Tag Archives: literary fiction

The Memory of Superman, Kimberley Carter

Photo by AD_Images from Pixabay

Maria lived in the land of Giants. She was a giant too, of course. She could hold a car in her palm. But her parents were even bigger. Papa could lift her up and spin her around as if she was a baby. She wasn’t a baby. She was seven. In those moments she became a bird, soaring high above the houses and driveways and cats on cars.

She had wild hair like twigs, flushed pink cheeks and hazel eyes. She ran around the house on her chubby little legs with a towel for a cape, covered in fluff from the hall carpet and a car held high. Mama and Papa didn’t like her playing with boys, cars or superheroes. They wanted her to be a good girl, wear dresses and brush her hair. They said Barbie should marry Ken, not Superman or the Flash or Wonder Woman.

She ran into the kitchen, socks whispering as they slid along the lino. Her parents were talking, voices low. Maria couldn’t understand what they were saying. Papa wore leather shoes with scuffs on its toes. Mama wore flats with the pretty flowers falling off. They didn’t know she was there. She hid behind the counter.

Papa stopped suddenly; he perked up his ears like a dog. He must’ve been listening for Maria, her usual bangs and giggles absent. He poked his head out to check the living room. Maria giggled and Mama found her.

Maria offered up the car to play with, but Mama took it angrily. She pulled the towel off Maria’s shoulders and grabbed her arm, dragging her back to her room.

The pink beads on Maria’s door handle jingled as Mama twisted it open. She marched over to Superman and plucked him from his wedding to Barbie along with his Best Men Green Lantern, the Flash and Hulk. She found Spiderman on the windowsill, the Bat Mobile racing around the nightstand and brave Buzz Lightyear sleeping on the pillow (he called out ‘To infinity and beyond!’ in surprise when he was picked up).

‘You shouldn’t have touched these!’ Mama cried. ‘Why did you go into his room? How did you unlock the door?’

Maria fidgeted with the frayed edges of her bright orange sleeve. She wasn’t supposed to go in the Dark Room. But the door had been ajar and through the crack she’d seen it all: the bed with its spaceship blankets and bear-covered pillows; the rug that ran with roads and houses and stop signs; and all those toys! Maria had found the Cave of Wonders. All the toys she’d asked and asked for that Mama and Papa refused to buy, right there!

‘I’m afraid that’s my fault dear. I forgot to lock the door again after…I, uh.’

Mama stared at Papa while he stared at Maria’s pillow. Mama looked like Peter Parker when Harry Osborn revealed he was the new Green Goblin.

‘Why did you-’ she croaked.

‘Because, Sarah,’ Papa strode forward and placed his hands on Mama’s arms, ignoring the pointy, plastic toys between them. ‘I wanted to see it again. Memorise it. Every inch.’ He took a deep breath. ‘I want to pack it up.’

Mama gasped and dropped the toys.

‘No,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘No, no no you can’t. We can’t- oh.’ She knelt and picked up the battered superheroes, a desperate note in her voice. With the toys in her arms, she rushed out of the room, Papa following.

Maria was alone surrounded by creamy walls, a purple bed and butterflies on her wardrobe. She was the only girl on the planet; an ant that got lost on the way home. She didn’t like being alone. Her eyes pricked and her face heated up and she knew she was going to cry.

‘Dear!’ Papa called out. ‘Sarah please, let me explain.’

‘No! We can’t forget him, Jamie. We can’t.’

‘I KNOW!’ Papa yelled. Then quieter, ‘I know. I just… It’s been three years. It’s past time we moved on.’

‘Past time.’ Mama spat, as if she ate her least favourite food in the world: Olives.

They fell silent. A door slammed and scuffling came from the Dark Room. Mama was putting the toys back. Maria didn’t know what they were talking about. But she did know Mama was upset that she took the toys. Maria moved to the door. Papa didn’t seem as mad as Mama. Maybe he would give her a hug. She really needed a hug.

‘We won’t forget him, Sarah.’ Papa said quietly to the Dark Room’s door. ‘It’s just, we need to let him go. Focus on Maria. Our daughter.’ Mama didn’t answer so he kept talking. ‘And if she happens to like the same things he did then we should support her. God knows why she thinks we don’t like her playing with action figures and boys.’

