Tag Archives: family

my grandmother’s charm bracelet, Ceilidh Newbury

Photo by Sabina on Unspash

my grandmother’s charm bracelet was awarded highly commended in The Quarry – Future Leaders Creative Writing Prize 2020


my inheritance part one
the fourth time we meet it isn’t in person
it’s in my inheritance
a chain that threads little silver pieces of you
i run them cold through my fingers and try
to hold your hand

the hedgehog
the hedgehog is a mother with spines like nails
to protect her children your four stubborn sons
you’re in a new house this third time frail and shrinking
nervous to touch you lest like moth dust i wipe away something important
but in old photos you are fierce

a silver sixpence in her shoe
the end of a rhyme something borrowed
from the british i had to look it up no one could explain this charm
if true your father tucked the coin into your shoe and watched
you limp on blistered heel into your (un)happy future

the lamp
god’s word was a lamp that guided you to start
you lived a little lost your faith forgotten in a box of memories or stuffed
behind the couch cushions of your heart
life was too hard to keep it you saw too much
to believe

the bells
two bells tied as one with a ribbon unbreakable
charms clink like wedding bells chimed
broken not long ago before i knew him and now you follow
finally two bells are one again

the well
wet your lips with the freshly pulled water or
give it back to the earth so new life will bloom
my second time in your house your son is upset
you’ve been working in the garden again last time you
fell so he scolds you like you are a child
you wink at me and smile

the scales
september twenty seven i guess you were a libra
can’t believe i didn’t know that until now
born nineteen thirty-two seems so far away you were witness to a world torn up
became our lady justice keeping balance keeping peace keeping contact
keeping us together
and apart

your bible is locked
away inside you there was too much war
countries cities children cheating husbands chasing women
you snuffed that light
one your sons never lit
no one read the book over your grave but they never would have anyway

the crown
queen of miskin street and newburys reigning from across the seas but
no one believes in monarchy anymore
my first sight you sit royal clasping shaking hands and staring through cataract eyes
maybe i should curtsey but instead i sit and cross my arms and hope
you love me

my inheritance part two
there’s something else in this bag
another inheritance i would pass down if i wanted children
a ring
gold and fragile so small it doesn’t fit my fingers
like that bracelet couldn’t fit your life and i remember now
i don’t know you

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Tightrope Walking 2020, Jacqui Greig

Photo by Elisabeth Wales on Unsplash

Michelle’s grandson has told her he’s too old to need band-aids. So now, leaping from stone to stone of the dragonfly shimmering creek, Samuel knows a fall means he will have to grit his teeth and wish away the hurt. It’s their favourite walk; eucalypt scented, dotted with yellow boronia and the jewel-red of mountain devil calyxes. They keep constant watch for the elusive lyre bird singing near his nest in the fern bed.

Samuel is six and for a third of his memory life has lived in a Covid world. He invites his grandmother into his cubby-house shop, with sharp reminders to wear her mask and stand on the X taped to the wooden floor. The lounge room has been taken over by his Lego Covid rescue centre with ambulance, fire-engine, and police car at the ready.

‘Granny! Granny! Come immediately to the rescue centre. You are needed urgently!’

Sunlight falling through the window washes them in its glow as she awaits instructions.
‘These are the Covid dead. You must take them to the cemetery,’he explains, pointing to a pile of Lego figurines heaped in a pick-up truck.

‘I am busy fixing up the Covid sick,’ he adds, busying himself with laying the afflicted on their hospital beds.

On completion of her gruesome task, Granny makes lunch and seats the Covid doctor at the dining table.

‘Granny, how long does it take to get to heaven?’

‘I think it happens pretty quick,’ she reassures.

He nods and, between mouthfuls of cheese and tomato sandwich adds, ‘I’m going to live here, with you, until I’m as old as you are.’

With the meter ticking toward a million dead, and epidemiologists suggesting the number is ten times that, children will live with the effects of the 2020 pandemic year for the rest of their lives. On a global scale this means increased poverty and less health care, the latter already evident with the downturn in vaccination rates in developing nations. Children face decreased access to education and possible loss of family, particularly loss of family elders who are often primary carers for the young. While children seldom become severely unwell with Covid19 the pandemic’s broader ramifications magnify with passing time. The World Health Organisation warns that the improvements in maternal and child mortality made over the past few years could be wiped out as a result of the pandemic.

