Mal Bligh’s Dream, Jamie Derkenne

Knowing I had nowhere to isolate, a grazier I sheared for offered a small hut on 2000 acres down Albury way, near a place called Burrumbuttock. He told me Larry and I could stay as long as required, in return for keeping an eye on the Murray Greys and the fences.

We settled in well. I’d filled the back of my antique Hilux with cans, pasta, dog biscuits and the like. Larry and I would go for walks in the early morning, me checking the rabbit traps, picking dandelions, nettles and other greens. Sometimes I’d see a rabbit grazing nearby. Larry would look at me pleading, wanting permission. I’d pause a few seconds and then click my tongue. Rabbits are fast, but sometimes Larry was faster. She’d catch them by the neck and shake them hard. But she’d always bring them back to me. Larry is half-dingo, half-red, manic in energy and slow in brains.

As the weeks went by, we fell into a routine. We’d get up early, start the stove, and put the coffee pot on. I’d give Larry breakfast. Just after dawn, we’d walk along some fences, check the traps, check the cattle, and then wander back for breakfast. The grazier had left us three isa-browns in a broken chook run. I’d cleaned the run, fixed the netting and had taught Larry to leave them alone by switching her backside with a long stick of cane every time she made a lunge. In the end, she’d just pretend they weren’t there by gazing through them. Every morning, the chooks would lay me one or two eggs, which was just right for frying. The shack had a small verandah on the northern side, so we’d sit there in the rising sunshine warming ourselves, me enjoying a few coffees, and Larry snapping at flies. Sometimes I’d listen to a bit of radio, but the signal would come and go, so for the most part I didn’t bother. Mid-morning, we’d head out in the ute, if we could get it going, and fix whatever needed fixing, hardly anything, usually just a few strands snapped by a lovelorn bull, or a trough that had run dry, and then we’d head back home, where I’d read on the verandah until dinner time. We’d go to bed early. Larry and I shared a single bed, so sometimes sleeping was a bit awkward. We’d have arguments about whose head was on the pillow, and arguments about Larry’s farting, which was gruesome.

One day I found a clump of succulent looking mushrooms, white with pink gills and slightly colouring to yellow in the middle of the caps. I picked the lot and that evening made an omelette with the mushrooms, eggs and some wild sorrel. The mushrooms cooked up well, the stems turning a blue black in the heat. It was an outstanding meal, and that night I had a wonderful sleep.

The next morning, just as I’d got the fire going, I heard footsteps outside. That was puzzling, because I hadn’t heard any car. I stood up. Through the window, I could see the shadow of a big man, and then I heard the thump of his footfall on the verandah. He didn’t knock so much as thump. I opened the door. There stood a moderately tall, portly man wearing a blue city suit that was a couple of sizes too big for him, the sort of suit you’d wear to hide a large paunch. It looked expensive. Even though it was just on dawn, he was sweating profusely. He had a red tie, also too large, and a well-tanned face, except for around the eyes, as if he wore sunglasses a lot. His eyes were small and his eyebrows were arched in a way that made his whole face look angry. He had thin, yellowish hair that had been carefully combed to hide a balding pate. His lips were pursed.

‘Hiya, mind if I make a call? I can’t get a signal on the cell.’ He didn’t wait for an answer but pushed his way in and stood in the middle of the room looking for a phone.

‘I don’t have one.’

‘No shit, but you’ve got a cell, right?’

I shook my head. ‘You won’t find a signal until you get into Burrumbuttock. Nothing out here.’

‘What did you say? Where the hell am I?’

‘Near Barrumbuttock, on John Bishop’s run.’

He waved a hand. I noticed they were very small for a man of his build. ‘No, what state is this? I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’


‘Huh.’ He shook his head. ‘I’ll be goddamned.’ He looked through the window and scratched his head. ‘Always thought there’d be more mountains, more snow. And more green. Hey, but you can’t believe everything you read, right?’

‘How did you get here?’

He tilted his head. ‘You know, you speak American pretty good, but I have to tell ya, and I don’t mean no offence – but you sound kind of Limey. Just saying.’ He suddenly remembered my question.

‘That’s the thing. I dunno. Not many people know this, but I had an uncle at MIT, super smart guy. Genius. So I go to the box room, and I’m trying to find a box of golden photos I need to burn, but that’s a different story, and there’s this box of stuff from Uncle John. I pull out this thing that looks like a remote and see it’s got a red light glowing. It’s been in a goddamned box for years and the darn thing is still working. So for the heck of it, I press the power button and whamo, I suddenly find myself amongst all this dead grass eyeballing the biggest rat you’ve ever seen, honest-to-god, bigger than those ones you get on the Jamaica Line, like it was the size of that dog there and now I’m here in god-damned Europe. Wait till the tech boys hear about this, there is going to be so much money in this. Maybe a TV show.’

I couldn’t help feeling I’d met this man before. I held out my hand and said, ‘By the way, I’m Mal. Mal Bligh.’ He grinned, leaned right in and gripped my hand hard, squeezing it to see if I’d flinch. I’ve spent 30 years shearing. I squeezed back. His grin faltered.

‘Hiya Mal. You call me Thedon.’

Thedon sat down on the dusty red couch that Larry or I used as a makeshift bed, depending on who lost the last argument. Larry had been sitting under the table all this time, but when Thedon sat down she let out a low growl. I could see the fur on the back of her neck stand on end. Thedon clocked the coffee pot and pointed with one of his small, stubby fingers.

‘Gimme one of those. Four sugars, white and strong.’ I poured him a mug, gave it a slurp of milk, spooned in half my sugar, and sat in the armchair opposite. He took a sip and spat it out, all over the floor.

‘Jesus, I didn’t mean that strong.’ He looked pained. I took the mug, emptied half the coffee and replaced it with some hot water from the stove. He took another sip and sighed. ‘Now that’s nearly as good as a Starbucks.’ I sat down again.

‘So Mal, what you need to do is help me let my people know I’m here, so they don’t freak the hell out that I’m like de-observed.’ Larry growled some more. I was a bit worried. Larry had never bitten anyone before, but there was a first time for everything.

‘That’s a fearsome dog you got there pal. What’s his name?’

‘Larry. And Larry’s a she.’

‘Huh. You call your dog a dude’s name?’

‘Larry is just short for her real name.’

Larry growled at Thedon again. She clearly didn’t like him.

Thedon’s eyes narrowed. ‘If I had a dog like that, I’d chain it. Maybe throw away the key. That’s not a good dog.’

Keeping his eyes locked on Larry, he crossed his legs. He had expensive leather shoes, but they had extra thick soles, more like platform shoes. His crossed over foot was waggling at a hundred miles an hour. He rubbed his hand together.

‘So Mal, you need to do this. You need to drive me to Barron’s Ass or whatever the town is, and help me message my people. That can’t be too hard can it?’

I nodded. I was looking forward to driving this man out of my life as quickly as possible. The police in town would probably clock him as a fruit tingle on the loose straight away. Let them deal with it.

‘Sure, come with me now, I’ll get the ute.’

Thedon got up and started to move forward. He froze. Held up a hand for me to stop. He stared at the floor for a second, held his other hand to his face and then let out a trumpeting sneeze. He looked at his hand horrified, looked around and then wiped it on the arm of my sofa. He acted like nothing had happened.

‘Hey, that was rude. That was filthy!’

He looked at me innocently. ‘What was?’

‘You just wiped your filthy snot all over my couch.’

‘I did no such thing pal! That would be disgusting! I’m a very clean man!’ He looked like he was getting ready to fight me.

I grabbed keys and walked out. He was behind me but made a point of getting in front of me as we walked to the ute, which was parked under a tree about 100 metres from the house. As we walked, Thedon made trumpeting sounds, the kind you make through pursed lips, reminding me vaguely of that Hendrix solo. He walked around to the driver’s side and opened the door.

‘What the hey?’ he asked.

‘I’m driving, not you.’

He went around to the passenger side and got in. Larry sat in the tray, slobbering on the rear window. I got into my seat. I could feel the ute leaning because of Thedon’s weight. I turned the key. The engine car gave a whine and a spluttering cough but nothing more. It was always causing me grief. I popped the hood and got out. Thedon got out and stood behind me. He was sniffing in a way that made my skin crawl.

‘You gonna fix it, right? I mean, I can’t stay here in these boondocks. Where did you say we are? Assville?’

‘No, you can’t,’ I mumbled to myself through gritted teeth.

I checked the timer belt, but it was good, and the carburettor looked good too. The battery caps I’d whittled a few days before from mulga sticks were still holding but one of the battery terminals had worked loose, even though it was clamped as tight as it would go.

I dug into my pockets and fished out a five-cent coin.

‘Here, hold this,’ I said and went to the tool sack I keep under the driver’s seat and got out a screwdriver to loosen the clamp.

