Tag Archives: isolation

Helios and Luna, Harry Trethowan

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unspash

The screech of the apartment complex’s 6:00 AM siren pierced through concrete walls. It signalled to the room’s singular resident he was permitted to wake. The steel door constraining the man inside the room clunked as magnetic bolts slid back into its frame. It was an empty gesture on behalf of the Government in control of the complex. The vault-like door to the building itself wouldn’t unlock for the man until his designated time in the park. Another minute passed before the siren’s vibrations subsided from the room’s metal entryway and the man felt brave enough to tease open crusty eyes. Plastic bedsheets crackled as he slid bruised and swollen feet to the floor and the man shivered as his soles brushed the ground. One more week until he had enough tokens to trade for a carpet.

As he stretched his arms and yawned, the man left grimy fingerprints on the ceiling. He was painfully aware of his vertebrae as they cracked and dug into taut skin. The barricaded LCD screen embedded in one of the walls flickered on as the floor’s pressure recognition registered his weight. Yellow text rolled across the screen as the man nervously scratched his stomach, hoping the briefing for June 22, 2048, was different. Carbon emissions were expected to fall by December 1 below the global 42 billion metric tonne benchmark claimed by the federal Government to be the “beginning of sustainable change”. No foreseeable alterations to offset sequestration measures were to be announced until at least a half billion tonnes were removed. No changes to the zero-child policy in Sydney were to be expected until another one billion tonnes were removed. This brief had been identical since December 1, 2047, when three billion metric tonnes more carbon in the atmosphere were present.

There was a whirring sound from deep within the ceiling and the man felt a breeze lick against his bulging bones as the air filters turned on. The circular monitor surgically inserted between his collarbones and over his trachea glowed a bright green, beginning to track his daily exhalations. If he exhaled more than a particular amount of carbon dioxide the monitor would expand, compressing his trachea if he walked more than two metres from a carbon filter. There were no reports of death from tracheal compression for four months, which conveniently corresponded with the release of the V.2.01 dogs. No one risked leaving their apartment hoping to see another human scurry back inside their own now that company was readily, but expensively, available.

An electronic stutter from the foot of his bed marked the time as 6:15 AM, when his own dog was hardwired to turn on. He had even saved up enough weekly tokens to trade for a voice box with the vocal recording of an old school student. It had cost him another fortnight worth of tokens to get installed but was worth the human sound.

‘Good morning, sir.’

The man felt butterflies jitter up inside his stomach. The voice emanating from the microphone lodged in the dog’s iron maw was feminine. He recalled the note that came with the voice box telling him the student’s name was Luna. The man ignored the static and focused on the sleek tone of the recorded voice. It stirred a warm emotion in his lower chest he hadn’t felt since high school. The man whistled, walking across to the Perspex window next to his bed and the machine squeaked over to sit obediently at his side. The window offered a limited, ground floor view of the park at the heart of the apartment complex. As he did every morning whilst stroking Luna’s head, smudging dirt into her silver scalp panel, he watched the first park visitor of the day.

The woman was the closest thing he would refer to as a friend other than Luna. She was first on schedule each day to be allowed outside to plant her carbon-quenching tree seeds provided by the Government. Only one person was allowed to be exhaling their carbon outside at a time. After planting, residents were given free time until their carbon exhalation limit was reached. Brief socialisations during the crossover period as the next resident was allowed outside were also tolerated. Over the past few months this woman’s carbon exhalation limit had been reached quickly. Each of the V.2.01 pets were required to be refuelled using one of the fuel pumps scattered throughout the park. Every resident on the release day of V.2.01 had their carbon monitors wirelessly linked to the pumps which also slashed the permitted exhalations. This woman had saved tokens since March to trade for a beautiful Labrador replica whose engine required almost daily refuelling.

The man had not taken notice of her for the few years they had been locked away planting trees, until the day she went for a walk with her new dog. The smog overhead had experienced a mild respite, and rare sunlight glinted of the machine’s golden hide. His bottom jaw cracked as it fell. He remembered splaying his fingers against the Perspex, forehead trying to press through the impermeable material, staring at the dog. The woman had noticed him staring at her lonely routine and stopped her walk for the first time. The man tried to mouth a question, but she shook her head and gestured at her ears with a fingernail as clean as her dog’s shining panels. The man opened his mouth and exhaled on the Perspex, glad the smell of his breath could not penetrate the material. He traced in the condensation:

What’s its name

The woman smiled and repeated the action, and the man followed the trace of her slender finger. He whispered each letter as she wrote:

Helios

He smudged out his first question and wrote back:

Mine’s name is Luna

*

Ever since that first exchange, he imagined her voice sounded just like his Luna whenever they exchanged words with breath and fingers. The man was third in line to plant his tree and had never heard her speak. But every day they traded stories about their dogs, neither caring about repetitiveness. She seemed as fascinated by Luna as he was by Helios.