The effect of stress on pregnant women and young children is already known, as far back as the Dutch potato famine and the 1920 Spanish Flu long term negative consequences of stress have been recorded. In recent years studies have increased our understanding of how these effects occur. Stressors as disparate as a Chilean earthquake, the September 11 attacks, or the sinking of a Swedish ferry, show an association with low-birth weight babies. This likely results from the placenta going into overdrive and producing lots of stress hormones which may slow down foetal growth and increase the risk of early labour. Possible consequences of low birth weight include obesity and childhood diabetes. In the field of epigenetics, a relatively new science which studies small changes in DNA due to environmental factors, the effects of stress on generations to come is also being monitored. These DNA changes potentially pass from mother to baby and further. This new science has blurred our long-term dichotomy of nature vs nurture with respect to children’s physical and psychological health and warns that stressors such as the pandemic should be taken seriously. Government investment to decrease financial burdens on families and to prevent families being rent asunder by pandemic deaths will reap benefits in the long term.

On the penultimate day of September the clock radio wakes me with the catch phrase of this year’s news. At the million mark we have reached another “grim milestone,” as if this death and disease is purposefully leading to a destination. While the Reaper scythes down the elderly, the 2020 New York Film Festival awards its gold medal for ‘best social documentary’ to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s series, ‘Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds’. This unlikely success story won the hearts of Australians and left many tears at its completion. Remarkable for a program about preschool children visiting some, not infrequently grumpy, retirement village residents. The enthusiasm of geriatrician Prof Sue Kurrle, of the Intergenerational Care Project, was infectious, but it was the endearing relationships between the elderly and the children that stole the show.

Intergenerational care is relatively new in Australia whereas other countries have already successfully incorporated it into their care models. There are several studies underway to assess the benefits of these models which vary from frequents visits, as portrayed in the TV series, to shared campus arrangements. The benefits for the elderly were clear to any viewer of the series, as weekly the muscle strengths, personal interactions, and depressions scores of the participants improved. More difficult to measure was the benefit to the children but many parents commented on the youngsters’ improved sociability and empathy. Psycho-geriatrician Nancy Wadsworth writes that programs of this nature decrease harmful intergenerational conflicts and problems of social equity. Covid19 has laid bare just such a social equity conflict.

Nine months into the pandemic my social media feeds, with regular monotony, still posit the brilliant idea of simply isolating the elderly and the vulnerable. Then everyone else can get on with their lives and the economy won’t be trashed. Covid19 has brought to light swathes of armchair experts who have stumbled on blindingly simple insights that epidemiologists, medical experts, statisticians, and modellers have unfortunately missed. US Fox channel’s Tucker Carlson trumpeted the ‘isolate the elderly’ notion just shy of April 1st but he wasn’t playing a prank. The elderly are scattered throughout the community and often live within family groups. The latter is particularly the case in multicultural and disadvantaged communities. How, in Australia, would we isolate all these vulnerable people? Do we reopen Sydney Harbour National Park’s Q station? The views of Manly and The Heads are undoubtedly spectacular, but Victoria’s recent and bitter lesson has emphasised that Covid kills the elderly most efficiently if they are housed together.

Aired on the same US TV show a few weeks later was Texas republican governor Dan Patrick who believed that the elderly were entirely willing to die for the cause of keeping the economy running. This brave, if oblivious of his personal privilege, 79-year-old governor complained that no one had reached out to him as a senior citizen and said, ‘Are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’

‘If that’s the exchange, I’m all in,’ he enthused, adding, ‘There are lots of grandparents out there like me.’

Senator Patrick may have been a trifle short of the mark as it didn’t take long for #NotDying4WallStreet to become the top Twitter trend. Grandparents were apparently not quite ready to stand in line waiting at the Soylent Green factory. Their generation knows that the year 2022 hasn’t yet arrived. When actually asked their opinion many elderly said they would die for their grandchildren but not for the economy.

