Lost For Words, Michael Cook

Well here I am, diddling away in a bloody notebook. The doctor asked me to write this—he reckons it will help me get my head together. I’ll give anything a go to get out of this nut house. Of course, Gran says it’s all for the best, but what the hell does she know? She thinks everything is ‘for the best’—even when my dog Booger got hit by a truck and died by the side of the road. Good one Gran.

But before I get carried away, I guess I’d better make an admission. I’m a thief. I’ve never really told that to anyone before, but then again why would I? It’s not something that you just go around bragging about. The shrink in this place reckons I steal because of all the shit I’ve been copping at school on account of me being a late developer. See, my name is Tony Snatt, but most people know me as Baldy. Baldy, what a name, it’s like a kick to the nuts every time someone calls out to me. Can you imagine? Eighteen years old, and not a single pube to show for it?

I’m not real particular about what I like to swipe, but if I’ve got to narrow it down I reckon porno mags top the list. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the net is chock full of porn, but I sorta like the reassurance of having some material on hand when the lights go out. You see, Gran’s a full on greenie and on cloudy days we only have about 2 hours of charge in the battery for the electric lights. I’m not going to call it romantic, but a candlelight toss sure has its charms.

Oh yeah, there’s another reason I like to pinch things—plain old fun. I once took some bloke’s bike from outside the 7/11 and rode it around for a couple of hours. When I got sick of it I hooned down the steepest hill in our town, the one that leads to the marina. I shot down that hill so fast that when I got to the jetty I almost lost control as I bumped my way over the wooden planking. My mate Noel said that if there was any sort of justice I should have been snapped up by a shark then and there. I laughed at the time, not for a second did I believe in a ‘higher power’ or any of that sort of mumbo jumbo. But that was before… before what happened at work last Saturday night.

But before we get to that, I’ve got to tell you about the lead up to it. So I s’pose this story starts on Saturday morning, around 11am. I’d been at the park with my two best mates, Noel and Wippa, and I’ve gotta say, we were bored out of our minds. Footy season is over, and the cricket has just begun. If there’s one thing I hate in this life, it’s bloody cricket. Some people call it ‘watching the grass grow,’ and I reckon that sums up how I feel about it too. Hours and hours of standing there in the field, nothing happening. All of a sudden there’s this bloody great leather ball rocketing straight at your head. And let me tell you, that thing is rock hard. If you don’t catch it right, look out—you’re going to have the sorest hands this side of Hampton. Not only that, you’re going to look like a right shit in front of your team mates. I once dropped the ball and got booed—by my own team!

Anyway, there we were, sitting around the kid’s playground, bored shitless. We’d just finished off the last of our durries, and were scratching around for something to do. Just as Noel was starting to tell us for the fifteenth time about how he’d seen Jenny Tisdale’s boobs through the change room window as she got ready for the athletics carnival last year, I had a sudden flash of inspiration. I remembered that a new convenience shop had opened down at the Bay Side Shopping Centre. I’d had a look in at it once and seen that it was run by this tiny little Indian fella who wore a turban with a fat red ruby fixed to the front of it. I told the boys about it, and we decided to go down and see if we could pinch a couple of things.

We were in the shop, and as usual Noel and Wippa got cold feet. They just shuffled around pretending to look at things, but I could see that they were freaking out and wanted to get the hell out of there. I think it was because of the little Indian bloke—there was something about the way he was watching us that was sort of unnerving. He was sitting on this high chair behind the counter, real calm expression on his face, and it was like he knew exactly what we were up to. But he didn’t say anything, and I wasn’t going to be put off by some little bloke with a calm demeanor. I stuffed two Mars Bars, a Twix, and a Cherry Ripe into my pockets as I pretended to look at the key ring stand. When I was over by the magazines, I stuck a porno down the front of my trackies. Not a bad haul, really.

We went to the park and ate the chocolates, then had a look at the porno. It was a pretty good one, but it’s tough looking at that sort of thing when you’re with two other blokes. You’re standing there with a boner that’s making a teepee out of your trackies, and you’ve gotta act like everything’s just fine. Ah well, there’s worse things in this world I s’pose.