Maria pulled on Papa’s sleeve. Papa rested a hand on her head.

‘I’m sorry,’ came Mama’s voice from the depths. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t– not yet. I’m sorry.’   

The phone rang. Mama opened the door and slid past Papa and Maria. She had replaced all of the toys except for one, his blue eyes and red cape gleaming. She answered the phone.

‘Mother,’ Mama said shakily. ‘Yes, I’m fine. How are you?…’

‘Papa,’ Maria whispered, ‘Why won’t Mama share her toys? Does she hate me?’ Maria’s tears finally fell, loud and messy. Mama winced from across the room, shaking her head. Her own gigantic tears fell on Superman’s face. Now he was crying too. A worried whine seeped through the phone and Mama stammered that everything was fine. Papa knelt before Maria and held her face in his hands.

‘Hey sweetie, hey, shush. It’s not your fault. Mama doesn’t hate you. Hey.’ Papa wiped Maria’s tears and hugged her tight. He kissed her hair and whispered, ‘Mama’s just in pain.’

‘Where?’ she sniffled into his shirt.

Papa pulled away and placed her tiny hand on his heart. ‘Here.’ 

Papa was warm. Maria ducked and put her ear to his chest, listening to the solid thump, thump thump. He gently stroked her hair and held her close.

‘Is Mama’s broken?’ she asked. ‘Does she need a doctor?’

‘A doctor can’t fix her. But, I think we can if we work together.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah. If we both go over and give her a really big, long hug I bet we can make her smile. And if we give her one every single day her heart will get better a little bit at a time. Can you do that?’

Maria nodded. Papa smiled.

‘Good.’

Mama put the phone down and sat on the couch, head resting against Superman like a prayer.

‘What did your mother say?’ Papa asked softly, holding Maria’s hand and inching forward.

‘She’ll be here soon. She’s worried.’

‘I don’t blame her. You’re a great actor.’ Papa let go of Maria’s hand and gently nudged her towards Mama, mimicking a hug. She cautiously faced Mama, unsure. Maria placed her hands lightly on Mama’s knees, fingers curled to clutch the fabric. Mama looked up.

‘Papa said if I hug you, your heart will get better.’

‘Did he now?’

Maria nodded. Mama smiled weakly and held out her arms, still clutching Superman like she couldn’t let go. Maria flung herself forward, burying her face in her side. Mama’s hands rested on her back. Papa sat down beside them and placed his arm around Mama’s shoulders. Maria was the plant in the boot, kept alive and warm by Wall-E and Eve.

‘I’m sorry, Maria. These toys belonged to someone else. I miss him a lot and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.’

‘Who’d they belong to?’ Maria asked, curious.

‘Someone very special. You don’t remember, but he used to sneak into your room and take you back to his bed. Your papa and I would go to wake you, only to find you gone. We’d find you curled up sleeping next to little Carlos.’ Mama’s arms tightened around Maria and Superman. Maria could vaguely picture Superman pyjamas.

‘Is he your little Superman?’ Maria looked between Mama and the toy.

‘Yes,’ Mama said, Papa wiping away her tears. ‘He was my little Superman.’

‘And,’ Papa said, ‘You’re our little Supergirl.’

Maria wrinkled her nose. ‘I want to be Spiderman!’

‘Okay,’ Papa patted her head. ‘You can be Spiderman.’ Mama choked on her laugh, pulling Papa and Maria close.

‘I love you, Maria. Very much,’ she whispered. Papa gave them both a squeeze and Maria sighed contently even though Superman’s tiny hand was digging into her back.

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A Literary Homicide, Jasmine Oke

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Cherry. It is only a six-letter word. One vowel, consonants five, two coupled syllables. If you were to flip open a dictionary and glide over its pages for the term ‘cherry’, you may find something resembling this:

Cherry /ˈtʃeri/

noun, plural cherries

1. —the fruit.

2. —the state of virginity.

3. —something new and unused.

adjective

4. —bright red; the colour of love.

You, Reader, enjoy the idea that in a single room there exist thousands of tiny universes, bound in leather and sitting tranquilly on shelves. Or perhaps the libraries themselves are actually the universes, housing galaxies and worlds and dying stars and black holes, largely undiscovered and untouched. Lying just beyond the surface, so you would not quite know it is all there… A universe in a universe. Perhaps the world is a library. Maybe you are just another book on the shelf. We know she is. It is sort of a comforting thought. You love books, love other people’s words. It is now time for you to experience my words; images and sweeping swells of emotion that carry those poetic nuances with them.

