Mister Davies, I’m sorry about your grandmother.’

I did the ‘gloom’ smile and nodded, ‘Didn’t think I’d be back again so soon, but here we are.’

She grabbed a nurse and eventually we found the ward, stopping outside her room. The nurse briefed me that things might not seem right with her mind, that her lungs weren’t looking ‘optimal’ either. She was staying for monitoring.

‘We’ll see how she goes’.

The nurse opened the door, and I sat down on the plastic chair across from her. Gran tilted her head a little towards me. The bed was your standard, stiffish, folding piece of work that could be found in most hospitals.

‘Close the curtains will you?’

They smelled of that musky, second-hand perfume – week old daisies shoved into a bottle of brandy. A slightly rotund man danced about on the television with his hair slicked back,

‘I’m Jonathan Brian and this is MONEYGRAB!’

 

I cleared my throat and she raised an eyebrow towards me, ‘How’re you feeling Gran?’

She looked up and down, squinting.

‘I know you.’ Her brow scrunched up behind her glasses. I leaned forward and showed my teeth.

‘I’m JONATHAN BRIAN and this is MONEYGRAB!’

She smiled a little, shifting in the bed and propping herself upright. A couple of nurses went by past the window. My foot started tapping on the floor, ‘It’s Ian, Gran…’

‘Oh of course, sit! Please!’ She smiled, nodding as I gestured to my already seated bottom.

‘What have you been up to hey?’ I reached forward before her hands squeezed the bed so hard their veins popped out.

I leaned back.

She raised an eyebrow and looked past me, leaning slightly out of the bed towards the figures moving past the door.

‘You’ve done it Ros! You’ve won a thousand dollars!’ The TV rang out, bells dinging. Bright green cartoon stacks of money flashing on the little box.

Gran coughed and smacked her lips together, ‘Did she come with you?’

‘Who?’

‘You know who.’

I shoved my hands in my jacket, ‘She’s not here. She’s not coming’

She, my mother, was dead. I know that for a fact. Saw the photos of the crash. Car was wrapped around a power pole, ‘Speed suspected in cause of incident.’

As the years go by it’s getting harder to recall what she had to do with me, let alone who she was. I remember a couple of beaches, being in the back of the car, a foggy birthday or two. Gran would slip details now and then before snatching at her cross and shaking her head. Her name was Kate. Gran said she did ‘bad things’ and that they had to ‘save’ me from her. The photos I had of her were from her last couple of high school years. I remember the sound of the fights they used to have. You could feel my grandfather’s voice in the walls. We used to have a wooden spoon in the house that was chipped where Gran smacked her with it a couple of times. After they’d sent me to bed I’d hear the intro to ‘The Bill,’ and sooner or later they’d start talking if she wasn’t home – which was often in her last years. I used to sneak down the stairs and stick my ear through the paling to try and hear things. I’d never get more than a grunt out of Grandad, but Gran had a sort of hiss when she spoke about Kate. It was never good.

She died around my eleventh birthday. By then I hadn’t seen her for two years.

The day after the funeral Gran found Grandpa in the garage with a hose from the Alfa’s tailpipe to back window, driver side. We didn’t speak of her at all after that, or at least I didn’t ask.

‘When bad things happen, we don’t stare.’

Not that I ever had the chance to bring it up — boarding schools were Gran’s tool of choice, military high schools with brief holidays. I’d spend those days away from her and that house. By the time I got to university I was already living a few hours away.

Gran’s fear of ‘her’ and ‘she’ was the first time she was on our lips since those days.

But she forgot her the moment the words left her lips. We talked about Melbourne for a while and my ‘big job’ coming up before I left. I made sure to use vague enough terms to make sure she was both proud and uninterested.

Things complicated, and I moved back to the old house. My room had been stripped to a bed and empty drawers. Down the hall Gran had turned Kate’s old room into a kind of study. There was just a leather chair and half-filled bookcase left. On the second Sunday night I sat in the chair and stared at the shelves. Any kind of book was stacked right next to its opposite.

EncyclopediaBritannica– 45 Volumes, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, a strong display of Tolstoy and a few other Russians. Beneath that an array of war books ranging from Gallipoli to the Battle of Long Tan. Just above the olive-drab spine of Gallipoli was a corner of a page or piece of paper. It stuck out between the back and the jacket. An envelope, shoved into the ‘about the author’ page. The front of it simply read ‘Sorry’. It was unsealed, and the letter slipped out of it.

‘I am sorry for what I did just now, Ian, Janet.’ Handwritten in jittery blue pen. After that line a few words had been struck through a handful of times until they were scratchy blobs.

‘…but I’m more sorry for what we did to you, Kate.’

Another bird’s nest of tangled rewrites.

‘I don’t expect anyone’s forgiveness or sympathy.’

There was nothing else. I left the letter on the chair and closed the door.

Before the fourth Sunday I was sitting on the edge of my bed. It had poured all day. The night was missing the rolling moans of buses, the splintering leaves and animal noises. It was all black after the window, and there was no sound to tell me otherwise. White shone up from the desk, and my phone crunched in vibration on to the floor. I scrambled to pick it up, answering the call but saying nothing as I pulled it to my ear.

‘Hello? Mr Davies?’

I scratched my nose and brushed my hair to one side, ‘Hello, who is this?’

‘Mr Davies there has been an incident with your grandmother,’ the earpiece crackled.

‘What sort of incident?’

She had suffered some sort of stroke going to toilet, banged herself up pretty badly. The accelerator stayed pressed on the orange lights.

Michelle was working that night and she grabbed the doctor for me. ‘Mental trauma’ and ‘risk of comatose’ filtered through amongst muffled words. There was the slightest smell of orange on his breath. ‘Not much time.’

We arrived at her room in the ward and the doctor pointed, ‘She can hold conversation, but I would be careful not to give her stress or upset her’.

The letter was dangling on the edges of my sight.

I watched her little glazed eyes staring straight through to the wall, juddering sometimes towards the odd nurse that’d pass her by. When they brought her food they’d follow the trays to her lap. It took a few tries for the nurse to feed her but eventually she managed to pull through it. Her eyes rolled back into position — staring into nothing. I waited another minute before walking in. She was glued to a spot that was a few inches right of the television. Her face stayed the same regardless of what flickered across the screen. I sat next to her, and she didn’t move a bit. There was an aerobics class on the television.

‘Gran?’

‘Gran?’

‘I found the letter.’

Her eyelids twitched and she looked away. I pulled the chair closer.

‘The,’ she spoke, ‘letter?’

She blew air, trying to heave into a full-body eye roll.

‘Gramps said that you both did something to Mu- Kate.’

She stayed silent, and I watched the reflections in the window before she spoke again, ‘I don’t want to hear this now Ian.’

I pulled the chair beside her and shook my head, ‘Did you ever ask her to stay? Did you ever ask what she needed?’  I bit my lip, and for some reason chuckled.

‘She left you.’ Her hands gripped the bed, ‘Left us.’

She looked at me for a second before snapping back to the other side of the bed.

‘You never tried to be better for her?’

Her lips were shut.

‘I need you to be honest with me Gran,’ I said to the back of her head.

Nothing. Could barely see her breathing, but I could hear the whistle and hack of her inhale/exhale routine. She might have said something under the coughing and spluttering but I didn’t hear it. I pulled at her shoulder and turned her around towards me. Her eyes would never meet mine.

That last Sunday night I drove through a red light on the way home. I parked in the garage and locked the old roller. In the house I made sure that every switch was off, every cord pulled, every curtain shut and every door closed. My effects were splayed out on the guest bed, and they fit decently back into my bag. The alarm was off, the door unlocked.

I started walking east.

 

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Bad Faith, Christopher Grady

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I dreamed I was rolling an immense boulder up a hill. I awoke before I saw how the dream would end. The earth makes another rotation, the sun rises, the sun sets, the waves crash again and again. I had to go to work.

I did some push-ups and sit-ups to curb a cubicle body. I showered and dressed. For a moment in the dark I watched my girlfriend, Sarah, sleep. We had met a few times at parties. We had the same three conversations every time we met, one of which was how we had the same two conversations every time we met. Now we didn’t speak at all.

I kissed her on the forehead then kissed the baby on his. He was an accident. When Sarah told me she was pregnant I wanted her to have an abortion. I didn’t have the nerve to bring it up. Why pluck this child out of nonexistence only so it will fear the same nonexistence hurtling towards it. I could frighten it with religion like I was. Feed that down its throat foie gras style, like my father did. When I was little my father woke us in the middle of the night saying the end is now. He made us get in the car and drove into the middle of nowhere awaiting Christ’s glorious return. On the way home Mum hummed “Coming Round the Mountain” and Dad demanded her to shut up. After that Dad broke down and Mum took over. She sent me to a Montessori school so I could work out what I was into. My parents were very different people.

It was still dark when I reversed out the driveway. I remember driving past people waiting at bus stops or in cars in congestion when I was at university. People on their way to work before the day had awoken. I knew I never wanted to be that person. I became that person. I never wanted to be an inmate of this sandstone university then that job with its lack of prospects and rungless ladder. I became that person. I started at the law firm out of uni as a paralegal, thinking it was a good deal, delaying desires, hopes and aspirations because the money was good. I was closer to ten than I was to forty, then. Now I’ve been of legal drinking age longer than I haven’t.

The traffic was frozen. A woman in the car next to me did her make up in her rear-view mirror. Sometimes I wished a plague would thin out the herd like wildfire freeing up these lanes a little.

I had the radio on. The news told me how someone was mugged at filthy syringe point, how the Lolitas of someone of coin or cloth had grown up and come out against them, how a wife beat her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, how a man armed with a sandwich and a coke was shot down while a helpless rich man’s child was exonerated for affluenza. And then, on top of that, my tooth hurt, number two-seven or two-eight (Dad was a dentist).