Today, as the woman scooped dirt over her seeds, a nasally voice came over the man’s personal intercom informing him he was to plant second today. The usual resident had fallen ill and passed away from a bacterial infection obtained from park soil. The man froze. Nerves ensnared him, not too different from those he felt before his first date at seventeen years old, decades ago. It took the woman straightening from her seeds, and the sight of her fingers stroking the head of Helios, to shake him from the uncanny spell. He reached for the dirt-encrusted flannel shirt curled up in a ball on his bed and strode out of his room buttoning it. Luna trotted behind him, the metal chain fixed to her back clinking in her wake.

Grey blades of grass snapped under the man’s feet as he made a beeline through the park to where he had watched the woman and Helios plant their seed. The chain bolted into Luna’s metallic hide bit into his wrist. He had wrapped it around purple fingers two, three, four times. The cold metal cutting into his malnourished carpals reassured him that Luna was still there. No, he couldn’t lose her. Luna’s warmth seeped from her side as she clanked along with the shivering man, wafting dirty mist that tickled the hairs of his arm and warmed his skin. For every extra degree of warmth Luna gifted him, he could feel his carbon permittance drifting away. He hurried his step and tried to shallow his breathing.

He eyed the woman stepping slowly, purposefully, on the other side of the park on the cement pathway. She was approaching his apartment window and he took notice of her neck craning to try and catch a glimpse of his presence. This would be the first time in months they did not converse through the window and they had only a few minutes until her carbon monitor changed red. The soft thud of her rubber shoes reverberated throughout the colourless park and the silence of Helios’s oiled panels was overridden by Luna’s rusty squeaks.

Every nut and bolt of Helios was flush with polished metal, gleaming to a holy shine. The man though it was more yellow than the sun, and it probably was warmer too. She must have spent all her tokens on Helios. Oiling him, upgrading his paints, maybe even a voice box of his own. The man’s butterflies turned scalding as jealousy squeezed his throat. He couldn’t buy gold paint. He couldn’t even buy a carpet for his apartment. Maybe he could ask for a panel from the Helios’s pelt. A screwdriver would twist out those perfect little bolts from Helios, then he’d pry off a panel of Luna with a branch from one of the bigger trees.

He jangled the chain around his wrist and yanked Luna along more sharply than he ever had previously. Luna accidentally spoke as her voice box was mechanically activated.

‘Good morning, sir.’

He saw the woman pause at the refuelling station above the dusty ground nearest his window. He peered at Helios from behind a row of skeletal shrubs as he got closer. She never refuelled Helios at that station, and her head was turned to look at his window. Was she waiting for him? This was the longest she had been in the park without seeing the man since they began to talk. If you could call it talking. He saw himself whispering as loudly as he could to her, pleading for a single sheet of Helios’s metal. Or should he say hello first? Would she want to talk to him if it wasn’t through a window and the vapour of their saliva? A fuzzy rumble grew in his stomach at the idea of her responding. He could not frame her words or imagine the words’ content or even what he would say himself. The only thing he knew for sure, was that he wanted to trade a piece of Luna for a piece of Helios.

The woman slid the pump’s nozzle into Helios’s jaws and the woollen sleeve of her jacket slipped down her wrist. The scratchy clothing and Helios were the two most expensive things the man could imagine, and her self-discipline saving tokens ignited his admiration. He had eaten nothing but refrigerated pasta that month and had prayed to whatever it was people decided to believe in these days that he wouldn’t get sick. It was the cheapest option, and he still couldn’t afford a carpet.

He had almost reached the woman as she withdrew the pump gracefully from Helios’s maw, the dog’s mouth dripping fuel. He slapped his bare feet slightly harder on the ground now he was on the pathway, hoping she would notice him before he spoke. The gurgling sound of the petrol settling in Helios’s aluminium windpipe didn’t allow his wish to come true.

‘Hello Helios.’