You enter the shadowy room with too few windows and too many dust particles. You creep further to the back, feet whispering over the wooden floor, the shadows of the room getting a little deeper, the dust swirling a little heavier. Where the books sit quieter from years of being untouched. You feel an odd twist of sympathy at that, and you swipe your fingers across their spines, titles barely visible under the stress of time. Just for a little attention, a little something. So that they know they have not been completely forgotten.

It has now been a month since you met Her in that library. Since you memorised the tattoo of Her lipstick on the rim of the biodegradable coffee cup. The shade? ‘Lost Cherry’ by Charlotte Tilbury. How ironic when the non-fictional you have become the subject of a missing person’s case; you have not paid your bills, attended work or even stopped by your parents’ for the fortnightly bonding session over your mother’s infamous cherry pie. Are you not going to introduce Her to them? But you do not care. Like a mosquito, you are drunk on Her. Your lips dance. Tango. Cha-cha. Waltz. They bend to the rhythm as cherry blossoms would the breeze. No. No care at all. I will take back control of my narrative.

And so, the Author attempts to wrap you both back around his smallest finger. It is the blackest night and almost cold, the wind ruffling the moth-eaten curtains as it glides into the room through the open window, unyielding and curious. The moon sort of glows and there are a few stars that he can spot, just above orange blankets of pollution. He finds himself resenting the moon and wishing it were the sun, gripping a cigarette between long, pale fingers, his nails bitten down. He does not smoke. He does not bite his nails. But he brings the damp paper to his lips and sucks in the toxicity, breathes in the lilac fumes and watches the ember alight as the curtains tickle his dry, bare knees.

The patched-up blue velvet chair speckled with cigarette burns has moulded to his figure around the third hour. He focuses all of his energy into accessing those parts of his mind not spattered with ink. Ink that forms the words of tens of thousands of voices, echoes of which he hears even in moments of slumber: ‘Author’s debut novel Her a disaster’, ‘things you didn’t know Author meant in Her’, ‘Protagonist in Her would actually react this way.’ His notebook sits empty in front of him, the blunt tips of his nicotine-stained fingers tapping discordantly atop the surface of the cherry wood desk. The varnish is chipping away. Each hour after the fifth, the shadowy ink transforms more distinctly into the fine lines of Her plump, cherry-stained lips. Those born to be under his command. The soft padding of his pining fingers strokes against the page.

Left.

Left.

Left.

Right.

Left.

His hand darts swiftly across the battlefield. He scans his paint selection, mentally plucking up tube after tube and squeezing them purposefully on the palette.

They stand amongst chrysanthemums and daisies on a cobblestone path. Gazing up at a chaotic sky tinged with citrus hues, he pinches a few of the crisping petals between his fingers, paint dug into the creases of his nails. A distinct cherry wood aroma travels on the breeze. The undertones are what really draws him in; cedar, vanilla and musk flowing from her wrists, her neck, her most vulnerable parts.

Her cheeks are splashed with fuchsia as she catches his gaze, though the majority of the cherry tint is concealed beneath a porcelain coating. His grin widens, revealing a fine set of teeth that are almost predatory.

‘We need to work together if we are going to make it out alive. If you want to make it out alive. I invented you, you cannot be without me,’ the Author challenges.

‘I need someone who’s going to believe in me and plead for my happiness and success with each turn of the page. Not someone who forces me to behave and act the way they see fit.’

Her rejection and disagreeableness come with a gentle rise and fall of her half-naked shoulders. Her hands rest before her, dainty fingers laced and lax. All she does after delivering that final blow is shake her head, slow as poured honey, fringe falling upon her eyes. No apology in the green, the grey, the blue.