In 2017 former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott vehemently opposed the euthanasia bill stating, ‘I think we’ll regard this [bill] a sad milestone in our decline as a decent society.’

Covid has apparently adjusted his opinion which now seems to be that nature, presumably in the form of the virus, should be allowed to take its course and families should elect to keep their elderly relatives comfortable. This is a clever, if transparent, conflation of two different issues. One allows passive euthanasia, which in blocking the bill Abbott effectively vetoed, and the other sacrifices healthy and productive elderly for the mirage of economic stability. Abbott has apparently not looked to the consequences of unchecked viral outbreaks in countries like Brazil, India and, the ever-controversial Swedish model. His notions seem neither epidemiologically sound nor humanitarian.

I was Samuel’s age when I spent half a year living with my flamboyant, tousle-haired grandmother. A teacher, artist, writer, and feminist who carried her opinions like a standard before her. Those six months, the clearest memories of my childhood, remain wonder infused. The dawn excursions that saw us set off across the veld to the river while mist still hugged the hollows. She sketched and I discovered brilliant Agama lizards, more rainbow than creature, and watched the yellow-black weaver birds construct their intricate nests. Nests that clung precarious to the thinnest of willow twigs and danced above the water. At night, drowsy under the crazy-block quilt she’d sewn, she wove tales to drift me to sleep. The spy she’d met during the war. How fossils were discovered at Sterkfontein. Why her Pekingese was called Xiao-xiao. She wrote a book about elves and owls, mice and carrots, and dedicated it to her grand-daughter. The hard cover edition retains pride of place on my bookshelf.

South Australia – Flinders ranges – Ikara. Photo by Jacqui Greig

In the year before this nightmare one of fire and pestilence, I visited Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre within the Flinders ranges, known as Ikara, the meeting place, to Adnyamathanha people. They have been inhabitants of this rugged red-rock landscape of mountains and sheltering gums for tens of thousands of years. The fossils at nearby Brachina Gorge speak of further life forms so ancient they are mere swirls inscribed in stones.

At night, with stars burning holes in the darkness, there is a welcome to country in Yura Ngawarla, Adnyamathanha language. Children from the city and local kids, who must have heard the tales a hundred times, sit with knees clasped before the fire and listen, intent faces lit by dancing shadows. Not one stirs as elders pass on culture and life advice the way humanity always has. Next day in Bunyeroo Valley, a red-capped robin, Awi Irta, alights on a reed and I know his brilliant feathered head is a consequence of ignoring his wife. Stories stay with us.

Western society, increasingly obsessed with the young and the beautiful, is quick to discount and discard the elderly. It isn’t surprising that in, Three Uneasy Pieces, Patrick White laments, ‘The callous see us as dispensable objects, like broken furniture or dead flowers’. In contrast, Australian aboriginal communities nurture the importance of elders and their contribution to family life. In aboriginal lore age is less important than wisdom. The Australian Institute of Family Studies tells that, “[elders] hold stories of dreaming, culture, and injustices suffered in the past and keep them safe for youth to understand their place in the world.” In some communities the elders are the only remaining people who speak the local language. Sole survivors to pass on a legacy of words.

The city of Leganes, located on the outskirts of Madrid, is prosaically named after the slime the town was built on and is where suspects of the 2004 Madrid train bombing blew themselves up to evade capture. It is also the only place outside of Melbourne with a street named after Australian rock band AC/DC. In Leganes a group of researchers from Montréal collaborated with doctors from the Autonomous University of Madrid in a human longevity study. They found that elderly who were connected with strong family and social networks had longer ten-year survival. However, merely being part of the family isn’t enough, those people who were respected and who felt they played an important role in family life benefitted most. Blue zones are areas of the world, such as Okinawa in Japan and Icaria in Greece, that boast the highest number of centenarians. These super-elderly have many dietary and exercise habits in common but they are also respected and socially active members of their families and community. Mutual dependence within families increases longevity and decreases depression in the elderly while the young benefit with culture and wisdom.