His gentle greeting paralysed the woman. His voice was obviously different to the previous resident with whom she had exchanged few light words with as their shifts were exchanged. He yanked Luna’s chain and stepped back to the dirt and grass, hoping the distance would evoke the same sense of security as Perspex. She was a tall woman, taller than him, something he hadn’t noticed through the window considering the park grounds were slightly indented. For the second time that day he picked at his stomach in uncertain anticipation. He knew he was not an impressive man, a nobody with sliced feet and a filthy flannel shirt. And Luna. He took a slight step forwards, teeth bared in an unaccustomed smile.

‘You both look nice today’.

He stopped moving as quickly as he started. He didn’t want her to leave and Helios was so much nicer up close. Polished enough that you could see Luna’s robotic panting in its side, silver-grey turning bronze in the reflection. A panel from Helios would make Luna so much prettier. The woman nodded as slow as her tightly coiled muscles would allow. He took it as an invitation.

‘Would I be able to touch him? You can step back if you want.’

She looked like one of the Government’s recording-owls, only her eyes were dull blue and lacked the beautiful glow that emanated from the owls’ bulbous eyes. The owls weren’t turned on until after sunset, so they didn’t need to worry about those either. No one ever worried about them anymore because no one had enough carbon to exhale by night, but the Government kept the owls anyway.

‘Helios hasn’t touched anyone but me before.’

The woman was beginning to relax and her pupils were beginning to widen in the way they did when she saw the man through the Perspex. He was still aware he needed to finish the conversation fast. He hadn’t yet planted his own seed and her time was running out.

‘Do you think Helios and Luna could swap a panel? You can paint away the rust a little bit maybe. If you wanted.’

‘With Luna?’

‘Yes. I can buy a screwdriver instead of a carpet and we can take out a bolt a day to keep our monit-‘

The woman’s tracheal monitor cut to red. Her eyes widened to match her growing pupils as fear snatched at her attention. She needed to get back into her apartment and to her carbon filter. With one last glance at the man she hurried past him, cheeks puffed out as tried to hold her breath. But first with a paling face, she managed a smile in the direction of Luna and nodded. As she fled the park, the man planted his seed right there below his window, butterflies flitting around in his stomach again like a schoolboy. He was back in his own apartment well before his own carbon limit was reached and placed an order for a screwdriver express the next morning.

*

The next morning, the man leapt out of bed to swing open his apartment’s steel door. He tenderly picked up the sleek black box wrapped with red ribbon on the floor that contained his order. His heart was pounding, and he wished it would slow down. He needed as many exhalations as he could get today. At this thought, the nasally voice over the apartment intercom spoke to the man again. He was to plant his seed first today. The first resident had died from tracheal compression after her exhalation limit was reached. For the second day in a row, the man froze. He untied the box’s ribbon and pulled out his screwdriver.

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The End as We Thought It, Briana Symons

Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

My name is Bri. I’ve been sitting at my desk, looking at a blank page for ten minutes as I listen to my neighbour struggle to pull out of the driveway. Every scrape of tyre against pebble resonates in my chest. My neighbour always takes ages to get out of the driveway, but it feels different now. Everything outside feels different now. It feels as if I have to appreciate the little things.

Sometimes it is the little things that matter. Stop to smell the roses and all that. Stop to hear the tyres scrape. Stop to feel your chest inflate. My chest has felt tight for months.

I’m lucky, I know. All tests negative, all scares thankfully false alarms, all my loved ones still alive and well. Not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone is so unlucky. That makes me sound ungrateful. I am grateful, but since that day in late March when Peter Overton told us over dinner that the coronavirus outbreak was at a peak in Australia and yet increasing, I’ve felt unlucky. After we heard the news, my mum turned to me and told me firmly:

‘You cannot get sick, Bri. If you get sick, it is going to be very, very bad. We won’t take any risks.’ In that moment, I felt a different Bri emerge.

*

When I was a kid, I loved apocalyptic books and watching end-of-the-world movies. I wanted to be the heroine who would fight off hordes of zombies single-handedly, scavenge supplies for my family in harsh conditions, maybe even be the one to find the all-important Cure, and protect everyone. It was sort of a morbid desire of mine to die in a heroic and sacrificial manner. Perhaps that’s not the most normal aspiration to have, but I was a weird kid.