Before I knew it 2pm rolled around, and I said ‘see ya later’ to my mates and headed off to work at the bottle shop. I only got the job two months ago, couple of days after I turned eighteen. I stand on the check out for eight hours straight, scan the bottles, put them in boxes, and say the same shit over and over again: ‘Hi, how are you today? … That’s good… Okay thank you, have a nice day.’ Imagine saying that to about a thousand people in a row and you’ll have some sort of understanding about how dull it is. So I was standing there, feeling like a cassette player with a twenty second tape in me, when something totally out of the ordinary happened—this string of really funny customers started coming in.

This one old dude came up to the counter, brimming with a crazy sort of energy. He plonked his case of beer down and beamed at me. ‘And how are you today young fella?’

‘Yeah, pretty good,’ I said to him, ‘how are you?’

He brought his tattered old wallet out of his pocket with what Mr. Collings, our English teacher at school, would call an ‘elaborate flourish’ and he whipped out a fifty dollar note.

‘If I were any better I’d be twins!’ He said.

I could see from the sparkle in his eye that he really meant it. He winked at me, swung the beer up onto his shoulder, and headed for the sliding doors at the back of the shop. Now, as I was saying earlier, it’s pretty rare to meet a customer with that sort of personality—most of them wander up to the counter with faces that are a mile long. But not this old bloke, so I decided to call out after him—you know, something nice and enthusiastic.

I opened my mouth and already knew that I was going to say ‘have a top day mate’, but all that came out of my mouth was this sort of strangled groan. I cleared my throat and tried again, but the second time was even worse. My throat sort of quivered and I let out a reedy whistle, like the sound a kettle makes when it’s boiling. The old dude turned around and looked at me, and all I can say is thank Christ for hearing loss—he beamed at me again, tapped the case of beer that was up on his shoulder and gave me a big thumbs up.

I turned to face the next customer. It was this real uptight looking guy—grey business suit, thin black tie, neatly clipped moustache… the sort of guy you’d sketch out if someone asked you to draw a picture of anal retention personified. I didn’t feel too embarrassed in front of him about my strange sounding voice, so I decided to see if it was still playing up. I opened my mouth and felt the ‘hi, how are you today’ begin to slide up my throat on its well oiled tracks, but about halfway up something went wrong, and all that came out was a giant burp. The businessman looked up at me, and it just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover—he burst out laughing and decided to lay a choice anecdote on me:

‘I just got back from holiday in Fiji. While I was over there my credit card got stolen—I still haven’t reported it, the thieves are spending less than my wife would. I figure I’m better off.’

I couldn’t believe that such a square looking guy could be so off the wall. Who tells a story like that when someone burps in their face? I opened my mouth, expecting gales of laughter to come pouring out, but there was nothing—no sound at all. Not even an unexpected shriek. As I stood there, jaw swinging in the breeze, I heard a noise that made the hairs on my arms stand up and start to quiver. At the far end of the shop a great big chuckle started up, and when I say chuckle, I mean a real deal belly laugh. Someone up there was having the laugh of a lifetime. The businessman dragged his eyes away from my face and peered up the aisle. The customers behind him were doing the same—the usual look of bored impatience gone from their faces.

I leaned out over the counter and tried to get a better look at where this laughter was coming from, but I couldn’t see—the row of waiting customers was blocking my line of sight. Now, as I’m sure you would imagine, I was at this point more than a little bit freaked out by my lack of ability to speak. I tried muttering ‘fuck’ beneath my breath—you know, one of those helpful curses that serve to knock the needle on the mental pressure gauge back a few clicks. And would you believe it if I told you that although nothing came out of my own mouth, at the far end of the shop the laughter suddenly stopped, and someone yelled out ‘fuck’ at the top of their lungs? I bet you wouldn’t believe it, but I’m telling you, that’s exactly what happened.

A few of the customers started to get upset about this weird behavior—they put their bottles down on the floor and walked straight out of the shop, noses in the air. I can’t say I blame them; the place was beginning to take on the air of a nut house. With this thinning out of the line at my register I was able to get a better look up the aisle, and who do you reckon was standing at the far end of the shop? Yeah you guessed it: the tiny little Indian bloke from the Bay Side convenience shop. He saw me looking at him and wagged his finger at me, and then he called down to me. ‘You come into my shop and you put my livelihood in your pockets, isn’t it?’

I stood there staring at him, and I’m telling you straight, even if I could have answered him, I’m buggered if I would have known what to say,

‘Well then young fella, I come into your shop and I put your voice in mine.’