These days the waiting room chairs stand spaced and the friendly baskets of tattered magazines have disappeared. Patients wait behind masks, absorbed in their phone screens. The silent glide of the door admits a young boy and his grandfather. Hands cup at the sanitation station, clear solution pumped and dutifully spread. The old man sits with the slow deliberation of age and his grandson leans against him, his small hand resting on the man’s arm. The tan of youth as brown as the liver spots of age. Who is looking after who?

I comment to my GP, we’ve known each other since hospital resident days, on the boy and grandfather. He frowns, concerned that the pandemic will leave a generation of anxious, germophobe children in its wake. Psychologists reassure us that if we talk openly and honestly with children, and are not afraid to sometimes say, ‘I don’t know’, they will keep trusting the adults around them and feel safe. Learning to regularly wash our hands, and cough and sneeze into our elbows, are likely long term positive public health measures. Children should not be shielded from the truth, rather they need honest answers and simple, concrete explanations with positive messages. ‘Let’s wash our hands so we can stay safe,’ being better than threatening with the risk of infection. Australia’s 2020 children’s laureate Ursula Dubosarsky captures the essence with her Covid kitten poem:

‘What can we do?’ ‘Well wash your paws,’
Her mother said, ‘And all your claws.’

‘We’ll stay inside a shut the door.
You’ll laugh and hide and read and draw’

And wait until the morning when
Our big old world is right again.

Michelle rings to discuss the latest news, President Trump’s admission to hospital with Covid. Despite deriding and ignoring all scientific advice this elderly man will receive the latest antibody and anti-viral treatments.

Michelle tells me Samuel has created a ‘torch thermometer’ to temperature check each customer entering his Covid-safe shop. Samuel, whose home life is a chaotic mix of itinerates, dogs, cats, processed food and late nights, needs his grandmother more than ever during this pandemic. Not only to decently bury deceased Lego figurines, but for stability, and reassurance, and simple joy. When our grandchildren ask us how we lived now, will we with confidence reply that we walked the pandemic tightrope fairly?

When my son was six months old I bundled him onto the long Sydney to Johannesburg flight to visit his great-grandmother. Each day of our time together she held him in her arms. Weeks later, as the smoke-hazed veld dipped below the wing of the plane circling away from Tambo International airport, I knew I would never see her again. My son grew up with stories of the woman who wrote the “carrot- elf” book and we have a photo of four generations together. At ninety-three my grandmother’s hair was still not grey.


References:

“Aboriginal Cultural Tours: Proudly sharing Adnyamathanha culture with you.” Wilpena Pound Resort, www.wilpenapound.com.au/do/cultural-tours/.

“Australian Birds.” Red capped Robin – Aboriginal information, mdahlem.net, 3 Sept. 2019, mdahlem.net/birds/19/redcrobn_abo.php.

“Strengths of Australian Aboriginal cultural practices in family life and child rearing.” Australian Government: Australian institute of Family Studies, Child Family Community Australia, Sept. 2014, aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/strengths-australian-aboriginal-cultural-practices-fam/theme-3-elderly-family-members.

“Tony Abbott joins Paul Keating in opposing Victoria’s euthanasia bill.” The Guardian, 21 Oct. 2017, www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/21/tony-abbott-joins-paul-keating-in-opposing-victorias-euthanasia-bill.

Armitage, Richard, and Laura Nellums. “COVID-19 and the consequences of isolating the elderly.” The Lancet, vol. 5, no. 5, 19 Mar. 2020, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30061-X.

Baker-Jordan, Skylar. “Thanks, Mr President, but I asked my grandparents and they don’t want to die for your economy.” The Independent, 24 Mar. 2020.

Dubosarsky, Ursula. Ursula Dubosarsky: Australian writer – Children’s laureate 2020-2021, ursuladubosarsky.squarespace.com/.

Fitzgerald, Anneke, et al. “A new project shows combining childcare and aged care has social and economic benefits.” The Conversation, 3 Sept. 2018.

McArdle, Megan. “Here’s why it won’t work to just isolate the elderly and vulnerable.” The Washington Post, 4 Apr. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/03/heres-why-it-wont-work-just-isolate-elderly-vulnerable/.

Schiele, M., Gottschalk, M., & Domschke, K. (2020). The applied implications of epigenetics in anxiety, affective and stress-related disorders – A review and synthesis on psychosocial stress, psychotherapy and prevention. Clinical Psychology Review, 77, 101830.