The words scrape his throat, his scalp, his brain, as they work their way into his body. They are so quiet, yet the loudest he has ever heard. Th-thump. Th-thump. Th-thump. He was one of the three little pigs and she the wolf; the antithesis of what he had anticipated. He would be damned if that stick house could ever be repaired. Now the jagged fragments are lodged deep in his heart, much like the stalk of a cherry; hidden beneath the glossy skin and sojourned into the fleshy inner core. His hand clenches tighter around her arm, nails creating crescent moons. But she never explains herself further. Never offers him sympathy. Like the heroine of any nineteenth-century romance novel, she flees. And so, he turns on his heel to leave. Almost. In reality, the only part of him that remains is still standing on that path. In that blue velvet armchair. All that is really left of him are the clothes on his back. So, a ghost walks home in his clothing.

The cherry pops and the Author is drenched in the aftermath. The crimson juice coats the entirety of his wounded expression which spreads from the outer corners of his downturned lips to the highest arch of his creased forehead; he knows this will stain. He has lost the battle. He is the Author. They were his words, his words to be read and interpreted as he intended. She was his story, his character to act and feel as he articulated. She was his. And now she will become nothing but his swan song. Shakespeare’s cursed pen may hast writ this very moment. He may be-est dotting its i’s currently, in whatever gloomy pearlescent vision of heaven sticks in thy head. The Author’s blood runs cold. It runs. Until it doesn’t. And so the tragic musk of white roses settles on the air.

Under the comforting blanket of heavy darkness, just moments before the breaking sun shatters the sky with blinding light, Her lethargic limbs travel toward the bathroom. The monotonous tone of the news presenter travels through your flat, anchoring her attention, but only because of the words that tumble into the stuffy air.

‘A man in his late 40s was found dead in his townhouse yesterday, with six stab wounds to the left side of the chest. At this point in time, the injuries are suspected to be self-inflicted.’

The bottomless glass above the basin swallows her whole, not even bothering to spit out the stone or pull out the stalk. Her lathered hands intimately read the curves of one another. This happens six times. Not five. Not seven. Six. Re-enacting Lady Macbeth’s obsessively compulsive post-murder hand washing. However, a little water does not clear you of this deed.

As she returns, you notice the resemblance between Her and the cherry blossom trees outside; both wilted and void of colour and life. You, the Reader, don’t know the first thing about the arts, but you know that you want to paint her with colours and textures that haven’t even been invented. And so, you do.

We spend our first night alone together walking aimlessly. Fingers laced with fingers and the clicks of our heels syncing as we laugh. I almost swear I can hear our voices mingled in the sky, twirling and prancing amongst the stars. There’s a delicate moon-laden moment, lost in each other’s gazes. Time might have actually stopped. Hands having stopped their rhythmic march across the clock face. I’m only ever going to write about this. About right now. About the fragility of openness and the feel of Her fingers carving their places into my skull, about the way the soft light of the moon emblazons Her skin cells and flickers in Her presence. I’m going to write about the soft look in Her eyes – the soft look that’s reserved for me, the Reader, only me, and is still there after all this time, after everything. I’m going to write about the dust and the creaky floorboards and warm skin against warm skin and I’m going to write from my soul because she is my soul and I’m not afraid and I’m not ashamed and I know it isn’t wrong. She is part of him, but she is connected with me. Interwoven and beautiful.

The moon seems to sigh above them, and if you look close enough, puff out a smoky breath of cigarettes. Almost in a poetic way. It knows they’re in love.

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Pretty Boy, Caitlin Hickson

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

‘Such a pretty boy,’ people always say when they first see me. I have heard more sentences about my bone structure and the size of my waist than about the bruises on my skin. The audience throws me roses, no matter what I do. I think they would applaud if I just stood and smiled or undid another button of my shirt.

I stand there and smile in the mirror for my instructor and she tells me to push harder. My bones are aching, and my smile is breaking but I do the routine again. I feel the ground reaching up to me, I feel it embrace me and I hear my breath leave.

The first thing I think about when I fall is my face. If I get another bruise on my face, I’ll be done for. No audience will cheer for me if I don’t look perfect. I’m not stupid, I know that’s why they come to see me. They don’t really care about my steps, my talent, or the hours I spend in this practice room.

My instructor doesn’t say anything as I stand back up.

She sends me home early. I can tell she thinks I fell in practice today because I haven’t been sleeping. To be fair, she would be right. It’s just not easy to fall asleep with my parents in the room next door, their hatred seeping through the wall like a bad smell. She tells me it’s okay to be tired and take a break, but all I can hear is my father’s voice.