It’s hard to explain what happened next. I remember standing there staring at him, and I couldn’t seem to look at anything but the ruby that was fixed to the front of his turban. It started to glow, and I could see a bright red beam pouring out of it. My forehead started to get real hot, like the beam was flowing straight into it. And then I heard this voice. I feel weird saying it, but it was like the voice of God—clear, loud and completely inside my mind.

‘Your lifetime, your choices, your fate. I see you baldy, I see you Tony Snatt.’

And then all of these images started pouring in. I saw every time I’d ripped someone off, I saw my sneering face as I rode that bike into the bay—and then I saw Jim Trill, this little fella in year 9. He was getting whacked across the face by his piss-head dad, and his dad was yelling at him.

‘You ungrateful little cunt-handle, can’t even keep ya god damned fucken bike from being pinched. Eight hundred bucks down the drain.’

I saw Jim’s mum crying in the next room, biting down hard on the edge of a tea towel so the old fella wouldn’t hear her.

I remember my head felt like it was about to explode. White heat boring straight into the front of my forehead, right where Gran told me the third eye is located. Have you ever felt peak rage, sorrow, regret and terror swirling through your mind at the same time? I hope you never do. My mouth was clamped shut, but the last thing I remember was a piercing scream that cut through everything—straight through the images, straight through the feelings. Everything eclipsed by the scream.

So here I am, diddling away in a bloody notebook. I still can’t speak, but to tell you the truth, I don’t have a whole lot that I wanna say at the moment anyway.


Download a PDF of “Lost for Words” here

NiKKi, Hiroki Kosuge

18th April, 2014


I went to church on Good Friday. A man standing by the lectern preached about the importance of choice in our lives. Then, we sang a hymn. Every single believer but me sang pretty well.

The preacher said, ‘Anyone interested, please come over here.’ The believers flooded to the lectern. They were asked to choose either a black bean or a white bean. Some took a black bean in a transparent plastic cup. Others took a white bean in an opaque plastic cup.

After having completed the countdown of three-two-one, they swallowed their own beans hastily.

At that moment, the floor underneath the believers who swallowed white beans cracked open and they fell into a deep pit. Those who chose black beans seemed to be relieved and returned to their seats contentedly. The preacher said, ‘You see? This is the importance of choice in our lives!’

Just before leaving the church, I looked into one of the deep pits by the lectern and heard a voice: ‘I should’ve chosen a black bean.’

28th April, 2014

No Woman No Cry

I saw a woman weeping in the train. Her face was reddish and slightly swollen with alcohol. Then her phone rang. While she was talking she only said, ‘Why?’ Hanging up, she started sobbing again. She cried like an animal. She opened the window, and threw the phone to the outside of the train.

The phone pinged, and was run over and killed. The louder she cried, the more brilliantly her tears dropped on her light-blue dress, and shone.

Finally, her body was completely covered with her tears. They looked scaly. She had become a large fish. After flopping on the seat several times, she leaped through the window and dived into the water under the Harbour Bridge. She left behind her tears, which were as hot as melted iron.


 11th May, 2014

Mother’s Day

From the bus, I saw a woman in the cemetery. She was polishing a tombstone, kneeling down on the ground. She was the only one in the cemetery. The tombstone was shining like a gray gem while other graves were deserted, or broken.

I arrived at the Shopping Centre. There was a huge arch of pink balloons and flowers for Mother’s Day. There were a lot of people carrying flowers in their arms. The petals of chrysanthemums in their arms were rigid as soldiers. I bought eggs and milk, and left, wondering how cruel Australians were, since chrysanthemums are only used in funerals in Japan.

On the way home, the bus passed by the cemetery again. Nobody was there, but a fresh bunch of flowers were left in front of the shining tombstone. The flowers were swaying like a giggling child, blown in the wind. I wondered how many mothers were lying in the cemetery. Then I remembered my own mother, Nanohana, who was named for a flower that blooms in spring, and was proud of that.


29th May, 2014

A Shovel

I happened to find a shovel at a museum shop, which was heavy and reminded me of my childhood. When I was a child, I was afraid of shovels. Every spring, without any good reason, the heavy lumps of iron were given to us, and we were forced to plant sweet potato seedlings. We dug, until the teacher told us to stop. The teacher said, ‘We’ll harvest in the autumn,’ although none of us asked when to harvest. I didn’t really want to harvest, because I knew I would have plenty of food in autumn even without sweet potatoes. I would rather have washed my hands as soon as possible, and have run away from the garden named after the manga character in which I was least interested. The hole I made looked like a grave for me. I didn’t like adults or children.