Torche, F. (2011). The Effect of Maternal Stress on Birth Outcomes: Exploiting a Natural Experiment. Demography, 48(4), 1473-1491.

Wadsworth, Nancy S., and Peter J. Whitehouse. “Future of Intergenerational Programs.” The Encyclopaedia of Elder Care, edited by Eugenia L. Siegler, Elizabeth Capuzeti, and Mathy Mezey, Fourth ed., Prometheus Books, 2004, p. 188.

White, Patrick. Three Uneasy Pieces. First ed., Jonathan Cape, 1988, p. 41.

Wintour, Patrick. “Tony Abbott: some elderly Covid patients could be left to die naturally.” The Guardian, 2 Sept. 2020, www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/01/tony-abbott-some-elderly-covid-patients-could-be-left-to-die-naturally.

Yoshikawa H, Wuermli AJ, Britto PR, et al. Effects of the Global Coronavirus Disease-2019 Pandemic on Early Childhood Development: Short- and Long-Term Risks and Mitigating Program and Policy Actions. J Pediatrics. 2020;223:188-193. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.05.020

Zunzunegui, M., Béland, F., Sanchez, M. et al. Longevity and relationships with children: the importance of the parental role. BMC Public Health 9, 351 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-9-351

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He Disappeared into a Bottle, Alyssa Byrnes

Artwork by Taylor Amy

He Disappeared into a Bottle was awarded 2nd place in The Quarry – Future Leaders Creative Writing Prize 2020


Some used to talk,
obligation building in the throat;
‘How’s John?’
asked for the sake of asking.
Though they knew,
rather, didn’t know.
Lips pursed in the silence,
discomfort clear in shifting eyes,
hopeful for swift response.

Nieces and nephews knowing they
have an uncle, never really known,
never really knowing who he is.
Vague memories slip, of who
they might have recognised,
once,
at Christmas time, around
an old table,
calloused hands around
a bottle
of something or other, unimportant
/quite important/
comfortable in a rough palm,
a cigarette pinched in the other hand,
and ten years later,
the burnt acid scent reminds us of
a lost uncle,
lost man.

But how lost is lost?
There is an overwhelming
loss
but we know where to look,
most days of the week.
But does he? (Feel lost?)
While we search, at a loss
following empty footprints
round and round.

Drowning deep beneath,
a bottle cap, in
government home,
shaky legs and mess
of teeth and muted TV,
flyblown fruit skins
left on almost bare
benchtops
to rot.

Or not, not
intentionally at least.
So, he forgot,
where they go
where he goes.
Where does he go?
Does he know,
as he wanders,
further from home.

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Another Man’s Child, Elizabeth White

Photo by Sergey Norkov on Unsplash

NOW

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.

THEN

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.’

‘Rightio.’

 ‘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.

NOW

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.

THEN

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.

NOW

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.

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Squinting Against the Sun, Laura Neill

Tess opens her eyes. A sandwich sits half an inch from her face, the crust nearly grazing the tip of her nose. A mangled mess of chicken shoved between two planks of frozen bread.

She rolls onto her back and scratches at a crust of dried spit in the corner of her mouth.

‘Right.’ Mick is sitting on an upturned milk crate in the corner of the room. ‘Two days is enough sulking time, kid. Better eat something or I’ll have the coppers round here charging me with child abuse.’

Tess hauls herself up. Little brown dots freckle her vision.

‘Can I’ve a smoke?’

‘Since when do you smoke?’

‘Please.’

Mick tosses the pouch to her and she teases out a clumsy lump of tobacco. The wax-white band of skin on her ring finger sends a spear through her empty guts.

‘Your mother rang again. The bed’s all made up for you down there. She’s offered to come get you, so you don’t have to drive.’

Her mother. Flitting around like an insect trapped inside a lampshade.

‘Just a few more days.’

‘Tess, mate. She’s bloody beside herself. And you know I’m not—’

‘Dad. I’m not here for your famous hospitality, alright?’

‘I know what you’re going through, kid. I remember it.’

‘I’m surprised you remember anything,’ her voice cracks.