He says I’ll never amount to anything.

And maybe he’s right.

The downside to leaving the studio early is that there are people at the bus stop. Boys from my school, to be specific. They’re on their way home from soccer practice, balls under their arms and mud on their socks. I shove my ballet shoes in my bag on instinct, but it’s too late. One of them sees me and elbows his friend.

‘Well, if it isn’t the pretty boy. How’s life as a ballerina?’ he asks, lips stretching into a sneer.

I ignore the nickname and push past him to stand below the bus stop sign. He doesn’t care about my dancing, he’s just bored. I don’t even think he knows my real name. I try to tune out their conversation, but their laughter carries.

It’s the same every time.

‘With that hair he looks like your sister.’

‘Hey, don’t insult my sister like that.’

‘Do you think he wears tights and tutus?’

‘Probably, you have to be at least half a girl to do ballet for fun.’

I’ve heard it all by now. But it still stings when they laugh, like all of this – my hair, my face, my dream – is all just a joke.

And the more I hear it, the easier it is to believe.

The other major downside of being let out early is that my parents are awake when I get home.

The first thing I do when I walk in the door is hide my ballet shoes. I slip into the skin of the boy my mother wants to see. The boy with good grades and lots of friends who has come home from soccer practice, or boxing, or any other acceptable extracurricular activity. We both know I’ll never really be able to be that person, but we can pretend.

She sits at the dining room table, dinner laid out and waiting. She welcomes me home almost as if she’s happy to see me. I smile back at her, forcing my eyes to stay open, my screaming muscles to act as if there is nothing amiss. But my head is spinning, and my lack of sleep is catching up to me. I’m tempted to lay my head on the dining table and never wake up again.

Instead, we talk. We talk about school like we always do. She tells me about the sons of her friends, the ones with stable careers and bright futures. I know she tells me this because that’s who she wants me to be. Then I tell her about my day – I don’t tell her I fell in the dance studio.

As soon as my father walks through the front door, I shut up. I won’t say a word unless he asks me to. His disappointment in me so quickly turns into anger and I’m not in the mood to gain any new bruises tonight.

He isn’t drunk right now, but he looks at me like he wishes he was. At least if he was drinking, he might be able to forget that his only son dances with girls and grew out his hair just to spite him.

I slip away as soon as I can to my room. It’s as I’m climbing the stairs that I hear him say my name. My foot freezes mid-step and I hold my breath. I wait for him to turn the corner. Drag me back down the stairs. And punish me for my existence.

My skin itches in anticipation. I wonder if he’ll bruise me so bad that I can’t go to the studio again. I really can’t afford to miss another practice.

But he doesn’t turn the corner, instead I hear him pull out a chair. His voice is low and not quite angry yet as he speaks to my mother. ‘All the effort it took to raise him, and the only thing he turned out to be was pretty.’

I don’t get much sleep that night either.

The next day at practice I fail the jump again.

I meet the ground and stay there.

I close my eyes and I hear the disappointment in my mother’s voice when I brought home my first pair of ballet shoes. Her longing for me to be someone else. I feel my father’s shame like the hard floor against my ribs. I smell the breath of the boys in my face, taunting me. I hear them all calling me a girl like it is a dirty word.

I clench my fists and stand back up.

I tie my hair.

I do the routine again.

This time I don’t meet the floor when it calls. This time I land.

The corner of my instructor’s mouth turns upward. Not a smile, but almost. And it’s better than a hundred roses. It means I am worth something. It means I did something right. It means I am more than my face and my waist and all the things I am not.

It makes me feel as if the marks left over on my skin from my father’s shame are worth it. His taunts ricochet in my mind as I land the flip over and over again. And each time I land his words grow fainter. Nothing can touch me here, not even him.

When my instructor leaves for the night, I stay. I practice until my eyes are blurry and my legs are jelly. I’ll catch the last bus home and then I’ll do it all over again tomorrow. And one day, they won’t be laughing anymore. One day, they will look at me and see more than my face, more than my parents’ hatred, more than someone to be teased. One day I won’t have to hide myself anymore.

At the bus stop that night there’s a girl. The first thing I notice is her face. She’s pretty in a tired sort of way. She looks like the kind of attractive girl my mother would want me to invite home – exactly the type of girl I want to avoid.

