Tag Archives: Borderlines

The Errand, Ramona Kennedy

 

‘Have you been speaking to the police?’

Amina stood in the foyer of the station house, holding the phone a few centimetres from her ear to compensate for the shouting. Around her, uniformed police officers came and went. Others sat across from ashamed individuals, filling out wide charge sheets in carbon papered triplicate. To her left was a short concrete corridor of closed wooden doors, decorated with green paint and metal spittoons and signs that read ‘No Spitting on the Floors’. The whole place smelt of men’s cigarette smoke and inaction.

‘I haven’t had a chance to get to the police station yet.’ Who did this defence lawyer think he was, trying to extort money out of her?

Five minutes ago, Amina had stood feet apart, mouth open, shock melting into fiery anger as the female desk officer had explained Public Defence lawyers are salaried by the government and should not be charging individual fees. Amina had watched the policewoman remove a scrap of paper from under the counter, write ten numerals on it and slide it across the wooden bench. She had stepped back, taken out her mobile phone and called the number. She’d recognised the corrupt lawyer’s voice, the same one who’d contacted her at home, and greeted him with a calm edge of politeness.

‘Tell me again, how much the fee is for the defence?’ The scoundrel had been all business.

‘Two thousand, and you need to get the money to me by Friday.’

‘I can do that.’

Amina took a slow breath and allowed the evil fellow an extra second to believe the money was coming. ‘Only, I have just heard the legal services your department provides are free, and in fact I should not have to pay you even one cent for what you are doing for my daughter. Is that correct?’

And then he was shouting. ‘Have you been speaking to the police? Do not tell them I have asked you for any money or there will be trouble.’

‘I haven’t said anything to anyone.’

The police officer’s eyes were averted down. She was dipping a long calligraphy brush into a glass gluepot, pasting forms together. Her lips were pursed lightly against a smile.

Time to seal the deal. ‘So then, you won’t be requiring any extra payment from me?’

‘No.’

The lawyer ended the call.

Amina put her phone back in her handbag. Right. That was the legal fee attended to. She approached the desk officer again, holding the package of bread, dried fruit, nuts and clothing.

‘I would like to see my daughter, Rahima Ibrahim.’

‘Oh yes.’ The officer looked through a thick logbook. ‘I’m sorry but she has been moved from this station to the detention facility outside of town.’

‘How do I get there?’

‘Prisoners are not allowed visitors until they are convicted.’

‘But I am her mother.’

‘Not even family.’

‘I was told to travel here so I could see my daughter.’ She had never travelled in an airplane before. She needed the cabin attendant to help her with her seatbelt.

‘If she were still here, I would allow you to see her. But un-convicted criminals are not allowed visitors at the main complex.’

One thing on the phone and another when you turn up in person. Who was to know these sorts of rules existed? Amina indicated the goods at her feet. ‘Can I get this package to her?’

The desk officer leaned over the bench. ‘Let me check the contents.’

Amina followed her to the wooden desks at the back of the room and lifted the bundle onto the desktop. ‘It’s just food and clothes.’

‘I need to check them.’ The police officer untied the string and unwrapped the brown paper. She removed each piece of clothing and bag of food and arranged them on the desktop. Then she reordered everything into two piles. The clothes were placed in a neat pile back on the brown wrapping paper.  The fruit, nuts and bread were left where they were on the table.

‘I can make sure the clothes get to her, but she is not allowed to receive food.’

‘I was told she wasn’t eating the prison food.’

‘Prisoners on remand are not permitted to receive food parcels.’

No food. No calls. No visits. No mothers. Amina’s eyes were hot. This middle-aged police officer would also be a mother to someone, of course she would be. Amina collected up the unwanted flatbread, nuts and dried fruit into a pile. The godless and the believer share the same struggle in this world, but the believer knows greater suffering. They are left to wonder why.

The policewoman wrapped and retied the smaller package of clothes using the same paper and string and set it aside on a metal filing cabinet. She looked directly at Amina.

‘Would you like to know the circumstances of your daughter’s arrest?’

‘Tell me whatever you can.’ The only information so far was from that crooked defence lawyer.

‘Wait a minute.’

Amina watched her disappear down the green corridor and into one of the smoky rooms, heels clicking on the bare floor. She can’t be planning to catch any criminals in those shoes. Amina looked down at her own feet. She was also wearing good shoes, the sort saved for an afternoon at the department store, fondling unaffordable clothes and bags. Shoes meant for temporary incursions into the better worlds of other people.