Work was a lot of the same. I repeated what I had to repeat. I tongued my tooth and sometimes I had to photocopy something. This was never good; there was always someone else there. I waited and the person in front of me sneezed.

He looked at me. ‘You didn’t say bless you,’ he said.

I walked away.

Then came lunch. I spoke two languages while being surrounded by others who struggled with one. A young guy sat next to me. Out of all the spare seats he chose that one.

‘Hey, man,’ he said, ‘when they say jelly wrestling do they mean KY or Aeroplane?’

I didn’t work in a law firm. I was immersed and playing the role of someone working in a law firm.

The day ended. It was dark and when I looked up I couldn’t see the stars. I sat in traffic and the news was just as bad. I pleaded for that plague.

Later, I looked across the table to my girlfriend, a glass of wine in front of both of us. She pretended not to notice that I would finish the bottle and I pretended not to notice the cigarette smoke clinging to her clothes. Our relationship was built on pretending. I could see the glow of primetime TV where confectionery rotted the teeth of amorous lovers, but they’ve already done all their smiling. Sarah spoke to her mother on the phone. Her grandfather could predict the weather with his knees and her grandmother was dying of cancer with liver rot and alcoholic dementia to boot. She’d tell stories of her past, that she had danced the Charleston to the troops when in fact with calloused fingers she had sewed pockets in trousers in perpetuity.

The earth makes another rotation, the sun rises, the sun sets, the waves crash again and again. And there will come that dream.

*

A few weeks later there was a work cocktail party at an upmarket bar close to the office. We celebrated a case we had won. I had very little to do with it. I didn’t look forward to it. Everyone talked shop, if not they talked about money and what they’d bought or were going to buy. That’s how they searched for their happiness, like King Solomon, nouveaux riche. I’m sure they all had sore elbows from patting themselves on the back.

I drifted away and sat at the bar. I talked to this girl. She would have been mid to late twenties, I think. I asked about her accent. She told me her name was Charlotte Dumonde and came from Belgium, a little town called Ecaussinnes. I asked her where that was.

C’est près de Soignies et La Louvière,‘ she said.

I shrugged my shoulders. She told me it was about an hour from the French border. She told me she had worked in a chapellerie in Lyon and had travelled down to and through Madagascar. She told me she would do it all again soon.

We laughed and her lipstick stained her drink’s skinny straw which, while she made a point, she pretended to smoke real elegant and Holly Golighty-like, tapping away imaginary ash. The moment reminded me of when I first met Sarah. It sparkled like jewellery and champagne. The drinks caused a blossoming glow to radiate in my chest like a sacred heart. We were the kind of drunk where every idea was a good idea, all of which couldn’t be done too soon. Later, I backed her up against a wall and kissed her and put my hand down the front of her jeans. She was doing everything I had wanted to do but never did. For years I rationalised my stagnant existence and arrested development, my fundamental dissatisfaction. I looked for right in what I knew was ultimately wrong. I looked for something where I knew there was nothing. That’s why we find faces in clouds, a man on the moon and the Mother Mary in toast.

Charlotte went off to the bathroom. I went back to the bar. She didn’t return and I couldn’t find her.

*

The baby cried. I ignored it like it was someone else’s. I looked at Sarah across the table. I thought I’d feel something. I thought there’d be a cocktail of guilt and the desire that caused it. What put my head in a whirlwind was the complete lack of guilt I felt.

Over the coming days and weeks I thought of Charlotte. She’d left a lesion on my brain. No, that sounds contaminating where what she left was enriching and mesmerising, like a murmuring of starlings creating geometries. I kept going back to that bar in hope of finding her. I didn’t. I packed a bag and left it in my car. I stared at it in traffic every morning and evening. The news was always bad. That plague never came. I didn’t want any of this. I wanted out of Maggie’s Farm. I’d rather ask forgiveness than permission. I’d rather regret action than non-action. I was ready to be happy.

One morning, I left. I wrote a note of no more than ten words. Love was not one of them.

*

I flew to Lyon via air conditioned Dubai. I looked out the window at the incomprehensible desert receding into city.

It was raining in Lyon. Pluie Prudence road signs advised. Straight away I looked for her. I found the hat store she had told me she had worked at. The English lady who owned the store told me Charlotte had visited a week or so ago. She told me Charlotte frequented a café not too far away.

I went to Le Lion, on the corner of Quai Saint-Antoine and Rue de la Monnaie, and asked monsieur, who stood behind the counter next to hanging salamis, if he’d seen her. He said he had. He said she came in every day. I did the same. I’d sit by the window sipping a coffee in the morning and a beer in the afternoon, looking up at the basilica on the hill which overlooked the entire city. Every morning and afternoon I asked monsieur about Charlotte. He always said I missed her until one day he said he hadn’t seen her at all. I went back to the hat shop. I was told Charlotte had left for Madagascar. I was told the name of a place Charlotte had mentioned. I took the first flight I could.

*

If the Garden of Eden was the beginning of the earth, Madagascar was the end. I took a train destined for Charlotte. The carriage I rode was painted and by the door was written: 1ère Classe. The second class carriages weren’t painted at all. I shared that carriage with a couple. They were white, bovine tourists, fat fucks in jeans and joggers. I turned and ignored them.

At one of the stops were merchants and markets and hungry children. There was a bouquet of black begging hands, bare chested girls with glockenspiel ribcages or bulbous bellied boys. I felt like a cunt because earlier I got annoyed by the heat and that my clean, bottled water wasn’t cold enough.

*

I ended up at a colonial mansion. One of those buildings the French left behind with the language. This was the place I’d been told about. There were only two others staying there and they spoke English. Christian was a teacher from Cameroon with African accented French and Ganesh was a paediatric surgeon from Malaysia of Sri Lankan blood.

I was told they’d seen Charlotte a week or so ago. She had said she was going away for a bit but was coming back. They told me I should stay there until she returned. She had left some possessions so they knew she would. I liked this idea.

We all sat out on the white veranda overlooking green hills. A soft rain fell. Ganesh told me he had left his two daughters and wife at home to work with Médecins Sans Frontières. He asked if I had a wife or kids. I said I didn’t.

*

I did nothing all day while Christian and Ganesh worked. I drank gin and tonics to ward off malaria and listened to the BBC World Service on a crackling radio. Something had gone down in Liberia, or maybe Libya. I don’t remember.

Sometimes I took walks down to the markets where in wicker baskets lay cathedrals of cumin, cayenne and turmeric. Chilli peppers towered taller than the squatting children peeling pistachios beside them. All I could smell was fish and sweat. Car horns honked and vendors hawked, there was a pounding of a goat-skinned drum and a street preacher with tattered black bible in hand warned of hell and sweated like a soul singer.

Most of the time I stayed at the mansion, sitting out on the balcony drinking those gin and tonics or local beers surrounded by the stray cats and dogs who seemed to reside there. Cats roamed with their tails held high showing off their assholes. Next to me a dog whimpered in its sleep. One million stars burned like a furnace and I imagined somewhere someone was awaking unwillingly for work.

*

I knew Charlotte wouldn’t return. I left post-it notes on my vanity mirror. I wrote: you piece of shit, you worthless fuck, et cetera. I changed them every week. They quickly held no effect over me, they became as normal as brushing my teeth. Ha-ha, self-loathing, the black truffle of brain diseases.

*

One afternoon Ganesh returned with wilted posture. He slumped in a chair on the veranda and demanded a beer. Clouds gathered and the sky turned a gun-metal grey. A storm would soon strike. He lost a six year old in surgery. He blamed himself and cursed the static air around him. I thought of my son.

*

I don’t know how, but Christian and Ganesh found out I had a girlfriend and son and had left them. They felt they had scalpelled open my chest, my true self spilling out.

‘Shame on you. You’ve seen the children here beg and plead,’ Christian said. ‘You know the motherless and fatherless ones and the restavecs.’ Restavecs were children staying with relatives who took advantage of them. Restavecs were common day Cosettes.

Christian and Ganesh didn’t want me around. I told them I wasn’t leaving. They ignored me. I’m sure a few more bad surgeries or a mother dying in childbirth would make them forget all about my sins.

*

A few weeks later Christian broke his silence and said he’d heard word about Charlotte. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. He said she was only an hour away by train and that he’d take me. The train left in the evening and he said he’d go straight there after work and we’d meet at the station. I packed all my things. Ganesh wouldn’t shake my hand. He asked me what my girlfriend and son’s names were. I lied about both. I knew he saw right through me.

At the station I couldn’t find Christian. I boarded and walked down the crowded carriages. He wasn’t there. I knew he had no intention of getting the train.

I was in unpainted 2ième Classe. The train rocked and swayed and everyone stared. Maybe because I was the only white person, maybe because they too could see my chest bared open revealing everything like an old lady dropping her prescriptions showing the world all that infects her. I understood the pounded gavel, the disdain and hatred held by Christian and Ganesh and everyone cramped inside that train for its fourteen hour crawl.

Some part of me still believed the train would lead me to Charlotte. It didn’t. There came that dream.

 

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The Answer To That, Sir, Is Nothing, Georgia Buley

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There’s a matchbook, in case I want to set myself alight.

It didn’t happen yesterday, nor the day before—

My cheeks were wet so the sparks can’t catch—

But one day. Maybe.

 

          But there is no lighter.

It’s the only bright light in this sea of addictions;

I’ve never sought to taste death on my lips

And blow it back through my teeth.

I’d celebrate if I could breathe deeply enough on my own.

I can’t blame the catch on smoke.