‘Pass me the coin.’ Thedon was just about to pass the coin when he stopped, staring at it.

‘Hey, I know that broad! Bit long in the tooth, but great skin and great pins!’ I snapped my fingers. He handed it over. I wedged the coin between the clamp and the terminal and tightened it up. It was secure now.

We walked around to our seats. Larry, seeing that her seat was unoccupied, had taken back what was rightfully hers. As Thedon approached, she started growling some more, wrinkling her nose and showing her teeth. Thedon reached out to grab Larry by the collar. Larry barked and lunged at his hand. She knew exactly what she was doing as she just nipped him, enough to draw a few drops of blood but not cause any serious damage.

‘Oh holy crap! Blood! You can get infected!’ Thedon wailed as if he was dying. I snapped my fingers at Larry and pointed to the back of the ute. Larry, now a bit ashamed by her assault, loped into the tray without fuss. Thedon was almost crying in anguish and, to be honest, his face had turned from a well-tanned brownish orange to an ashen grey. I walked over to a bush, snapped a twig and spun some cobwebs round it. I then went over to Thedon and looked at his hand. There were several drops of blood on his thumb knuckle. I spun the cobwebs around the wound. The bleeding instantly stopped. Old bushman’s trick. We got back in the ute. I turned the key. It coughed again, spluttered like it had phlegm in the lines.

‘Filter,’ I said. ‘I need to somehow replace the filter.’

‘So you got plenty of filters, ain’t that so? You’d be like the king of filters.’ 

‘Not a single one.’

‘Huh. If you know it’s the filter, then you knew it would be the filter and you would have prepared. I’m just saying. What do we do now?’

‘We walk.’

We got out of the car and started the seven K walk to Barrumbuttock. We walked for about ten minutes, Thedon in front, when he staggered and stopped.

‘I’m not used to this. I need to catch my breath. I’m a very fit man, but not this fit. Ain’t you got a buggy or something?’

It was obvious I hadn’t. Thedon was wheezing a bit. ‘You should’ve organised a buggy. You ain’t a liberal are you? My people always organise a buggy. Where did you say the clubhouse is again?’

I pointed down the road. He started walking again, stopped and turned. ‘Hey, ain’t you coming?’

I shook my head. ‘You’re on your own on this one-’ I paused. ‘…mate.’

He waved a hand dismissively. I watched him trudge down the road, maybe another 200 metres. I didn’t stop staring. The man had Kalahari buttocks, bobbing up and down like the biggest ground turkey you’ve ever seen. I could feel Larry’s eyes boring into me. I’m ashamed to admit it but, not taking my eyes off Thedon, I clicked my tongue.

Another Man’s Child, Elizabeth White

Photo by Sergey Norkov on Unsplash


It is a clear evening in late July. Light leaks into the old house from the moon and the street lamps, through the louvers of the enclosed verandah. Outside the Queenslander, a mother and baby possum are crawling along a power line running from Kathleen’s roof down towards the street. They are the only creatures, human or animal, active at this moment in the evening. Kathleen doesn’t notice them. But if she had, she may have felt a sense of camaraderie. Wishing she had a parent to guide her through her own juncture of uncertainty.

Hours before the daylight will creep into the house, Kathleen slips out from beneath the blanket that covers her and her husband Leo. Her feet sink into the worn-out grooves in her old blue slippers. The synthetic fleece is threadbare, loosely hugging her skin. She slides off the bed and grabs her fluffy dressing gown off the armchair in the corner of the room and walks towards the kitchen. She treads lightly on the wooden floorboards, floating like a ghost secretly in the dark. She senses that even though hours have passed since she turned off her bedside light, she hasn’t slept at all. While she is bothered by the lack of rest, she is not surprised by her mind’s inability to cease activity for just a few hours.

When she was a child Kathleen would struggle to sleep the night before her birthday. Excitement and anticipation overwhelmed her young body with the need to grasp for the coming day with moments of joyful and untroubled restlessness. These days her mind rouses her body in dark hours, leading her through a labyrinth of fear and agitation while the approaching day lies dormant.

Kathleen falls easily into the pattern of her usual morning habits. She reaches the kitchen without giving any attention to her surroundings. The microwave beams 2:45 in a blue light that illuminates the area. Kathleen notices a cool breeze blowing through the window above the sink that causes ripples in the white mosquito net curtains that hang between the house and the outdoors. The air is fresh on her skin and ushers her towards wakefulness. Up until this point, she has tried to ignore any sense of her feelings since her father died last week.

From the moment she received the phone call from the hospital, Kathleen was set into motion. She began to constantly collate lists in her mind. What needed to be accomplished? Family members began to fly in. They congregated together and spent hours around the dining table in Kathleen’s house. Everyone had a story about Hugh. They’d laugh and then find themselves crying about the memories that now felt like they were vanishing. For short moments she sat with them, unable to focus, not remembering how to listen. She would rise from the table and set off, busying herself around them, ensuring that all the arrangements were made. Her sister Beth and brother Neil kept offering to help, but she was the last one who had seen their father. She had tried to take care of it all. She could tell her siblings were frustrated with her; the evidence of their conversations about her always on their faces when she entered a room.

Finally, she relinquished and made them responsible for the wake and sharing a eulogy. But she refused to let them start sorting through his home. Not yet, not yet she kept saying, pretending it was because of her grief. She couldn’t risk them finding anything, not before she’d had a chance to look for some kind of evidence for herself, or at least until they knew the truth about her too. Why had it taken Hugh till his last day to tell her that she wasn’t his daughter? And without being able to give her an explanation, why bother telling her?

The whisper of this Friday morning stirs her from the daze of the last week. Her father has gone, and now the morning of his funeral has arrived. For the first time this week, the weight of his loss is starting to reach her. She doesn’t feel ready for the day that is ahead. Her father will not be there to comfort her.

Kathleen takes the kettle from the stovetop and hears leftover water from its last boiling slosh inside the iron pot. She pours the water down the sink and starts to fill it from the tap. She stares straight ahead, looking through the mosquito net mesh towards the palm trees that separate her house from the neighbour’s.

She recalls the last time she saw her father, the afternoon before he died. The phase of remaining spirited had passed and his manner was bleeding with frustration and anger. He was seventy four. A month before, he had been healthy, death had not been on the cards. All it had taken was the one cut on this leg while working in his garden. It had led to an infection. The infection turned to gangrene. A fortnight later, part of his leg was gone. When the surgery wound struggled to heal, they realised the infection had reached his blood.

When they had last been together in his hospital room, Hugh had roused on Kathleen whenever she left his side for a moment to grab a coffee. He’d said that she was selfish to abandon a dying man. She could have yelled at him then. She could have poured out the anger and disarray that was bubbling inside her, but she held onto hope that he might tell her clearly what happened. When he slept he remained troubled, unable to bear what he had become, an old man who could no longer fight off death. It was chasing him with pitiful ailments and afflictions that might have been avoided. Once a man of natural exuberance and catholic hope, dying was making a ruin out of him. For the first time in her life, Kathleen noticed the loss of conviction in Hugh’s eyes. He knew it wouldn’t turn out all right after all. And here she was trying to understand why he’d never told her sooner. Who was her real father? Why did her mother never say anything?

Kathleen turns her attention back to the kettle. Water is overflowing out the top and from the spout. She turns off the tap and pours out some of the water. She puts the kettle on the stove and decides not to turn it on. She doesn’t want to take the risk that she might stir Leo from his sleep. She wants to be alone with her thoughts in the darkness.


Hugh arrives home. There’s a car parked in his driveway. His eyes scan the rearview mirror. There’s a smudge of dirt on his forehead. He had barely looked at his reflection this morning. He had scrambled out of bed in a roadside motel and hit the road. After two months driving trucks during grain harvest, all he could think about was annihilating 900 kilometres and getting home to his wife and kids. God knows how long he’d been getting around like this, blind to this conspicuous smear on his face.

He grabs his bag off the passenger seat and thrusts himself out of the car. The door slams and he gets another glimpse of his dirty face in the car window. He must have been in a daze to have missed that.

He scales the stairs of his Queenslander home. His kids are running along the inside verandah, their little footsteps coming towards him. The front door opens. It’s his mate from work, Reg Currell.

‘Reg, what are you doing here?’ asks Hugh.

‘Hugh, mate, just leaving. I dropped off your roster for next fortnight, left it with Jean.’

‘Oh, thanks Reg. I thought they sent you to the Riverina?’

‘Nah, the Magill family put in orange trees this year, they didn’t bother with grains. I’ve been in the depot since spring. Servicing the trucks doing local loads.’


 ‘Yeah well. I’ll see you Monday. You look spent, mate. You know you’ve got dirt on your mug?’

‘I noticed. Thanks.’