One of my favourite apocalypse series was the ‘The Last Survivors’, by Susan Pfeffer. There were three books in the series, ‘Life as we Knew it’, ‘The Dead and the Gone’, and ‘This World We Live In’. The second book was always my favourite, and not just because it taught me that tall buildings trap heat. I was ecstatic when one of the protagonist’s sisters was named Briana, just like me. It was the first time I’d ever shared a character’s name, and her nickname was Bri too. Not only that, but she also had asthma, which I’d had since I was a baby. My mum told me she used to have to stay up through the night with a nebuliser to make sure I could breathe.

I felt like her character was written just for me, answering exactly what I wanted; my own place in this grand adventure to save my family from certain doom. Even though she wasn’t the protagonist, I felt seen. I would ramble on and on about Book Bri at the dinner table to my mum and dad until my older sister got sick of my chatter and would tell me to be quiet.

Book Bri was everything to me. I devoured the book, reading as much as I could each day; and getting caught with a reading torch under my bedsheets at night. I loved that she was like me. She had such strong, unwavering faith, and as I was raised Catholic, I really looked up to that. She had faith in God and her parents, and as children do, I had faith in myself. Even when she didn’t appear in a chapter, I kept reading, just waiting for her return. Maybe she would learn new and exciting ways to survive on her own that she could bring back to look after her family. Maybe she would grow strong and dependable and exciting. Maybe I could learn new things, or become strong, and dependable, and exciting – instead of weird.

Maybe she would find their parents.

Maybe I could make it up to mine.

*

Dear Prof.

I’m writing to let you know that my doctor has advised me that due to my medical condition I am considered to be in a high-risk category to be infected by Covid-19, and the effects of the virus could be exceedingly detrimental to my continued health…

Thank you for your consideration,
Briana Symons

*

I began to self-isolate a week before the official lockdown. Everything up to that point had just seemed like a little bit of an inconvenience, but then suddenly, I had to email my teachers, reorganise my rheumatologist appointment to be via video call, and stay house-bound for weeks on end.

‘Miss Symons here has a case of rheumatoid arthritis in several joints, which was diagnosed as juvenile idiopathic arthritis when she was seven.’ I watched my doctor speak to the medical student observing our video appointment, nodding along as they took down notes like I was something to study. ‘And as such, Briana, you must be careful with this whole pandemic business. People with immunodeficiencies and those on immunosuppressants – like you – are at greater risk of contracting a respiratory infection. Take every precaution.’

My mum was terrified for me. The more we learned about the coronavirus, the scarier it seemed. An acute respiratory disease spread through droplets is high up on the list of worst-case scenarios for those with respiratory diseases like asthma. Adding on to the stress was the fact that I’d just recently increased my immunosuppressant dosage. I felt very unlucky.

It hung like a dark cloud over our family. I was alone in the house for a while until my dad had to start working from home, and every day when my mum and sister came back it was almost a ritual to see them put down their things, throw their disposable masks away, and wash their hands before they even said hello. We all knew, if they brought it home, the disease would hit me very hard. This strange, overwhelming disease was already killing perfectly normal, healthy young people – it would ruin me.

To put it lightly, lockdown was very difficult for me. Even as a person who was used to spending a lot of time locked up in my room watching inane YouTube videos or working on various projects, I felt trapped. The front yard became a haven to me. I watched my dog run along the fence, back and forth, back and forth, as my mind ran with her. Caged in.

*

I want to see my friends. I want to go to class. I want to catch the train. I want to go to my internship. I want to go to the doctors. I want to go shopping. I want to go to the local café. I want to get my hair cut. I want to go outside. I want, I want, I want.

*

Bri died. The very first time I’d ever read about a character just like me, in a genre I loved, and she died. It wasn’t heroic. It wasn’t sacrificial. It was slow, and lonely, and she was scared.

My unwavering faith faltered.

*

When the Covid-19 pandemic had just begun, I remember thinking to myself at least it’s not zombies. But even then, I felt I would be more prepared for zombies than an inescapable illness. I had plans for zombies. If the apocalypse happened, we would have to do this, and this, and this. In every plan, I’d think about what I could do, where I could tell my family to go, who we could team up with, how I could fight if I had to. I’ve never thought of myself as being one of the vulnerable in a group, the one needing protection.

Covid-19 isn’t a zombie apocalypse. In some ways, it’s worse. It’s real. And I can’t fight it. I read an article called ‘COVID-19 in Immunocompromised Hosts: What We Know So Far’, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the word host. Am I just a potential zombie?