 

          There’s a tiny little turtle that snaps and begs at my skin

And reminds me with frozen beats that I’m not who I say I am—

Not who I write I am.

I take the turtle out and paint him gold

But it always rubs off in the light.

 

          There are pins and needles in my fingers

Where the feeling’s gone and the cold creeps in.

It doesn’t get past my knuckles or up into my wrists—

My heart beats too strongly with that warm warm blood—

But one day. Maybe.

 

          There’s a whistle that screams brightly into the night.

Sometimes I think it’s broken—

Last time I tried to use it, it didn’t work—

It deafened me as it shrieked

But not a soul came running. (Someone told me since that I probably should have shouted ‘Fire’.)

I like to hope that lightning can’t strike twice, but it could happen.

One day. Maybe.

 

          There’s a model of a train

For no reason other than I like to turn the tiny wheels with my fingers

To keep them from flying around another’s neck.

There is a chess piece with its tiny head torn off

With sword and shield prepared for the battle that doesn’t come

With soulful hands carved in prayer to the unfeeling marble.

He comes from the battle of Troy. He comes from the losing team—

A pawn in a game gone way over his little head.

(Wherever it’s gone.)

 

          There are some coins—

Not enough for anything worth buying, mind.

A ten cent piece coated in grime

A silver dollar with an American eagle

A twenty that had been run over by a train

Dali’s clock-shaped, her Majesty’s great visage melted in a gory rendition of The Wizard of Oz.

 

          I like to think my insecurities take the form of hedgehogs

Who prickle and growl and stick out their tongues

And hobble along in their own little way.

They snuffle at the skin of my thighs from inside.

I keep them on hand at all times, ready to bring to the light at a moment’s notice.

It doesn’t do to ignore them for so long: they can go feral—

At least this way I’ve got them under rein.

Maybe.

 

          There’s a heart all wrapped up in butcher’s paper.

It’s leaking out the sides, some thin warm thing that still beats angrily on my thighs.

I touch it sometimes, but it’s too hot to hold;

I can feel it beat against my skin like oceans.

 

          There is a pen. There is always a pen. I find it harder to write on paper.

(Maybe there’s an element of sadism in that.)

The ease of keys under fingertips dulls my sense of the page

I crumple more sheets than I can afford to buy

Notebooks fall into the trash filled with meaningless scribbles across the margins

(And sometimes I ask myself, aren’t they all meaningless scribbles?)

But there’s something of value to them if I demand there to be.

 

          I type my thoughts out into an online void, and I’m applauded by one hundred greyed-out faces.

None of them know anything of me. There’s no joy in this capitulation.

And it’s certain, now, that there’s almost nothing to the thoughts that run rampaging rhino through my mind.

But I write them down anyway, with little scraps I keep handy

And the pen.

Somewhere in there, there’s a ticket stub or five

Train tickets and musical tickets, coffee cards with four holes left to punch—

There’s no real regency in a temporary life.

Tissues long since turned to scraps, tumbled through time

And a vibrant scrap of fabric that once might have belonged to something beautiful—

Or someone.

 

          There are scars and chips and wrinkles all across my hands

Some are from accidents—

And some not.

If pure recklessness causes accidents, then perhaps it might tip the balance back

But it’s clear I’m not as clumsy as I appear.

 

          There’s a few photographs, too.

Not of anyone I know;

I find them in garage sales and fold up so tiny they fit onto one fingertip—

Creasing them makes them feel somehow more authentic—

So I remind myself that when I’m gone I’ll be more than aged sepia.

I’ll be almost more than that, at least.

 

          I draw my hands out and find them empty

Clutching at the banknote-crisp air like if by the reaching I could will it to appear.

And what?

Oh. Something. Anything.

 

          Someone once asked me what I keep in there

And I feign ignorance with those big ol’ baby blues flutterin’ like butterflies

‘What could you mean?’ I say.

‘What could you possibly mean?’

 

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Eye Opening, Crystal Gralton

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Lexie receives some money at the end of each week—usually an amount carefully calculated by her parents in regards to how much they can spare. She always places each valuable coin and note in a large, glass jar; she isn’t the type to store her money in elaborately designed boxes or even in a bank account where most people her age would logically choose to deposit their money. She needs to be able to see the money, needs to see that she is getting closer to her goal. Her family always questions why she never spends any of her pocket money and her brother often teases her with his never ending guesses of what she might be saving for. She never gives in, never gives her family the slightest hint of what she has been planning. She slides another coin through the opening and listens to the familiar clinking sound; then she watches the colourful notes squish together after she feeds them through the thin hole soon after. The truth is there is no big secret to what she is saving for—no huge elaborate plan to travel the world or book out an entire Taylor Swift concert. All she wants is to pay her way through college so that the financial burden is off her parents. She decided to hide this from them because she knew they would take it hard, always wanting to give her as much as they could—and in a way they had. Technically, the money had been given to her by them; they were paying for college, but she knew they wouldn’t see it that way. Well, the money had been for college. This suddenly changed the day she met an unlikely friend at the local park.

*

‘Lexie don’t you think it’s time for breakfast? You don’t want to be late for your class.’

Her mother’s voice grabbed her attention at once. She picked up her faded blue backpack off of her bedroom floor and rushed out her door, nearly sending the globe sitting on her desk tumbling to the ground. Realising what she’d knocked, she stopped and turned to inspect the damage she may have caused. Lexie held her breath as she saw the globe balancing on the edge of the desk, scared that even a slight change of oxygen in the room could end in a shattered mess of bits and pieces on her floor. She had spent many nights when she was younger nagging her parents to buy her that globe; from a young age she had a keen interest in exploring the world and venturing out on as many adventures as she could. Quite often her brother would rat her out to her parents, revealing that she had spent another night awake, spinning the delicate round ball of countries, stopping it with her finger and day dreaming about an adventure in the nation it had landed on. She sighed in relief when the object finally stilled.

‘Lexie?’

‘Coming, Mum.’

Lexie headed down the staircase and into the kitchen. She immediately smelt the familiar scent of her mother’s famous zucchini surprise and sat down at the wooden table that was noticeably worn from constant use. Her mother slid a plate with a slice of zucchini quiche on it across the table. Lexie brought the plate to a halt and quickly stuffed the delicious food into her mouth. Her mother watched her with amusement and laughed.

‘You’re going to make yourself sick!’

Lexie tried to answer, but her reply came out in unrecognisable mumbles. When she finished, she left her dirty plate on the kitchen table. Guiltily, she walked towards the door, throwing a quick sorry over her shoulder as she quickly shut the door behind her. She walked at a much faster pace than usual down the concrete path that led to her college and soon noticed her friend’s recognisable long, auburn coloured hair in the distance. She decided to pick up the pace and finish the rest of her journey in a slow jog. When she finally caught up to Ashley she was so out of breath she clutched her chest in pain.

‘Hi Ash, how ar—’ Lexie’s greeting was cut short when a huge gust of wind brushed past her and knocked her assignment sheet out of her hands. She panicked and raced off after the windswept papers. Ashley followed close behind her. They both turned a corner and then another. Lexie’s lungs felt as though there was a raging fire trapped within from all the running she had endured in the last ten minutes. Soon they both came to a halt as they realised the wind had died down and was no longer carrying her papers on a never ending journey. Lexie was surprised when she noticed a figure hunched over, sitting next to where her assignment lay. He was an older man, huddled in a mass of blankets to shelter himself from the harsh chill winter always brings. Lexie hesitantly walked up to him, half fearful and half curious to know about the man she had incidentally come across. Ashley stayed behind, too uninterested to follow after her. Lexie was so lost in her own thoughts, imagining every possible scenario as to why this seemingly harmless man had to create a home on the streets, when her feet collided with his. Lexie quickly jumped back and blushed in embarrassment.

‘Sorry, I didn’t realise I was so close.’

“That’s okay. Here, I believe these are yours,” the man replied while he picked up the various sheets of paper and gave them to her with unsteady hands.

‘What’s your name?’ Lexie asked.

‘Arthur,’ he replied with a genuine smile.

She decided to ignore the annoying voice in her head pressuring her to ask Arthur all the questions that were bouncing off the walls inside her brain. It isn’t her fault that she is so curious; it’s her dream to become a journalist, it will be her job one day to find out people’s unique stories and question them for information. At least that’s what she continually tells herself when her friends decide to call a sudden intervention, pointing out her need to question and investigate even the simplest things in life.

‘It was nice meeting you,’ Lexie said with a frown forming on her forehead.

‘Is something wrong?’ Arthur asked.

‘It’s just…’ Lexie turned around and noticed Ashley rolling her eyes and motioning for her to hurry up. ‘Never mind, maybe another time’ Lexie added, smiling at Arthur and making her way back to Ashely. The pair made it back to class in silence, Lexie too consumed with her own thoughts.

Every day she had classes to attend at college. After that, she made sure to leave ten minutes earlier so she had the chance to speak to Arthur again. Each day she started to find out more about him. Piece by piece, she started to put together the puzzle of his story. She learnt that he used to work as an ambulance officer. He used to save lives every day, but the one life he was unable to save was that of his wife. His wife fell ill and there was nothing the doctors or he could do to save her. He had sat by her beside every day that she was there. That cost him his job, but he didn’t care. She had limited time left on this Earth and he was determined to spend every last moment with her. He had to sell his house to pay for all the numerous and highly expensive medical bills to keep her comfortable and pain free for as long as possible. This is how he ended up here, on the street that Lexie stumbled upon.

Lexie had also made another sad discovery. One day she visited Arthur to discuss the book she had given him. She had allowed him to keep her favourite book Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne. She hoped he would find it interesting and engaging rather than childish. She loved the book when she was younger and it is still a story she holds close to her heart today. Lexie loved to read and she was hoping that he would share this same passion.