Reg slides past him and bobs down the stairs. Hugh steps into the verandah. Neil and Betty lunge towards him embracing his knees and tugging at his arms. He sees Jean step out of their bedroom and onto the verandah. She looks different. Her skin is sun-kissed and healthy. The fabric on her dress pulls tighter over her breasts than he remembers. The effect of being away for two months is reflecting back at him. He’s overlooked more than some dirt. His wife is pregnant.


St Michael’s is stony cold. Warmth radiates from the bar heaters mounted along the sandstone walls inside the church, but it doesn’t seem to reach Kathleen, she sits fighting away shivers in her pew. Leo places a hand on her leg. She wonders if he’s trying to secure her; keep her still, keep her grounded. She hasn’t even told him yet. She feels like there is nothing to say. How can she ever make sense of her real parentage? Her childhood? The fact that Hugh was the person who she felt loved her more than anyone? What does it mean now that he was just another man?

Father Gibbons seemed like he’d spent the last thirty years waiting for Kathleen when she had knocked on his door a few days ago. He’d been just a young priest when Hugh called asking him to come and see his wife and her child in the hospital. Hugh had told Father Gibbons straight away that he wanted him to christen this other man’s child. But, after that he had committed himself to loving her like she was his own. That was all that Father Gibbons knew. Her mother never came to confession, and it wasn’t his place to ask. He believed from the outside that Hugh seemed like he was reconciled.

Kathleen had told him that Hugh’s final request had been clear. He wanted Father Gibbons to tell the truth about how they’d met, at his funeral. Kathleen had felt uneasy knowing she was about to be at the centre of a commotion. But she wanted to believe that the truth would have value if it came from a priest.

Kathleen had never felt out of place in the family, and her parents were still married until Hugh died: because of her dementia it seemed like Kathleen’s mother had passed away a long time before. Drifting out of herself slowly over the last 10 years or so. But maybe there had been a growing absence in her mother for all of Kathleen’s life.

Neil sits back in his seat after sharing his eulogy. Father Gibbons rises. Kathleen is aware of the drama that he is about to set into motion. But she almost feels like she needs drama right now. Something to align her with the sense of upheaval that she has traversed over the last week. She watches him reaching the lectern, and there she decides to hold her gaze. The silence amplifies when the secret is spilled out to the congregation of mourners. And there she continues to look, when the burn of the heaters finally reaches her, with the stares of them all.


The dream has finished.

Hugh’s feet hit the cool floorboards; he pushes himself up with both hands, he has no reluctance leaving the warmth of his bed. He is awake.

He ambles out of the bedroom and into the hallway. His eyes are still adjusting. The wash of a pink dawn delicately illuminates the way. His feet patter on the wooden slats. The sound of another cry reaches his ears. The lament that disturbed his sleep. His hands reach out to the walls to guide and steady his movements. He is a veteran of the five am shuffle, a hurried pace towards the summoning cry from Kathleen’s bedroom. The daily exercise. A stumble and scamper.

Through the open doorway he extends his arms into the cot and collects the crying baby. The child burrows her head into the hollow between Hugh’s neck and shoulder. Her eyes hover above sleep, her breath settles into an even rhythm. Hugh’s feet move them gently around the room. If he does this right the whole family might get an extra hour of sleep.

Jean has followed him into the room. Her hands seize hold of Kathleen’s body, and she cradles her towards her own chest.

‘I’ll take her,’ Jean murmurs.

‘It’s alright, I had her.’

‘She’s mine. I’ll take care of it.’

‘Jean, I don’t mind helping.’

‘You go back to bed.’

Hugh stops in the doorway, facing back towards their bedroom. The exhaustion of trying to forgive Jean is getting the better of him. He breathes in deeply and lets his shoulders round into his body. He wants to keep the promise of his vows, but it’s a contest he can’t win. He can’t claim the child of another man. But when her cries call him from sleep in the early mornings, instinctively he fathers her, doting at her little tears. He makes himself responsible for her existence.


Magpies chortle in the large pine trees. Kathleen climbs onto the large wooden fence beside the road. She feels the need to enter the cemetery the same way she did when she was a child on the occasions when Hugh brought them here to see his mother. She sits at the top of the fence then catapults herself towards the ground. The echo of her father is beside her, flying away without her. 

Fresh soil is piled high from the day before. Kathleen stares at the earth, angry at the confusion and frustration that he has made her bear. Sadness would have felt simple compared to this. She sits on the wet ground and scoops up a handful of soil, and then lets its fall back down between her fingers. She can’t make peace with the immeasurable chasm that has been dug between her and the truth.

All Good Things, Catherine Panich

Photo by Ferdinand Stöhr on Unsplash

You probably know the feeling.

Boarding lounge, ten minutes to go. Bottle of water drained and tossed, carry-on at your feet, pass and passport in hand, one last message then switch to flight mode. No, off.

I wonder who’s going to be sitting next to me?

This flight out of Arctic Kirkenes would land in Oslo mid-afternoon. I scanned the crowd for solo travellers, because I was one. The silver-haired man in a dark grey suit? Mining? Shipping? Bureaucrat? But he joined the priority queue for business class, so not him. The woman who hugged an over-sized handbag? Much my age, pleasant enough company for a couple of hours. An itinerant worker? Or a student dreaming of summer’s libations? Who hasn’t played airport roulette?

Then I spotted him. God, I hope it won’t be him. But I had that sharp feeling. You just know.

He was still rows away, but I could smell him. Stumbling over his carry-all and duty-free bags, he worked his way up the aisle. A heavy sourness of stale cigarette smoke and alcohol had impregnated his clothes, saturating the air he pushed through. Late thirties at a guess, scrawny, with an edgy air of neglect that was more stray cat than aloof domesticated.

Just my luck…

He checked his seat number, searched for the correct row, then with a curt nod slid down beside me, his long legs barely accommodated.

Thank God I reserved the window seat.

We buckled up.

Kirkenes quickly fell away beneath the plumes of smoke from wildfires across northern Scandinavia. The dazzling fjords spilling into the Barendt Sea were no longer visible, nor Kirkenes’ timber houses and the verdant beech forests along the Pasvik River.

I’d spent some time in the second most bombed place of World War II. Trapped by the furious ambitions of the Nazis and Red Army for the ice-free port of Murmansk, Kirkenes had been laid waste. Scorched earth.

I’d wandered among delicate bright Arctic blossoms, which had burst open with the impatience only a brief summer could inspire; heard the orange-legged seagulls honk like geese.

Now all lay behind me.

Ever so faintly, the voice of my Danish father seeped in. All good things come to an end. He had a wistful fondness for this Viking proverb. When I was a child, it accompanied ‘no more ice-cream’ or ‘pack away your toys’ or ‘time for bed’. Now I understand he was thinking of his own life, its unspoken disappointments, the many losses brought about by war and migration, and lives beyond repair. But the tipping point… How do you recognize it? Can you?

Only two days ago I’d arrived in a heatwave. In fact, we’d had to stop walking across the tarmac to make way for a departing plane. Petrol fumes in the ripping hot wind posed a danger as the plane swung onto the runway. What had I expected of mid-summer in the Arctic? Certainly not bedraggled flocks of moose lolling by the dusty road-side, nor gasping birds, not such heat where there was midnight sun.

I asked the flight attendant for coffee; the man next to me said, ‘Whisky, no ice, and a Coke.’

Finally we exchanged some niceties. He smiled curiously when I said ‘Sydney’, his pale blue eyes alert.

‘Gum?’ he offered.

‘No thanks. Well… okay.’

He was from a coastal town on the Vardanger Fjord. ‘Vadsϕ. It’s very small. Far away from everything.’ His face relaxed at the thought, and he suddenly looked younger. ‘Peaceful. Surrounded by nature. Not so much stress.’

I guessed Vadsϕ had the same frontier feeling as Kirkenes, a world belonging to tough men and brutalist edges. ‘But why do you stay there?’

‘For the past 2 years I’m a cook in a café.’ He gave a little smile. ‘Nothing much but it’s okay.’ He paused. ‘To be honest, it’s been good for me.’

I recalled my last meal in Kirkenes. ‘So what’s your secret for cooking reindeer steak?’

He laughed with disarming openness. ‘Fry quickly on a hot plate, then serve with lingon berry jam and gravy. Have you eaten cloud berries?’

‘Only as jam.’

‘They’re Arctic berries. They grow in marshes and are only picked in August. It’s hard work. That’s why they’re expensive, but also special.’

I tried to imagine remote Vadsϕ in the long months of darkness, when snow and ice were impenetrable and the cold burned bitter. It lay at the heart of Sami culture. My Danish grandmother, whom I only knew from a formal black and white photo, had sent me one of my first books. Elli-Karin, a Sami girl, tended the reindeers while her father repaired their turf house before winter returned. I loved that book, and through it, my grandmother. Both are long gone. On this trip I didn’t get to a Sami village, and the closest I’d come to reindeers was the recipe of a cook who was flicking through the in-flight magazine.