The police officer clicked her way back out of the corridor, carrying a brown envelope. At the desk she laid it down and unwound the string from the sealing eyelet. Opening the flap, she pushed her fingers into the envelope and brought out a pile of thin papers covered in blue handwritten characters and inked red with official stampings.

While she read silently through the docket, Amina strained to pick out a few things from the upside-down scratchings.

…7.35am train…

…520g…

…female restaurant owner…

The officer looked up. Amina snapped back in her chair. Was she too obvious in leaning forward? God. Now was the time to look as complacent as possible. This could be her only chance to hear the charges.

‘Rahima was stopped when alighting at the city station. Her bag was searched and almost 300g of heroin was found. Although Rahima had stated it was not her bag, she admitted she had been given money by the owner of the restaurant to travel with the bag. When officers went to find the restaurant owner, she had left town.’

The restaurant owner? Wearing her headscarf like a true Muslim and on the side running a heroin business! No doubt the whole time saying God this and God that. God on her tongue but not in her heart. Amina wanted to pull off the restaurant owner’s headscarf and wave it in the air yelling, ‘Shame!’ She had no doubt disappeared back into her home village by now. The local police officers would either be her old schoolmates, or her brother – one of the village elders.

The desk officer packed the case details back into the envelope and rewound the sealing string. Amina was shaking, watching her work. When she looked up the policewoman was taking in the details of her appearance. Headscarf, gold earrings, flowered shirt, diamante brooch in the shape of a pomegranate flower, three-quarter length skirt, stockings and department store shoes.

‘You’ve never been to this city before, have you?’

‘No.’

‘From here, go straight back to your hotel room. Tonight, don’t go walking anywhere. Keep inside the hotel and eat at the hotel restaurant. In the morning, get a taxi from the hotel straight to the train station. It is not safe in this city for people like you. You need to get back home as soon as possible.’

 

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Ketchup, Evangeline Hester

‘Did you know that a fifth of the world’s ketchup comes from Xinjiang?’

‘Mmph?’ Jonah’s mouth was full of hamburger.

‘Ketchup,’ Abigail repeated, ‘a fifth of it is from Xinjiang.’

Jonah swallowed. ‘Huh.’ He took another bite.

When she was thirteen, in the second term of her new school in Australia, Abigail wrote a play for Musical Theatre: Romeo & Juliet style. Lu Shan, a Han Chinese boy, (sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif), had fallen in love with Parida, a Uighur girl (my child, my child, my life, my life), but the riots of 2009 had their fate star-crossed yellow on red. Huang Hua, in unrequited love, gave her own life to save Lu Shan, but at the cost of Parida’s life when the riot police turned tear gas on the crowd.

Abigail paused for breath. ‘In hindsight, it’s more like Les Miserables.’

The class blinked slowly up at her. Dust twisted through the double-glazed windows and drizzled across the carpet.

A Fascinating Story, I’d love to see it in action! 14/15.

Jonah had never come to any of Abigail’s plays, even later when they were dating. For her final HSC piece, he had promised he would be there, then didn’t have any money for the train ticket down from the Central Coast and was too embarrassed to ask his parents. He got to the auditorium in time to watch her performance through the glass window that steamed his breath.

Her monologue was about a woman who fell in love with a dying man.

‘So little has changed.’ Abigail squinted at the sky of Smiles.

Abigail’s Dad flapped his arm over the road, sweat beading on his nose. Tuk-tuks rattled past, irritated by the pair’s much-too-accurate bargaining. Tourists were better fair. Although they were tourists now too.

Do you remember do you remember do you remember

This—this was the Yok where they shopped for groceries, for caramelised rice drizzled with palm sugar. And this was the road that was gravelled all the way up to the hotel and dust thereafter that flicked mud onto your calves as you shuffled in flipflops back from the pool. And this was how it felt to ride on the back of a cherry red Songtheaw—she had never been allowed to ride them as a child.

And this, oh, this was the Mekong Centre.

She ripped through the air-conditioned office corridors, kicking up memories with the dust. Here’s the kitchenette stacked with tea-stained ceramic mugs from too many afternoons of fika. Here’s a haphazard stack of post-it notes full of names embellished with asterisks. Here’s the dozens of posters on the walls—trailing borders around Central Asia, North-East Asia, and A-Muslim-Majority-Country-in-South-East-Asia.

Ever made up a secret code when you were a child?