*

I want to move. It hurts. I’m hot. I’m cold. I want to play outside. I’m so sweaty. It’s been three days: mum has to go back to work. I want my mum. I can’t breathe. My lungs are heavy. I’m missing school. My knees are so swollen. My eyes ache. I want to read. I feel sick. I want to move. I want my mum.

*

I read about a character who was just like me. Now I feel like I’m just like her. She could only leave her house once a week to go with her siblings to church. I went out once a week to sit in the car while my dad got food. She cried when their apartment was snowed in and her brother told her she couldn’t go to Sunday mass. I nearly screamed the day it became too cold for me to go pick up Wednesday night dinner without suffering aches through the night. She took it better than I did.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I know everyone is suffering. It’s just I feel so trapped. Sunday is the only day I’m outside. I guess God could tell my motives were impure. I’ll pray for His forgiveness.’

She thought to pray for forgiveness on page 238 of 301 of her apocalypse. They found her corpse 51 pages later. I’ve been trying not to count my own pages. I don’t want her death. I feel as if my fingers are holding the next page but are afraid to turn it. I’m afraid to keep reading. With each word I read, with each day that goes by, I fear I am running out of pages.

*

Dear Prof.

Did you know that Covid-19 was declared an official ‘pandemic’ by WHO on the 11th of March 2020, and according to the Australian Medical Association, as of the 2nd of October there have been 34,162,732 confirmed cases worldwide, with 1,020,932 deaths? 27,109 of those confirmed cases have been in Australia. How many of those people do you think were like me?

Hope you’re well,
Briana Symons

*

I get sick quite often, and I have since I was a child. It wasn’t an unusual sight for the school nurses to see me laid up in the sick room while they waited for someone to come pick me up. And some of that, of course, was just me trying to avoid bullies, but most of the time I was just unwell. I think they thought I might have been lying, considering how often I was there. But I just always felt bad. Whether it was a cold, or a stomach-ache caused by anxiety or my volatile medications, I just always felt bad.

I think that’s why I got so into apocalypse books. They were another level of escapism that my dinosaur books just couldn’t provide. It feels strange now to think of the apocalypse as a mode of escape, as the closest thing to one I’ve experienced so far has just trapped me.

Sometimes I feel like the outside world is moving to a place where I won’t be able to reach when this is all over; if there’s even an ‘all over’ anymore. Apparently, a lot of other immunocompromised people felt the same when we all huddled down in our bunkers while the rest of the world kept turning. It’s a funny phrase, isn’t it? ‘The world keeps turning.’ The world will always keep turning, no matter what happens to those who live on it.

There’s a lot of funny things like that popping up with this pandemic. It’s funny that half of the news we get from the outside world is about people who don’t believe in the thing that has us locked away. It’s funny that the requests we’ve made for years about accessibility and working or studying at home have been met with firm refusals and statements of impracticability from the rest of society – until they needed it of course.

It’s funny that an influential person could suggest a ridiculous ‘cure’ to this disease that just so happens to be one of the medications keeping me inside.

*

To whom it may concern,

In a tragic turn of events, my dear sister and dedicated student, Briana Symons, has passed away due to COVID-19. I know she may have been just another student to you, or even a number, but she was the light in my and my family’s life, and I would appreciate her passing being portrayed very seriously and respectfully to ensure your students are aware of how serious this pandemic is.

If you have any questions do not contact her emergency contact which would have been our mother, contact me on 61+

Stay safe,
Tashani Symons

*

The page isn’t blank anymore. I’m still scared. I almost feel like it’s as bad to write on the page as it is to turn it. Have I accelerated my fate by recording it? I guess there’s no way to tell. But still, there are little things to appreciate. My neighbour is long gone, but there’s the tac-tac-tac of my sister’s keyboard, the dog pressing her head against my closed door to beg for dinner, the clink of cutlery as my dad sets the table, my mum sighing as she packs away the console I left on the coffee table. Maybe I’m not one to hold off hordes single-handedly or find the all-important cure, but at least I’m a master at social distancing now.

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Hikikomori, Alice Maher

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Hikikomori was awarded 1st place in The Quarry – Future Leaders Creative Writing Prize 2020


Haibun
The title Hikikomori refers to a Japanese social phenomenon whereby adolescents (and some adults) withdraw from the outside world to seek extreme isolation and self-confinement.
A Haibun is a Japanese form combining short prose with poetry; in this case, a haiku.