‘But don’t you get lonely?’ I persevered. ‘Or want to move to the city some time?’

‘Why?’ he shrugged. ‘The people are nice. We don’t live in one another’s pockets, but we care for each other. I can trust my friends to watch the house while I’m away. And I do the same for them.’

He folded one lean hand over the other, then drifted off to sleep. Strands of fair hair fell across his face as his jaw slackened.

I leaned against the window, the view partially obliterated by a wing. Below glided pleated mountains and the shiny confetti of sparkling lakes. And there were no borders – no Finland, Russia or Norway. Ah, how lovely the blue!

Twenty-four hours ago, I’d been in search of lunch. Outside a run-down cafe a board announced: kebab and pizza special. Despite the uninviting interior, I placed my order.

‘How many?’ asked the man at the till. His tone was abrasive, maybe due to his poor English.

‘Just the one.’

‘One? Are you alone?’ Both question and enquiry.

I took a bottle of water from the fridge, then sat at a small table by the window.

At the rear, a family shared lunch. Two women in Islamic dress presided over a gaggle of children, a lively happy group. The youngest looked about the same age as my little grandson.

The boss and his cook moved to chairs at the entrance, chain smoking and talking away empty hours in the sun.

I paused on my way out. ‘Is that your family?’ I nodded towards the gathering.

‘Yes, my family.’ Although surprised, he was pleased by my question.

Children’s carefree laughter filled the cafe. The child who reminded me of my grandson leaped from his chair and ran to his father, dark curls bobbing.

‘You have a beautiful family.’ Curiosity got the better of me. ‘Where are you from?’

He frowned, stroking the head of his son. ‘Why you want to know?’

‘Just interested.’ I told him I was from Australia.

The men glanced at each other. ‘Syria,’ said the boss. ‘We are here from Syria. Three years.’

‘In Sydney I teach English. Some of my students are Syrian.’

He relaxed. ‘Good students?’

‘Yes. And very nice.’ That made him happy. As I turned to leave I had the impulse to say, ‘I hope you have a good life here. After everything…’

Later that afternoon I joined a small tour group to where Norway ended and Russia began.

A young soldier was throwing a ball for an indefatigable shepherd. Barry had been on border duty years longer than his handler. On cue, he leaped into his box at the rear of a black SUV, to be chauffeured back to the compound and dinner.

According to our tour guide: ‘This is where thousands of Syrians crossed the border on bicycles. Have you heard about it? Three years ago, European countries were trying to stop the flood of refugees. But there was another way – the Arctic route through Russia. The asylum seekers got visas. They went to Moscow, then they managed to get right up here, to Murmansk. But it was illegal to cross the border by foot, so they bought bicycles. Thousands of bicycles. They rode across the border. Now no-one knows where most of them have gone.’

Our little tour group gazed silently at the close dark hills of Russia, the stark watch-tower, and the boom gates where a pair of armed soldiers faced each other stiffly.

‘They say fifty tonnes of bicycles were abandoned,’ marvelled our guide. ‘Filled about thirty containers.’

Ladies and gentlemen, we have begun our descent into Oslo…

My flight companion stirred. He glanced about disoriented, rubbed his hands over his face, then gulped the last of the Coke. My blocked ears had already noted the dropping altitude. The landing gear clunked into position.

‘Are you staying long in Oslo?’ I asked.

He hesitated. ‘Actually, I’m going to Tallinn.’

‘Ah…’ Years ago I’d roamed through Tallinn’s beautifully restored Old Town.

He combed his fingers through his hair. ‘I’m going to visit my family. I was born in Estonia and lived there most of my life, before moving to Norway – you know… work.’ He turned the empty Coke can in his hands. ‘And I’m going meet up with my son. I haven’t seen him for two years. I will take him to Vadsϕ for a holiday. To my house, for the first time. He’s fourteen and likes fishing. Then I will bring him back to Tallinn, for school.’ He smiled.

With the wheels’ impact on the runway, the opportunity to push that life’s door further ajar passed.

As my flight companion eased out of his seat and reached to retrieve his things from the stow, I noticed the design on his t-shirt. ‘Father Ted!’ I laughed. An Estonian from Vadsϕ, and a fan of that British sitcom! Its title was emblazoned in Gothic letters across three eccentric Irish priests, exiled to remote Craggy Island. ‘I love Father Ted! I’ve watched all the repeats.’

‘Me too! It’s my favourite. I get together with my friends and we have Father Ted evenings. We laugh ourselves sick. I’ve got the whole box set, every single episode.’

He patted their faces, greeting old mates, then broke into a crazy Irish accent: ‘Ted: “So you took Father Jack out for a walk… and you lost him. Again.” Dougal: “Well, Ted, like I said last time: It won’t happen again.”’

And I fell into Mrs Doyle, the housekeeper: ‘You’ll have some tea… Are you sure you don’t want any? Aw go on, you’ll have some. Go on go on go on go on go on go on go on go on GO ON!’

And we laughed loudly amid the impatience of passengers who jostled in a slow conga line towards the exit.

He placed his duty-free bags on the seat. ‘For my son,’ he smiled, as if guessing I’d assumed alcohol. He tucked the next boarding pass into his passport. ‘Have a safe trip home,’ he beamed.

‘You too. And have a wonderful time with your son.’

He turned and eased into the queue, then strode briskly towards the transit lounge. No looking back. Boarding for Tallinn.

I went the other way, taking the metro into Oslo, where I discovered the apartment of Henrik Ibsen. It was here he wrote The Doll’s House, which my students generally liked. Ibsen lived there on his return from self-imposed exile in Italy, despite his wife’s reluctance to again endure Norwegian winters. Just before closing time, I shared Ibsen’s view of the street, saw his writing desk and chair, the lamps and cosy timber panelling, his works of art – all evidence of success.

And oh! So remarkably, Ibsen’s dining table was set with hand-cut crystal goblets, identical to those I’d inherited from my parents, passed down from my Danish grandmother and great-grandmother. Exactly the same! Those elegant wine glasses had graced my grandmother’s table in Copenhagen, a long time ago.

In Sydney, I will clutch these moments like the bright bunch of floating balloons I’ll take to my grandson’s birthday party.

I bake a cake in the shape of an aeroplane, decorating it with chocolate icing and a thick shower of sprinkles. So colourful, so joyous.

My daughter lights five candles, and her little boy’s flushed cheeks glow in the incandescence. As we sing Happy birthday dear Charlie! he sharply sucks in air, then blows for all he’s worth, to extinguish the dancing flames in a single breath. Then he asks for the candles to be relit, so that he can do it again, and again.

But as drops of wax melt into the icing, my daughter says, ‘That’s it now, Charlie. Time to cut the cake.’

The knife does its work, and for a while we surrender to spongy stickiness, silently finding bliss in all these good things.

Miss Phillipa, Melanie Ifield

Photo by Johannes W on Unsplash

The doctors all agree that for me to feel entirely myself again (such an admirable ambition) I am to make my way to the seaside for a week. 

I emerge from a six-hour bus ride at a foreign bus stop in a foreign town. It is late and I am hungry. I am not supposed to feel hunger and the normalcy of such a physical sensation rocks me. Perhaps it’s the local’s blasted sea air working its insidious way into my digestive tract. Well, I’ll take this holiday, and return to work not a day over one week and see what they have to say about that.

I make my way down cobblestone streets. Nightlights are starting to twinkle into life, illuminating this strange town and its inhabitants. There is a sense of freedom in all their movements, as though they have imbibed too much of others’ good intentions. Well, they will get nothing from me. 

There is the sign I have been looking for. A weather-beaten panel over a door stating you could rest your head at the ‘Sea-Side Inn’ for the value price of $49 per night. What a delight. The night clerk greets me as I walk in. During our conversation he establishes, via pointed questioning, that I have a credit card and a driver’s licence. He mentions the tourist pack they have with maps to interesting destinations, all the beaches and bookstores. Could he interest me in these? He couldn’t. I take it anyway for appeasement’s sake.

A cheery voice from behind asks me if he could be of assistance and help me with my luggage. I am faintly amused. In all conceivability it is my wasted appearance which lends itself to such solicitous feelings. Certainly no one has ever offered to carry my luggage before.

I am led up a flight of stairs. A door is opened for me and I am left in solitude.

The bathroom smells familiar, as though they, like the hospital I so recently vacated, use hospital grade detergent. I look back at the mirror. How disagreeable. Not quite in blushing youth anymore. Quite the opposite really: pale, washed out middle age. Perhaps I could find my youth strolling these sunburned streets chatting gaily to other figments of my imagination.

I open the window. Bad idea. More of that sea air comes waltzing in as though every open panel of glass is a hand written invitation. It dances with my curtains, then marches through my hair and down my pipes. I shut the window.