Up and down humid flights of stairs and around and behind and over railings and up trees, playing freeze-tag with her past.

Abigail and her father slip into the meeting room on the wicker veranda above the resort’s pool. This is the reason they are here. It is Spring Conference, like they used to go to every year, back when they were one family.

But now a large agency had pulled out of the Mekong organisation, sparking a chain of withdrawals, and now a gathering Abigail remembered being 300 was down to 30. The organisation was closing, and this was the very last Spring Conference. This was why alumni were invited. Abigail is the only alumni child present.

The Kashgar markets, like in most desert cities, were a maelstrom of colour and noise, scent and sound. Guttural cries advertised coarse bundles of work-shift coverings and silken chains bearing silver talismans. Anointing oils bearing various spicy scents mingled with the sharp odour of camel dung and dusty sweat. Melons brushed with gleaming oil leaned against plucked carrion feathers, strewn beneath hanging carcasses of scavenger birds and their prey, wrapped in dirty cloth to deter flies or perhaps to conceal the age of the flesh. Women wandering through the throng boasted baskets of desert flowers and cacti needles. One stall displayed dozens of jars each filled with a different hue and texture of sand, another claimed medicinal mushrooms of richer spirit than the standard fare. A man with no beard and a breathy accent advertised sea shells all the way from Calsorme—a popular stall for men attempting to impress their jaded wives, or perhaps longing for a world of translucent waves that moved with the moon rather than the wind.

So went the tales of Momas to their grandchildren, wrapped in grey school-coats with scarves of red tied round their throats.

 

‘And now, an old favourite of Spring Conference—Storytime with Jean!’

Smiles blossom across the room as a woman, creaking with age and good humour, settles in the wicker chair, calling the children to her.

‘Now, this is the story of a Little Princess who lived in Nepal.’ Her voice quivers with smoky enthusiasm. ‘Now, do you know why she was a princess?’

The children chortle in agreement.

‘That’s right, because her father was the King!’ Jean points to the sky with one crooked finger.

And everyone followed that finger as it drew our protagonist down steep crags, up swirled tree houses, and, most riveting, across a flooded glacial river during the monsoon.

‘So the wind was rearing up! Like a tiger! And the rain was coming down in sheets! Crash, crash! And then I said- I mean, the Little Princess said—’

The adults chuckle. This is how it was every year. Jean would always start off intending to be clandestine about the source of her story, but in all the excitement (I mean, it was a monsoon) she would forget herself, and then forget that she had forgotten herself, and then, just in time for the finale:

‘And that is the story of how I—oh!—I mean the Little Princess, got to church in time for m—her friend’s baptism.’

‘Hey Jean,’ Abigail asks her later.

‘What, chicken?’

‘Why don’t you tell any stories from Tibet?’

‘Oh, well, I’m still working with those people you know. Perhaps one day when I leave. Stories about Nepal are, you know safer because they were, oh, twenty, twenty-five years ago!’ Jean winks. ‘I’m showing my age!’

The Exodus was brief and sharp, the edge of a knife held to the throat of a culture.

The first people to leave were the foreigners. The ‘m’s and the ‘mk’s, diplomats and diplomat’s wives.

We didn’t understand that we were the lucky ones. That this was only the beginning of Tibet 2.0.

Don’t tell the Party I said that.

 

The compressed air leaking out of the plane in a soft whoosh felt familiar, but it was one of the last times Abigail would feel it in her childhood.

She doesn’t remember much about that time. Was Dad seated somewhere else on the same plane, or did he take the next flight? Did we check overweight luggage, like we always did? What was the name of the woman we gave our dog away to?

The tails of planes on the taxiway shimmer like corners of a flag.

On the last night of the last Spring Conference Abigail catches David Penrose following the timeline of photographs across the walls. His first OC was all the way back in 1983, grainy in cutting-edge colour technology, and with a full head of hair.

‘Will you stay in Xi’an indefinitely?’ she asks. Abigail thinks ‘until you die’ would be a bit brusque.

‘God, no. I don’t want to retire in China. I’ll go back to England.’

‘Do you have connections there?’

Daniel nods. ‘Some.’
Abigail’s mother got into creative writing a lot before Abigail. Not because she was interested first, but rather because she was older, she flounced straight into a masters while Abigail was ‘stuck in drama queen year 9’.

‘What is your book about, Mother?’