Mick looks at his hands. A fly lands on the corner of the bread and begins to clean itself with its furry feet. Tess doesn’t shoo it away.

‘Hey, listen.’ Mick straightens up, clasping his hands together. ‘There’s a south-easterly blowing. Why don’t we go for a paddle later – like we used to.’

Tess watches the fly crawl over the sinews of chicken flesh. Mick rises to his feet and pauses at the door, as if about to say something else, but then changes his mind. The door closes.

She crushes her cigarette into the top of the sandwich. It extinguishes with a soft hiss.

Mick trots across the dirt the canary-yellow kayak under his arm and his wetsuit peeled down to his waist. Tess trails behind him, shrouded in a beach towel despite the heat.

She steels herself for recognition, but the streets are empty. On the corner, the surf club stands unchanged, like an old photograph. The hours she’d spent in that carpark, scratching her name on the salt-crusted breezeblocks, listening to the beer glasses clink inside. How she’d climb up the lifeguard tower to try and catch a glimpse of him behind the bar.  The smell of his uniform when he’d finally emerge, stale beer mixed with a perfume too sickly-sweet to be her mother’s. Those late night “dinners” of canned spaghetti “thickened” with a raw egg. Once, a dinner roll filled with the cold horror of apricot yoghurt that she’d hurled against the wall.

When she’d finally left, there were still flecks of dried yoghurt stuck to the lounge room wall.

On the beach, the sun is blinding. A string of surfers bob like black beads in the water, waiting for the next set to roll in. The tide is retreating, leaving behind crusted tidelines of debris; scraps of fishing net, cuttlefish skeletons, scabbed stumps of cunjevoi. Mudjimba Island stands stoic against the horizon, her green bulk fuzzed in the heat. ‘From here, it looks close,’ Mick used to tell her, pointing out to the island before pushing her out on the kayak. ‘But it’d take you a day to get ‘round it. So don’t get any ideas.’

Now she stood on the same beach, with the same kayak, looking out to the same island. As if nothing in the universe had shifted.

‘What a pearler,’ says Mick, beaming at the water.

Tess’s legs are gelatinous with exhaustion. She trudges behind her father as he drags the kayak down to the shore, following the groove the hull cuts into the wet sand. They wade out until the water licks at their knees and the kayak butts and nudges between them.

Mick holds out the paddle, squinting against the sun.

‘In you get.’

‘Me?’ A thousand excuses bottleneck.

‘What’s worse, out there or in here?’

The words hang suspended between them. Tess takes the paddle. Mick holds the fibreglass hull still as she climbs in and straightens out her legs.

‘Go easy now, don’t go trying to—’

‘Dad. I know.’

They wait for a break between sets and Mick pushes her out. Tess strokes forward, slowly at first then gaining strength, dipping and scooping, rising and falling over the increasing swell of the waves. The water grows darker and she paddles stronger, rope-burn in her shoulders and biceps. Every stroke in perfect synchronicity with her ragged breath.

Dip, scoop.

Churning water.

Slicing further, deeper into inky murkiness.

The island drew closer; the outlines of foliage now visible on the crest of the headland. At this time of day, there’d be a long afternoon shadow falling behind her.  The water sparkles, gold on tile-blue. She closes her eyes, but the light remains, shifting, flickering on the insides of her eyelids.

On the shoreline, Mick stands tiny and concave like the spine of a broken shell. If she hadn’t arrived unannounced yesterday, he’d be leaning on the balcony of the surf club right now, a beer in his hand, looking out to the same horizon.

He raises his arms now, in a semaphore wave.

Tess tries to turn the kayak, but her arms are heavy. The horizon gently lifts. A set is rolling in.

It seems to happen in an instant. A crystal wall of water, shards sparkling, curled, poised. A rollercoaster drop. Tess is thrown from the kayak, water crashes, blasting, deafening, her body grinding into the sand. She claws and breaks the surface, dragging a lungful of air before being forced back down again. Galaxies explode behind her eyelids. She instinctively thrashes, her toes curl and cramp. Lungs tighten, ready to explode. A lifetime of seconds.

She’d heard that trivia fills the mind in the moments before drowning, but all she sees is a series of quick, colourful images.