There is not much evening left and I plan to be unpacked and fully rested for tomorrow when I shall face the foreign town and all its peculiarities. Tonight I feel the strength has left me.

Sunlight wakens me. It has sneaked in through closed blinds. I never sleep with the blinds open, no need to leave the flight path to the heavens all that open. I observe myself in the mirror after I dress. My image stares back at me and reminds me that time has marked me more effectively than any passing love affair. Dances are a thing of the misty past and knitting booties for non-existent grandchildren is supposed to fill my days in happy contemplation.

I venture downstairs. Legs a little wobbly. I wander along cobbled streets towards the distant sea. It comes on me suddenly. One minute I am contentedly strolling along and then I turn a corner and see the endless blue. I have to sit down and catch my breath.

I’ve never seen the sea before. It crashes majestically upon the shoreline and I feel very little. Not a feeling designed to flood me with the confidence that has been eluding me. Stupid doctors. Sent me to the wrong address.

People are actually stripping off their layers of civilisation and running at the seething mass of unfathomable waters. They are facing it and yelling challenges to the sky. I sit there and eye them doubtfully.

‘I am quite comfortable here, thank you young man,’ I reassure the darkly handsome stranger who catches sight of my breathless state. I am in no need of assistance and have no desire to thrust myself into the sweeping jaws of foaming waves.

This sea they are all so enamoured with appears dangerous. Look at them plunging in and spending energy one day they will kill to have again. They have no care that it whispers a dirge in its sleepless prowling of our coast. They are secure. They are young and how the young feel their own brand of immortality. Just you wait, I think with savage glee. You’ll sit here and feel the same feelings of wasted energy. I stand and stretch. My, how tiring all this fresh air is. I make my way to a small café I saw earlier.

I finish my salad and fish. I sit and let humanity wash over me in a tide of raised voices and sweet scents. I shudder and put down my wine, leaving the café, giving no tip. Do I seek the emotions of others? Do I reek of my inner grayness? Is my age a natural insult to their youth? Am I an object of their pity? I hurry away. I am successful I want to shout. I have a house, a car and a bank balance you would be envious of: I could buy you all. I halt at that thought, a part of me ashamed. 

A group of youngsters come careering passed. One knocks my arm and stops. Pleasant face screws up with worry. ‘So sorry missus. Don’t know what I was thinking, not to see you there. Hope I haven’t damaged anything?’

I open my mouth to deliver a blistering lecture, and close it again on a teeth-clenching smile. ‘Oh no dear, I am perfectly fine,’ and I turn to walk back the way I have come. Had I once been that age? All limbs and freckles and bursting forth with a vitality that alarms middle aged ladies so much? Seems unlikely. I always had an old and slightly jaded soul, just had to grow into it. I am well on the way. Perhaps being more elderly is going to be better than I imagine. I curl my lip in derision. May as well get that knitting out.

I am in an open aired plaza. I hear snatches of conversation. People glad the weather was holding, glad the storm of last week had blown over and delighted the local council was putting on a dance in two days, right here at the Plaza, wouldn’t you know? No, I didn’t know. Bother and damnation. My room overlooks the park attached to this Plaza. How annoying.

I find myself in a bookstore. A little light reading might pick my spirits up. I make my selection – there isn’t much to choose from – and return to the blistering street. I hasten back to my room, my sanctuary, and lean heavily against the door as it closes behind me. I frown down at my light and whimsical novel. It is full of romantic nonsense. Whoever would enjoy a chauvinist telling you what to do all the time? So controlling I could choke, but I have it now, so may as well get on with it.

Evening approaches. Marta Hermann’s novel on Lady Westerling’s Romantic Sojourn put me to sleep hours ago. I turn my head to look out of my window. Daylight has receded. Dinnertime approaches once more. There is a lovely little corner in my host’s dining lounge tucked obscurely away from nearly everyone’s view I can hide in for dinner. I eat a little more salad and a lot less fish. There is no red meat on the menu.

I feel eyes upon me. I glance surreptitiously across my garlic bread. Seated just within sight is a man. Well, nothing too portentous about that. I make no acknowledgement that he is looking in my direction. While I was the looker when younger, I can’t imagine turning heads now but there you go. Fair’s fair. The man may have forgotten his glasses. I finish my meal.

He has approached my table hiding behind a waitress. No warning. Pleasing deep voice says he can’t help but see I am alone and asks if I would care for a nightcap at the bar. Disturbing. I can’t imagine what encouraged him. I frown majestically and refuse politely. He smiles at me and suggests a holiday for one is never as much fun as having someone to share the tedium with. A kindred spirit in the most unlikely of places? I say I am too weary from my day. A second suggestion is forthcoming. What if we were to walk the beach together in the morning? I agree, if only to remove this obstacle from between me and my room.

I am in my room. My heart is beating a little too fast. This man has upset my calm. I cannot help feeling I have committed a grave error of judgement. Not to worry, there are a million ways of seeing off unwanted attention. I close my blinds and allow Lady Westerling’s ridiculous palpitations to put me to sleep.

It is Tuesday. I have a date to go walking on the beach. Good grief. What had I been thinking? I sit and ponder how to escape this demanding social event. I am not a social creature. (Sometimes I am, however, Master of the Understatement.)

A knock sounds on my door. Not here already! I have never dressed so fast. I answer the door in bright yellows and brilliant whites. Enough to paralyse the best intentions. It is a maid. Would I like my orange juice here or out on the terrace with my gentleman friend? I have forgotten his name already! It is supplied with amusement.

I’m not saying Amery and I are friends upon our return to the motel, but we have talked and know a little more of each other. I agree to meet him for dinner and retire to my room. I am in turmoil. I lie on my bed. This Amery is a wonder. Most disturbing. My eye wanders over Westerling… Perhaps I can fit in a chapter or two before dinner.

As usual, I have drifted to sleep. I glance at my watch. Good heavens, I’ll be late. I study my wardrobe. Somehow, it all seems a little out of place now. I choose the only evening-looking garment among the meagre contents of the cupboard. I eye my rather sombre appearance.

Amery has booked a table in a neighbouring restaurant. He takes my arm, to direct me to the right doorway I can only presume. My stomach flutters and I quickly put it down to hunger. I am faced with a beaming waiter – may he take my coat? It is much too grand to call this scrap of material a coat, but yes, he could take it if it makes him feel any better. Amery smiles at my tone. Amusing, am I? At least meat is on the menu. Amery quietly studies what they are offering. He does many things quietly I am discovering. Fascinating. Perhaps it’s his age. He’s probably said it all before.

Dinner is a strange affair. I find myself searching for interesting pieces of myself to place into his silent and warm companionship. I wonder if my doctors would be smiling in satisfaction.

I am glad when it is over, I tell myself. In reality, I think I have enjoyed someone else’s company more than my own for the first time in years. Disturbing. I am faced with the inevitable good night scene. Do I commit myself to further dates? I am in a quandary. Amery escorts me to my door. I know where to find him if I would like some more company, I am informed. I close the door. Having fulfilled my promise to talk to another human being on my holiday, I am now under no further obligation to continue doing so. I go to sleep on the thought that while no obligation exists, a desire might. Thoroughly disturbing.

I cannot believe the quickened pace this holiday is now setting. A veritable whirlwind, I fear. Tonight is that Council-approved concert. I see a note slipped under my door. My disloyal heart leaps. Amery? A notice, actually, for all those who wish to help in providing supervision for the concert. Oh my, now wouldn’t that be fun? I shudder.

A knock. That helpful maid again? This time I answer in my dressing gown, note in hand. Bright delighted smile. Am I supervising? Certainly not. Pleading gray eyes. I shall have to think, I say, putting those pleading eyes on the shelf for later.

My in-house phone rings. Amery. Have I received a note? Yes, but I am determined not to be a part of it. I am admonished. Surely I will not turn my back on a bunch of children? I fume. Coercion. Had he spoken to a certain pair of gray eyes? Chuckles flow down the line. It is possible – didn’t they work on me? Certainly not, but he does. I am a registered supervisor before breakfast is done. Dreadful, but my resistance is weak (perhaps I should change my reading material).

Today I refuse to see Amery out of conscientious objection. I plan to idle my time away watching the waves. I need time to think, away from this insidious feeling. I am most assuredly letting myself be swept away with events. Holidays always seem to work against our nature. 

I sit at a bench, Greek Salad in hand. A group of young, lithe bodies pass me. One stops. It is gray eyes, off duty and rearing to fling herself into the onrushing embrace of water. Will I be swimming today? Highly unlikely, though I do wear my outdated navy suit under my dress for reasons best described as the same recklessness that took me on my date last night. We are joined by the rest of the gaggle, swaying in slips of material that surely have no legal right to be called anything, let alone clothes. Have they perfected sincere, puppy dog eyes, this generation? I am overwhelmed with beseeching sets of them. I fear I must swim or dream of hurt, reproachful looks for days.