‘It’s about… the… It’s about the response of a extended family to childhood sexual abuse. It’s about XinJiang… It’s about Uighurs… It’s about Muslims…’ Mum turns to Ray for help, ‘What else is it about?’

‘It’s about the impact of the political power over a culture,’ he says.

‘It’s a survival story, as well, focusing on one matriarch and her family,’ she says.

‘It’s a story of loss.’

‘Loss and survival.’

‘Drugs. The impact of drugs.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Powerlessness, of being… help me…’

‘Well just, family life.’

‘Control.’

‘Isn’t it? Yeah.’

The room is decorated with framed tapestries from XinJiang that have survived half a dozen cities. Pride of place is a Dutar. Abigail knows one song on the Dutar, but she doesn’t know the words because she never learned Uighur.

Abigail’s house has three Uighur items. A skirt (too small), a tiny model dutar (from Spring Conference in Chiang Mai), and the family carpet (won in an argument). Only the skirt was ever truly hers. It hasn’t fit for years.

I—I mean Abigail—used to write poems on stormy nights two years after her father remarried, three years after her mother remarried, five years after leaving Thailand and seven years after leaving China.

She had never spent more than two years in XinJiang; she had never spent more than two years anywhere. But everyone needed a home, right? A place to long for, to miss, to call heritage to, to boast about, my child, my child, my life my life—she whispered a Uighur proverb, but she did not remember it from XinJiang, no, she had asked her mother for a Uighur proverb to spice up her story, to give it authentic flavour.

Oh, don’t tell her I told you.

‘Did you know that a fifth of the world’s ketchup comes from Xinjiang?’

‘Mmph?’ Jonah’s mouth was full of hamburger.

‘Ketchup,’ Abigail repeated, ‘a fifth of it is from Xinjiang.’

The man I am calling Jonah swallowed.

‘Huh.’ He took another bite.

‘It’s one of the reasons that China values XinJiang so much. It’s full of coal and oil and natural gas, and a fifth of the world’s ketchup.’

He nods considerately. He’s always open to learning more about my home culture.

I don’t tell him that I learned that fact this morning from a Facebook video.

 

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Mornings with Doves, Judith Mendoza-White

When José María opened his eyes to the new morning, he knew this would not be an ordinary day. Apprehension tightened his eyelids as he snoozed the alarm, struggling to face the dim light of the early autumn sun and dismiss the irrational foreboding that kept him curled up under the blankets.

The ominous feeling tightened the pit of his stomach into a knot while he stood in the shower, lathering his body with soap and water to wash away the vague sensation of discomfort and fear. The dream came back to him with the sudden sting of the after-shave lotion: a dark, uncanny dream, as real as the water running down the sink. A dream in which he, José María, knew he was dead.

During breakfast, he tuned in to loud music on the radio and chatted to his wife and daughter, who were getting ready for work and school and only contributed absent-minded answers to his incessant, unusual small talk.  Eventually, alone with his thoughts in the overcrowded suburban train, he was forced to face the idea. He knew this was the last day of his life. The feeling, which had started as a mere aftertaste of last night’s dream, had now become an absolute certainty.

He walked the first of the three blocks that separated the underground stop from the insurance company where he worked, but stopped before reaching the busy intersection ahead. It was stupid to continue plodding along the noisy downtown street as if this was yet another ordinary weekday, avoiding the hurried passers-by who elbowed their way past him, the offending odour from last night’s garbage bins climbing to his nostrils. Wasting the last day of his life in front of the paper-crowded desk, just like every weekday of the last twenty-five years, would be even more absurd.

Retracing his steps, he turned the corner and walked to the nearby park where he often ate his lunch on warm, sunny days like this.  In what felt like a split second he found himself sitting on a sunny park bench, a large pot of chocolate ice-cream on his lap. Half a dozen doves cooed and picked at the gravel around him. José María stared at the half-eaten ice-cream. He did not remember buying it; it might as well have materialised in his hands by magic. The eerie sensation increased. How did he even get to this park? It did not look at all like the one where he usually sat during lunch breaks away from the office.

This dream has been playing up with my head, he concluded. With a sigh of exasperation, he pushed the ice-cream carton away.

He felt unusually tired. Leaning back on the bench, he thought of his wife and daughter. If this was indeed the last day of his life, shouldn’t he be spending these last hours in their company? Cecilia was doing a Math test that morning; she had mentioned it during breakfast. He imagined her eagerly jotting down figures at the school desk, the unbecoming uniform creased, her thick brown hair tied back in the usual careless ponytail. He smiled at the vision, which appeared so vivid that his fingers moved as if he could reach his daughter’s worried frown. At this point his daughter looked up and smiled at him, as if she could feel his eyes on her.