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

Mother’s love for me
Cup ramen in the cupboard
Never running out

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

Eyes that see a world
Where ‘avatar’ means more than
Simple godly things

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

I feel a leaving
I sit and almost enjoy
The sound of sobbing

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

‘Kenji, listen dear.
I can’t do this anymore.
I’ll leave you some cash’

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

What happens later,
When the cup ramen runs out?
I eye the money

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

Everything I am
Refolded, crammed further down.
We are now a pair

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

Come back, please mother.
I forget being a man
Please teach me again.

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

Key phrases such as:
‘Open 24/7’
I start making plans.

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

Finally I see
Blue and green: ‘Family Mart’
Ironic perhaps.

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Spring where you can see it during Covid-19, M. Tara Crowl

Photo credit: Steve Nuske

I live here now, in my old country house
With the barn out back
I fold clothes
Empty the dishwasher
Take dirty diapers straight out to the big plastic bin
(No more diaper pail; the mice got in)
I pitch, to no avail
My stories go nowhere
Neither do I

Some days, the sun comes out to green the grass
Crocuses wave fingers through the soil
But then, a storm of snow counteracts
We stay inside
Watch movies
Drink wine
After the snow melts, we step into the ungovernable mud
(I cling to my child)

In the city (I used to live there
Until quarantine,
Two weeks ago) people are dying
Hundreds each day, they say
The dying are there, while I am here
(Am I all here?
Yes, I am here.
Every limb, every molecule)
I’m not allowed to leave

Today is gray, so it’s just as well
There’s nowhere to go anyway
Tomorrow the sun will come out
Maybe
I’ll go out to stand in its rays
Of course I will
(I can’t miss the sun)
But it’s not going to feel
Like it did last spring

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A Country with no Borders, Hiroki Kosuge

An act of pouring yogurt into granola and other perverted sexual practices are prohibited here.

With millions of flushed contact lenses, the ocean finally found the sky.

Skyscrapers with red lights blinking on top remind me of monkeys in heat.

This aquarium exhibits more than 10,000 animals that hate human beings.

Before sleeping alone, I cut both an Ethernet cable and my umbilical cord.

Now I have magical powers, I can let you or freshwater clams speak. Choose.

Some angels have tattoos of demons.

A single mother imprisoned for allegedly pouring Red Bull into an ant colony.

To be murdered or to be brutally murdered that is the question.

I have become a butterfly because you told me to do whatever I liked, Daddy.

Rain is medicine. Lightning is a jewel. Cumulonimbus clouds are, now, hold your breath.

‘No matter what color you dye your hair, the world will end.’

I failed to become a poet or a patron of a poet. Good night.

 

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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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Isolation Stations, Benjamin Breadon

Who in sweet hell thought a mixture of steel and grey paint would make a good start to every workday? I’d always thought graffiti was supposed to be a sort of colourful revolt against dull concrete and metal, however the daily rotation on the clock tower across the road is certainly no Michelangelo. Unreadable black spray-paint is only so inspiring.
The positioning of Woy Woy’s 128-year-old train station will always count for something; a picturesque entry and exit point for the south Central Coast’s Peninsula, just 10 metres from the bay that shares the town’s name. But the structure itself has become as contradicting as the people that use it.
I walk down the ramp to where a crowd has gathered, on the Newcastle-to-Central platform. It’s a sunny yet cold Wednesday morning, and the majority have crammed under the shelter to avoid the sun’s glare – mostly men in suits and women in pencil skirts, gazes fixed upon the dark asphalt, or the darker headlines on their phone screens. Some pore over thick books with eyes that look like they will fall onto the page. A recent study from Lifeline Australia says over 80% of Aussies believe that society has become a lonelier place than it was in the past , and here it’s not hard to see why. How can so many people be so close together, yet still be so isolated? You would have better odds of a first-ever Central Coast snowstorm than seeing someone smile in this crowd.
But I suppose that’s painting the scene with a broad brush. Further down the platform, a group of elderly couples are sitting with hiking packs, chatting away. Crowds of kids in green uniforms shout and grab each other’s backpacks as they wait for the 50-minute trip to their school in Asquith. Nearby, a mum and dad try to keep a hold on four luggage bags, as well as the hands of their young children. Those interacting with somebody else seem so much happier than those standing alone.
Having skipped brekkie, I feed $5 into the Up & Go machine next to the hiking couples. It graciously returns me just a 50c coin. Awesome. But I can’t help smiling, remembering how train station vending machines have never been cooperative with me. When I was around fifteen, my mate Lewy and I used to take our bikes to visit another friend who had moved to Warnervale. We had just discovered the miracle of coffee, and decided on our way home that I would have enough time on a stopover to jump off and grab us two from the machine at Gosford Station. The vending machine didn’t appreciate our urgency and I ended up catching the next train home, arriving at Woy Woy twenty minutes later with a cold coffee in each hand, only to find Lewy holding a bike in each of his.