The water is cool and nibbles in a friendly fashion at my toes. The gaggle of youth dances off until waist deep. It’s a little disconcerting, this close inspection by seething masses of salty water.

Sunburn has turned me from fluorescent white to fluorescent red, and discomfort interrupts me. I have studied the patterns of water for hours. I face Amery and masses of screaming partygoers in relatively few hours. I leave gray eyes fluttering them at a hapless group of young lads. Ah, for the
grace, and innocence, of the young. Though come to think of it, that glance was definitely not innocent.

I pass through the lobby. Could they suggest Aloe Vera for my skin? They could indeed. I retire to my room to shower and apply layers of oil. I observe my reflection. A faint resemblance to a sautéed underfed lobster.

I wake later to flames marching down my back and across my shoulders. Dressing for this concert proves challenging, but luckily, hours later the concert is over. Relief. I am on fire. Sleep beckons and I crave my solitude.

I spend Thursday bemoaning my lobster-like state. Gray eyes is on afternoon shift and brings me drinks whenever Amery is lax. I believe I am not good company by the looks that pass between the two. Amery insists on staying by my side, however. Incorrigible.

Sleep is an uneasy and fitful friend. Friday looms near and threateningly similar. I take painkillers. I may still look poached, but at least I can’t feel it, so I take a walk with Amery. Amery takes hold of my hand like it is something precious. Am I completely unaware of his feelings? There is no response to a direct attack. This Amery has wiggled himself into my holiday and stolen my calm self-possession. The afternoon is spent in joyful discovery of a kindred spirit. I amaze myself.

It is Saturday. My week is almost over. A last day to sit and watch the ocean. A last day to indulge in endless chatter with my Amery. It is warm and my skin requires the shade. I am happy in his company. I am aware of the each of the hour. There are rare quiet moments today. It is as though we know every word matters. Amery’s silence is gone. All the words he thought he had said and done with now tumble out in a fever. I am not silent either.

 I shall always remember my Saturday. There is nothing said I wish to repeat. Our words are for us alone. I just know it has opened a world of possibility where once I saw inevitability. Only six days? Who could credit it? Sometimes it takes the smallest amount of time to work the greatest changes imaginable. I look over at the bed in my little room and see his peaceful face sleeping there. Somewhat cynically, I smile at my contentment, such a new phenomenon. Life has given me another chance and I go forward to grasp it with both hands. Sometimes a miracle comes

The sea air stirs my curtains and I cannot help but breathe in and fill my lungs to bursting point. A warm voice laughingly tells me to leave off from my solitary contemplation and come to bed. I look again at the quarter moon and reach out to close the blinds. I hesitate. Crawling into bed, I glance over at the wide-open view and wink at the stars and the moon.

Hikikomori, Alice Maher

Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash


The title Hikikomori refers to a Japanese social phenomenon whereby adolescents (and some adults) withdraw from the outside world to seek extreme isolation and self-confinement.

A Haibun is a Japanese form combining short prose with poetry; in this case, a haiku. 

I am not clover. My roots, if I have roots, run long and thin. I do not spread and I do not travel. My sun is an incandescent bulb, and it does not move across my ceiling sky. My days and nights are not bound to natural lights. If I am awake, it is day. I sleep, and it is night. Food is left at my door, coldly waiting for me to creep to it. Morning meals of bread and miso arrive when I am tired. Evening meals of rice and fish accompany my waking yawn. Sometimes I eat and am grateful. Sometimes, craving warmth like the clover I am not, I venture to a darkened kitchen and heat an always-full kettle.

Mother’s love for me

Cup ramen in the cupboard

Never running out

I may not travel, but every day I journey. My portal awaits, one of three choices, but the one I always take. One is a third-storey window that leads nowhere I care about. It is death, and I am not quite desperate enough to step out yet. One is a door, safe at certain times. Quick dashes to the bathroom and the kitchen, hiding my body from my mother like it’s a game we agreed to play. My portal sits on the desk and hums in a soothing voice. Its light is more important than the bulb, far more important than the sun. I step through, plodding familiar paths. Here, people are words. I am also words, when I choose to be. Mostly, I like to be eyes.

Eyes that see a world

Where ‘avatar’ means more than

Simple godly things

Every so often, my journey is interrupted. My god-eyes turn away from the screen, to give my human ears a chance to hear. Voices: Mother. And some other. Noises like murmuring, but harsher, more demanding. I sit in the dark and ignore their building rhythm. I ignore the breathy voices calling to one another. I do not hear the moment breathy becomes breathless. I squeeze a plastic cup of broth, willing warmth back into it. But it has sat for hours, quite stale. Nothing I want anymore.

I feel a leaving

I sit and almost enjoy

The sound of sobbing

I never understood the human world. I am like a beast, hiding in my hole through an endless winter. Humans pass over my buried head but do not disturb my sleep. Humans with their crying sounds. Humans with their human food, left on the ground at the entrance to my burrow. Humans with their animal coupling and their human way of complicating even simple things. My mother is a human. I caught a glimpse of her recently, quite by accident. It was the time that humans usually spent in bed. I dashed from my shelter to satisfy my needs, but this time I was hunted. My mother’s face glowed in the dark. It burned a ghost behind my eyelids.

‘Kenji, listen dear.

I can’t do this anymore.

I’ll leave you some cash’

No more bread. No more fish. Some rice and miso has been left, optimistically, but I do not know how to make it into food. No more crying, or noise of any kind. I can walk the house freely, at any time. But still my room feels like the only space that belongs to me. I ventured into my mother’s room, half-fearful of her ghost. But there was a disappointing amount of nothing. My room grew fuller and fuller of stale smells, unwashed sheets and dishes. My mother’s room smelled like no human. I let it be.

What happens later

When the cup ramen runs out?

I eye the money

I am eight years old. My mother is holding me, and I am drinking in her warmth. My father has left us, and now we are a pair. That’s what my mother murmurs into my hair. You and me, we have to be strong now. I want to please you so much my stomach hurts. My hand curls around you right before you push me gently back. You stand, pulling me up with you. You tell me I am your special boy; no, your special man. I will look after you, I say. I know you will. I know.

Everything I am

Refolded, crammed further down.

We are now a pair

I start rationing the ramen. Every time I go to the cupboard and see the plastic towers dwindling, or refill the empty kettle, my heart empties too. Then, slowly, my stomach follows. I crawl on my belly like a snake, hugging pillows to my crushed abdomen. The money sits on the kitchen counter where she left it. A bundle of notes, and a credit card. I can’t breathe.

Come back, please mother.

I forget being a man

Please teach me again.

I tread delicately down pixelated paths, this time on a quest. I tap the keys, ignoring my usual sites. A map appears on the screen, of the area just outside my apartment. I barely recognise it. It looks dense, packed with buildings, roads, and other signs of human activity. Dots appear, a whole cascade of them. Are there really that many places that sell food nearby? My belly howls with impatience even as my tongue becomes swollen and stiff. I sift through the listings one by one, searching for key phrases.

Key phrases such as:

‘Open 24/7’

I start making plans.

The paths I tread now are hostile. It is 3:30am and I thought I would be safe from human eyes, but they persist. I dodge down side streets, lit only by foxfire lanterns leading on to homely haunts. Places mentioned on my map but unsuitable for my needs. The thought of sitting, ordering food, waiting among strangers and then eating among them, is far too much. Even my current mission, far more modest, sends my palms sweating. Everyone can see how uncomfortable I am. I am one of those stray cats, an abandoned pet to be turned back at any threshold I am presumptuous enough to approach.

Finally I see

Blue and green: ‘Family Mart’

Ironic perhaps.

Persecution, Swarna Pinto

Photo by Graham Ruttan on Unsplash

The solitary diner at table 13 was Rosa’s last customer. He was a regular who wore Armani suits and left generous tips. As she placed his bill on the table, she noticed the red onion rings from the salad and the skin of the grilled salmon on the edge of his plate. His napkin was on his left and as always he had placed the knife and fork parallel to each other in the centre of the plate, pointing to twelve o’clock.

‘Today is my last day here and you are our last customer.’

Bryon took his eyes off the journal and looked at Rosa and she said, ‘Perdón por molestarte.’

Bryon raised an eyebrow. ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Oops, I spoke Spanish. You are reading and I disturb. Sorry sir.’

‘I heard molest which… never mind.’

Rosa’s face burned as she stacked his dishes on her forearm. Bryon wanted to know what she had said before.

‘Just that I lost my job here and no one is hiring waitstaff until the Covid-19 pandemic is over.’

Rosa put the dishes back on the table and wiped her tears away with the back of her hands. Bryon was intrigued. The girl was making fists and using the dorsum to wipe tears like a small child. ‘Surely, there must be something else you could do?’