The image soon faded, and José María stretched his legs under the warm autumn sun that bathed the park, empty and still at that early morning hour. With a start he realised someone else was sitting at the opposite side of the bench.

‘Rodríguez?’ José María gasped, ‘Rodríguez, from General Villegas High School?’

The newly arrived nodded and smiled. The world was indeed a small place; what with running into an old high school friend in a small hidden park, lost in the hustle of downtown Buenos Aires. He had not seen his classmate, or thought of him, since the day his family moved away from the small country town almost thirty years ago. As he went to say this out loud, Rodríguez opened his briefcase and took out a crumpled paper; a page torn out of a school copybook. It was an unusual briefcase; it reminded José María of the school bags they both used to take to class. Rodriguez pointed at the figures on the paper.

‘The Math exam, do you remember? We both failed, like your daughter Cecilia’.

Irritated, José María thought that Rodríguez could not possibly know his daughter’s name, even less the result of the test she’d be doing this very minute. He went to say this, but instead heard himself telling his old school friend about last night’s dream.

Rodriguez listened in silence and then replied in a calm, matter-of-fact tone: ‘We are brought up in the fear of death; that’s the problem. Yet it is nothing but another form of life. A crossing… A transition, that’s all.’

A white dove fluttered its wings over José María’s shoulders, distracting him from the conversation. He threw his arms up in the air to scare it away. When he turned to his school friend, he found that he had left without a word of goodbye.

Shaking his head at Rodriguez’s lack of manners, José María thought that since the bench was now empty, he might as well lie down for a while and enjoy the sun before starting the walk home; perhaps even put a hint of tan on his white-collar, middle-aged skin.

When he tried to lie down though, he found the park bench was no longer a bench but a narrow, uncomfortable bed. No, it was a stretcher, a hospital stretcher; and the doves around him had turned into men and women dressed in white who leaned over him, placed weird gadgets on his mouth and his bare chest.  His wife’s teary face flashed amongst the others; José María tried to call her name, but the words refused to leave his dry, sandy throat. Cecilia stormed in, still wearing the ugly dark-green uniform. She pushed her way through the figures clad in white that surrounded him, trying to reach him, her voice breaking into sobs.

‘Dad! Daddy!’

Her mother put her arms around Cecilia, pulled her away from the scene. A sudden pain, sharp as the tip of a knife, stabbed José María’s chest as the voices and the faces around him faded in the distance.

He opened his eyes to Rodríguez’s soothing voice in his ears.

‘Nothing wrong with a good cry, my friend.’ Rodríguez’s hands were on his shoulders; an incorporeal, yet comforting gesture. ‘I used to cry my eyes out as well; at the beginning, that is. You miss them all so much, it’s only natural to see them in your dreams. You’ll get used to it soon enough, though. Sooner or later they’ll all cross the border and end up here, anyway. It’s only a matter of time. And time on this side, let me tell you, goes by real fast…’

Wiping away his tears, José María looked into Rodríguez’s eyes. They were the same eyes that used to smile at him in class, decades ago. It was then he realised he was staring at Rodríguez’s teenage face; smooth, unlined, unchanged.

Leaning back on the park bench, José María closed his eyes and allowed the white doves and the new knowledge to descend upon him. In this way he learned, while his eyes dried out and the last tears disappeared down his throat, that the dead dream too.

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Fenced In, Mykayla Castle

The phone call shouldn’t be such a damn struggle.

Your mobile sits on table, placid as anything, open to your contacts and waiting for a single tap. Earlier this morning, you climbed onto your kitchen counter to reach a glass on the top shelf. Right now, you aren’t sure you can bring yourself to raise an arm in your phone’s direction.

The bright screen fades a little, greyed out but not yet off.

You stand up and tread the familiar path from the dining room to the kitchen. Three steps forward and two steps left; you open up the fridge and stare at the half-eaten yoghurt and the glad-wrapped ham, the sticky brown layer on the second shelf.

What’s the worst that could happen? You are, at heart, a catastrophiser. Your mother says sometimes you need to get over yourself, and she’s not exactly wrong. This is one of those times.

You close the fridge.