 

*

 

I’m headed into the city to visit friends and I need to get some Uni readings done. In one of the ‘quiet carriages’ that make up the front, back, and two centre carriages of the train’s eight, I sit next to a tiny old Asian woman. She frowns like I’ve sat on her birthday cake. The air – the only part of the train’s insides that isn’t coloured a kidney-purple – is thick with a hostility that only the twice-a-day repetition of hour-plus train trips can bring.
Then the worst happens – a phone rings. The default iPhone tone echoes throughout the carriage. Everyone looks up to glare holes through the person responsible, this abuser of our right to remain silent. In their defence, this is probably the early-morning alarm tone of 90% of the people here. The culprit – a lady with greying brown hair and a bright pink cardigan – looks around nervously, waits for the ringing to stop without taking the call, and shrinks into her seat.
I sit and watch her for a while, with my web design readings open on my lap, thinking of what the call might’ve been about. Could’ve been anything really – a neighbour calling to let her know her dog, Spud, had pulled off a great escape by leaping a two-metre fence, or a friend wishing her a happy birthday. It could have been the hospital, ringing to say that a loved one had been in a car accident. Maybe it was a bank rep, calling to ask if she was aware her credit card had been charged $400 for the purchase of 800 low-grade Yo-Yos from a shady eBay seller based in Sweden. Who knows? Who would ask?
She puts her phone back into her not-purple handbag. I look out the window at the Hawkesbury River as though playing a part in a 90’s music video. Work? The aquarium? The casino? I wonder who the woman is, and how anyone even defines that. A man with a belly forced into a light-blue shirt and tie starts snoring across the aisle. Where does he work? Is he at the bottom or top of the corporate ladder? The woman on my left shifts in her seat as I start scribbling words onto my book margins with a highlighter: TRAIN TRIPS. SILENCE. HOSTILITY. PHONE. PINK CARDIGAN. My highlighter squeaks, and she exhales loudly. Why is everyone so cranky? sunder
The word sonder comes to mind; a term I’d come across for the umpteenth time through a Facebook meme the night before. The word doesn’t seem to belong to any dictionary andI tracked its origins to a webpage that was later published as a book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig . Sonder means the realisation that every other person has their own histories, loves, hates and attitudes; their own friends, families and enemies. It means that even though in the overall scheme of things they may just be one random passenger sharing a train trip, but every stranger is just as complex as you – which also means there are thousands of reasons as to why someone might be in a bad mood.
I shove my book into my bag and stand up – it is way too quiet and it’s doing my head in.

 

*

 