‘Yes. Cleaning, cooking, baby-sitting. But I don’t know anyone here.’ Rosa wiped her tears again.

‘If you can’t find any other job, you could come and clean my house in Camberwell, say for one hour each morning?’

‘Thank you, sir.’

 Bryon stood up and shook her hand. ‘I am Bryon. Bryon Felix. You are?’

‘Rosa Maria Sanchez.’

Sitting in a train on the way home Rosa saw a Metro train map stuck above the window and checked how to get to Camberwell. Two trains to go there and with her luck, a bus from Camberwell station to Bryon’s house. She’d have to spend the whole day in trains and buses. She would ask Irma to talk to her boss again.

Irma was Rosa’s friend. Both had been radical political activists in Colombia a few years ago and had fled to Australia when the protest organisers were being killed. They had arrived in Darwin on working holiday visas for 12 months and had run away from Darwin when their visa expired. Since then they had moved from state to state doing any work they could find. They had come to Melbourne last year and shared a room in a rundown share-house in Reservoir.

That night when Rosa came home Irma was kneading cooked corn meal to make arepas for their dinner.

‘That puta, Neela, never cleans up the stove top after cooking her curries. We should say something to Neela. What do you think?’


‘Okay? What type of answer is that? Look, I am going to stuff my arepas with cheese. What do you want?’

‘I said, okay.’

‘Rosie, what’s the matter? You didn’t hear anything I said.’

‘I don’t have a job anymore. They said when we reopen, make sure to bring your papers. I’ll never have papers. Why can’t I work with you? Make him give me a job. Please?’

‘He’s not hiring, Rosa. But I’ll ask him again.’

‘A customer offered me a cleaning job. Suppose I’ll take it. It’s the Armani guy. Irma, here, look at his card. Wait, wipe the flour off your hand first.’

‘Bryon Felix, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, Southern Health,’ she read it out. ‘Must be very rich to wear Armani suits.’

Each day that she cleaned, it took more than two hours for Rosa to get to Bryon’s house. Sometimes, she had to wait for up to half an hour until Dr Felix paid her. The work was not hard and she didn’t mind the occasional wait.

One day, Rosa found a $100 note on the sofa. She could buy shoes with it. This is not stealing, she reasoned. Maybe he was drunk last night. Would he look for it? Maybe it was not his? No, there weren’t any extra dishes in the sink this morning. What if he is checking on me? What if he contacts the police?

‘Dr Felix, this was on sofa.’

‘Thanks, Rosa. Please call me Bryon.’

A few days later, Dr Felix asked her to come in the evening for three hours to clean and cook dinner for him. Five to seven. When Irma heard this, she warned Rosa to be careful.

‘Why aren’t you looking for another job? You spend your whole day on trains. I think he’s going to get into your pants.’

‘Irma, he’s not like that.’

‘Ha? Forgot what happened in Darwin? Here, keep this knife in your apron pocket all the time. And keep the back door open.’

With the new work arrangement, it made sense for Bryon to ask Rosa to eat dinner with him. He liked this girl. She was clean and honest and funny. And she was lovely.

Rosa took leftovers home for her lunch the next day. If she finished her chores early, she could watch TV or read a book. Best of all, she could play the piano. After dinner, Bryon said thank you, good night and went to his room. Rosa put the dishes in the dishwasher and went out the back door.

One evening, Rosa was about to untie her apron when she saw Dr Felix standing at the doorway looking at her. She was startled, for he never came into the kitchen. Her hand flew for Irma’s knife in her apron pocket. She looked at the back door. It was closed. He’ll grab me from behind while I try to open the door, just like in Darwin. Rosa gripped the knife tighter. This one will be dead before he touches me. I’ll stab right through his heart, she thought.

Bryon saw Rosa’s pupils dilate and her chest heaving.

‘Hey, I didn’t mean to scare you. I just popped in to ask if you could bring my dry-cleaning tomorrow.’

‘Ah, yes, of course.’

‘You are bleeding,’ Bryon exclaimed.

Rosa followed Bryon’s eyes and saw a big red patch around her apron pocket. At the same time, her hand started to throb with pain. Dios mío! I am clutching the blade, not the handle. The red patch was getting bigger but she could not let go of the blade. There was a loud roar in her ears and everything became dark.

Up close, she saw clean white floor tiles. A bit further away, the tiles were dirty. They had dust balls on them. They were the tiles under the fridge. She was lying on the kitchen floor. Bryon’s voice drifted to her ears from above.

‘Let me help you up. You fainted. You have a nasty cut on your palm. I’ve applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.’

Bryon held Rosa close to him and Rosa rested her head on his shoulder while he led her to the bed in the guest room.

‘This wound needs stitches. Here, take these two capsules, they will numb the pain.’

Rosa woke up with a throbbing pain in her palm. From the dim light of the night lamp she saw that her palm was bandaged with white gauze. Her fingers poked out. I can’t remember him bandaging my hand. Dios mío.

Heart racing, Rosa stumbled into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. Her face was very pale but there were no bruises. She looked at her clothes. She was wearing all her clothes and underwear. The buttons on her blouse were all done. No buttons were missing or hanging loose. Her bra was fastened on the first hook, just the way she always did. She felt for the string of her tampon. No, she hadn’t been interfered with. Gracias a Dios.

Rosa glanced at the clock. It was 8.30pm. She could get home before eleven. She had just gone into the kitchen when Bryon came in. He was in his pyjamas but without the maroon silk dressing gown he wore when Rosa arrived in the mornings. She suppressed a sudden urge to smooth his dishevelled hair.

‘Rosa, go in the morning. You might faint again.’

‘I am okay.’

‘You don’t look okay. I put three stiches to close up that cut, you know.’

‘Thank you, I am alright. Where’s your dry-cleaning receipt?’

As she looked around for the receipt, the bench tops floated around her. She moved backwards and leaned her back against the pantry cupboard. Her sore palm bumped onto the edge of the cupboard and an intense lightning bolt of raw pain shot up from the wound. A whooshing noise blocked her ears. Bryon went over to her.

‘You can’t travel tonight. If you really want to go home, I’ll have to drive you.’

The benchtops stopped floating but the whooshing noise persisted. ‘I’ll stay,’ Rosa said in a small voice. He’ll know why I had a knife. It’s because… No need to think about Darwin. I am safe here.

All the way home early the next morning, Rosa was smiling to herself thinking how Irma would tease her, not believing that she had slept alone in Bryon’s house overnight. But Irma wasn’t anywhere to be found. Their room was untidy and Irma’s side of the wardrobe was empty. Rosa ran and banged on her neighbours’ door.

‘Neela, Neela, Ravi, open the door please. Irma’s missing. Her clothes are gone.’

Ravi came out of the room rubbing his eyes and closed the door behind him.

‘Police took her away. I think they are going to deport Irma. She was crying. They came around 2 o’clock. We couldn’t sleep after that.’

Rosa checked her phone, but there was no message from Irma. Terrified to contact Irma thinking it would give her away as well, Rosa gathered her belongings and went back to Bryon’s house. I’ll beg him to let me stay there until I find a place. I’ll work for nothing if he lets me stay.

Later that night, Rosa received a text message from Irma on WhatsApp.

‘Police said a friend dobbed on me. That’s why you didn’t come home last night. They’ll come for you too. I thought you were my friend, you puta.’

Not caring for repercussions, Rosa texted back saying, ‘Irma, please believe me, I stayed here because I cut my hand and fainted. I don’t know how this happened.’

Rosa’s message sat there in her WhatsApp, never reaching Irma.

Since that day, Rosa had lived at Bryon’s house. She kept the house and the garden. She tended to the orchids in the front yard and made a little herb garden at the back. Bryon was the kindest person Rosa had ever met in her life. As she did not have to pay rent or for transport and food, she saved money and bought a bicycle.

I could buy a small used car. But what’s the use? Without a visa I can’t get a car registration or a licence. I am stuck.

One night over dinner, Bryon told how his wife left him after three years of marriage. He blamed himself for that. Those days, after finishing his theatre lists in public hospitals, he’d do surgery in private hospitals. He came back home around one in the morning or sometimes even later.

Rosa told him about her life in Colombia. Both her parents were school teachers. She was the only child. Even when she was a science undergraduate, she was an anticorruption activist. She was involved in protests against proposed reforms to the education system and later against austerity measures of the government. The government was corrupt and Rosa had been involved with a group who were planning to overthrow the government. She talked about the protests she and Irma had attended. She told how her parents borrowed money and sent her to Australia because the government was killing protest organisers.

 ‘I had a boyfriend, nothing serious.’ She couldn’t talk about the Darwin incident or Irma’s deportation.

‘You must miss your family. When are you going to visit them?’

 ‘I can’t go there. I have no visa.’

‘I had no idea.’