And then I notice the bruises on her legs. I can’t help it; she’s sprawled across the seat and the marks stand out in the harsh glow of the streetlight. They bloom around her knees like roses and my bruises ache in solidarity. Her hair is tied up, just like mine.

In her hands she holds a hockey stick like it’s the only thing holding her to the earth. I wonder if that’s how she got her bruises. I study her eye bags and the tight grip on her stick, and I think that maybe there’s more. Maybe she learnt to fight the same way I did, by herself against the world.

She looks at me, sizing me up. I know she sees the ballet shoes in my hands and how I carry them like they’re the only things that matter. I tighten my grip defensively. When people see the shoes, they always follow up with questioning looks and laughter. But I’m too tired to even pretend to hide them tonight. I prepare myself for the insult, praying she’ll just ignore me.

She’s looking at me and she doesn’t look at my face, or even at my shoes, but rather at the yellowing bruise on my elbow.

Then she moves over and leaves room for me to sit.

‘I like your shoes,’ she says.

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Portrait of a Life in Watercolour, Daniel Bingham

He wakes up to the sound of rain and grey light seeping in around the curtains. His covers have been thrown off in the night, and the wide mattress stretches away empty on all sides. He was woken by a dream, and in the moments before his alarm rings he tries to remember what it was.

Passions were bright in sleep, and colours bold, but they fade quickly in the waking air. He is left only with the sensation of movement. This, as much as the buzz of the alarm, pulls him out of bed. His bare feet sink deep into the dark carpet, and he walks naked to the bathroom where the shower drowns out the rain and the soap leaches away the last wisps of dream. He closes his eyes against the hot water and the humming fluorescent light and stands in his own darkness.

The shower stops, a few last drops pattering on his shoulders, and he steps out into the steam-filled bathroom, reaching for a towel. The fan is not working properly, and the walls are streaked with condensation. In the foggy mirror, he is only a shadow. He dries himself as best he can in the humid room, and leaves the door open.

Colours are hard to come by here; he decorates from catalogues and glossy winter collection magazines. Opening the curtains lends the bedroom no warmth; the rain has Pollocked the windows in silver streaks.

Dressing requires little thought. Today’s suit was bought only last week, shiny and charcoal, with lapels like razors. It is too dark for his complexion, its lines too harsh for his long frame, but it fills the windows of men’s outfitters and the pages of magazines, and so he will not wear anything else. His wardrobe is full of dead seasons’ fashions. There are suits here, and shirts, and ties uncounted, that have not seen daylight in years. Dust has settled deep on the shoulders and into the lapels. He tells himself they did not suit him, but keeps them anyway.

 

He leaves the apartment at eight o’clock, with plenty of time for the peak hour commute. Halfway to the elevator, he remembers seeing a tagline in Men’s Fitness – ‘Get 30% of Your Daily Exercise on the Stairs’ – and decides to walk to the garage instead. It is six flights down. His glossy black shoes click on the steel stairs and the marble landings. He strips off his blazer and, halfway, loosens his tie and is glad that it is a cold morning.

The garage is mostly empty, and his footsteps echo off the concrete walls. It smells of exhaust fumes, motor oil, and water; the rain has left a delta of tiny rivers down the exit ramp. His car, a tan Mercedes, is waiting beneath an air duct, and a slow drip of rainwater is wearing away the paint on the hood. The car’s glossy finish has faded to a satin sheen, and the once-crisp treads on the tires are beginning to blur. He wonders if it might be time to trade it in for a newer model – there have been a few new cars turning up in the office garage lately, Audis, Lexus’, BMWs. He imagines parking next to a line of brand new cars.

He’ll have to look online for a replacement; he does not trust car salesmen, but knows their pitches will work all the same.