‘Did you start reading the book I gave you?’ she asked.

‘I can’t say that I did,’ Arthur replied with a grim face.

After a few more curious questions from Lexie were answered she learnt the disheartening truth: Arthur had poor vision and was losing his eyesight at a rapid rate. Every time he tried to read the words would start to blur, creating a sea of black ink. After wracking her brain for ideas on how she can make the situation better, she ran back home later that day with an idea.

When Lexie returned home, she was greeted by her father, ‘Hey, Lexie. I have something for you.’

‘What is it, Dad?’

‘Here’s your pocket money, don’t spend it all at once,’ her father joked.

Lexie took the money that her father gave her and ran up the stairs with a purpose. She closed her door and dropped to the ground, rummaging through the items under her bed until she found the one she was looking for. She weaved the glass jar out from underneath the rest of the items and popped the lid open. She placed the coins inside and put the jar on top of her desk next to her globe and her copy of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which she had retrieved from Arthur when she realised he wouldn’t be able to read it.

*

That was how her collection started. This is what she has done every week for the past two years, placing each coin and note she gets into the shiny glass jar. She picks up the glass jar and places it into her backpack, not needing to count the money as she already knows the exact amount from constant, careful calculations. She knew exactly how long she would need to save in order to reach her desired amount. She swings her backpack around her shoulders and walks down the stairs to go talk to Arthur about the idea she has.

When Lexie arrives at Arthur’s usual spot, she is finally able to tell somebody the plans she has for the money. She explains her detailed plan to gather enough money to be able to pay for the eye operation that he desperately needs. She knows he has been through a lot over the last decade and she wants to be able to provide him with an escape. Books have always been a tool she has used to feel as though she is going on an adventure and to be transported to another time and place. She wants him to be able to read so that he has something other than the negatives to focus on while he spends his days on the streets. She also knows how important vision is and would be heartbroken if he lost his when she could have done something about it. What she didn’t count on was Arthur’s reluctance to accept her help.

‘No Lexie, you keep your money.’

‘You gave up everything to pay for your wife’s medical bills, let someone do the same for you.’

‘You still have college to pay off; I’m not worth wasting your money on.’

‘I will still be able to pay for college it just might take a little longer.’

‘Lexie, I can’t take your money.’

‘You can and you will, you need this operation.’

After a few weeks of convincing him, Arthur was finally checked into the hospital for his eye operation. While Lexie waits for his operation to finish, she places Journey to the Centre of the Earth on the table next to the bed he will be recovering in. Her mother walks up beside her and places a hand on her shoulder.

‘I thought you were saving up for an adventure,’ she says.

‘I was saving for an adventure, just not my own,’ Lexie replies.

 

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Singledom, J. Juarez

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Kara remained happily enveloped by her Ikea quilt as she scrolled through her news feed, squinting from the sudden glare of her mobile screen. A few funny gym memes appeared, followed by some annoying vines of people failing at life, before the influx of Valentine’s Day shout outs began to pop up. As her finger swiped the screen, all she could see were pictures of her friends preparing for a romantic evening out with their significant others. Post after post they continued, their captions even cheesier than the pictures themselves that could only make you cringe if you weren’t the type to publicly display your affection. For Kara, however, the feeling of loneliness sunk in as her quilt no longer felt like a warm burrito embrace, but a suffocating entrapment into singledom.

At twenty-seven years old, she began to ponder on the possibility of posting up something romantic herself, but alas, the only relationship she had was with a packet of salt and vinegar chips to reinforce her sour expression. Forcing herself to troll through the pages of loved up couples, she stumbled across an interesting article. Reading through the questions and answering with a reluctant ‘yes’, Kara soon began to indulge in her own self-diagnosis: Anuptaphobia. The fear of being or staying single. In bold capital letters, the word appeared to jump out from the screen, echoing in her ears like an entrancing tribal chant of sorrow. She felt a sudden pang in her chest, unsure if it was from her second bag of chips, or her tub of chocolate fudge ice cream, or just the fact that she was alone on Valentine’s Day for another consecutive year since she was born.

*

Reuben loathed Valentine’s Day.  In fact, he loathed the idea of being in love. Tainted by his parents’ divorce when he was a child, he distanced himself from any potential possibility of developing a relationship, finding solace in the gym where the only object (or objects) of his affection appeared to be the weights. Having never had a relationship, Reuben remained persistent on avoiding the idea of developing any emotional attachment. He was certain that he would be single for the rest of his life. He was his own island, self-sufficient and content. His friends had nicknamed him Phil for philophobia, given his fear of falling in love. Reuben didn’t mind the tag; after all, he knew it was true and he was proud of it.

*

As Kara walked through the shopping centre, heart shaped balloons and pink confetti speckled the shop windows. Bouquets of flowers flooded florist stands on the street, attracting a large portion of the male population. Couples walked arm in arm, others with their hands placed ever so snugly in each others’ back pockets, while the rest simply stood inconveniently in the middle of the paths to share a kiss and snap a photo.

Weaving through the crowds, Kara felt as if she was the only weed in a flowerbed. The word reappeared in her head and rang in her ears. She ran for the elevator in a desperate attempt to escape from the reminders of her spinster life and headed down to do her grocery shopping.

As she perused through the frozen section, bright yellow stickers advertised the daily specials—a lean cuisine meal for two, at only half price. Scanning the shelves, it appeared that they had all been taken. Her eyes panned down to the great stock of single meals that unfortunately remained at full price.

‘Ugh’, she sighed, as she tossed the packets into her basket.

*

Reuben enjoyed working the late night shifts at the shops. He always found the customers to be far more interesting than the early morning risers. As he began scanning the next customer’s groceries he noticed an overwhelming amount of pre-packaged meals for one—from teriyaki chicken, to lasagne, to the odd batch of vanilla rice pudding close to its expiration date. Looking up he saw the woman loading them up on the counter. Her hair hung in untamed curls covering her face. She was petite which was quite surprising, given the substantial number of meals she was, or potentially would be consuming, he thought. As he watched her load the last of her items onto the conveyer belt, he noticed she refused to make eye contact, her eyes planted on the floor.

‘Seems like someone’s gonna be all alone this Valentine’s Day, aye?’ he said with a wink.

‘Excuse me?’ replied the woman, looking up with a sassy attitude, tossing her hair out of her face to stare him out.

‘Well you’ve got a lotta meals here only for one, so you’re either having a singles party or a party for one,’ he laughed in an attempt to lighten the mood. He watched on as she struggled to pluck up a response to defend her choice in groceries.

‘That is none of your business!’ she snarled.

‘Don’t worry. It’s better to be single. Look at me! I’m proof!’ he smiled, ‘You don’t need to worry about anyone but yourself!’ he said, trying to make her feel better. His chuckles were met with silence as she stared at him with a hard, cold look. ‘That’ll be sixty-five dollars and seventy cents,’ he said with the hope of diffusing the situation and avoiding any further awkward tension in the atmosphere.

He watched patiently as she rummaged through her purse and handed her loyalty card and cash. Plucking the card from her fingers he scanned and watched as her name appeared on his screen.

‘Kara…is it?’ he said, awaiting for a response.

As she stood before him, he noticed her twitch in discomfort, her face flushed with red, unsure if it was from her rage at his inappropriate joke, or the notion of asking her name.

‘Yes it is…Reu-ben…’ she hissed, her eyes latched on his nametag that hung from the pocket of his shirt.

‘Well enjoy those meals! Let me know which one’s the best!’ he replied, handing back her change and card, relieved to be moving on to the next customer.

*

Kara returned home and loaded her first single meal of the night into the microwave. While the microwave hummed in the kitchen, she scrolled through the list of romantic films on her Apple TV, preparing to wallow in her own self-pity. Ding! The microwave called out to her, signalling that her meal was ready. As she peeled back the clear film from the container the steam rose up, releasing the comforting aroma of creamy, cheesy béchamel and tangy Bolognese sauce.

Holding her hot meal with a tea towel, she planted herself in her sofa and started what would be a binge night of romantic re-runs and pre-packaged meals. Staring at the lump of lasagne before her, a sudden cackle of laughter rang through her ears. The image of the check out chump judging her shopping choice infuriated her. Each beep of the scanner felt like a jab to her gut, stabbing away at her feelings of inadequacy. How dare he ridicule her like that! As she replayed the whole scenario in her head, the steam of her lasagne fizzled down.

But as she continued to reflect on what had happened, she pondered on the possibilities of his intention. Maybe he didn’t mean to insult her. Perhaps he was just trying to get the conversation flowing. As the contents of their small conversations raced through her mind, she began to reassess his body language. The wink. The smile. The fact that he openly stated he was single without ever even being asked. Perhaps he didn’t mean to ridicule her. Perhaps he just wanted to have a chat. Perhaps he was flirting.

‘Yes…flirting,’ she whispered to herself, afraid that someone would hear.

As she replayed the whole spiel in her mind, she began to magnify each scene. She would be the leading lady, and he the gentleman.

‘Reuben,’ she said. It had a nice ring to it, she thought, as she continued to repeat it and imagined the possibility of them being together.

*

Reuben stood in his usual aisle. It was strangely quiet for a Thursday night, he thought to himself as he fumbled with the cash in his till. In the distance a familiar figure approached. Squinting his eyes to get a look, he soon recognised it to be the crazy, meal-for-one chick from the week before. He watched as she made her way towards him, her shopping trolley filled with everything but pre-packaged meals. Plastering on a smile to mask his discomfort, he greeted her with his chirpy check-out-chap voice. ‘Hello again!’

‘Hello,’ she replied.

‘Kara, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, Kara.’