A museum attendant asked me if I would be interested in gardening. I smiled, looked at the shovel with a floral pattern and then asked her if I could make a grave with it. The staff was appalled and stepped back, but assured me, ‘If you want.’

30th June, 2014

An Over-Familiar Possum

I went to a swimming pool in the city. My goal was to be able to swim fifty metres. I managed to swim forty-five metres today. I am almost there. However, as I forgot to bring my goggles, my eyes became bloodshot and everything I saw became hazy. Even after I had left the sports centre, I couldn’t see things clearly.

Later, I went to a Turkish restaurant. The restaurant was filled with smoke. Rubbing my eyes, I ordered a kebab. A waiter asked if I needed a regular salad. I couldn’t read the menu but could only see his white teeth shining dimly. I left the restaurant, groping for a beacon outside.
The street lights were the strangest. I could see a dim ring around the light. It looked like a halo, and I regretted that I went to the church frequently these days despite the fact I was a Buddhist.

Walking at a snail’s pace to the station, I passed through Hyde Park. There was an extraordinarily huge possum. The possum looked at me as a beggar. I remembered that I had a Tim Tam and opened my bag. However, because of haziness, I couldn’t find it. The possum seemed to be really irritated. Finally, I found a Tim Tam and threw it to the possum. However, the possum rejected it and said, ‘Mate, can I have a durry?’ Then I finally found that it wasn’t a huge possum but a homeless person. I apologised to him and scurried back to my home.


13th July, 2014

An Accidental Indian Dance Instructor

As I make it a rule to write outside on a sunny day, I went to a park. When I was sitting on the bench and writing, I could see two girls dancing an Indian dance. One of them was Indian and another girl was Chinese. They seemed to be practicing for a performance. The Indian girl was teaching the Chinese girl. As they had danced for more than an hour in front of me, I realised that the Indian dance consisted of four patterns.

1. Make a loop with fingers

2. Bend knees

3. Shake hips

4. Tilt neck.

The Indian girl (I named her ‘A’) did two-four-three-one-three-four-four-two, while the Chinese girl (I named her ‘B’) did two-four-one-three-one-four-three-one. ‘A’ did two-four-three-one-three-four-four-two again, but ‘B’ did two-four-two-three-one- four-four-one. ‘A’ did two while ‘B’ did four. When ‘B’ did three, ‘A’ did four.

A: three-one-three-four-two-one-three-three-two-one-four.

B: three-one-three-four-two-one-three-three-two-one-one.

So close!

Then a strong wind blew my papers away. ‘B’ kindly picked them up, looked at the B4 sized papers on which numbers from one to four were scribbled and tilted her neck.

That’s it!


14th August, 2014


I took a wrong train. It was a night train to go to Melbourne. I had plenty of time and didn’t have anything to do but sleep. My face reflected in the window was as black as a portrait drawn in Indian ink. It wasn’t easy to sleep.

I looked at an obese man sitting on the other side of my seat. He had been talking to himself, while looking at his computer screen, ‘Crap…Crap…Crap…’ I looked into the screen and found he was watching a film. It was a film of his own life.

He was a child who was lovely, smart and vulnerable. He could get high marks in any subject, but wasn’t good at playing any sports. One day, he was chosen as a rugby team member by lots. It was obvious he was the poorest in the team. He didn’t practice and was absent on the day of the rugby match, because he didn’t want to show his poor rugby playing. Next day, nobody blamed him, but he blamed himself. He reckoned himself a loser. He graduated from school and got a job in a construction company, but soon quit. He stayed indoors and kept on eating. He believed he was always starving despite his body swelling like a balloon.

He clicked a rewind button and started watching the film again, murmuring, ‘Crap… Crap… Crap…’ Then, our eyes met. He said, ‘What are you looking at?’

After an awkward pause, I said, ‘I’m lost.’ He said, ‘So am I.’


 15th September, 2014

This Is No Longer A Bus Stop

When I got to the bus stop, there was a sign. It said this was no longer a bus stop due to the changed road conditions. I found an aged couple sitting on the bench. I said this was no longer a bus stop. They looked at each other, laughed and said that was why they were waiting here.

Again, I said this was no longer a bus stop and therefore the bus wouldn’t come no matter how long you would wait. The husband studied me and then whispered something into his wife’s ear. His wife slightly nodded and opened her bag. She fumbled her red enamel bag and took out a piece of a yellowish paper.