She could be busy, you think, or her business could have shut down, or maybe she has one of those accents you really, really can’t understand and feel so incredibly terrible about—

Somewhere in the past, that kid you used to be is laughing, jumping out from behind doors and giving your poor mother a heart attack. That kid probably wouldn’t recognise the you behind your eyes. The tenth circle of hell is standing in your Mum’s kitchen, arguing with your own self-confidence.

Or, what’s left of the kid says, she will answer and ask you if you are ringing about a haircut, and what kind you want, and when you’re available, and if this time would work for you, to which you would say ‘Yes, a trim, Fridays, and yes’.

You stare, this time at the condensation ring left on the kitchen bench by your morning juice. Alright, but it’s not that simple.

It is, in fact, that simple.

And yet your phone screen has locked, and the blank, blackness of it feels like the inside of your head. A little cracked, a little useless, a lot like Nietzsche’s void.

Just do it, you tell yourself, exasperated.

You go sit on the couch instead. Ten steps forward from the kitchen. your laptop is on the coffee table. You scoop it up, speed through the password and switch screens from the hairdresser’s Facebook to the one that is halfway through YouTube’s instant regret playlist.

The leaden feeling in the pit of your stomach stays, shifts to a crackle of kinetic energy. Though you hold yourself still and utterly immovable, it shivers through your fingers until you clench them closed.

You make it through about twenty weird memes before you crack and pause it.

‘I really do need a haircut,’ you say out loud, as if that will speak it into being. You haven’t had one in about six months, and your cute little bob has started to look more like a mullet. You had to swap hairdressers when you moved, but they didn’t do a great job.  You still took the loyalty card when they offered it, though.

Your sister recommended this salon to your mother, and then to you. It isn’t that you’re afraid of the actual cut itself; if it turned out a disaster, it’d grow. That’s what hair does. You aren’t scared of making a fool of yourself on the phone, you do that pretty frequently and at worst, you’d just never contact the hairdresser again.

Sometimes, you aren’t precisely sure what holds you back.  You can do each of these individual things: tap a number, make a phone call, schedule a meeting, maintain a polite conversation, tap the red ‘end call’ circle. You’re very certain on this point: you’ve done harder things in life. This should not be a stumbling block.

And yet. And yet.

You think of it like this: there is a fence in front of you — invisible, but you know it’s there, pickets and all. You know, because whenever you come near it there is the tectonic tremble and the fault lines in your veins. Others step around it, or over it, or through it, but you stop and stare, trying to convince yourself that with every step forward you won’t trip, your toe won’t stub on air. Sometimes you walk away from the fence, and when you return, it isn’t there. Often, you are stuck at the same patch of dirt that you were before. Immobile.

Mobile. The phone. It strikes you, as it does every time, that the fence might not actually exist. You picture, clear as the sky outside, that in one of the planes of the multiverse there is a version of you that has stood in the kitchen with a phone pressed to their ear and smiled as they asked for a trim.

You go and take a shower. De-greasing your hair is a chore, but it makes you feel more human. You’re reluctant to leave the water, but your skin gets itchy from the hot water and your fingers are hollowed with canyons, like a strange second fingerprint, from being under for too long. Your clothes stick slightly to your skin in the humid air.

The phone is still where you left it.

Sometimes, it is that easy. Outfit and artifice go hand in hand and pull you along. It looks, it speaks, it sounds like a person, it must be a person. This is the sort of fence you try to trick, wander up with a fake moustache and a silly hat and bluff through it, as if it’s more of a gate.

It is not that kind of fence today.

 

She picks you up on Friday, and she tells you all about her tattoo— pink and pretty, she says she’s been wanting it for years You believe her, but you remember when you were both in Year Nine at school and she wore flannel and had an attitude on the weekend. Did she want a pink tattoo then? It was a lot of petals for someone who liked the colour black.

Her car is too stuffy, the aircon on low (God knows neither of you can afford more petrol), the windows a little bit broken. It’s too hot outside. Off the water, the breeze is cooler. She picks up a pane of glass for her father,  you go get lunch, then she drops you home.

You had taken your phone with you of course, but somehow it feels like it never left that table.

 

Afternoon light leaks into your room one drop at a time, greenhouse warm and wholly taken advantage of by the cat. The rush of cars and the blaring horn of a train echo distantly. Swaddled in sunshine and cotton, on the verge of a nap, it’s pure chance that you hear anything at all, let alone the dull vibration of your phone.