Rosa explained the application process and Bryon told he’d find a good lawyer for her. Their platonic relationship changed sometime after that. Who fell in love first was talked about at length but never resolved.

Rosa was excited after securing an appointment with Kevin Flintheart, a famous immigration lawyer in Collin Street. But the day before the appointment Rosa woke up with a high fever and Bryon postponed the appointment. Although Bryon suspected Covid-19, he could not risk taking Rosa to a hospital to be tested because Kevin had said that no one must know her whereabouts yet. He had warned that in case of an arrest and subsequent removal from Australia, it would be near impossible for Rosa to return to Australia.

Rosa was moved into the guest room and Bryon cared for her. He wore full protective gear when he went to check on Rosa. He gave her strict instructions. Stay in this room. No cooking. No cleaning. Don’t even go to answer the home phone. Use disposable plates, cups and cutlery. He would bring food after work.

On the first night that she felt well again, Rosa cooked a delicious Colombian dinner. She could see that Bryon was pleased to see her up and about.

‘I do shopping tomorrow?’

‘Rosa Maria, listen to me. You can’t go out yet.’

‘You buy bad vegetable,’ she pouted.

‘Vegetables. Listen. Your visa appointment with Kevin is in three days. Please stay inside until then.’

The next morning, Bryon woke up cranky. He couldn’t eat his favourite breakfast of eggs and chorizo. His tie was askew and he let Rosa fix it. Saying, ‘Stay in, bye,’ Bryon drove off to work.

He felt tired walking across the car park. He swiped his card and went in. The corridor seemed unusually dark and much longer that morning. On his right was the Pathology department. He wondered how many tests they had conducted during the last 24 hours. How many of them had been positive? Concealed behind the Pathology was the morgue. He was proud of the fact that he had not sent anyone there in his 30 years of service here.

‘You’ll end up there yourself,’ an ugly inner voice told him. A cold shiver ran up and down his spine. He should go back. But his legs carried him forward.

He was startled as a nurse in full protective gear appeared from behind a little alcove and motioned him to stop. He froze as she pointed a gun straight at his forehead. Bryon had a terrible urge to reveal everything. Look, I have cared for someone who was sick. I have been very careful. I haven’t put anyone in danger. Please, don’t tell anyone. But no words came out of his mouth. The nurse kept the gun very close to Bryon’s forehead with a steady hand. He held his breath while his heart raced. The gun beeped and he took a step forward.

‘Mr. Felix, please stop. Mr. Felix? You are running a fever. Have you been in close contact with any confirmed or suspected Covid-19 cases?’

Bryon was speechless. The nurse waited a few moments and pointed towards the alcove.

‘Please wait over there. I’ll call someone to take you to the fever clinic. They’ll test you for Covid-19. Standard procedure, I’m afraid.’

Covid-19? They’d quarantine him for two or three weeks. He should call Kevin and tell him what to do. Rosa mustn’t miss her appointment. His fingers kept pressing wrong buttons on the phone. He was light-headed and covered in a cold sweat by the time he managed to call Rosa.

‘Hola?’ He heard her sweet voice but found that he could not talk. The phone slipped from his hand and fell on to the tiled floor of the corridor. He heard the faint sound of hospital chimes and wondered why they weren’t loud as usual.

Rosa heard the phone clattering. Almost immediately she heard ear piercing chimes followed by a measured female voice saying, ‘Respond blue, corridor near Pathology.’ She then heard some hurried footsteps and soft murmurings before Bryon’s phone went quiet.

After worrying and crying all through that day and the next, Rosa called Kevin.

‘Bryon not come home two days now. He called yesterday but didn’t talk to me. After that his phone’s not working. Something happened to him in the hospital.’

Later that day, Kevin rang Rosa and said that Bryon had suffered a stroke. He also had Covid-19 and no one could see him. Kevin would be in touch with Rosa. She should stay home.

Rosa had been waiting for days expecting a call from Bryon or Kevin when one evening a black car came to a sudden halt in the driveway. Rosa hid behind the curtains and watched. A well-built middle-aged man in a cheap black suit got out and strode towards the door. Rosa held her breath while he knocked. After a few minutes, he went back to his car. He stood looking around for a while before getting in and driving off. Immigration? A detective hired by Irma’s parents?

Ten minutes later, Rosa sprinted out of the side gate. She wore dark clothes and carried a large backpack. The rhythmic sound of her running feet faded away as she disappeared into the gathering darkness.

Yellow, Aylish Dowsett

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

You’re nervous.

You’ve wiped the sweat from your palms three times now. Yet your hands still shake. A little tremor. Nothing too violent.

You choose the powder blue shirt over the others, matched with silver cufflinks. They’re scratched, but they do just fine. They’re your lucky pair.

You readjust your shirt as it sticks to your back, the scent of lemon seeping from your skin. She bought you that. You liked the smell.

I would’ve chosen the burgundy shirt. Gold cufflinks. But I am merely an observer. A silent spectator if you will. My favourite quote about me says

“the trouble is

you think you have Time.”

Buddha was correct. I am limited. I have no control, just as you do when you are born. And when you will die.

You look up, squinting against the fading light. The bruised sky watches you back. As do the trees, the cedar wood bench and the swings in the distance. A couple hurries past you, umbrellas swinging from their arms. You’ve chosen a good spot. You’re proud.

The bruised sky grumbles and you reach for your own umbrella. Blue plastic fans out over you like a protective shield. The rain begins to fall, tapping lightly, like tiny excited feet. You wait.

But it wasn’t always like this for you. You’re happy. If I take you back, it won’t be that far. Let’s start off with four years, shall we? The shadows of your past are still a part of you, after all. Isn’t that what you humans say about me?


It was cold. Dark. Damp. Mould clung to the air as cockroaches do to food. The wallpaper was peeling, curling over like long, overgrown toenails.

You hated it.

You didn’t want to live there.

But you did it for her.

For the both of you.

You were moving the last of the boxes from the van. Beads of sweat rolled down your forehead, so you used your t-shirt to wipe it away.

Navy, with white edges.

She appeared at the back door, with gloved hands and grass stains on her golden, bare legs. A grin shone across her face. Your eyes slowly grazed her body as she walked towards you and took your hand. Her yellow dress melted into your blue. You smiled.


But remember the first time you fought? I know it’s unpleasant to recall.

There was shouting.


Puffy eyes.

You broke your favourite bowl. You’d made that together.

She stormed out.

You didn’t follow her.

And then you did.

That was three years ago.

You got through it.


Now, what about that time when you performed on stage? I remember it clearly. It was dim and smoky. Hundreds of hunched eyes watched you.

You only did that because of her. Because she pushed you.

Believed in you.

Gave you the courage

to believe in yourself.

She squeezed your hand, her dark eyes sparkling as you went on stage.

And my, what a performance it was. You brought the house down, as you humans would say. I knew you had it in you. I always did.

That was two years ago. My, how you’ve grown.


We can go back further, you know. I may be limited for you, but for me, I am eternity.

I promise you this won’t hurt. Only a little.

This was before all of it. Before her.

You were sitting at the back. You were slouching, with your feet slung over the seat in front of you. Arms folded. You wore a jumper, with the hood pulled over your face.

Cobalt, with frayed drawstrings.

The room began to fill up. People sat with their friends. Chatted. The air became thick with it. But you stayed back. Kept your arms folded.

You wanted to be alone.

It was better that way.

Everyone fell silent as someone approached the stand. You were having a guest lecturer that day. A student from another university.

You rolled your eyes, preparing to absorb yourself in your own thoughts. Your mind was not a bad place. It just hurt. Memories seared the edges.

But as you began to drift away, you stopped.

The guest lecturer.

Her pale, yellow blouse seemed to shimmer as she spoke. Her voice carried across the theatre. Powerful. Fiery.

You were hypnotised.

You’d never seen so much


and beauty

from someone before.

As the lecture ended, people drowsily got to their feet. Some ran. Others stumbled out the door.

But not you.

You could have walked past like everyone else.

Out into the sunshine.

But you chose to wait.

You walked slowly down the stairs,

waiting for people to leave.

She gathered her things.

Smiled at other students.

And then you walked straight towards her.

My, were you brave.

You said you loved her lecture. You stuttered. She smiled.

And you walked out into the sunshine together.

It was that moment in Time that changed it all.

Changed everything for you.

For both of you.

You took a chance.

Lived in the moment.

Time changed. Your life shifted.


The rain thumps on your umbrella and it is now dark. A golden streetlamp glows nearby. The lights of cars flicker behind the trees.

You’re nervous.

You slide your hand into your pocket, pressing the outside of a small box to your skin. You hope she likes it. Loves it.

And then you see her.

She rushes towards you, her dark curls tucked under her hood.

She laughs when she sees you. Saying how cold the rain is. She forgot her umbrella.

You cradle her against you, her wet cheek nestling against your blue shirt. You smile and kiss her forehead.