It was a timetable. However, I couldn’t read it because there were so many small holes in the paper. Again, I said the bus wouldn’t come, folding the paper. They burst into laughter. I was disgusted with them and started walking. After a while, however, I felt sorry for the couple. Both of them must be suffering from dementia.

After having walked for a couple of minutes, however, I heard a thundering sound. Looking back, I could see the bus stop flying across the sky, like a skyrocket. The couple in the rocket-like bus stop waved to me with big grins. Then, I realised they had been waiting for the moment the bus stop would no longer be a bus stop, literally.


16th October, 2014


She called me and said she wouldn’t be able to talk for more than ten minutes because she was now imprisoned. I was really surprised because she was my best friend and was unlikely to commit a crime. I asked what she had done. She said she set the woods on fire, which wasn’t intentional. I suggested that she should have claimed that she was innocent. She said she couldn’t because it was true that she had set fire to a palm tree in the woods. I asked her why she had set the fire on the palm tree. She answered she was falling in love with the tree and couldn’t forgive it for reaching its branch to another palm tree. She confessed that she was about to lose her marbles whenever the palm tree quivered its leaves in a blowing wind. When she was about to say something, the telephone was disconnected. I wondered if she had already become crazy.

Afterwards, I told this creepy story to my partner. ‘It’s crazy to fall in love with a palm tree, isn’t it?’

My partner, a eucalyptus, didn’t say anything as usual. I hugged him tightly, closed my eyes and then enjoyed his clean scent.


 4th November, 2014

Coy Carp

There lives a coy carp in the Sinobazu pond within Ueno Park in Tokyo. No one has seen it swimming. Hidden under waterweed, seemingly, it keeps still. It has a hobby, though.

The coy carp is into Twitter now:


#Shinobazu Pond

Water is lukewarm.


#Shinobazu Pond

Am afraid of Dengue fever.


#Shinobazu Pond

I wanna go to the beach someday.


There lives a coy carp in the Shinobazu pond within Ueno Park in Tokyo. No one has seen it swimming. Hidden under waterweed, seemingly, it keeps still. It is an ambitious carp, actually.


 16th December, 2014

Wednesday, the Day of Loneliness

Mr Sato our boss is now often absent on Wednesday. It’s quite okay because he is just taking his paid leaves. He’s within his rights.

One day, one of my colleagues, however, told me Mr Sato’s secret in a cafeteria at the company.

She said in a low voice, ‘A friend of mine saw Mr Sato in a park on Wednesday.’

After looking around carefully, she added, ‘He was on a swing there. Alone.’

I didn’t know if I should laugh in the moment like this. I just imagined a middle-aged man sitting on a swing by himself.

I thought it would be the ultimate loneliness.


 6th January, 2015

Beer & Beach

Mum would tell me when I was a child that life originated on the bottom of the ocean. Then I wondered if we would ascend into the sky like balloons when we died.

I had a friend called Jim. When I first met him, we were final-year students at the university. He was the kindest man I had ever met. We would often go to the beach on Sunday. Jim would tell me the names of birds floating in the clear sky. I would talk with him about my dream of becoming a poet. He would never laugh at my callowness. It may be just because both of us were intoxicated throughout the summer, though.

‘I must be strong to be a poet,’ I said.

‘Poets must be vulnerable,’ Jim said.

After we got drunk, we would exhaust ourselves swimming at the beach.

When the summer was over, Jim left the town in order to get a job in a city on the east coast. On the day he left, we promised to meet again. I haven’t seen him since then.

Some years later, I really became a poet.

Jim became an ornithologist, I heard, and died of lung cancer at twenty-seven.

I have forgotten his gentle voice, sunburnt skin and coy smile. We didn’t take any pictures in that summer. All I can remember now is the taste of bitter tides, and that we did believe we were immortal while we drank beer on the beach.


Download a pdf of ‘NiKKi’.

Time Lost, Jamie Derkenne

‘Same old same old,’ said Julie, packing her day neatly into four words and using her sleeve to delicately pat the Madeleine cake crumbs from her mouth.

Stefan nodded to say he knew the stuck-in-a-hole feeling. Berlin had been like that. Balmain was becoming like that. He wanted to go back to North Arm, but he wanted company as well. Watching the crumbs part from her lips, he thought the company could be Julie.