 

There is traffic in the city – a typical Sydney traffic jam, filled with drivers who have forgotten how to cope with wet roads – and so by the time he pulls in to the parking lot at his office, he is boiling over with self-righteous road rage. Every red light, every missing indicator, every tailgater, has had a stream of vitriol directed at them – but softly, softly; he is too afraid of being heard, and so he mutters a string of recycled and stale insults to himself about female drivers; no, Asians; no, the bloody council roadwork that everyone in the office tells him is a waste of money and time. He tweets about it from his phone as he circles the parking lot. Each tweet vanishes into the ether, never to be read or retweeted. He passes a row of ‘RESERVED’ signs, each with a glossy new car crouched beneath, black and chrome and predatory. Finally, he finds an empty space, sandwiched between two hulking silver four-wheel-drives, both of them spotless; these cars have never left the city, for all that their owners dream of an outdoor life. He squeezes out of his car, his door a hair’s breadth from the neighbouring vehicle, and holds his breath, trying not to rumple or snag his new suit.

 

There is a coffee cart in the lobby, and he steps from the elevator into the queue of charcoal suits waiting for their espressos and lattes. He cannot decide what he wants; the words on the menu shift and blur into abstract chalk lines, street-art for the terminally caffeinated. Someone has drawn a tree in the corner of the menu. The tiny blob of green is the one bright spot of colour in the chrome-and-marble lobby. It grows in his eyes until he can see nothing else. Last night’s dream stirs in the back of his mind.

The barista is talking. He is at the front of the queue.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘What can I get you?’ She is dye-red hair and torn jeans, tattoos, piercings, impatience. Her shirt is smudged with coffee grounds and chalk dust, bright streaks out of place in the chrome-and-marble lobby. He blinks at her and tries to read the menu.

‘Uhm…’ It makes no sense to him. Cursive chalk letters spell out drinks he thought he knew, but now… Hoping for the best, he mutters ‘Same as the last guy, cheers.’

He walks away clutching a cup of chai-scented disappointment. Behind him, the queue moves on, and he is forgotten. He packs himself into a full elevator and tries to reach the button to take him up to the office. Too late, he realises the elevator is going down.

 

*

 

The office is filled with a busy silence, the white noise of fingers rattling on keyboards, the whir of printers, the muted mumble of his colleagues with their heads together in corners, and under it all the endless rattle of the rain against the floor-to-ceiling windows. He can see his cubicle from the door. Some of his co-workers decorate theirs, pinning up photos of their kids or the colours of their football team until Management requests their removal, but he has no pictures to share or colours to sport. Curled inside the grey felt walls, he fires up his sleek silver office computer and prepares to start the work of the day.

A knock interrupts the start-up whirr of the PC, and a suit leans over the top of the cubicle, looking much better on its owner than his own does on him.

‘G’day, mate. Sorry to interrupt, got some A1-N1’s we need you to fill out. Just drop them off with the secretary when you’re done. Cheers.’ And like that, the suit is gone, leaving behind a brick of forms in a manila folder. He sighs, and searches his desk for a pen – he wants blue, but there isn’t one, only black. He opens the folder and drags over the first of the forms.

When the office has settled down, and the last stragglers have arrived with their coffees and their excuses, he logs in to Facebook. There is nothing to see, and he watches it eagerly. Someone he vaguely remembers from high school has had a baby. Someone else has just lost their dog. A co-worker has posted a selfie of his new car – #Sydneytraffic. He ‘likes’ the picture, then realises the co-worker will know he’s on Facebook instead of working, and un-likes it before bowing his head and filling out six forms in quick succession. For the next ten minutes, every time someone walks past his cubicle he thinks it must be Human Resources coming to talk about proper use of company time.

The forms march from in-tray to out, each one requiring signing, double-signing, initialling, details, details, details. After a couple of dozen, he notices something written on the back of each:

write-only document – do not mark this page

He has filled out a dozen more before he realises what this means.

The rain patters on the windows. Outside, the sky is a sheet of dove-grey cloud and the streets are dark, though it is not yet midday. He wishes for colour, and turns again to Facebook, but there is nothing new there. He looks at the online catalogues of Armani, Hugo Boss, Yves-Saint-Laurent; the models are dark-haired pallid streaks in black and grey suits too much like his own, and looking at them makes his head ache – or perhaps only reminds him that it is aching. He clicks further afield, deeper into the internet and away from A1-N1’s, chasing travel ads of holiday destinations in bright greens, blues, and golds, as ephemeral as dreams. He rubs his forehead and pinches the bridge of his nose, trying to shake the malaise – it must be the weather, he thinks, and that’ll clear up in a day or two – but this does not help. He’ll look for a new car, he decides, and he searches the websites of Ford, Audi, Lexus, BMW, each advert promising newer, faster, bigger, better cars – but looking at the pictures, he can’t see how they differ from his own. The thought troubles him, and he throws himself back into his work.