Reuben was slightly surprised by her significantly chirpier attitude, a vast contrast from their first encounter. Fearful that any comment on her grocery shopping could potentially result in a public display of her revealing her previous character, he avoided any discussion of food.

‘So, how are you today?’ he asked.

‘I’m well. As you can see there are no frozen meals for me today,’ she chuckled.

Oh no! Reuben thought to himself, struggling to ignore the awkwardness of the situation. He could feel himself flustering at the idea of any confrontation with this woman as he tried to work up a response.

‘That’s nice’, he replied. Short, simple and sweet. Surely she wouldn’t find that offensive, he continued to think to himself.

‘How are you today, Reuben?’ she asked.

The sound of her voice saying his name, sent goose bumps running through his body. Discretely scratching his pocket, he plucked his nametag off and hid it under the counter, fearful of any other potential creepy customers.

‘I’m pretty good, thanks,’ he uttered under his breath, still managing to maintain a calm demeanour.

‘That’s good,’

A few moments of silence passed as he continued to scan and weigh the contents of her trolley. As she stood there before him, watching him intently, Reuben began pondering for something to say.

‘So have you got any plans for this weekend?’

‘Nope. Nothing really. What about you?’

‘Erm…I’m just heading to that film festival in the city. You should check it out,’

As the words escaped from his lips, her eyes widened.

‘Oooh… that sounds like fun. Maybe I will.’

*

Kara wandered through the gardens, sifting through the clusters of picnic blankets and people strewn across the grounds.  After a solid hour of scanning the premise, she spotted Reuben sitting by himself near the back. Adjusting her top and sweeping her tangled curls behind her ear, she approached him.

‘Hey there!’

Surprised at the sight of her, Reuben almost choked on his packet of chips. With a few loud coughs and a pounding of his chest, he managed to utter a croaky response. “Oh hey!”

‘You here by yourself?’

‘Umm yeah. My mates couldn’t make it. You?’

‘That’s a shame. Yeah I just came by myself too. Mind if I take a seat?’

‘Uhhh yeah go for it,’

Unpacking her bag she laid out her own picnic blanket beside him and an assortment of foods to feed more than just one person.

‘Want some?’ she asked, offering him some crackers and dip.

‘Thanks!’ he said, scooping a generous amount onto his cracker.

As the speakers blared and the opening credits rolled, the entire audience hushed down.

*

Despite reluctantly obliging in offering her a seat, Reuben began to enjoy Kara’s company and more importantly the assorted range of crackers, chips and dips she brought with her. The more he chatted, the more he felt comfortable, unperturbed by their previous awkward moments of silence at the shops. As the movie finished and the last of the picnic blankets was folded away, he walked her to her car. Offering to take him home only exacerbated his feelings for her, her kind and caring demeanour surpassing his expectations.

*

By the end of the night, Kara was tired and bored of listening to Reuben. He was, as she had originally thought, an obnoxious pig. He had eaten all of her snacks, and even double dipped, leaving nothing for her to eat and no room in the conversation to speak. She couldn’t even enjoy the movie as his voice bellowed through the gardens, annoying not just herself, but the entire audience. He unashamedly laughed at the most ridiculous times of the movie, completely oblivious of the people surrounding them, leaving Kara to feel the stares of the rest of the audience pierce through her very soul.

As she drove him back home, her repulsion towards him only grew, as he continued to burp without any consideration for her nose. She soon realised how content she was with her single life, with no need to look after anyone but herself. She had the freedom of doing everything by herself and relished in her independence.

Pulling up to his driveway, she could feel herself regaining her freedom.

‘Well I’m really glad you came tonight!’ said Reuben, stepping out of the car.

‘Umm…yeah,’ said Kara unsatisfied.

‘Maybe we can do it again?’ he asked, closing the car door behind him.

Imagining the idea of what their future would be like together as a couple almost made her vomit as the taste of celery and guacamole crept up the back of her throat.

‘No thank you,’ she said as she drove off back home to her pocket world of singledom.

 

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Stifle, Beatrice Ross

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Alice Grayson cringed when her husband laughed about dying Jews. The jokes came when he and his friend were drunk, when the blood flushed strong in their cheeks and their eyes grew dull. When they laughed like that, it left her with a heavy queasiness in the pit of her stomach. And the thought always seemed to float by in her head. What the fuck am I doing here?

The bustle of football fans and families crowded the RSL. The bar served ‘til three, and the drinks kept coming. Alice could think of a dozen better things she could be doing about now, but Richie could be persuasive in his own ways. So here she was. Pretending she didn’t hate every minute of his Friday ritual. A ‘get pissed and wake up shit-faced in the morning’ pagan ceremony, complete with booze and sex. It was early in the night and her husband Richie was still sober enough to walk in a straight line.

Alice watched the rising bubbles in a glass of soda water, tracing her finger around the rim. A high-pitched ring slipped beneath her finger, singing, breaking up the choking laugh of Harry Guilford, a heavy, fattened man sitting across from her. He was a good friend of Richie’s, a car salesman. From where Alice sat, he was more of a pig than a man, his stomach rolls wobbling in time with his double chin.

‘Why did Hitler commit suicide?’ Harry asked.

He left it hanging. Richie shrugged. The pig smiled cheek to cheek.

‘The Jews sent him the gas bill.’ Harry chortled, slapping the table with a knotted fist.

Alice scoffed. ‘That’s not funny—’

‘It’s just a joke,’ Richie growled, his smile falling flat.

‘Stop being such a tight-arse.’

He watched her sidelong, the mask slipping. An insatiable hunger lived back there, something ugly and untameable. Alice felt it stir and glimmer behind his cold, grey eyes. He gathered her in close. She stiffened, recoiling as the stench of beer wafted heavy on his breath.

Richie was at least a foot taller than her. But even at eye level, he managed to tower over her. He was well built at thirty-two, broader in the chest and shoulders. He’d been bred tougher than leather.

A darkness stole over his eyes, his voice edging sharp and thin.

‘Why are you being such a bitch?’ he seethed.

She shrugged, a knot catching in her throat. Goosebumps rippled across her skin. An icy hand squeezed her heart tight. And despite the warmth of the club, it felt like she’d plunged neck deep in bone-chilling water.

Richie held his gaze like that for a long moment, working his jaw, considering what to do with her right then and there. He slipped his hand across her thigh, squeezing tight, inching his fingers beneath her skirt. She flinched, the breath catching in her throat. She slapped him away. Richie muttered gruffly beneath his breath, releasing her, sparing his hand to drink deep from a schooner of pale ale. Across the table, Harry recalled the time in school he beat up a Jewish kid for walking on the wrong side of the hallway. Richie laughed, the tell-tale slur dragging down his voice.

Alice slumped in her seat, catching her hands in her lap to stop the tremor. Harry’s ugly words drowned out to a discordant rumble in her ears as she turned her wrist, the ugly puce of an old bruise dark against her skin. She tugged her sleeve down, hiding it from prying eyes.

*

Alice stood in the bedroom, looking herself over in the floor length mirror. Stripped down to her underwear, she studied the bruises spotting her stomach. They were fresh from last night. Then on her shoulder, a yellowing bruise, a week old. And most recent, a large discoloration along her ribs. She ran her fingers over the angry, black smudge, wincing.

Deep in her stomach, the queasiness was back. The choking urge to cry hit her hard. It aged her eyes and creased the worry lines on her forehead. She hated that. She hated the slump in her spine, the heaviness in her shoulders. Hated the dip of her hollowed out stomach and the dark shadows under her eyes. She used to be so pretty. But now…now…shit.

She thumbed the tears from her eyes with trembling fingers, swallowing down the lump in her throat. Don’t cry. Calm down. Pursing her lips tight, she snapped open a makeup kit, dabbing foundation on the ugly strangle marks on her throat. Makeup could only cover up so much. She wondered if she had a turtle neck sweater with a high enough collar. No, a scarf might do better. She smeared the foundation, wincing as the marks faded beneath the flush. Makeup hid the ugly Rorschach patterns on her body. Thankfully for her, he only left them in places where they could be hidden. In the end, the makeup and the clothes were all a matter of self-preservation. Yeah. Self-preservation.

Outside in the hallway, boots thumped on the hardwood floor. She stiffened, watching the doorway from the mirror, holding her breath. She’d come to hate the sound. After Richie’s raging nights of drinking, she’d expect it. The boots beating the floorboards, kicking in the bedroom door; His calloused fingers snatching, holding her down on the bed, the other hand teasing off her jeans…

Richie lingered in the doorway, listless, emotionless. He studied her with a lazy roll of his eyes, looking over every inch of her skin. She stiffened, cringing under the heat of his gaze. He was unshaven, his dark hair tousled, his knuckles raw from pounding down the bedroom door last night. Even the soap couldn’t wash the dark stain of blood from under his fingernails.

After a long minute, he pulled away, thumping down the hallway, wincing as he limped. She shuddered, her skin crawling. Nothing. Not even a grunt. What did she expect anyway? Another empty apology?

It used to be so different. They’d married two years ago. He worked building sites and she worked behind a desk, billing patients for fillings and dental check-ups. They’d bought a place in Penrith, even planned on having kids. He used to enjoy a beer or two, but never more than he could handle. Then he shattered his leg in four places under a pile of cinder blocks. Physiotherapy was a bitch. He lost his job. He didn’t feel like a man anymore. Not with Alice working and with him at home, confined to a wheel chair. The worker’s compensation didn’t ease the sting of the bite or the blow. He numbed the pain with the deepest bottles he could find. The pain killers, hospital bills and the sleepless nights crowded in, and something died deep inside. Months later, he was back on his feet. Couldn’t walk without a limp though. The bad habits held firm, and it was like he was a stranger all over again. Drinking made him forget that he felt more like a cripple than a man. And nothing eased the powerless rage than landing a fist to soft, squirming flesh.