Stefan had spent the last six months helping Helmut renovate a terrace. The job was done. Stefan had stopped paying him. Sydney was expensive. He had to get back. Perhaps she would.

‘Move up with me,’ he said, reaching for her hand. Julie said nothing, just stared at the crumbs, her hand limp in his.

‘Money is not a problem. I make good dough. And the valley is beautiful. The nature is quiet and green. People are so free there, not imprisoned by all this city Scheisse.’

Until recently, Julie worked for a Broadway chew n spew. To get the job she didn’t even mention the philosophy major. Derrida was slick, but so was constant grease. It was a job, that’s all you could say. She didn’t mind, apart from the money, when she got laid off. Stefan met her a few times when he bought munchies for him and Helmut. Stefan and Julie would talk so much that by the time Stefan got back the take-out would be cold, or eaten. After a few times, Helmut, his voice hungry and stomach sore, suggested he should get the take-out and Stefan get the date. Julie went out with him a few times. He adored her. When he said she could share his bedroom at Helmut’s house, she did.

Stefan was focussed, sensitive and a good listener. Nothing like Helmut. Helmut was a bit off the air, spending hours straightening bent nails and collecting old planks from construction sites. His terrace, a two bedder on the point road, was beautiful or would have been if not for the piles of stuff stacked everywhere.

Julie had never been up north. But the way Stefan spoke made it seem like a magical place, a place where you could unwind and breathe again. She wanted to go to Melbourne first, put a few things in order, then fly up. Stefan would meet her in Coffs in a few weeks time. Julie thought that Stefan was one of the few men she had ever met who understood what she was saying. The way he tilted and nodded his head when she spoke was proof enough, she thought, of the import he gave her every word.

Stefan lived in a small shed made from ripple iron stitched together with six gauge next to the river on Christina’s land. When he got back he realised there were going to be a few problems with Julie moving in. The shed was not an ideal home, though he knew of couples who lived in far worse. Anna and Ivan lived in an upturned water tank on the adjoining property and seemed OK. And then there were the Silk People and their teepees. Still, he could do better than a shed. He had saved up some money. Perhaps he could afford a shipping container.

‘I can deliver a 40 footer to you cheapo mate. In pretty good condition. There’s only one hitch.’

Stefan had gone into town to make some phone calls. This one sounded promising, Maybe he could afford it.

‘So what is this hitch?’

‘Full of ruined books. You find a way of dumping them, and the container’s yours with ten per cent off.’

Stefan had the 40 footer delivered from Coffs, and positioned exactly where he wanted it, on a rocky outcrop overlooking a small field bounded on one side by the Nambucca and another by a grove of camphor laurel trees. On its side in big white letters was written the words ‘Hamburg Süd’ which made him smile. It took him a while to work the door bolts loose. When he finally coaxed the doors open he found the container packed with boxes of water-damaged second-hand books. Thousands of them. He managed to stack about 20 boxes of books in the paddock before giving up for the day. He literally had a truck load of books to shift.

The next morning Christina knocked on his shed door. Stefan’s shed and container were parked on Christina’s land. She lived in the old homestead on the other side of a small hill. In return for living on her land, Stefan kept an eye on the fences, many of which had disappeared into the river now that it had changed course.

‘Stefan! You need to help me. One of the Charolais is sick.’ Christina was a thin bony woman with eyes like a Jersey. Her reason for living was to enter Charolais cattle into the Bowraville and District Annual Agricultural Show. Among the webs in her mahogany lined living room were festooned the red and blue ribbons of previous victories. She spent most of her days hoeing thistles and talking back to talk-back radio, which lived in one of her ears via a miniature transistor. Her talking back was always in the fields. People said she talked to her cows.

Stefan knew nothing about cattle, but Christina thought he did. Stefan’s father had been a doctor, and some of the common sense had rubbed off. He followed her towards the dam where a creamy white cow sat. Charolais were normally skittish, but this one let both go right up to her.

Stefan scratched behind her neck, the way cows like. The heifer looked dolefully up at him, and then vomited copiously, not bothering to move its body. The vomit was sludgy grey. Some of it seemed to have straight edges. Stefan sat on his haunches and peered at it. There was type amongst the goo. He thought he could make out a word. Recherche?

‘Seems to me she’s eaten something she shouldn’t have.” he said. “Probably she will get over it in a day or two. You should just make sure she has some water with a bit of molasses.’

Christina nodded.