The green island.

Yellow fibreglass.

Red bricks, splattered with yoghurt.

Seawater scorches down the back of her throat as she tries to stroke forward. Then a yank, a tearing in her scalp. Her head snaps back and her face breaks the surface. She can hear someone else’s gasping. She grows heavier and heavier and then her heels are dragging, bumping along wet sand and she is plopped down like a rag doll on the shoreline.

Her chest swells again, this time quick and urgent. She leans forward and coughs up slimy foam and bile-infused seawater.

She coughs again, and drags in a breath, her lungs burning. A string of saliva dangles from her chin.

Breathe. In and out. Her whole body pounds.

Mick holds her upright, one arm across her chest and the other hand cupping her forehead. His grip trembles.

Tess gives his hand a squeeze.

‘Next time we’ll go on the river, eh?’ The joke rings high and he forces a chuckle.

They remain on the shore as the tide recedes further and their shadows slant long and lean across the sand. Nobody approaches them.

After a while, the pain in Tess’s chest fades, replaced with a new sensation; a growling ache in her stomach.

A piece of yellow slices her periphery, as the kayak slips back onto the shore.

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After the Phoenix, Kirsten Oakley

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Your ashes are in my mouth. I swallow the bitter taste as I crouch. But I cannot follow you. They need me here.

In the small bathroom their shrieks reverberate against the tiles. I want to cover my ears but my arms are weighed down with their soapy bodies. I cannot even close my eyes as I know that it only takes a second, a moment of inattention. Instead, I watch them as the tepid bathwater rises and falls with their bickering. I ignore their illogical arguments and try to hold those slippery limbs still. I rearrange my lopsided mouth. Does that look like a smile now? I can’t remember the last time I looked at my own face in the mirror. Even now it is at my back, capturing only the faces of my mischievous sons as they dart away from me, and vegemite and dirt slides away from my grasp.

From far away, the noise of the doorbell peals. My neck snaps sideways, listening, exasperated. It rings again and I have called out half a syllable of your name before I remember. Half of you hangs, spoken in the air, reverberating in the empty house.

Their voices clamour and I drag them from the bath, wrapping them in one toweled arm each. I heave and move to exit but our bulk won’t make it through the door. I was never good at judging angles, distances, practicalities. That was your department. We jam in the doorway, a three headed monster that sends the cat tearing away from our path. As I untangle us, the towel sweeps a plastic bottle from the makeshift shelf onto the floor. From the cracked bottle a pool of your anti-dandruff shampoo seeps out. Did you imagine that in your new life that you would no longer shed your skin?

I leave the mess and drop one son, wrapping him in his own towel. He leads us down the hall, trailing a path of shampoo, snakelike, for us to follow.

I tell myself that they will be my world, but the water from their wet bodies has already seeped through my t-shirt and is chilling me in the darkening night. Their faces are damp but dirty as the youngest loops chubby limbs around my neck, leaving vegemite in my hair.

I hold them tighter as I peer through the rusted screen at the empty doorstep. I stare at the space where somebody had just stood. There is no-one but me here now. I wonder how soon I can start the rituals of sleep.

At night I will sip the port that your mother gave us as an anniversary present. I will remember the whispered plans we used to make, dreaming of a time beyond sour vomit and cubed food and endless cheap plastic. I will click through the images of you as you inhabit that space of clean, bright newness. I will watch you emerge, trapped in my den of blue light.

This yearning will not snap the tether of small fingers, dark eyes, the smell of breast milk and the tug I feel all the way through the seven layers of my Caesarean scar. I am anchored to them skin and bone. But your ashes are in my mouth as you rise.

 

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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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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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The Mystery, Lauren Ford

It was simple enough: click on the link, pay the money, and wait for the package to arrive. There was mild suspense: what would the documents reveal? What deep, dark secrets was the government releasing? Would I finally discover that my grandfather was a post-World War II Soviet spy who had generously been given asylum in this distant, exotic, desert land?

One week passed and my suspense waned with the days, but my imagination scuttled under the dull, energy-efficient light of my slapdash dining table desk. I was picturing an awkward, middle-aged, cardigan-wearing government employee slowly foraging through a large X-Files warehouse of boxed files.