She was still waiting for the man she married to come home again. The man with the warm smile and the gentle hands; The one who laughed like he meant it, without the venomous spark glinting back in his eyes; The man who loved her, even when she nagged like her mother. It all seemed like a naive fantasy now. But it kept her kicking. Kept her alive. But the doubts were always there. She couldn’t help feeling trapped. How could she leave him? How could she say it directly to his face? If she left, he’d find her. And he’d urge her back. Or beat her raw. No. She could wait. One day he’d put down the bottle and they’d leave this shitty life behind. One day.

Alice looked herself over, her vision washing over as the tears swelled. She slapped her hand over her mouth, stifling the ragged sound. No! He couldn’t hear her cry. Not this time. She sunk to the floor, hugging herself tight, breathing deep. She filled her lungs. It was a shaky, half-drawn breath, a strangled noise hitching in the back of her throat. Be strong. Oh God, let me be strong.

*

The rain poured in soaking sheets, spitting on the bus shelter roof. Under the glow of the streetlamp, the bitumen road glistened, giving off the odour of melting crayons. Alice huddled under the shelter, shivering, checking her watch again. He was late. Half an hour late. Again. If he didn’t come, she’d chance the rain.

Down the road, headlights sliced through the darkness. A battered ute pulled up at the bus stop. Richie rolled down the window, squinting through the pouring rain. He waved her in, rolling a toothpick between his teeth. She crossed through the rain to the car, slamming the door behind her. The air con brought feeling back to her frozen fingers. Richie pulled out into the lane, heavy on the accelerator.

Alice held her silence, listening to the thumping of the windscreen wipers. The radio crackled, fuzzing in and out of static. He spun the tooth pick between his teeth. It kept his fingers busy when he needed a fag. He was trying to quit. Said it was bad for him. ‘Its bad shit, you know,” he’d say, “breathing in fag smoke. When you fuck up your lungs, that’s it. You can’t breathe. And when you can’t breathe, that’s when you know you’re fucked. ’

Back on the main road, he stopped at the traffic lights. He looked sidelong, watching her steadily, rapping his fingers on the steering wheel. He opened his mouth, but paused, reconsidering something. She endured the silence, counting the seconds as the light turned green. He eased the car forward, finding the words he was looking for.

‘I’m sorry about last night.’

She felt the twinge in her ribs redouble. He continued, determined.

‘I’ll stop drinking. I’ll skip the pub visits.’

Alice held her tongue. How many times had she heard that before? She often wondered if he practiced in front of the mirror, measuring every word and every line on his face, reciting his lines with the precision of an actor. If he hadn’t said all this a hundred times before, she would’ve believed him.

‘That’s what you said last time.’

He tightened his fingers on the steering wheel.

‘Yeah, well I mean it this time.’

He mashed the toothpick between his teeth. She shrugged.

‘Good. You can join the alcohol group I told you about. The one on Fridays—’

‘Jesus Christ!’ he snarled. ‘I’m not a fucking retard!’

He took a corner sharply. Alice flinched, holding on to the edge of her seat. Her heart jumped into her throat. Steadying her voice, she continued, unsettled.

‘They’re not retards. They have problems. Just like you—’

He tightened his jaw. The tooth pick snapped in half. Dread sunk deep and she flinched back against the seat, expecting a heavy handed slap. If he didn’t have one hand on the gear stick and the other on the wheel, he’d throttle her right then and there.

‘You little bitch!’

He floored the accelerator. The car wavered, fishtailing on the road. It picked up speed, forcing her back against the seat.

‘Slow down!’ she urged. ‘Richie. Slow down!’

The rain pelted on the windscreen, a hazy mess of sheeting water. The headlights flashed back, lighting up the guard rails of a bridge. Richie swore, slamming on the brake. Too late.

The car swerved on the slick road, careening sidelong on the curve of the bridge. It hit the guard rails with a screech of steel. It crashed through. Below, deep water rippled in the pouring rain.

The car plummeted over the edge. Alice screamed, lurching forward in her seat. The hood of the car smacked the water. The impact hit them hard. The airbags exploded. The world snapped out of focus. Dark numbness knocked her out. The ute lurched, sinking, going under.

*

It was the chill that stirred her from unconsciousness. The chill and the sound of churning water. Alice groaned, pushing the deflated air bags from her face. She peered around the car, fighting the heaviness of her head, tasting blood fresh on her lips. She wiped her bleeding nose, a cut on her lower lip twinging.

Richie lay slumped on the steering wheel, unconscious, bleeding from a cut on his forehead. Beyond the windows, they were surrounded by water. The glass ticked, straining under the pressure. Water streamed in from a gaping crack in Richie’s window, filling the car to her knees. She reached over, shaking him, the panic rising hot and strong.

‘Richie! Wake up!’

No response. She snatched at her seatbelt, clicking it loose. She bent over, working at Richie’s. It held firm. She gasped, doubling her efforts. The water flooded in, rising fast.

‘Richie!’

She tugged at the seat belt, yanking it. The water rose. The air thinned. Shit! Oh God! Her thoughts raced. Her heart thundered. She had to wake him up. She had to get out!

The seat belt disappeared under the rising water. She released a strangled moan.

The crack in the window strained, splintering, spider-webbing. The icy water bubbled higher, rising to her waist. She fumbled on the belt buckle, fingers trembling. It wouldn’t budge.

‘RICHIE!’

It rose up to her chest. The crack kinked, glass clipping loose. A splurge of water surged through, filling to her shoulders. She let go of the buckle, gasping, her voice rising to a sob. Richie bobbed in the current. The water slipped over his mouth. Over his nose. Bubbles blustered on the surface of the rising water. Water crept to her throat. She bumped the car roof. No time left. She had to leave him.

One last breath. She filled her lungs.

The window popped. Torrents of water flooded in. The force knocked her hard against the passenger window. A bout of air bubbled from her mouth. She pressed her lips tight. Get out! Get out!

She blinked, her eyes adjusting. Richie drifted. Pockets of air glimmered on the car ceiling. Fighting the panic, she urged her arms to move, her eyes stinging. She slipped through the window, swimming out into open water.

For a moment, there was no up or down. It was too dark. She urged her body up. Or was it down? The stretch of water went on endlessly. It clouded over with sediments, thick and impenetrable in the darkness. Black dots swam across her vision. Bubbles of air slipped from her nostrils. She swam furiously, her lungs burning.

Above her, the surface shimmered. The swim was agonising. Nearly there. Nearly there.

She breached the surface.

She gasped, gulping in a wet breath. She blinked the water from her eyes, her head spinning. Air. Sweet Jesus. She could breathe again!

She treaded water, walloping air bubbles rising from the wreck below. With every ounce of strength left, she paddled to the river bank. She staggered on shallow ground, crawling up the bank, slipping on slick pebbles, mud oozing between her fingers. She collapsed, lying flat on her back. Hard pellets of rain spattered her face. She lay there for a long minute, her eyes closed, her heart thundering. The exhaustion sunk in deep. Out in the pouring rain, in the darkness, she opened her eyes, curling her fingers in the mud.

Minutes passed. It was too late.

He was gone.

Every moment with Richie had been in that car, drowning. It had all been a vicious cycle of stifling control—a nasty, twisted sensation of drowning in icy water, holding her breath, breathing thin air. Those precious moments of loving a sober man had pulled her through. Those pockets of air had kept her alive. But just barely. And now she could breathe again.

The rain pockmarked the surface of the river, air bubbles rising and popping on the surface. The chilling air stung her throat, leaving searing trails. But with every breath, every wet gasp, the heaviness lifted from her shoulders.She shivered, breathing deep, the air thick with the stench of mud.

 

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Crossroads, Alix Rochaix

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I

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

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

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

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

 

II

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

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

 

III

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

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

Diego!

I am alone.

 

IV

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

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

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

 

V

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

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

laughing.

I buy cigarettes.

 

VI

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

I buy cigarettes.
But no lighter.

However,
being a spectacle pays sometimes.

For I am called.

 

VII

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

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

 

VIII

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

 

IX

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

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

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

Aren’t there?

 

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Dancing Shoes…, Suzanne Strong

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Edges crumpled in triangles on two corners of a fading poster, plastered onto the door of the Rio Rhythmics Dance Studio. Proud vivid feathers stand at attention to the sky, mingling with shimmering sequined head dresses on bronze kissed women’s heads, winking glittering bra tops, barely concealing nipples, exposed skin, silver navel ornaments falling to tasselled tenuous briefs. Arms outstretched, hips moving like some other force was in control, like the women were as artificial as they appeared, warming themselves in the adoration of men, ‘Stepford Wives,’ breathtakingly beautiful and robotic male creations.

Genève and I both saw it and looked at each other, and laughed. The same question on each other’s faces; what were we doing here? A Latin beat and melody drifted down the corridor getting louder as we climbed the stairs. Reaching the top, we saw Juan the Dance Instructor, who smiled at us from across the room.

‘Hello ladies. Come in, make yourselves at home,’ he said in a dense Latin-American seesawing accent.

His body was like a muscular figurine, dark and well defined; through his brief singlet top most of his taut, hairless chest could be seen. His tight, black pants revealed a pert spherical bottom. He was the cliché of a Latin Lover/Dancer, walking over to his side of the room. He smiled at us, looking us up and down, what else would you expect?

‘We’ll make Latin dancers out of you girls, if it kills us.’

‘It may do so too,’ Gen said, laughing. I glanced at Gen, grateful she was there with me, as she always was.