‘I see your new container has turned up. Should be an improvement for you. By the way, you haven’t seen my radio? I’ve dropped it somewhere.’

Stefan made a corral out of star stakes and pig wire so the cattle couldn’t get in, and moved the boxes there. He spent the rest of the day stacking more boxes from inside the container. It was hard work. Spring was still some way off. The nights were cold and the mornings frosty, but there was bite to the daytime heat. By noon the air was damp and hot. Every now and then he’d break open a box to see what sort of books were inside. They were mostly novels, and a lot of self-help books. Sometimes he would come across a philosophy book, and if it wasn’t too damaged he’d take it inside, thinking it might be something for Julie to read. He also kept a few German authors, even though they were in translation.

He stacked about 100 boxes into the corral. Christina would probably evict him if she knew he had been poisoning her cattle with literature. Maybe he should just chuck the lot in the river. He shook his head at the thought. If the Bowraville Argus was to be believed, the river was already polluted enough downstream. He thought about burning them. Burning them made a lot more sense, as he was in constant need of firewood for his Aga.

He had shifted the Aga from the shed just the day before. The Aga was small and positioned right next to the door of the container. Any further in and the whole container would become an oven. Stefan used it to bake German sourdough, which he sold at the Community Markets. The Aga needed fuel that burned slowly, and evenly. Not too hot. He’d give the books a try.

As he worked he noticed the sick cow had come over to see what he was doing. She seemed better already, but wasn’t grazing, just looking at him and chewing her cud as he piled the books alongside the container. It was unnerving having the cow watch intently. It was like she knew what he was doing. Stefan put down another box of books, and using it as a stool, sat down and stared at the cow, catching his breath.

The cow made a noise like someone clearing their throat.
‘She’ll be no good for you,’ said the cow as it chewed its cud. Stefan stared back.

‘Was that you? Did you speak?’

The cow said nothing, but went on quietly chewing, its jaw moving silently sideways as if it was working up to say something.

‘I must be going mad. I would have sworn the cow said something,’ Stefan muttered to himself. The world was spinning.

‘My point is that you yourself don’t see what is obvious. I am talking to you. That is obvious. She will leave you. That is obvious. But on both counts you refuse to believe the truth of your own senses.’

Stefan stared slack jawed. Not only did the cow speak to him, but the voice was ethereal and beautifully modulated. A wonderful speaking voice, but one that sounded tiny and far away. It was like a man’s voice. It had a slight lisp perhaps, but one that was hard to detect, and probably a result of chewing while at the same time speaking.

‘You can speak!’

The cow languidly slid a thick blue tongue into one of its nostrils, flicked it around, and then continued chewing silently.

‘I heard you. You can speak!’ Stefan repeated.

‘But did you understand anything of what I was saying?’ the cow said.

This time it was Stefan’s turn to be silent.

‘You say she’s leaving, but how would you know? You know nothing of my relationship with Julie, nothing at all. You know nothing about me. And you have never even met her! How do you say you know these things?’

‘I know how these things work. I’ve digested quite a bit of human thought. And besides, why shouldn’t you trust me? I am a cow. Why would I lie?’

Stefan tried to ask more questions, but the cow remained silent. Eventually she sat down in the shade of the container quite close to where he was working. He watched her intently, but after a while she stopped looking at him, and closed her eyes for minutes at a time. Some time later, with some heaving and snorting, the cow got up, and walked slowly over to where the rest of the herd was grazing.

Naturally, Stefan said nothing about the talking cow to Christina. And he decided that it was against his best interests to say anything when he picked Julie up from Coffs Airport.

‘Are you sure you want to be here?’

Julie laughed. She wasn’t the least bit sure, but she wasn’t going to tell Stefan that. Stefan had worked hard to make a little home out of his new shipping container. He’d even managed to build a small deck overlooking a gully and the Nambucca where they could sit at night once the weather warmed up.

‘Such a beautiful place.’ She kissed him. It wasn’t the answer he was looking for.

For the next few weeks, things seemed to go smoothly. Stefan burned books in the Aga, using it to bake bread. He had come across a case of Thomas Mann, in English translation, which burned particularly well. It was strange how different books burned in different ways. Burning Nietzsche was next to impossible, even though all the books were completely dry. An entire case of DH Lawrence remained damp no matter what he did. Stefan had even taken to placing the books on the steel roof of the container during the daytime to help dry them, but after weeks Sons and Lovers not only remained damp but mold had begun to grow across the pages. He would have to dig a pit and compost them. For the most part the Aga was well fuelled and Stefan’s bread baking business boomed. He left the container doors propped open because of the heat. They lay in bed listening to the sounds of frogs and night birds, feeling the night breeze on their faces.