Weeks meandered by, and I had almost forgotten about the whole order until a deadline popped up on my screen reminding me to submit my latest poetry drafts to my supervisor. I had nothing more to write; my poetry was merely outlining the mundane, predictable details of my grandfather’s blotchy journey through Europe in the late 40s before suddenly disembarking a boat in Sydney in 1950. There was no depth, conflict, intrigue. Maybe I had to make it all up; it was only poetry, after all.

Now I was torn between fantasy and bureaucratic reality: were they debating whether these files were safe enough to be dispersed into the public netherworld? Or was it simply a matter of my order (which email confirmations and bank debits assured me had been received), sitting somewhere in the midst of a pile on some underpaid employee’s—or worse still, work experience teen’s—cheap Office Works desk tray.

The former was undoubtedly more glamorous, but I had to admit that the latter was a whole lot more realistic. So, I continued to wait, trudging on through the muddy waters of my grandfather’s story and producing substandard poetry about this mysterious, unknown figure.

And then finally, the documents arrived. There were four in total, which confused me somewhat, since I had only ordered two, but I quickly realised they had sent each email twice. It was unromantic, really, to receive the secrets as a set of auto-generated, accidentally duplicated emails.

The first set was uninspiring: his arrival date, boring employment papers, and a mildly thrilling passing reference to him breaching some regulation by not telling the government in a timely enough manner when he married my grandmother. I couldn’t think why this could possibly have been sealed for so long.

The second set began with an official letter stating they were sensitive regarding the security of the Commonwealth. My excitement burned as I wriggled further into my cold, metal, pale green IKEA chair and readied myself for the Great Revelation.

It started harmlessly enough: a letter from my grandfather requesting his naturalisation certificate. And then nothing. Thirty pages of documents about another Romanian-Hungarian with exactly the same name, who had arrived in Sydney 5 months earlier and ended up at the same migrant hostel in Orange, before settling in Queensland. I sighed. This journey through history was taking me backwards.

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The Memory, Melissa Farrell

I have this early memory of my mother. We’re in the house where we lived for a couple of months before we moved to Italy, while my father was in Naples organising our new home. I must have been two years old because I turned three soon after we moved. This memory is like looking through a lens that won’t quite focus. I’m sitting on a blanket. There is some sort of pattern to it, but I can’t quite make out the detail. A collection of soft toys lies beside me. One might be a rabbit. I’m looking out through the bars of a wooden cot. My mother and a man. Sitting close together on a couch. Murmurs that don’t take quite take the shape of words. My mother stands. Leans down and kisses my forehead. Then she and the man disappear down a set of stairs into a darkness below. That’s it. That’s the memory.

We were in Italy for three years. My father had an engineering contract in Naples. I have some memories from our time there but they’re of moments lying outside the context of the larger world: sipping a sour orange soft drink from a thick glass bottle, riding in the back of a car through honking traffic, walking through an endless space while clutching my father’s hand as we gaze at paintings on the walls.

My sister, Anna, was born in Italy. She was born several months after we arrived. She was a chubby white baby who our Italian nanny would bath outside in a big wooden barrel. The nanny’s name was Giulia and she could only speak a few words in English. She taught me to speak Italian. I’ve forgotten the language over the years since we returned to Australia, having nobody to speak Italian with. I can remember stories Giulia told me, long stories about strange creatures who lived in magical forests. She must have told me these stories in Italian, but I remember them in English.

We have photographs from our time in Italy. Black and white ones. There are lots of my sister and me. Even in tones of black and white you can see my olive skin, inherited from our father’s side of the family and further deepened by the southern Italian sun, in contrast to my sister’s pale skin that would turn red but never seemed to hold a tan.

I watch now as my sister passes her new son to our father. Our mother stands by his side. I can smell the brandy in the morning coffee she holds tightly. He carefully takes the baby and leans down to kiss him on the forehead. The baby has my sister’s pale skin and a soft white fuzz on top of his head. My sister’s smile is wide as she watches our father with his first grandchild. I pull out my phone and take some photographs. It’s time to create new memories.

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