The ‘quiet’ carriages mean well. They aim to make trips more bearable and ‘provide you with a quiet environment when travelling longer distances’ . And the stress that comes with commuting is by no means an imaginary thing – a direct link has been found between psychological stress and both rail and automobile commutes: longer trips tend to increase passengers’ stress levels, with crowding and noise said to be particular contributors .
But it is hard to judge whether staying quiet in a carriage crammed with people is truly helpful, or if it fosters an atmosphere that makes you worry about getting king-hit by a stranger for sneezing. If we’re all glued to our phones in silence, will that silence really be more beneficial than talking to each other? The CEO of Lifeline Australia, Pete Shmigel, summed up a recent Lifeline study on loneliness: ‘for a society that is more technologically connected than we have ever been, these [survey] results suggest we are overlooking good, old-fashioned care and compassion when it comes to our mental health and wellbeing.’i
Tiptoeing my way down the aisle, I realise that a prohibition of noise reads like something dystopian out of V for Vendetta. Especially when that silence now spans half of almost every train in NSW. We live in a time where a whole train carriage might antagonise you, simply because your phone went off. Is breeding a culture of isolation really the answer to the stresses of everyday commuting? More importantly, is this change dangerous on a wider scale? Nowadays it takes insane courage to strike up a conversation with a stranger in public, spending two days afterwards critically analysing every word you said. It’s just how it is, right? We were raised not to talk to strangers. Nobody told us to try again at an older age when we could judge our own safety. But loneliness has become rampant in modern culture: Australia’s suicide rates are at a 13-year high, with loneliness also being linked to higher instances of heart disease, stroke and generally shorter lifespans .
We are in mortal danger of falling out of touch with each other.
But how can we battle this culture of isolation? Just yesterday, as I drove 45-minutes along the M1 from work, although I was just listening to the radio on my own, I’d thought about how time seemed to pass so much quicker while listening to completely average people call in and tell stories on the Hamish and Andy show.
I’m not alone in finding pleasure in other peoples’ stories. It’s human nature. Clinical psychology theorist Miller Mair argues, ‘Stories are habitations. We live in and through stories. They conjure worlds. We do not know the world other than as story world. Stories inform life. They hold us together and keep us apart.’
Mair went on to argue something very similar to the recent term sonder: ‘We are, each of us, locations where the stories of our place and time become partially tellable.’
How can it feel lonely on a train packed with people, whilst being alone in the car listening to people sharing personal stories is inclusive and entertaining?
Paul J. Zak of the Harvard Business Review pins this on the release of our feel-good chemical: ‘Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.’
Zak says that the tension of a good story creates empathy between the teller and their audience: ‘If that story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviours of those characters.’
What if the characters Zak mentions, are ourselves? If we are in the company of others each day, full of stories that make us feel good to tell and hear, then why not take advantage? Even if they are silly stories, like someone missing a train at Gosford Station ten years ago for a crappy vending machine coffee. And of course, not everyone sitting silently on the train is sad to be doing so. Mny people would prefer to just read a book or sit on their phone. But these, like us, are just containers of stories. Encouraging ourselves to at least be open to a chat might be helpful. You never know what one conversation could do for a person. Plus, if a culture of storytelling takes off, it’s only natural that we’d all get better at it.

 

*

 

Unfortunately, it seems the culture has spilled over. I’m moving down the train through carriages that aren’t officially “quiet” but you’d still hear a pin drop. I have to walk down a few before I find one that’s comfortable. And it isn’t just one or two people talking in here – it’s the majority of the carriage, and the tension from the beginning of the train is nowhere to be found. I flop into a spare seat and soak up the noise.
Across the aisle, an elderly man with slicked brown hair talks on the phone. He is trying to jam the handset inside his earhole without realising it’son loudspeaker. He has a thick accent that makes it tough to figure out what he’s saying, and by the responses he’s getting from the speaker it seems the other guy’s struggling too: ‘What?’ ‘Huh?’ ‘What?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Yep.’ ‘Righto.’
From the seat behind me, one elderly woman is trying to convince another to go to the Avoca Picture Theatre for the Melbourne Cup in a few months’ time.
‘It’s only $48 per person,’
The other woman gasps.
‘But you get to have champagne in the garden, have some fish and chips from the nice shop nearby, and you get to watch the race on the big screen. AND you get dessert! But I’m not sure whether that’s before or after the race. So it’s not cheap, but it’s not expensive if you look at what you get for it.’
The other woman doesn’t respond, likely just as confused as her friend’s last selling point.
The city’s skyline comes in view. The lady rambling about the picture theatre makes me think of the places we go. They too are just containers of stories: how many people have passed through the doors of the theatre over its’ lifetime, and what lead them to go there? All the questions in the world are answered with stories. The amount that must be held within the walls of every building here is mind-blowing. The sky-high apartment buildings, small shopfronts, the old brick factories that seem abandoned but have new Hilux’s in their parking spots.

 

*

When I exit the train at Central, the atmosphere again turns hostile. People crowd toward the exits or to other platforms to switch trains. You half expect to see a lion named Mufasa being trampled somewhere in the middle. It’s also kind of like how I’d imagine the inside of a beehive; everyone too busy to talk, and there’s a sort of buzzing hostility hardwired by efficiency.
The bees swarm past around a dozen or so people, huddled in sleeping bags on the station’s stone floor. How did they come to be here, in this position? I pause for a moment, but then keep walking. Even after reflecting on the value of being open to other people, it still seems too weird to ask and too out of place to strike up a conversation.
There’s more than just our daily commute that would benefit from hearing other people’s stories and understand deeper understanding of each other.

 

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