Forms spiral across his desk, each beneath his pen for only a moment before leaping away, glistening with fresh ink. With each finished form, the words write-only document – do not mark this page stare up at him from the desk. He wonders what the forms are for, but reading them doesn’t help. Like the coffee menu earlier, words he thought he knew might as well be Aramaic now. He wants to ask someone, but he can’t remember who gave him the forms. He peeks over the top of his cubicle hoping to spot them, but all he sees are charcoal suits, charcoal suits from wall to wall, as if the entire staff had been printed out of a photocopier. His head is aching and the rain beats write-only against the windows.

He does not slam his pen down, but caps it and sets it neatly in place on top of the remaining forms. He abandons his cubicle, walks to the rain-streaked window and rests his head against the cold glass. In the street below, the headlights of passing cars flicker in the fog. Behind that pale curtain, it does not matter what make or model they are – each is only a passing shadow. He wonders if, were he to walk out into the mist, the cars would see him in time to stop; and if they did not, how long it would take the other grey suits to notice that he was missing.

He returns to his desk, grabs a fresh form, and uncaps his pen with a pop like a cracked knuckle. When his hand descends, it describes great curling swoops and gyres on the page, signing and initialling in florid cursive. He fills out the whole form in moments, then takes up another. This time, he draws a little tree in the corner of the page. On the next form, he draws a car. The next, a man in a suit. A man without a suit. A cartoon Mona Lisa. He gives her a nose piercing, and she looks a little like the barista downstairs.

He reaches for the last form, fumbles, and it slips off the bare desk. Reaching for it, he is suddenly struck by what he has done. If he is found out, he will be… what?

He fills the last form out slowly. His writing is cramped, his signatures ordinary. He reaches the end, and turns it over.

write-only document – do not mark this page

He looks at this for a long time. At last, in hurried strokes, he draws a smiley face under the bold text. Whoops, he writes. It looks tacky, forced, and all of a sudden he wishes he could take it back. He takes the forms he has scribbled on and stuffs them in with the rest, squaring the edges against his desk. With trembling fingers, he tucks the pile of forms back into its manila folder. With weak knees he carries it to the secretary’s desk. She’s on the phone, pinning it between her ear and shoulder as she flashes out a smile and an open hand to take the heavy file.

For the next twenty minutes he watches and waits. At last, she puts the phone down and takes up the stack of forms. She disappears into the head office. He swallows, wishes he hadn’t finished his chai tea so he could wet his mouth.

The door of the office opens, and the secretary slips out. He drops his head down, typing furious nonsense into a blank Word file as she returns to her desk.

He waits. Someone will come soon, he thinks. His manager, or perhaps he’ll get a call from HR, or maybe they’ll just tell him to clear his desk – which won’t take long – and throw him out. But nothing happens, and continues to happen. The office stays quiet. The only phone that rings is the secretary’s, and she answers in too low a voice for him to eavesdrop. Keyboards and the rain keep making their soothing white noise.

At lunch, he gives in, and goes home early, prepared – if anyone should ask – to claim a touch of ‘flu. No-one does. He walks through the lobby, empty except for the barista closing up her coffee cart. He drives, too fast, through the soaked and foggy streets with the rain scribbling accusations on his windshield. Home again, he leaves his suit in a crumpled mess on the floor and collapses into bed, staring at his open wardrobe. He falls asleep that night with the sound of rain washing over him.

 

He wakes up to the sound of his alarm, and lies with the covers tucked smoothly around him. He turns the noise off, and lies for a moment, remembering. Across the room, his wardrobe hangs open. Dusty wool glimmers in the early sunlight. Already yesterday feels like a dream.

In the office lobby, the barista smiles at him as he orders a cappuccino.

‘Hey, I like your suit. Blue looks good on you.’

The other workers watch him in the elevator. He can feel their eyes on him as he walks to his cubicle. A grey figure, last glimpsed behind a stack of forms, stops in the hall as he passes.

‘Looking good, mate! New suit?’

He grins, and brushes some dust from his lapel. Behind him, the sun shines through the windows, and turns the office gold.

 

 

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