Around the room, people were stretching, some were staring awkwardly into the middle, a middle aged couple looked like they were trying to rekindle their love, instead, they regarded each other awkwardly. A single mother and daughter, in school uniform, also stood uncomfortably looking at Juan. There were the two pulling up leg warmers, in tights and long t-shirts, their hair frizzed up and pulled back by white bandanas (what was this, an episode from Flash Dance or something? And it was a sizzling hot Brisbane summer, after all!)

Another middle-aged couple stood as if they were about to go on stage for a professional performance – their bodies held in the rumba position ready to launch into a routine. You just wanted to walk up behind them and say, ‘Hey, lighten up.’

‘This is a beginners class, isn’t it?’ I asked Gen.

‘Supposed to be,’ she said, also looking at the couple.

Juan called everyone’s attention.

‘Hello everyone, welcome,’ he said, his white smile passed over everyone like a midnight beacon over the dark surging ocean.

A guy who would’ve been mid-thirties with dark curly hair, vibrant blue eyes with lines around them that reflected kindness and a delicate smile like a swallow, whispered to his blonde friend who was wearing board shorts, a t-shirt and no shoes. They looked how I felt; out of place.

‘We’ll start with the basic moves, and then later we’ll get you to dance with partners.’

A drumbeat reverberated, percussion began to frenzy and the charango drove the rhythm of the music as Juan clapped his hands and moved his hips in circular motion, clicking his tongue and saying, ‘Let’s get moving.’

‘Whoa, I hope he doesn’t expect us to do that,’ I whispered to Gen, watching his gyrations and referring to his clicking abandonment. She laughed quietly.

His body was a robot as his hips traced circles in the air, while his upper torso remained static.

‘This is what we do in Latin Dance, the basis for all of our dances, this hip movement. Aussies find this hard to do,’ he said, moving his hips from side to side in perfect formation.

‘Move your hips, not your upper body…’ We began moving and Juan walked around us, touching some of our hips, males and females moving them in the right direction. Then he got us walking around in a circle, while moving our hips. Most of us were struggling, the experienced couple were moving with precision. Genève and I looked at each other and laughed.

‘Australians are so uptight they do not move their hips much, we Brazilians do it all the time,’ Juan said, laughing.

After multiple circles around the studio and watching ourselves in the mirror, Juan allowed us to break. Some of the people were breathless and going various shades of light maroon. One lady was sweating and so breathless she could’ve been a candidate for a heart attack.

Gen and I retrieved our water bottles, chatting about how we were finding it when I suddenly became aware of someone walking towards us. I turned to see the dark man with his blonde friend. Uh oh, I hated these awkward conversations, particularly with men. I was so out of practice.

The dark haired man introduced himself as Mark, looking directly at me, his smile lighting up his features, and the man with straw-coloured hair was David.

I introduced us and leant against the mirror behind me.

‘You guys done this before?’ David asked.

‘Nope, can’t you tell?’ I said.

‘You’ve been fine,’ Mark answered.

‘Gen’s got it down pat. It is going to take me longer because I haven’t danced since high school.’

‘Not really.’

Juan began clapping his hands and started calling out to the group. ‘Now is time for partner dance.’

Juan came towards us and paired up Mark and I, and Gen and David together. Then he continued on pushing together people in an authoritarian voice. We were told to stand in close proximity to one another, lacing our fingers together in a coat hanger like shape. This stance I hadn’t been in since my wedding waltz, which should be more aptly termed a wedding sway. And look how that had turned out. Six months since my marriage break up, but I still felt sick and adrenalin pulsed through my legs. It felt as if I was somehow betraying someone.

Mark and I faced each other. Awkwardness directed Mark’s limbs as he shifted his weight, and his eyes dropped every now and then. I avoided looking directly into his eyes that were both gentle and alluring, but seemed confronting to me. It was a strange feeling being close to another man other than Steve, and now, feeling jittery around someone. Then his words collided around my mind; ‘fuckin’ bitch,’ ‘slut,’ and I felt his hands around my neck…I hadn’t thought about Steve for a while, but every now and then these scenes played as a short film before me. Breathing in, I returned to the here and now. Mark looked at me in an inquisitive manner, questions clouding his face. Looking down at my shoes, I sought to hide my emotions. My gaze turned to the middle aged married couple next to us and I smiled. They smiled back, then turned and glared at each other.

‘You okay? It’s not going to be that bad dancing with me,’ Mark said with a crooked cheeky smile.

‘Of course,’ I said, laughing, ‘I’m a bit nervous about how I will be as a dancing partner.’

‘You’ll be fine,’ he said, squeezing my hand.

‘Pull your partner a little closer,’ Juan called.

Mark’s warm hand rested on the curve of my lower back, he pulled me close and tightened the embrace. Adrenalin filled my limbs, how ridiculous I thought. Less air separated us now, our bodies close, I looked at the contours of his neck bones, his hands were large and somewhat cold from sweat, and his warmth touched my chest. Goose bumps rose tiny round mountains on my skin. His cologne surrounded me, strong and delicious like fresh wood shavings on a carpentry floor. His breath touched my neck and I wanted to relax into it. He looked into my eyes. I looked away. Faint lines around the edge of his lips formed a kind smile.

‘No really, are you okay?’

‘Yep, sorry about that. I’m elsewhere.’

Juan called out commands and we sought to follow. Mark was better than I thought and we moved well together. I focused on the steps, the movement of my legs and feet in unison with his, and the movement of my hips under his large hands. Shifting my attention from Mark, I honed in on Juan’s words to everyone.

Mark and I stumbled. Juan came over and corrected our positioning and movements. He positioned our bodies closer together, we started the Samba, which involved steps forward and backward, and was elegant. Then we moved onto the Rumba, which included a circular gyration of our pelvises and hips together, reminiscent of certain other human actions. Now that was not a little awkward, I was already nervous enough.

Alternating turns and being spun out from Mark and around, movements of our hips in sensuous unison, our cohesion didn’t always work but was extremely humorous. We couldn’t stop laughing, but sought to maintain composure when Juan looked over. Sweet strumming of guitars flamenco style, individual high-pitched plucked notes and honey harmonic male voices serenaded our steps. Juan kept telling me to look into Mark’s eyes. So I did. Over the forty-five  minutes my inhibitions dissipated. Gen and David were next to us, we all chatted and laughed as we sought to emulate the dance, but mostly made mistakes.

When Juan said, ‘That is it for couple work tonight,’ I was disappointed.

‘Thanks, everyone. Give yourselves a clap, you did very well.’

I clapped sheepishly, glancing at Mark, chuckling as our stumbles replayed in my mind. He smirked back.

‘Thanks Sade, you were a great partner.’

‘Except for the bruises on your feet.’

‘Yeah, except for that.’ He winked at me and I smiled feeling self conscious in a good way.

‘How did you guys go?’ Gen asked us. ‘Looked like you had heaps of fun.’

‘I did,’ I said.

‘Me too,’ Mark agreed.

David and Mark said they’d see us next week. Mark turned briefly and caught my eyes, then disappeared. Gen looked at me, turning her head to the side, and said in a singing voice, ‘He looked nice.’

‘Yeah, he was.’

I drank from my bottle, trying to seem nonchalant.

‘Looked like he liked you.’

‘Don’t think so. Even if he did, watch him run when he finds out about my life.’

‘You’re so cynical.’

‘Not cynical, just realistic.’

‘Uh huh.’ Gen rolled her eyes.

I pulled her into a hug. ‘You’re a great friend to me,’ I said, remembering the night I turned up at Gen’s house distraught and with my children, after I had left. She embraced me and took me in.

We walked towards the stairs and said our goodbyes to Juan. Descending the stairs, we returned to our lives again. Gen to her husband and three children, and me to my children and my veterinarian practice not far from here. The following week moved quickly: school drop offs, my daughter’s soccer training, my son’s art classes, my violin lessons, working and on the weekend brunch with Gen and Simone, while Steve had the kids for the day. I hadn’t let him have them overnight, didn’t know if I could trust him. He had taken them to the museum this time.

Stretching on the dance floor again, my senses became heightened as I noticed Mark across the room but no David. Someone was standing behind Mark. Then she appeared, tall, dark haired, and wearing black pants and a fitted yellow singlet. She was leaning in close to Mark, chatting and laughing.

Typical. Of course he wasn’t single. He smiled and waved. I waved back and turned towards the mirror, not knowing where to look.

‘Looks like we’ll have to get new partners, David’s not here and Mark has a new partner,’ I said, nudging Gen.

‘Yep, looks like it. Attractive, isn’t she?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, wondering why she had to rub it in.

Juan approached and paired us up with two guys standing nearby, looking lost on their first class. Peter, my partner, had ginger blonde hair, white skin with yellow tinges on the edges of his face, and garlic emanated from every pore. Dancing with Peter was like slowly receiving dental treatment with no anaesthetic. Juan intervened on many occasions to no avail. After an eternity, Juan called a break, winking at me. I walked over to Gen.

‘Scott would be jealous of what I saw you guys doing,’ I said, patting her on the shoulder. A hand touched my arm. Uh oh, not Peter. Turning around, I saw Mark’s smiling face and his partner standing next to him.

‘Hey.’

‘Hello, how are you?’ I asked.

‘Great thanks. Hey, this is my sister, Therese.’

‘Hello,’ I said, feeling relieved and addressing her directly, ‘you guys danced well together. The talent must run in the family.’

They both laughed.

‘Yeah, we’ll probably dance with different partners next week. I was just helping Tess get used to the class.’

‘Such a nice brother. Though you looked like you knew what you were doing.’

‘I have done a little before,’ she said, surprisingly shy for someone so striking.

Mark explained David had the flu, and Gen said to pass on our regards.

Suddenly, Juan clapped his hands again. I sighed. Not back to Peter again.