 

hey

Squinting at the screen, brain soft and tired and floppy, you feel your heart scrunch up into a smile.

howdy aha

what’s up

not much tbh just like. Life

ahhhh yes like it has been for the last 20 years

why are you like this

anyway wanna come over? i have donuts

lol sure

 

It’s warm inside the blanket burrito, and you’re about as functional as melted cheese. It’s hard to overthink. You hesitate a bit, but you punch in the number you’d saved weeks ago. And, just like you knew they could, your thumbs move. A compromise.

Hey is this jacey? I was wondering if i could book in a trim, thanks!

Send.

You haul yourself out of bed. The cat complains. You shove errant feet into jeans and then socks and then shoes, check the water bowls and lock the door when you leave. You hook your phone to the car, choose the playlist you want, turn it up. You leave the street.

And the world doesn’t end.

 

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Border Crossing, Pooja Biswas

I set out on a pilgrimage

over the northern plains

     of ice-steeped grass

and stones round as knuckles,

breezes sharp as kite strings.

 

so far from the sea

     was I & yet

so near to the sky, the clouds

    hovering

like small parachutes,

      descending bodies

invisible in the glare. reduced

to threads, mere threads

     of light, oh sun. why

do you hide death.

 

birds solitary as footless

     minstrels, singing heat

down upon the curling curves

    of snow-dust, evaporating

as softly as love-sighs, spirit-whispers

      from pale mouths. the earth a

gently rolling corpse.

 

I left in order to put in order

     a great many things, wings,

notes left unwritten, unfurled. dangling

participles. shoes & the feet in them

          seemed ludicrous here,

raw-bone ache and callused blisters

making of the body a pulsing knot,

         centered on two points

                hot needles.

 

     & still the sun sketched

perfectly geometrical shapes.

the wind rolled back & took

the black shrubs with it, bent them until

they touched their sturdy heads

          to the soil.

 

the terrible tides

the perilous undertows of love

   their impossible depths

& the heart within them,

desperately toothless

   swallowing loss.

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No Woman’s Land, Teresa Peni

There were no spaces left to lay down on the grass, so quite a few ladies sunbathed on the rocks that circled the women’s sea pool, like lizards, like litter, like a colony of seals. Their luminous arses wreathed the giant sandstones.

I looked at them and thought, I was twenty-something, once. I debated taking up residence in the old handball court up the back corner, usually the reserve of saddle-bagged pensioners or hairy-lipped lesbians. Rocks or court?

The court was supposed to be a quiet space, there was a new sign—no music, no talking, no phones—what wasn’t specified but everyone knew, no clothes. One woman was already there, baking herself like an overcooked gingerbread. This snug, private corner was created by two adjoined concrete walls; this had once been a space for fit girlies to bounce balls around when it wasn’t the done thing do in public.

The woman slept. Thirty-ish, was my quick assessment. A sliver of shade cowered in the corner. I put my things there, as far away from her as possible.

Down the steep cliff steps to the sea pool; time for a swim, time to cool off and get a feel for the place. Time to fit in. The water was busy. There are too many people in the world already. One or two strokes were all I achieved before some Russian dame with her hair piled up nearly kicked me in the head. All shapes and colours, some of the women were swimming topless, others kept themselves discreet in shorts and singlets. A Muslim mother and daughter explored the rock pools in their burkinis. We all frog-kicked, floated, caressed the clean seawater, and avoided putting our feet down on urchins.

Talk, talk, talk, so many women, so many words. Beside me I heard Chinese interspersed with English: ‘Never again, I said!’

Crones exercised their flabby arms with aqua punches; ultra-slim teens minus any pockmarked cellulite slid their perfect thighs into our cool green world like elegant herons. They’d never drank alcohol, you could see it in their skin.  I took possession of the pool corner that poked out into the ocean, carved straight into the rock, and faced a blue horizon. Cleansing waves spilled over the edge, I let the frizzy foam spray all over my face. Like my husband’s gush. I thanked the sea for its Merlin healing tricks, Mother Earth for her massaging wetness.