Life settled into a quiet routine. Julie seemed happy, forever saying how different the Nambucca was to either Sydney or Melbourne, but Stefan couldn’t get the cow’s words out of his head.

One morning he got up early, and put his gumboots and Drizabone on. The air was cold enough for breath clouds, and there was a thick frost on the grass. He walked over to the camphor laurel grove and looked around. It was still too dark to see properly, but he soon spotted the herd, their thick white coats giving them the appearance of ghosts in the gloaming. The entire herd, about twenty breeders, a few calves and heifers were sitting under a thicket of trees where it was a few degrees warmer than the open paddock. He trod carefully, his boots not even crunching the frost. They still sensed him. They all turned their heads his way to watch him come.

Even though they were Charolais, not one of them stirred or showed the least sign of agitation. Stefan got up so close he could almost reach out and touch them. He smelt their sugary breath. He realised he had no idea which of the cows was the one who spoke to him.

‘Which one are you?’

The cows said nothing. A few were chewing cud, but several more weren’t even doing that.

‘One of you spoke to me. I heard you!’

Some of the cows didn’t even seem to be looking at him any more, but through him, like he was invisible. It was an unnerving feeling.

‘You need to explain yourself. Why will she leave? What have I done? Why won’t you speak to me? It won’t happen, you know. I will leave her first.’

‘Stefan?’ There was a catch of concern in the voice. Stefan looked from cow to cow, trying to work out which one had uttered his name, realising too late that the voice had come from behind him. He turned around.

Silhouetted by a dawning sun pinking her ears, Julie stood at the edge of the grove, holding out a hand as you would if helping someone over a stream.


‘Stefan, what are you doing? Who are you talking to? Is Christina there? Are you talking about me?’

Stefan was silent for a few seconds trying to work out what to say.
‘No no. No-one is here. I was just checking on the cows. I was clearing my throat.’

Julie came closer, looking around. It was clear she didn’t believe him. Stefan knew he had to act. Far better for him to leave her then she to leave him.

That night, while they were sitting around the Aga burning some Günter Grass, Stefan told Julie she should leave. She burst into tears.

‘Look, we aren’t meant for each other. This is clear to me. It’s better we split now and remain friends than later on become enemies.’ The words sounded hollow.

Julie sniffed and patted her eyes with her sleeve.

‘It’s Christina isn’t it? I heard you talking to her this morning.’
Stefan opened his mouth to say he had been talking to a cow, but thought better of it. He nodded sagely. ‘Yes, you are correct. It was Christina.’

Julie’s face contorted in agony and she started sobbing once more. That night Stefan slept on the roof. The next morning he took her into Macksville so she could catch the Sydney Express. He offered to wait on the platform with her, but she said no. Her grief had turned to anger.

Later that night, alone in his container, Stefan started to feel bad about the whole situation. He would drive into town and try ringing her in the morning, but it all seemed so hopeless. Why had he done it?

After a few hours the moon rose. The container doors were open as usual, as he was baking for the Saturday markets. Unable to sleep, Stefan put on his gumboots and walked towards the camphor laurel grove. The moon was full and heavy. The light cast strong shadows across the fields. A flicker of shadow made him look up. A cloud, but perhaps not. Something that for all the world looked like Anna, skirts, boots and all, flying across its face as if on the zenith of a giant leap.

Stefan felt sick. Something was happening to his brain he was sure. Was he hallucinating? He wondered what he would look like from such a height.

This time he recognised the Charolais who had spoken to him. It was the way she was chewing her cud. She’d move her jaws from side to side for a few seconds then stop, then start again.

‘Why did you tell me to leave her?’

The cow looked up at him exactly the same way Julie did when she was asking him to explain why she should leave.

‘I know it was you. You told me when I was taking books out of the container. I know it was real. You told me.’

The cow swallowed and lifted its head as if to say something. Stefan waited. The Charolais, its head held high, bellowed so loudly that the sound echoed through the night. It was a cry of sorts, the sound a cow makes when it has lost its calf, or is calling for a bull. An elemental sound so loud and forlorn that for a second or two Stefan wasn’t sure if it was him or the cow making all the noise.


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