Mark put his hand on my arm again and said quietly, ‘Hey do you want to have a coffee with me sometime?’

‘Sure,’ I said, managing a shy smile.

‘What about Friday at Café Tempo, 10:30am?’

‘Sounds good.’

‘Here’s my card if there are any problems.’

I looked at it – he was an Environmental Engineer for the Queensland Government State Development Department.

‘Okay, cool, thanks. Better get back to my partner, you know.’

Returning to Peter, an involuntary smile formed on my face throughout his pushing and shoving with me around the dance floor. Juan hovered close to us. He saw it was a lost cause.

‘I’ll match you with different dancers next week to compliment your skill level,’ he said, and smiled knowingly at me when Peter had turned his back. I suppressed a giggle.

My feet ached and I was pleased when Juan said class was over for the evening. Mark and his sister left pretty quickly, waving as they went.

‘See you on Friday,’ Mark called.

‘Sure,’ I said.

‘Ohhh, a date?’ Gen asked when he had disappeared.

‘We’re having a coffee.’

‘Really? Hmmm, well let me know what happens, okay?’ she said, raising her eyebrows and the tone of her voice.

‘Will do.’

Wandering along Vulture Street, I looked into Avid Reader bookshop as I passed, trying not to look ahead to Café Tempo. Then I saw him; sitting outside, his dark abundance of hair framed his face and his eyes focused on the newspaper below him. As I got closer he looked up and smiled. We greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek. I sat down at the table and a friendly waiter with blonde straight hair took my order and left. All I could think was Mark only likes who he thinks I am.

‘How’ve you been since Tuesday?’

‘Good thanks.’

‘Good to hear,’ he said, smiling at me in a contented manner, sipping his flat-white from the edge of the white china cup.

‘There’s something you need to know Mark.’

‘That sounds ominous.’

‘It is a bit.’

‘Okay, spit it out – all ears.’ He turned his face directly towards me.

‘I have two children and um…left an abusive marriage some months ago.’ I looked into my coffee cup. I hated pity or people knowing my business, but I had to be honest.

‘Oh. I’m so sorry to hear that. Are you okay now?’ His tone of voice quietened and held a tender inflection. He put his hand on my wrist and looked into my face.

‘Thanks. I’m going well now. It’s much easier than it was at first. I’m happier, stronger now.’

‘Must’ve been horrible. How are your kids taking everything?’

‘Yeah, pretty well, I think. I let them see him every second weekend in the day. They have told me they feel happier now than before.’

A cool change fell over our coffee date like a brooding grey sky and southerly breeze. A characteristic Brisbane storm brewing on the horizon had rolled in and now started to pour with rain. I couldn’t gauge his thoughts.

‘Mark, if you’re uncomfortable with this, it’s cool. I know it’s a lot to adjust to, before you just thought I was a single woman.’

‘Yeah, it is a lot.’

‘I don’t expect anything, I just like you…’ I felt vulnerable.

‘I like you too,’ he said, ‘you know that.’

‘I realise things are more complicated than us liking each other. It’s not like when we were young, hey? Sometimes I wish it was. I was hoping we could still get to know each other, but I totally understand, whatever you want.’

‘I’m not sure what I think, Sade. I’d be happy to get to know each other and see what happens.’

‘Sounds good to me.’

Mark finished drinking his flat-white. He asked me about my kids, what they liked to do, where they went to school, what they were like. I answered him, all the while noticing his difference. Not cold, but changed. Who could blame him? It was a lot to absorb. After a little while, he said he had to go.

‘Okay, see you then,’ I said.

I watched him walk away. He had my business card and we agreed we would see each other at dancing. We’d see after that. The day was moving on, its hot breath becoming more stifling. Who knew what would happen? All I knew was I wouldn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it. I was free now. I looked at the photo of my kids on my mobile phone. Closing my eyes I saw endless blue surrounding me.

 

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Absolution, Leigh Coyle

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Mack didn’t say a word either. We just watched as she swept the meat ants away from the dead man’s body, working a perimeter of clear space around him in the red dust. A pig dog, frenzied by the smell of blood, wrenched at its chain and she raised her broom at it and shouted.

Her task was pointless and she knew it.

I didn’t know the dead man with his booted feet sticking out into the afternoon, but then, I didn’t know anyone else on that property. Even Mack I’d only met a few weeks before when we were both walking in the same direction. Mack was one of those bull-headed men who can’t think around corners. He wore black clothes in the heat and any spare bit of skin was covered in smudged tattoos, like he’d done them himself. His front teeth were cracked off right across the middles, a long time ago, if you cared to see the worn down edges of them, and he had a face that was all collapsed in on itself. Mean bugger though.

By the way Mack held himself, his body tense, the way he muttered and moaned in his sleep, how he couldn’t look me in the eye for longer than a second, I knew he’d been inside. But the good thing I’d discovered about Mack was he didn’t ask questions. I liked that much about him and, by sticking together we seemed to find more work. That’s why we were there on that property and why we’d heard the single shot which had cracked open the dawn and for a few moments stilled the day.

Mack’d said, ‘That was no 22.’

I’d said, ‘Yeah, think you’re right.’

Then we’d gone about getting ready for the day’s work, pulling on trousers, sweat-stained singlets, hats bent to the shapes of our heads. It wasn’t our business, so when we went past the house on our way to the horses, we didn’t ask questions, even though we could already see the body motionless with the woman sweeping in circles.  We just wanted to get where we were going.

And when we came back in the afternoon, salt-smeared and thirsty after driving posts into the ground all day, we still didn’t want to find out anything about it, except she yelled out to us and we stopped near the gate, me leaning on the fence and Mack shuffling his boots in the red dust. She was blotchy-faced and sweaty, reddened by the dirt so it was hard to tell what colour her hair was, or whether she’d ever once been a looker.

‘Know what this bastard did?’ she said, letting the broom drop against her thigh.

‘Nuh,’ said Mack, with all the effort of someone who didn’t want to know.

‘Shot himself,’ she said. ‘Right here.’ She glanced back to the house as if allowing it the chance to break out of its ongoing silence. ‘And I’ve spent this whole stinking day trying to keep him nice, waiting for some bloke in a suit to come and tell me he’s dead.’

‘Jeez,’ said Mack.

Mack looked at me as if I had the words he needed, but didn’t want to share them out, so on his behalf I asked, ‘Why’d he do it?’

‘Why does anyone do it?’ she said.

I looked at Mack and thought I saw something disturbing in his eyes, but he was that sort of bloke.

‘Beats me,’ I said.

The woman resumed her sweeping. ‘You’re right there.’

We started to walk off towards the sleeping shed, but her sharp voice continued.

‘We hid all the guns, you know. Every last one of ‘em. My husband put the strychnine up in the roof so he couldn’t get to it, I put all the knives in my undies drawer. Last place he’d look, we reckoned.’

We waited while she snatched a dirty hanky from her apron pocket and wiped at her eyes.

The afternoon was stretched red-tight and all I wanted to do was get to the shed, lie down on my bunk with my toes free from boots and think of nothing much. Mack looked uncomfortable with the woman’s tears and fidgeted with his belt buckle. I saw something familiar in the way her face toughened as she spoke again, a sour tinge to her voice.

‘Made no difference in the end,’ she said. ‘This morning, he just grabbed a rifle from the back of Ron Strodeor’s ute before we had time to stop him.’

She paused as she gazed at the mad-eyed dog. ‘Wish we’d get rid of this bloody useless mongrel,’ she said.

I coughed inside my throat to break the mood and gave her a little nod. ‘Well, we’ll leave you to it,’ I said, stepping closer to Mack so we could both turn and escape in one slick manoeuvre. But the stupid bugger had stopped there, unmoving, so I was forced to stay put too, with the snuffling grunts of the dog and the fading heat of the afternoon sucking up the very last drops of moisture left on earth.

‘He just grabbed the rifle,’ she said. She dropped the broom onto the ground. ‘He just cocked it, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.’

Her face was lined by the sun and any womanly softness had been worn away by the weather and too much hard work. She looked like someone I’d known once, but I couldn’t quite remember who. She wept and her tears seemed obscene with their wetness, then she folded at the knees and hunched herself over beside where the dead man’s head was covered by a hessian sack.

‘We did everything we could,’ she sobbed into the dirt. ‘But in the end, it was impossible.’ She began to wail, a great heaving bawling which made her body quiver and I didn’t know where to look or what to do. I wanted someone to come out of the house and take the woman away, relieve her of her futile vigil, let the night press its darkness down upon her. But the place seemed deserted.

I glanced over to Mack for help and he gave me one long desperate look like he was seeking my permission to do something. Then that big tough bloke climbed over the fence into the yard where the woman knelt next to the dead man and he crouched down beside her, his huge tattooed arm covering her back, so their three bodies were butted up alongside each other in the dirt like rusty sardines.

Even then the woman continued to talk, as if her words had been caught up somewhere deep inside and were being flushed out with her tears. ‘We were the ones who told him to come. We’re the ones who promised to look after him. He just about blew his head off.’

She paused and then took in a long exhausted breath.

‘He was my brother.’

Mack’s black-haired hand was stroking down the woman’s back as he muttered to her. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, just the sound of his soft voice curling out into the last flare of sunlight; he was saying more to her now than I’d heard him say in all the weeks we’d been together. The woman remained curved over, but was silent now, listening.

I was useless, worse than that ugly crazy mutt, which still thought it could bust out of its lockup. As I stood there watching Mack with the woman I realised that the expression I’d briefly seen before on the woman’s face belonged to my wife, when I’d finally told her I was leaving for good.

For one blinding moment, I let myself understand I was a million times less worthy than that thug Mack, before I grunted loudly in disgust and left them to it.

 

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Falling, Willo Drummond

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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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