Back up the cliff in the hot court now lazed three Arab women: a pair of sisters or maybe best friends, twinning, had arrived and spread out in the space between the lone lady and my sarong; two designer handbags bullied my beach bag, competing for the shade. Perched on their elbows in unison, their set of buttocks were lithe shiny olives intersected with G-strings. Why did women show their bottoms at the beach nowadays? I found it a bit off-putting. I remembered when going topless was all the rage, but we don’t really do that anymore, except down there in the Ladies’ Pool where men can’t particularly see us unless they’re kayaking past, hell-bent on a fitness mission. Everyone used to do it, didn’t they? Or was I remembering it that way because I was young back then, and that’s what we young people did. Getting your tits out in public had felt rebellious, even though it was okay by law; it was a political freedom. They’re just nipples, get over it! Blokes didn’t seem to mind at all, although it wasn’t something you did in front of your Dad. These days it’s a bit outrageous—my kids died of embarrassment and begged me to put my top back on at Cave Beach. Ahh, I see now—you do it with your friends. But now my friends were more inclined to cover up their post-baby bosoms, wracked with hard labour and gravity. I wondered if there was a link between the feminisms of the day and which body parts we exposed when sunbathing… perhaps there were also variations depending on one’s age.  I tried on a bummier costume in my mind.

The pair started chatting at full volume, waking the first woman from her sun trance.

‘You look like my friend Fatima,’ I couldn’t help but overhear. She was indeed a Fatima, but not the one from Bankstown. This nude Fatima kept her knees together enough to keep her secrets.

In my head I pointedly re-read the rules under the QUIET sign. It distinctly said, no loud talking. My jaw wobbled but I decided not to be a fussy old cow, in case they thought I was being a bit racist. Then, one of the sister-friends turned her phone volume up to torture me with some shitty dance-pop. I stuffed my earpods in and stripped my wet swimmers off, resigning myself to bronzing the parts of me that still looked Irish.

The summer holidays were over; I was free again. This trip to McIver’s Ladies Baths was to celebrate my kids going back to school. Nourish myself. I needed to un-tether from their universe. God this was lovely. It was so hot, the twins decided to go for a swim.

I finally gathered the courage to turn over, I needed to cook my other side. My pubes were sparse—it’s a fact of life they don’t tell you that happens after forty—balding. All those years of waxing etc and now I wish I had more lushness down there; it’d be ironic if Seventies-style bush became a thing again. Lying flat on my back, my tummy-fat roll stretched out in a less offensive way. Sweat dribbled down between the cracks. A big floppy hat covered my face to protect it from burning. I am a naked flower.

A timeless minute went by.

Sloshy wave sounds and cicada drone rolled through the heat.

Then, a little boy, maybe three or four years old, climbed the short fence separating the handball court from the grassy area where his mother sat, and perched himself up there, hovering right above my face. This was not how my day was meant to go, I had just dropped my son off at the school gates, I’d done my time. He was ruining the moment.

The Arab girls were back and cooed sweetly, giving him the attention he craved, ‘What’s your naaaame?’

Don’t encourage him.

He clung like a monkey to the fence, making toddler chirrups, settling in for more of their girl-love. A helicopter buzzed along the coast so I shifted my hat to hide my yoni from the sky.

‘Go see Mummy,’ I urged, ‘Bye bye.

‘No, no, no,’ he shot back, and rearranged his penis, staring at my nipples as if it were lunchtime.

That. Was. It.

Excuse me, is this your son?’ I thrust my head over the fence to locate Mum. She was mid-conversation with a girlfriend, having a good old time. My boobs wobbled under my sarong as I spoke: ‘He’s staring at me and I don’t like it.’

He was probably only two, but I had not driven all the way across the city to this sanctuary for women, only to have a boy feel a throb. I didn’t care if he was just a kid. I registered the look of horror crawl over her face when she realised I was accusing her baby of being weird just now.

Words kept spilling out of me: ‘I have just dropped my child off for his first day of high school, so I don’t feel like babysitting,’ and promptly lay down again like a collapsing deckchair. I felt like crying.

All that mediation was obviously not working. I had failed some test. I remembered a meme from Instagram earlier in the day: It’s a lot easier to be angry at someone than it is to tell them you’re hurt. Your son is hurting me.

I miss my little boy.

The Arab sisters couldn’t believe it. There was a ‘discussion.’ They included Fatima. All three looked at me as if I’d levitated. I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying because (a) the language barrier, and (b) I’d jammed the earpods back into my boiling head. Instead, I caught the eye of the presumably elder sister and held up my hand—flat palm facing down to the ground, then twisting the wrist so my palm faced up again, then flickered it back and forth—palm down or palm up? Was that okay, what I just did?

She grimaced and gave me a weak thumbs-up.

You young ones, you’re people-pleasers, I thought.  But her eyes said, Wow, you just did that?

Yes. Yes, I did. He was annoying us all, admit it.

That was another thing about aging, you give different zero fucks.

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